Having four kids in five years, I knew there'd be a little chaos in our home. I had no illusions that everyone would always get along. 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 ages 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.
These tactics worked, but only for a while. 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. As far as we were concerned, our family was a team. We wanted our children to learn, as I had, that over the course of their lives, their siblings would be an important source of support. I didn't want them to be mean to each other. I did want them to understand that, even in the midst of anger, you can still remember the love.
They needed to start being nicer to each other. I needed to come up with an effective way for them to express the love in their hearts.
It was during dinner one night last spring that I saw the glimmer of a solution to the family feuding. It had been a rainy week, filled with too much togetherness and not enough energy-burning fun. 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. Maybe it had started as a silly game, but soon everybody was upset and retaliating, arguing and finger-pointing and outright fighting. I couldn't take it anymore. 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. Bees could be the key to getting the kids to play along.
I hurried to the computer, did a quick Google search for fun drawings of bees, and printed them on slips of paper to make small notecards. 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.
Cooper eagerly asked, "Can we do it right now?" His sisters agreed, and the four set to work. Helping each other with spelling and pictures, they wrote note after note and slipped them into the envelopes. When they were all done, I told them they could read them. First came the awwws and That's so sweet! Before long, hugs and kisses were being exchanged.
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. "I really like the way you read that story to me." "You are a really great soccer player!" "I love you."
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. Nothing diffuses a heated situation like a little murmured reminder to "bee nice."
If the kids are coming up blank when it's time to write notes, try posting a list of prompts, such as "I love you because..." and "Thank you for helping me with..."
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of FamilyFun magazine.