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Ask Jani: “Help! My Kids are Always Fighting!”

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Episode Synopsis

Jani and Heidi answer listener questions about how to foster sibling love and co-operation.

Audio Transcript

We received some questions from our listeners who are wondering if we could share some ideas about fostering sibling relationships, helping our kids love each other, helping our kids at least be civil to each other. And so Heidi and I want to talk about these today.

Now, it would be really easy for Jani Ortlund just to give you a list of things to do and not do—that tends to be how I love to counsel: “Do this and don’t do that and your life will be perfect!” But that’s really not what the Bible does. It’s not how Jesus treats us. So we want this to be restorative to your soul, not just to your external behavior.

Heidi and I could give you a list of do’s and don’ts, but instead what we’d like to do is, as you’re out there swimming in an ocean of raising your kids, or for those of you who don’t have children, maybe you’re teaching, maybe you’re a grandmother or an aunt and you’re wondering how to help foster good relationships between kids. We don’t want to just give you a list. We’d like to throw you a life preserver, so to speak, that you can put around your waist and that will help you float along more freely as you give yourself to the children in your life.


So we have a couple questions from listeners today. Heidi, would you be willing to read one?

Heidi: Yeah, let’s jump right in. So here’s question number one, Jani.

“Would you please share some wisdom on fostering loving sibling relationships?”

That’s a good question.

Jani: Oh, my goodness!

Heidi: I think that’s something that every mom with more than one child struggles with.

Jani: Yes, yes. And it can also spread out even with those of us who have single children, just one child, when they play together when they’re at school.

Heidi: That’s helpful.

Jani: Or even if you don’t have children, but you’re teaching a Sunday school class or you’re a teacher in public schools or private schools. So fostering sibling relationships spreads out into, “How do children relate to each other?”

Heidi: It can be so hard because the kids are so little. A wise friend always tells me, “Heidi, remember that your son is only five years old and he’s just acting like a five year old. That nature and that behavior comes very natural to him.”

Jani: Yes. Yes. That’s good.

Model and Talk About Loving Relationships

Well, I think the first thing we as adults can do is model and talk about loving relationships. If the children in our lives, see us modeling love, it will be easier for them to understand and more natural for them to emulate us in how we love each other.

Recognize and Affirm

I also think along this line as we talk about it with our children and model it that we need to recognize when they do it and affirm it. “Oh, I just loved when I saw you share that toy with your brother.” Or, “Thank you so much for being the kind of boy that would go befriend our new student in his in our class today, Jack.” Or, “Wow, I saw you were really angry, but you didn’t punch him. You tried to use words.” So first of all, mdoel, talk about it, but also recognize and affirm it.


Also, I would encourage when my kids were little—we had four little ones—when they were little, I would try to redirect them as much as possible. If it seemed like the tensions were building. “Hey, Dane, do you want to come out here and help me make some more playdough?” Or, “Hey, Eric, I know he really wants to get into your Legos. Could I help you put them all on a tray, and we’ll put them on a table that’s too high for Gavin to reach?” Those kinds of redirections mean that you have to be on top of it, you have to be listening, and you have to think, “If I do not redirect, what will be the consequences?”

Heidi: And you have to be willing to step in and say, “Okay, let me put aside what I’m doing because this is important work too.” I noticed that with Gideon, that I’ll say, “Let’s play a game.” If my boys are starting to get into their “rough and tumble” boys but they start to get worked up, if I can even just draw one child out and say, “Do you want to play Spot It! really quick for five minutes with me?” that can help ease those tensions.

Jani: Now what was that game? Spot It?

Heidi: Oh, Spot It! is one of our favorite games. It has pictures on cards, and you put two cards down. Each card has 10 pictures and there’s one picture that’s the same. So even when my kids were three or four, they loved to play this game, and it takes five minutes. It’s a really sweet way to spend one-on-one time with a child but not play a huge board game.

Jani: Oh my goodness, maybe we’ll get a little monetary compensation for selling Spot It! at least verbally on our podcasts. That sounds great. I think I’m gonna have to get a Spot It! game.

So redirect, or, as you say, call that child out and encourage him to do something with you rather than let it build up into that kind of angry, self-righteous fight.


Heidi: Here’s the question, Jani:

“What do you do when they start and they build up into that level and then they fight?”

Yes. Well, that’s a hard question. I’ll tell you what we did. We had two options. We would correct them when it was needed. As you do in your family, Heidi—we’ve talked about this a little bit on our podcast—we’ve tried to build an “Ortlund Family” feeling, “We’re Ortlunds. We don’t do this. We’re Ortlunds. We don’t slug our brother.”

