What do a bar bouncer, kindergarten teacher, hockey referee, marriage and family therapist, and police officer all have in common? They know how to break up a fight.
I work from home, like countless professionals around the world. Apparently even Jimmy Fallon works from home now. Lately, when I scroll through my Twitter feed, I see memes and rants from frazzled parents new to the work-from-home hustle. Shouting siblings saturate the backgrounds of video posts, and wide-eyed parents stare helplessly into the lens.
Even before the pandemic had confined us to our homes, parents were seeking help from therapists and scanning parenting blogs for the answer to an age-old question: How do I get my kids to stop fighting?
My twin 5-year-olds, Penny and Layla, are sweet as pie but hellraisers when provoked. They clutch each other lovingly one minute and curse each other the next. Hell hath no fury as a sibling scorned.
As the mediator for mini quarreling versions of myself, I want to pull out my hair by the fistful. Sometimes, I channel my inner yogi and lead an impromptu group meditation. During other crises, I’ve sent us all to separate rooms, so I could hide from the bickering and guzzle rosé. At this point, I’d try just about anything.
Then it occurred to me — maybe I should turn to the pros.
Chris Harrod worked at pubs and nightclubs in Manchester, England, as a bar bouncer, or doorman as the Brits call it, for 11 years. According to Harrod, the gritty night stops were often run behind the scenes by gangsters and dark money. Fights broke out that became so bloody, they called in police dogs.
“The trick is using minimum force and maximum effort,” Harrod told me when I asked how to stop a fight before it starts. “Even the roughest, toughest lads would use the same approach, and much of what they did was just menace. You’d look at ‘em and think there’s no way I want to fight you.”
I tried the Manchester doorman method when an argument broke out in my kitchen. I was preparing steak and risotto, and my mini sous chefs started bickering in high-pitched whines over which one would help chop the mushrooms and which would be stuck plucking thyme leaves from the stems. I whipped my head around and mustered all the menace I had. I felt like Zoolander but apparently looked like Cruella de Vil — Penny took the stance of a soldier at attention and Layla burst into tears.
Steve Stevens, retired referee in chief for the U.S.A. Hockey Pacific District started reffing in 1980. He’s officiated countless games and trained referees who officiate in the National Hockey League.
“Before you skate in to break up a fight, you look ‘em over. If it’s a lopsided fight, you break it up,” Stevens explained when I asked how he handled on-ice altercations.
“If it’s a willing fight, you let ‘em fight,” he continued. “Keep watch but don’t jump into the fray until one of ‘em grabs a hold of the other or they go down. You do not get in the fight — that’s the fastest way to get knocked out.”
Let ‘em fight. I had to do some mental bargaining to wrap my head around this. I’d just finished my phone call with Stevens and was drinking tea at my desk when I heard shrieks from the girls’ room. They wanted the same toy, had exchanged harsh words and were both outrage-crying at the nerve of the other.
“This happens daily! I’m sick of it. Work it out,” I scolded them, then shut their door and smashed my face against the carpet so I could observe from the crack beneath it. What happened next, I least expected. Penny apologized to Layla. Layla accepted and retracted the insults she’d hurled Penny’s way just a minute earlier. They pulled out different toys and started playing amicably. I was shocked. I tiptoed back to my desk and smugly finished my tea in peace.
Maggie Carroll Vaughan, Ph.D., is a marriage and family therapist in New York City; she specializes in relationship issues. While Dr. Vaughan admits she’s not breaking up many street fights, she does have keen insights into conflict resolution.
“Maintain composure — it’s easy to get rattled when you’re with people who are arguing,” she explained. “You want to soften the anger of both parties. Validate each person. Point out what the two sides have in common so they can stop feeling like they are on opposing teams and can get on the same team.”
The next time, Penny and Layla were belligerent over FaceTiming their cousin. I yelled over them, telling them to come to sit down for a chat. I managed to get them both sitting, albeit aloofly, after 10 minutes of screaming and storming off. “You both want to FaceTime with your cousin. Let’s find a way you both get what you want.” They stared at me blankly. “We’ve got two phones and seven cousins . . .” I prompted.
A lightbulb perked up Penny’s expression: “So I’ll take one phone and FaceTime Brooklyn, and Layla can take the other and FaceTime Lucy?” Layla acquiesced. I billed them $250.
Detective Mory Banks has policed Los Angeles County for 13 years. He’s resolved domestic disputes, broken up gang fights and de-escalated conflicts in Watts, Compton and South Los Angeles.
“Have one stay in the house, one step outside,” Detective Banks advised. “Get them far away from each other and out of each other’s eyesight. If they both live there, we can’t tell either of the parties to leave; we try to come to a resolution.”
The L.A.P.D. method worked best when I had a backup. Again in the kitchen, a breeding ground for sibling hostility, the twins started tussling over a spatula. The stove was on, I was trying not to burn the garlic or the twins, and the pressure was building. “BABE!” I shouted.
My fiancé, Michael, appeared from the hallway: “Layla, let’s take a walk.” She plopped down from the counter and rushed to put on some shoes. I poured Michael a to-go red wine and gave him a smooch.
“Thanks for the backup,” I said. They returned from their walk just as Penny was setting the table. All was forgotten, and we sat down and enjoyed dinner together.
I’m frequently annoyed that the twins are so well-behaved for their grandparents and their teachers, but behave like Veruca Salt at home. So, I tracked down a veteran kindergarten teacher to find out her secret to coaxing good behavior.
Chriss Thompson has been teaching kindergarten for 18 years at Roynon Elementary School in La Verne, Calif. “I teach them that when someone is doing something they don’t like, to tell them in a nice firm voice, ‘Stop it, I don’t like that,’” Thompson explained.
This method sounded simple enough, and I love the concept of teaching my girls to be assertive and vocal and to set boundaries. These are life lessons beneficial to everyone, especially budding young women.
When Penny started wailing because Layla had snatched away a favored L.O.L. Surprise! doll, I ran in looking forward to my big teaching moment. I told Penny to tell Layla in a firm voice that she didn’t like that Layla took the doll from her.
“Layla, I do not like that you took that from me,” she said confidently.
Then Layla turned to Penny and in the most taunting, mocking tone, repeated back to her, “Layla, I do not like that you took that from me.”
I sighed. Maybe I should leave it to the pros.