Having four kids in five years, I knew there’d be a little chaos in our home.
Disagreements were inevitable, bickering was bound to happen. I knew because I’d been there.
Growing up with two older brothers and a younger sister, I’d experienced my own childhood mix of friction and fun. I knew, but I was still unprepared for presiding over such a mix with my kids.
When they were very small (they’re now 10, 9, 7, and 6), their time together was peppered with the usual preschool clashes over sharing toys and taking turns.
Through the years, though, this squabbling slowly escalated into what seemed like a nonstop stream of impatience and annoyance, especially from the older two, Mitzi and Cooper. “Stop touching me!” “Stay out of my room!” “Quit singing that silly song!”
I became Mommy the Mediator, separating sibs, helping them apologize to one another, talking about how to deal with frustration and anger. When an argument reached the boiling point, I’d send the kids to their rooms to cool down, and then I’d speak with each child one-on-one.
As the kids got bigger, so did their fights. Their words became tinged with meanness, and, when words failed them, they started lashing out at each other physically.
Zero tolerance became the rule: If you argue, you apologize. If you strike out — verbally or physically — you go to your room.
This policy worked; the brawling abated. But it wasn’t good enough for me and my husband, Ray. We wanted our children to learn that over the course of their lives, their siblings would be an important source of support.
It was during dinner one night last spring that I saw the glimmer of a solution to the family feuding.
School was winding down, everyone was exhausted, and, like the atmosphere outside, the kitchen was filling with the rumble of a brewing storm.
First, Mitzi complained that Ellie was eating with her mouth open. Ellie responded by sticking out her chicken-covered tongue. I admonished them both. Then under-the-table kicking broke out between Mitzi and Ellie, with Cooper and even Joanna, our youngest, quickly joining in. I sent them all to their rooms and sat at the table, wondering what to do to get them to Just. Be. Nice.
That was the lightbulb moment. Being nice could be fun, a game! My mind made the obvious leap from the word be to bee. I did a quick Google search for fun drawings of bees, and printed them on slips of paper to make small note cards.
I made envelopes out of yellow construction paper and hung them in the house’s central spot — the kitchen — each labeled with a child’s name. A fifth envelope held the blank notes. I covered the wall around it with cutout pictures of cartoon bees. At the top of the display, I wrote our new family mantra: BEE NICE!
By this time, the kids were quiet — and curious about what I was doing. I called them in for a family meeting. They were intrigued by the display and wanted to hear all about it.
I explained the rules. Every day, each child would write at least one “bee note” saying something kind, such as a thank-you or a compliment, to a sibling. Ellie and Joanna, who were still learning to spell, could draw their messages, maybe a smiley face or a heart. The kids could create as many notes as they felt like, but each had to write one to the sibling who had most upset her that day.
Over the next few weeks everyone worked hard to keep up with the daily bee notes. Conflicts arose, as always, but I could see that the kids were looking hard for the positives in each other, and it was paying off in greater household harmony. As school ended and summer activities began, the kids wrote less often, when inspiration struck or I remembered to suggest it. But I no longer felt I had to force them to write.
Now, a year later, the display remains in our kitchen, a little battered but still serving its purpose.
I love it when one of the kids wanders in for a snack and decides instead to leave a note.
Maybe it’s better that the bee notes are no longer a have-to but a want-to. The kids have taken ownership of it. Without my insisting, they’re showing gratitude for the love they get from each other.
No, the bickering hasn’t vanished. But it has diminished, and when a fight is in the air, we remind each other to focus on the positive.