Q: Our 7-year-old and 5-year-old sons are best friends. They also get into lots of trouble when they’re together. We try to explain to our older son that if he sees his brother doing or suggesting a wrong choice, he should tell him it’s not a good idea and if that doesn’t work, to tell his parents. He often joins in on the fun instead. Lately, they have been not listening at all, and I don’t know whether that is age appropriate, or if there is a communication/understanding gap. We always reiterate how much we love them even when angry or disciplining, but it’s pretty constant anger and discipline.
A: When I read your letter, I immediately thought of the National Geographic videos featuring baby bears tumbling down hills as they tackle each other. Lots of fun trouble, not a lot of “good behavior.” I was also reminded of a friend who once called me, concerned with the play of her four boys. She whispered, “They are really rough with each other, how do I know when to intervene? What’s ‘bad’ and what’s play?” Any parent of two or more boys will likely give you a similar phrase, “Why do they find so much trouble?” This is all to say: You aren’t alone.
To begin, just because your sons are getting into trouble doesn’t mean your older son is shirking his brotherly duties. We also need to do a gut-check on what’s developmentally appropriate for your kids. Even though your older son is at the age of reason, he is still not old enough to control all of his behaviors, as well as act as his little brother’s prefrontal cortex. The older brother may be able to consider alternatives and rethink his choices, but if he’s hungry or tired or sick or overexcited, then poof! He is just going on emotion. And if he has a little brother who loves some “fun,” the fun will almost always win out.
Some 7-year-olds can be bossy and prescriptive, telling their parents everything, and some 7-year-olds don’t hesitate to join in on the fun. Both are typical, and we now have to accept the reality in front of us. Raising a big brother to chronically police and tell on his little brother is not the direction you want to take. It creates mistrust and could do serious damage to their sibling relationship down the road.
The fact that your sons are getting into trouble is not a failure of willpower on their part, nor is it a failure of your parenting. We just need to rejigger the expectations (for now). If I were coaching you, I would ask you to look at the data. It’s clear that, despite warnings, logic and reminders, the behavior isn’t getting better. So we are going to put down those tools because they aren’t working (sounds obvious, but that’s how a lot of solutions begin). In parenting, clearing the sill of “anger and discipline” can leave room for some other strategies that are more positive and may work better. Also, if “discipline” looks like taking things away or being sent to a room, those tactics result in a worsening relationship and worsening behavior.
To begin, let’s look at the “fun” that the boys are having. I wish that you had provided at least one example so that I could gauge how problematic the behavior is. Are they spray-painting the sides of houses or wrestling in the yard? Are they pulling flowers from…
Looking for more parenting support? Click Here.
Sign up for my Newsletter here to get this in your inbox every week!