On a recent television talk show, a psychologist, (and author), was explaining to the audience how to deal with children who fight. She recalled that when her children would fight and one of them would get hurt and run to her, she would say, “I don’t care who started it”, and then send both of them to their rooms. The theme of her presentation was: don’t worry about who started the fight because both of them had a role in it and both need to be punished. There were many “knowing” smiles in the audience and the host of the show complimented her on her insight.
I admit that when I first heard the idea (many years earlier), it seemed reasonable and appropriate for children. Yet something didn’t feel right about what I had agreed to. It wasn’t until I heard it for the second time that something inside me said “Wait a minute, it does matter who started the fight.”
Does it matter who starts any fight? Why does an adult court determine who’s responsible for damages from a fight? Does a court hold a woman responsible for the bodily injury inflicted on her rapist? Does the court hold both the store owner and a robber equally responsible for damages from a robbery? Are both punished - equally? Is the psychologist’s idea supposed to be applied to all fights?
If it’s important to know who started the fight, then why is her answer so appealing? It’s appealing because it means that the parent doesn’t have to wade through the screaming and crying to figure out who started it. It means that the parent doesn’t have to dish out different punishments. It means that (through it) the parent can put a quick end to the screaming, crying, and fighting and restore “quiet.”
Imagine a wife and mother working to keep the house clean, midway through the laundry, rushing out for last minute groceries, and having just enough time to prepare the evening meal, all this while two of her children are running around the house, screaming and fighting. Now imagine that one of her children gets hurt and runs to her looking for sympathy and punishment for the other child. Granted that she already knows that each of them knows how to irritate the other. If you could read her mind at this point, it would likely sound something like this “I don’t have time for this and quite frankly, I’m tired of all the screaming, running, and fighting. I’m going to put a stop to this once and for all. I need some peace!”
With that as a backdrop, it’s easy to understand why a mother would want to quickly separate the two, give both of them a mild punishment, and get on with her work. But is that justice? The psychologist’s rush to judgment has two major disadvantages: first, the innocent child gets punished, and secondly, the instigator is taught that even though he started it, he’s given the same punishment as the innocent one.
When the innocent child gets punished, does he think he’s been treated fairly? What does he think about his mother’s justice? Does mom even care about me? I get hurt and mom punishes me! Why? That’s not fair! Mom’s not going to help me so I have to get even by myself. Did we just teach him to take justice into his own hands?
The instigator surely doesn’t want to get punished, but when a fight begins to brew, he’s not going to hold back from starting the fight. He’s going to be more focused on making the other child sorry he ever crossed him. He’s going to learn that he has a better chance of winning if he’s the one who starts the fight. Is that what we want to teach our children about justice in the adult world?
I’m pretty sure that anyone who says that it doesn’t matter who started the fight is simply “at the end of their emotional rope” and doesn’t want the additional stress of wading into the fight to find out who’s most at fault and mete out the proper justice. It’s just easier to look angry, shout out a couple of angry words like “both of you deserve each other”, send both their rooms, and then enjoy the quiet. Only someone who is out of patience would short circuit the junior justice system by simply punishing both children.
The correct approach to children who fight is the one that starts with the premise that it does matter who started the fight. And even though mom is at the end of her rope and she’s tired, she still needs to find the energy and patience to determine who’s most responsible (knowing that both of them probably played a role) and then be ready with an appropriate punishment. That’s what adults do. Children don’t understand when adults are tired, they just understand justice when they’ve been hurt.
It does matter who started it.