Or even saying the positive like, “We’re Howertons and we build each other up. The Howertons love to be kind and encouraging to each other.”


Jani: Tell our listeners how you have used an example of building blocks.

Heidi: So, one of the ways that we have taught our kids to treat each other kindly or that we keep going back to when we have sinful struggles, is that we all memorize Proverbs 16:24 together that says,

“Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”

Proverbs 16:24

And so one year, Jani, I actually gave each of the kids little blocks and each of them had a set and I said, “Build a tower!” So they built a tower and I said, “Every time you say one mean thing to your sibling or every time that you punch your brother, you’re taking a block off of their tower, you’re hurting their tower.”

And we went through the day and if I heard a negative thing, I had them take down their towers and if I heard a positive thing, I would say, “Every time you say something wonderful or loving to your sibling, you encourage them, you’re kind to them, you’re building their tower up.”

Jani: Helped me to understand this better, Heidi. If Gideon said something negative about James, would he take something off of James’ tower?

Heidi: Yes.

Jani: Okay, so he could visually see he’s tearing down his brother. And what if he said something positive?

Heidi: Then he put a block on his brother’s tower so he could visually see, “Oh I’m building James’ tower up!” Because we talked about, “Don’t we all want to have big tall towers?” And, “We want the Howertons to be the kind of people that build each other’s towers up.” And then we would talk about this Bible verse. “What are ways we can build each other up? We can use gracious words.” And we would even make those big strong arms and say, “That’s how we add health to our body.”

And so when I see the boys start tearing each other down, I’ll stop them and say, “Hey, you guys are tearing each other’s towers down again. That’s not how the Howertons want to be. The Howertons are loving. The Howertons are encouraging. The Howertons are tower builders.” Or if I see them acting in a positive way I’ll say, “Oh, you’re building your brother’s tower up. That’s so wonderful!”

And the good thing about that Heidi is you’re trying to instill in your child an “others-centered” view, which is very hard for a little one. That’s why I needed you to clarify it for me, because sometimes, especially two and three year olds are not mature enough yet to love a sibling enough to want to build up their tower. They only care about themselves at that point.

And we would talk about that, like, “How does it feel to have a block taken off of your tower?” How does that sibling feel, who was just hurt to try to get them to understand that it doesn’t feel good? When you do something to tear down somebody else’s tower?

Jani: That’s good. That’s good. So connect with your child and correct. Help them through correction to do what you believe in your family is the right thing to do. What God wants your family to be like. What Jesus is calling your children to become? That’s good.

Heidi: I learned that from you, having that family vision. You always said, “Who do we want the Ortlunds to be? What is the Ortlund family about?” And we got that from you guys?

Jani: Well, I’m sure we got it from someone else!

Correct When Needed. Discipline when necessary.

So we’ve been talking about correcting when needed. But we also want to talk about discipline—disciplining our children when it’s absolutely necessary.

In the Ortlund household, we spanked for outright disobedience and strong disrespect. Now we wouldn’t spank for rolling the eyes, but we would spank if one of my children slapped me, kicked me, absolutely stomped his foot and said, “No, I won’t. Make me!” or disobedience. When we said, “You may not leave the backyard,” and we find them out in the alley playing where it’s dangerous.

Heidi: And did you spank if there was disobedience between the siblings, like say one sibling hit another or one sibling yelled at their sibling? How did that work?

I rarely spanked for that because it was very hard to objectify where that anger began.

Mm, that’s helpful.

Jani: Usually, if one of my children hit the other it wasn’t without provocation.

Heidi: So what would you do in that moment?

Jani: I would usually separate them and say, you know, “Try some of these other things.” Redirect, and then correct. After they had calmed down, I would try to get them to come back together.

It didn’t always work in our family, for us to say, “Now, go tell Dane, you’re sorry,” because what would happen is the child would say, “Sorry,” and then he had obeyed the letter of the law, but his heart hadn’t changed. Discipline is for external behavior. It doesn’t always change the heart. The idea is you want your kids’ hearts to change so that they naturally want to be kind. They naturally want to obey from inside their hearts they want to make mommy and daddy pleased. They want to do what they’re asked. But foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. So sometimes we did have to spank.

“Discipline is for external behavior. It doesn’t always change the heart.”

Jani Ortlund

Heidi: As you say that I was going to mention that too, Jani, one of the things I’ll do as my children are fighting with each other or treating each other poorly is we’ll stop and we’ll pray, and just say, “Jesus, help this one to love his siblings, and Jesus change this one’s heart. Give him a kindness and a love. Show him what to do when he feels so angry. God help him in this moment. He really needs help, just like we all do. And just like Mommy needs help to not lose her temper. This little one needs help, too.” Because like you said, only Jesus can change our hearts.

