Why You Need to Stop Focusing on Your Boys’ Bickering

“What you focus on, you create more of, and if you keep expecting people to annoy you they will not let you down.”

— Jen Sincero, in You Are a Badass: How to Stop Starting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

Photo by Arlid Storass via Flickr

I’ve been thinking about boys and bickering a lot lately. It’s a constant in my house — and in pretty much every other home that contains multiple siblings, especially multiple boys. You’ve told me about the pain and frustration it brings into your lives:

the hardest thing I find dealing with is the antagonism between them…19 yo ragging on the 15 yo because apparently he is disrespectful but the 15 yo claims that the 19yo doesn’t deserve his respect…and that’s only the beginning…some days they get it right and other days I am pulling my hair out

…The most challenging part for my husband and I right now is the fighting and bickering.

If I’m honest with myself, my boys’ bickering is definitely in the Top 2 on my list of Things That Drive Me Crazy About My Boys. (Also in the top 2: their propensity to make messes and leave their stuff all over the place!) I cope by ignoring it as much a possible. Letting it go isn’t just a sanity saver; it’s also a pretty smart parenting technique. I’ve learned, over time and through trial and error, that when I intervene in my boys’ bickering (“Hey! Stop that! Be nice to your brother!”), it often escalates. When I don’t respond — when I pretend I didn’t hear them or bite my tongue or move to another room so I can no longer hear their constant verbal jousting — the bickering often stops within minutes. Sometimes, within seconds.

Full disclosure here: “stops” doesn’t necessarily mean “ends without anyone’s feelings getting hurt” or “ends without incidence. Sometimes, that’s the case. Sometimes the picked-on one manages to verbally diffuse the situation, or they all get so engaged in a video game or YouTube video that the bickering just fizzles out. Other times, it explodes into screaming. Rarely, it turns physical. But here’s the thing: once it blows up, it’s over. Yes, there may be some lingering bad feelings, but let’s be real: it’s impossible to address bad feelings in the moment of bickering anyway. When my boys are at each others’ throats, there’s really nothing I can do in that moment to make them realize how much they love and need one another. They have to work through those emotions first. The time to talk about respect and love is not in the midst of a bickering episode, but before and after. 

What I see, when I leave my boys alone to handle their bickering, is that they are all looking for and finding the limits. They’re teaching each other tolerance and strength, and in the process, they’re learning how far is too far. And boys, especially, find the limits by testing them. They find the line by crossing it and observing what happens.

So, rationally, I know that the best way to handle my boys’ bickering is to:

  1. Model healthy, respectful communication.
  2. Stay out of their petty bickering as much as possible.

But in real life…it still drives me crazy. As another BuildingBoys member wrote on in our FB group, after I posted the boys & bickering video:

We only ask that while we are at the table together for dinner they refrain from saying mean things to each other. Yet – Every. Single. Night. Pretty much – of their lives – we have to remind them and sometimes send one away from the table for saltiness.

It’s like she’s been in my house!

But that brings me back to the quote at the top of this post, a quote that jumped out at me during my morning reading: “What you focus on, you create more of, and if you keep expecting people to annoy you they will not let you down.”

Raise your hand if you expect your boys to annoy you.


And that brings us around to our recently-completed Focus on What’s Right challenge. Those of us who participated in the challenge noticed some pretty positive interactions in our homes and between our boys. Did everything go swimmingly in our homes and families during the week we committed to positivity? Well, no. But think about it: expecting our boys to annoy us is a pretty miserable way to live. Expecting our boys to bicker forever and ever is also pretty miserable — and not even accurate. Think of all the other things your kids used to do, that drove you crazy. Maybe you had one who resisted naps. One who constantly snatched toys from his playmates. Whatever “it” was, you’ve likely had at least one kid grow through and beyond at least one completely annoying behavior.

It happens, in time. Our kids grow and change. So do we.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the answer to your boys’ bickering may not be to hyperfocus on it. Don’t look at it as a problem to be solved, but as growth in process. Instead, spend your time focusing on and nurturing the good in your boys.

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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