What You Learn Watching Kids Fight

Fighting Children by Arsalan Naqvi

Mykids fight—to the point of tears—about dumb shit. Who saw a bird first, who got to eat breakfast early, just annoying each other. They seem (and are) juvenile, but in many ways, the way they deal with conflict is more mature than us adults. Or at least more effective. They fight bitterly, scream to high heavens, even rage-fart… and then they just move on. Children have an amazing capacity to forgive and forget, at least their intimates. I envy them.

Adults also fight about dumb shit. Who did the chores, who didn’t share their food, just annoying each other. We’re nominally grown-ups, but in many ways, the way we deal with conflict is less mature. It’s not impressive, we’re just repressed. We can go through the motions of apologizing or talking using big words but we’re just as petulant and petty as children. We say sorry without meaning and talk endlessly without understanding. The brain spins in circles, largely unmoored from the heart. The heart remains a child.

And yet we try to make children like us. Politely repressed. We tell them to “talk about it”, and “say sorry”. I think this is more about them than us. Just as our inner child has been shut up, we need the outer one to pipe down as well. I think about this because we try the same grown-up tactics all the time and they never worked. My children have never once ‘rationally’ talked their way out of a problem. They’re not mini-Solomons, they’re not going to figure out some ingenious way to divide the cupcake through discourse. My children are not able to sustain an apology for more than five seconds. They just say “SORRY!!!” in an extremely aggressive way, and then “Now apologize to MEE!!” Defeats the purpose really.

I think of this because my wife and I rarely ‘rationally’ talk our way out of problems either. We’ve been having the same three basic fights for our entire marriage (family, money, and food) and while we’ve certainly adapted our behaviors, in the moment, the fights are resolved by emotional connection, not ‘rational’ argumentation. The entire debate structure (which I’m professionally used to) is actually quite wrong for relationships, because you’re not trying to ‘win’ or ‘be right’. You’re trying to be together.

My apologies are also total bullshit and I find my wife’s irritating. My mother told teenage me that she’d rather I didn’t apologize, my submissions were so surly. I haven’t changed much. Most of the time we say sorry quickly and defensively. It’s a rote action, not a real emotion. Our native languages barely even have proper words for sorry at all. Older cultures manage complex social relations without these ‘magic words’ at all.

I watch how the children actually resolve conflict and they mostly don’t. These things resolve not when they reach some theoretical understanding of the situation or engage in some ritual submission. They end when the kids get distracted by a bird or lunch. Five minutes later they don’t even remember what happened and they’re playing happily again. I wish I could have that. I’ll nurse a grudge for hours, until it turns into a full-blown strop.

Adults are cursed with memory. We embellish and polish our hurt feelings into whole-ass narratives. Our hurts grow into a long tail we trail behind us, constantly getting stepped on. We can’t move on. One envies the children.

Kids have no idea what they’re feeling and they don’t make these attempts to ‘rationalize’. they just scream or rage on a very simple level. Adults think we have some better knowledge of our feelings, but we too may just be hangry dressed up in hubris, spinning yarns about intergenerational trauma when perhaps we just need a sandwich and didn’t sleep enough last night.

We check these basic needs first with children, and almost never attend to them in adults. I mean this on a societal level as well. We try to resolve ‘crime’ with beatings and cagings (things we never do with children) and never bother to see if people are fed, housed, and clothed properly. But I digress.

My point is not to say that talking and apologizing are not important. They can be. I’m not saying that there isn’t real hurt and trauma that does need to be understood and addressed directly. I’m just saying that 99% of problems aren’t like that. It’s like applying chemotherapy to a canker sore. Maybe just leave it alone for a while and it’ll resolve on its own. The placebo is the most statistically supported cure of all.

That’s what I think about, watching my children fight. We step in with all our adult methods and they just don’t work. And yet these children naturally resolve their conflicts and remain friends. What do they do? Nothing. The most statistically effective intervention for any problem ever, and yet the one we’re the most loath to try as adults. Just leaving shit alone. Letting some stuff go. Or just raging impotently about it and then getting distracted by food. Forgiving and forgetting. Moving on.

We remain children at heart, trapped inside these rapidly calcifying bodies and brains. As adults, we have the same fundamental feelings, just buried under a vale of words. Words give us the illusion that naming things gives us power over them, but they don’t. The words are just a maze your inner child is running through, pricking on every thorn and tripping over every stone. Children can at least forget quickly. Adults remember every stumble and stone. I can see how my children resolve conflict and it’s as hopeless for me to be like them as for them to be like me. We are what we are and we are whenwe are. In the fight against time and what it makes of us, all of us lose.