Jani: Yes, but I do want to our listeners to know that I don’t believe it’s a sin if you spank your child. I do believe it can be sinful if you do it out of rage or if you become abusive by overly spanking them. We tended to limit—we’d use a wooden spoon—and we tended to limit the number of swats according to years. So our two year old would get two hard swats on his thigh. Three year old, three hard swats. Usually by the time they were four, there were very few spankings.

Now we’re coming back to fostering sibling love. I rarely use spankings, because of sibling fights. It just didn’t work in our family, it didn’t seem to make sense. But again, we want to build a family that says, “We want to love each other. Jesus loves us, mommy and daddy love each other. We want to be a family that loves each other. There are enough hardships outside our door. Inside our four walls, we want to have a place of safety and security and love.” Which I think might lead us into our next question.


Heidi: So here’s the next question, Jani:

“I am a stay-at-home mom of two young girls, and if I’m not fulfilled by the Lord each day—by his word and spirit—I find it so hard to parent them throughout the day. I wonder if you have any advice or examples and how to teach young siblings the right language and actions on how to love one another? I’m not sure how to train them to speak and act kindly towards one another.”

Jani: Hmm, that’s a good question. This listener is asking just for some basic hints on how to train them to love. Before, in the other question, I felt we were talking more about interrupting and overseeing.

Well, I can share some things that we did in our household and that worked for us, and then, Heidi, you pipe in, okay? Because you’re such a wise mom.

Heidi: We’re still in the warfield over here! I’m swimming with all of you mamas out there trying to figure it out.

Jani: But I love watching you. Can you believe her three kids are upstairs now while we’re recording. They’re just so wonderful.

Heidi: It’s not always like that, though. Don’t let her convince you. They’re amazing, amazing, amazing kids, but my heart is to just say that we struggle as much as any family does.

Yeah. You know, it’s really hard. No one understands how much a mother works, especially if she has to work outside her home.

Jani: But I worked both in and outside my home. And I found although teaching was very hard (it demanded a lot of me), but when I left that school I could leave it there. But at home, it’s 24/7, and you feel much more responsible for these little lives. So we get, moms, we get how hard it is, and the responsibility you feel before the Lord.

1. Keep the Volume Down

Here are some things that helped me keep my sanity, while we were raising our four little ones. I needed to keep the volume down in our home. We usually lived in smaller homes, and the three boys had to share a bedroom, and Christa, our daughter, had her own. But the noise level would get so loud, so we had a rule that, “You may not yell at each other in our home.”

Tip #1: Keep your own voice down

Rather than gaining our children’s attention by shouting over them if they were yelling, trying to raise my voice, so they would hear me, I would try whispering until they quieted down enough to hear what I was saying. So they’re yelling at each other and I’d come in and say, “I wonder what’s out in the kitchen right now, for any boys who could stop yelling. There might be something in that Skittle jar.” And they would get quiet.

Tip #2: “Clap & Listen”

Or I would teach them that whenever I clapped my hands, they were to stop what they were doing and imitate my clap and listen for the next direction. So, you know, I would do a clap of four rapid and too slow, they’d have to copy it, or five quick and three slow or one slow and four quick. And we would just go through that for a while. And then after we’d done that for a while and they weren’t yelling at each other any longer then I would say, “Now tell me what’s going on? Why are you so angry? Can I help? What can I do to help solve this problem?”

Tip #3: Play “Look at Me!”

Or I would say, “1-2-3! Look at me!” and I would do something funny, you know, put my fingers in my ears or turned around twice and see whoever could look at me first and imitate me, they got a Skittle or they were the first and they were praised for that.

The idea in this is to get your children’s attention without yelling, and then let them explain what the problem is or what the tears are for, what the anger has built up over. You don’t want it to escalate by raising your voice. I find if two children are yelling, and you raise your voice, then they start yelling to be heard over the other one first.

2. Introduce A “Word Of The Week”

Another tactic we tried to use was this: we would concentrate on a word—a behavior word—each week. And I know I’ve seen you do this with your kids, sometimes, Heidi. Maybe it was kindness, and we memorize a verse about kindness. And we talk about, “What does kindness mean?”

There’s a passage in Scripture, you know, where it says, “Be kind to one another” from Ephesians 4? My husband who understands Greek tells me that that word for kindness is something similar to when Jesus says in Matthew, “Take my yoke upon you for my yoke is easy.” That’s the same word easy and kind. So we tried to teach that to be kind means to make it easy on the other person. How could you make this easy on your sister or on your brother?

