The Real Reasons Bickering Kids Drive Us Crazy

I have a confession. Once, when my daughters were scrapping over who was sleeping on which side of the bed at a hotel, I walked out on them. They were 6 and 10 at the time, and the high-pitched sound of their arguing was not unlike hearing chunks of Styrofoam being twisted together right next to your ear.

OK, I didn't go far from the room. I sat down on the floor in the hotel hallway close to tears, furious and exhausted. After a good 10 minutes, during which the two of them could have been pelting each other unconscious with ice cubes, I got up to go back in and realized I hadn't taken the key card. By this point, the kids had turned on the television and at first couldn't hear me knocking. I think they assumed I was in the bathroom (the favorite refuge of moms on the edge). When they finally opened the door, they had no idea why I looked so shaken. They were pals again and had forgotten the whole thing.

The recent arrest of a Scarsdale, N.Y., woman for kicking her two squabbling daughters, ages 10 and 12, out of the car in a suburban shopping district, brought back that installment from my own personal Annals of Bad Parenting. It was right up there with the time that I got a phone call about a potential job just as my 4-year-old decided to wake up and toddle out with that look on her face that could only mean an oncoming storm. And forgive me, Lord, but to get just another two minutes, so that I could tactfully get off the phone, I took some M&Ms from my bag and threw them across the room one at a time. My toddler thought it was hilarious to go chase them, like, well, a puppy. (I know. It's awful. Just send your letters straight to child services.)

Even if you've never stooped to placating a child with airborne M&Ms, everyone has those moments that you hope your kids forget—even if you never will. And while no one thinks it's a good idea to leave two tweens on a street corner in anger, the ensuing debate over the Scarsdale mom incident was a reminder that of all the things young children do that can drive us batty, fighting with each other may be the worst. It hits a particular tender nerve. First you hear what they're saying to each other and think, "What kind of person am I that I raised human beings who could be so mean to each other?" Then, you think about how when you decided to have another kid, you foolishly assumed that they'd play together, be friends even. Instead, here they are demonstrating enhanced interrogation techniques that might work on terror suspects.

Like a lot of parents, how I cope with sibling bickering varies from day to day. Whether any of us adjudicate disputes calmly, or yell things like, "I will shut off the cable and the Internet for the rest of the year if any child in this room talks or moves again," often depends on other stressors. (A worrying thought given the pressure so many people are feeling about money these days.)

So in the wake of the Scarsdale mom uproar, I want to stop acting like a combination of Donald Trump and Simon Cowell when my kids argue. I want to be more like the momma polar bear in the preview for Disney's new movie "Earth" which is apparently about inspirational animal moms who outshine their human counterparts in every way. That bear just lies there splayed on the ice totally unfazed as the young bear climbs all over her. She could just be tired or worried about bigger things like global warming, but I prefer to imagine her in some Zen state about inter-cub disputes.

Maybe she knows something some of us humans have forgotten. That fighting is normal between creatures who live together. We bump up against our worst and best selves in the confines of our families. Arguing with siblings or cousins is how we learn to negotiate with the world. Sure, kids do it badly at first, they are outraged about things that seem ridiculous to us. And they can get physical; then we have to stop them—teach them to use words, and later teach them to use fewer cruel words. But sometimes you just have to let them fight it out. Because this is one of the important ways we come to know each other. It's sort of like dating. You don't really see who someone is until you have your first real fight.

Even with the right mindset, it's still dispiriting and stressful. When my kids are hitting each other on the head over who lost Polly Pocket's shoes, I can become convinced that they'll never outgrow this. That it was ridiculous to have the fantasies I had during my second pregnancy about how they'd come home for Thanksgiving someday and I'd see two graceful women sitting on the sofa, blond heads tilted together, confiding in each other, relying on each other. But I should remind myself that to get that close to someone, you have to have seen their dark side. And that doesn't happen without a few arguments.

That's why I don't agree with the women who say the Scarsdale mom should have gotten those kids DVDs or games to avoid the squabbling. Sure, those are fine for long trips. Honestly, there were a few international flights during which I probably would have let my 3-year-old watch "Caligula" if it would have bought me 10 minutes of peace. But in general, I wonder how we will learn to know each other if our kids grow up isolated by headphones in their own individual electronic worlds. It's one thing for teenagers, who are going through the natural separation process to tune out, but it's another thing for 10 year-olds to think that disengaging is the answer to conflict. Maybe part of the answer is to try and make peace with the fighting and not judge the kids or ourselves so harshly. That annoying bickering is a tie that binds us.