There's a reason the Felicity Huffman character on ABC's hit show "Desperate Housewives" has resonated with viewers, no doubt a good many of them parents. She's the one who went from high-powered career woman to stay-at-home mom with four kids, three of them out-of-control boys who do nothing but argue, fight and generally wreak havoc wherever they go.
The incessant sound of their children's bickering can drive many real-life parents to play a game of "Can you top this?" with other parents who are constantly victimized by this verbal swordplay. Kids fight over who has to clear the table, feed the fish, answer the phone. You name it — nothing is too small.
Yet as much as parents hate it and children see it as a sport, you should worry if your children aren't squabbling, say experts (who may not have to endure this behavior on an hourly basis).
"Bickering is a perfectly natural phenomenon," said Charlotte Brantley, director of PBS' Ready to Learn program, a government-funded initiative that complements public broadcasting with programs that prepare children for school. "If kids don't ever argue or bicker, you have to wonder if things are OK. Kids are jockeying for position and parental attention. This is their own little laboratory to test out behaviors in a safe environment."
Being able to bicker in the safety of their own home apparently teaches children the negotiating skills they will need to succeed in the work-friendship-marital relationships that come later in life. But for parents caught in the crossfire of this spiteful one-upmanship, the grating sound of "It's not faaaair" is enough to make them wonder whose idea it was to have those kids in the first place.
Whether they are tussling over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car or the right to instant-message their friends first, children have an endless and creative list of things to quarrel about. Sometimes it seems they can argue about the very air that they breathe. And sometimes they do.
"Whenever we put our kids in a car together, they would do anything they could to make life miserable for each other," said Shari Hill of Thousand Oaks, mother of Breanna, now 21, and Brendon, 17. "We'd take road trips to teach them something about the world.
"Instead, they'd be in the back of the car, entertaining themselves by arguing because we were obviously boring them to death. 'He touched me,' 'She looked at me wrong' — it would go on for hours," Hill said. "All of a sudden, on a trip to Washington, D.C., Breanna, who was 7 at the time, started screaming, 'He's breathing my air, I'm suffocating!' "
Complex bond Fighting is a sign that "the relationship between siblings is extremely complex," said Emily Scott-Lowe, a child development professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu. "You can't boil it down to one thing, whether it's boys or girls, older or younger, age difference, personality differences. You may have two children who are fairly intense, who may bicker more, even with the best of parenting.
"Sometimes children just enjoy bugging each other," she said. "It's entertainment. It gives them a sense of power over each other and over you as a parent. There's a sense of 'I can make you explode.' "
Take the argument Meryl Salmon's daughters, Barie and Tracy, got into a few years ago about who was going to wear a particular outfit to school.
"The girls were fighting and screaming, so much so that both my husband and I ran to see what was going on," said Salmon of Scotch Plains, N.J. "Tracy was yelling that Barie was ugly and she looked horrible in that outfit. Jon and I just collapsed laughing.
"They're identical twins!" Salmon said.
As most parents know — and if you don't, could you please share your peacekeeping secret with the rest of us? — the fighting often seems unbelievably petty.
"My kids came out of the womb bickering," said Jen Singer, author of "14 Hours 'Til Bedtime," a comic look at the life of a real desperate housewife. "They're only 19 months apart, so I guess there's a lot for them to bicker about. They can have a bin full of toys, new videos to watch and they will pick the smallest, most innocuous thing to fight about."
Like the time Nicholas, 7, and Christopher, 6, went at it over the subscription card to their father's Runner magazine. "Nicholas wanted to make his own 'I Spy' book and the postcard was an integral part of it," Singer said. "Christopher wanted it for a parking space for his toy cars. I was tempted to get a card from another magazine but I knew it wouldn't be as good as the one they were fighting over."
Most parents look forward to the day when their children will grow out of it and react with horror when friends with older kids reveal that it didn't end until one child left for college. "For many kids, it's not until they leave home that they appreciate family life in general, particularly their siblings," Scott-Lowe said.
"But sometimes bickering may be carried through to adulthood," Scott-Lowe added. "Parents age and siblings argue about what to do about it. Or they'll argue about which sibling isn't pulling their weight. Family conflicts are the nature of being in the family."
A cottage industry of books, tapes, TV shows and websites has popped up to give parents advice before they explode. Most experts say pretty much the same thing: Take a deep breath, remember that they're children, you're the grown-up and let them work it out. If necessary, hold a family meeting to help the kids negotiate solutions to their problems.
Like most experts, Brantley of Alexandria, Va.-based Ready to Learn advocates setting boundaries while allowing children to learn the negotiating skills they will need to navigate their way to adulthood.
"If a solution is imposed on the kids, they know they're supposed to comply because it's the parents' idea," Brantley said. "Particularly as children get older, I advise parents to bring kids into creating the solutions themselves. Let each child come up with a list of three or four ways to solve the problem."
Adds Singer, who also started a website, http://www.mommasaid . net, where parents can go for moral support, "I refuse to be a referee. I know a lot of parents who act as judge or lawyer, negotiating each side. I refuse to do that because that's not the way it is in real life. My rule is not to be a referee but rather a hands-off manager."
One baby-boomer mom recalls her mother's hands-off rule, "Don't call me until you see blood," and decades later gleefully relates the day she finally could tattle on her siblings for throwing punches. She got to run and tell her mother, "There's blood!"
Many families resolve everyday disputes with the rotation method — one child sits in the front seat of the car one week, the other gets it the next. Or one sits in the front on odd days while the other gets even days. The smart child will, of course, figure out that there are more odd days than even days, and that in itself can be something to argue about. (Those of you who think this is overkill have never witnessed teenagers racing to the car and shouting, "Dibs on shotgun.")
Creative solutions Three or more children can force parents to be even more creative. One family held a monthly lottery to decide who would sit where in the minivan. Sometimes, months would go by without a child's snagging a preferred seat. That too was a lesson. "Life's not fair," the parents would respond.
Elaine Seiler of Corona recalls one civilized way her parents avoided sibling disputes when she was young. "If my mom had a dessert for us to share, she would give it to one of us to cut, and then the other got to choose the piece to eat."
Yet, for her boys, who are 5 and 9, Seiler often resorts to rock, paper, scissors. When that doesn't work, she sometimes throws the concept of civility to the wind and employs the dog-eat-dog method.
"We have a sectional sofa and the kids fight over the end that's closest to the kitchen because it's closest to the food and it's lined up with the TV," Seiler said. "It's the primo spot and, in the morning, it is first-come, first-served. We have a two-story house so that's a real motivator to get dressed first and be downstairs."
Some parents are brave enough to admit that they opt for the one solution that would give the experts fits.
When her family drove from California to Seattle with three kids sandwiched in a small car, "we knew it was going to be a tough ride," says Nancy Sandvig of Agoura Hills. "My husband bribed them with money. It worked."
Well, it may not be politically correct, but can anyone really put a price on parental self-preservation?
Robin Greene Hagey is a regular contributor to Home. She can be reached at email@example.com.