And if I caught let’s say, kindness was our word for that week and we learned those two verses and talked about what it means, we’d have a chart on the refrigerator with the word kindness and all their names. If I saw someone being kind, I tell them to go get a sticker and put it on. Or if a sibling saw someone being kind, they could come tell me. A child could not report their own good behavior! It had to be a sibling.

And then when daddy would come home at night, we’d see if anybody had gotten a sticker. And by the end of the week, there was always a reward. If someone, we’d we’d set the bar low enough that everybody could win. So all we would need is like three stickers for the whole week.

But what it would do, Heidi, is give our kids a more positive way. Rather than, “Don’t be unkind to your brother. Don’t yell at him like that.” It would be, “Oh, I wonder how we can turn this anger around and be kind to one another as Jesus wants us to be?”

Heidi: That’s good, Jani.


Jani: Well, we do want to have contests for good behavior rather than bad, don’t we? It makes it a little bit easier on us as moms. But as we’ve also mentioned before, Heidi, as we tried to develop a family code, do you want to talk about that for a minute? We did mention it already in this podcast but let’s just review it.

Heidi: To me I think of it like a family culture.

Jani: Good.

Heidi: “Who are the Howertons? What do the Howertons love? How do the Howertons treat one another?” And it’s something that we repeat over and over. It’s what I’ve done is I’ve raised my kids and Mike has done is, “We’re the Howertons and we love to encourage others” or “We’re the Howertons and we don’t talk to each other that way. That’s not how we work out our problems. We’re the Howertons, we take care of our siblings.”

And, I think part of the culture is, “What do we love to do together? We’re the Howertons and we love to have fun. We’re the Howertons and we love to make family memories.” I think some of our sweetest time in fostering the relationships among the five of us, is just doing special things together. It’s, “We’re the Howertons and on every Friday night, we have a family night pizza night movie night and that’s part of our family culture.” And “We’re the Howertons and we love biking and let’s go have fun and enjoy each other’s company.”

So I also tried to put my kids in situations where all five of us are just making really special, intentional memories as a family. We do things together. When the boys played soccer—thankfully, they’re close enough in age—but we all went to the game together and the boys were on the same soccer team. We want to do all of those things together as a family to keep pouring into our culture of, “We’re the Howertons and we love to hang out with each other.” My hope is as they get older, that they’re eager to come back and spend time with us and they’re eager to spend time with their siblings and to be around the family culture. But we’ll see in a few years what that turns out to be.

Jani: I like that word “culture” even better than a “family code.” That’s so good to develop that kind of culture. Those of you with children who are more distanced in age can still develop a family culture. We want to support each other. So how many of Timmy’s soccer games could you make this fall? There are two I see we could go to together and then go out for pizza afterwards, or in your Sunday school class, you can develop a class culture: “In our class, we care about each other.” That’s so good, Heidi, thank you for that.

You see, it’s good for your children to know, whether they be your students, your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren, or your own children, that God has put you in the place of teaching them His kind of culture. It’s a Christian culture that you’re trying to develop, and you are the one that God has asked. I would say that to my kids sometimes. “Oh, dear, Gavin, God has asked me as your mommy to teach you this. And I want to obey God. So I am going to teach you this. And I’m going to insist on this.


Finally, I would encourage you to speak words of hope over your children. We all need hope, don’t we? Oh, Ray tells me, “No one is ever too encouraged.” And Romans 15, I think it’s verse 13, talks about the “God of hope.” We serve the God of hope. So we want to speak words of hope over our kids.

I used to say, “I know it’s hard to be kind. It’s hard for me to be kind sometimes, especially when you’re feeling so mad and so angry. But someday, you’re going to be old enough not to hit your brother, you won’t always be this way. Someday, you won’t knock over his Lego building. Someday, you’ll learn to use words more than your fists, kind words, and until then, I get to help you be kind. This is how we’re kind in this situation.” And then I model it for the child.

So speak words of hope that they can look out into the future, and see that that’s where they want to be, that’s where you want them to be, and that’s where God is calling them to. And I believe that will help restore the souls of your little ones as well as your own. Heidi and I pray that these few words might restore the souls of weary adults who are working with kids who frustrate them and try their patience. May the Lord restore your souls, as God helps you give your lives to little people.

Thank You

Thank you for joining us today. This podcast is generously funded through Renewal Ministries. If you would like to discover more about Jani and Ray’s ministry or make a donation, visit their website at renewalministries.com. If you have a question for Jani or would like to learn more about this podcast, please visit our website at herestoresmysoul.org.

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He Restores My Soul with Jani Ortlund seeks to encourage women with God’s renewing power for their busy lives. Episodes include relevant biblical teaching, stimulating gospel conversations with other Christians, and “Ask Jani” sessions where we talk about what’s on our listeners’ hearts.

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