The Divide and Conquer Technique

The beauty of domestic bliss is that it’s so elusive. Our family is usually at its most dysfunctional when all four of us are together. My wife and I try to discuss important “grown-up stuff,” which the kids react to as if it were a level-4 biohazard that can only be neutralized via obnoxious singing and fights over crackers. And it works: we stop talking to each other and start speaking tersely to them about being patient and waiting for us to complete our conversation about getting the gutters cleaned before demanding that we referee a snack dispute. Eventually someone becomes upset, we all feel bad, collect ourselves for a few minutes, and start the whole cycle all over again.

Of course, sometimes when we’re together and everyone is properly fed, rested and emotionally nourished, everything is great. But as much as we all love moshing to “Call Me, Maybe” (sorry), eventually one of the brothers does some annoying touching or attempts an unannounced transition into a round of Simon Says  (a game that appears to have as its logical end, a heated argument over who’s actually participating) and everything falls apart. Arlo doesn’t understand that the game will go on forever if he utters, “Simon says” before every command, leaving his mother, father and brother with no other choice than to simply walk away or lie down as if in silent protest against the encroaching tanks of a totalitarian government.

Because of all this, we often opt for a “divide and conquer” strategy. It’s a military tactic wherein parents divide the opposing army of their own children, thereby rendering them less powerful. When together, our sons can mount an impressive assault on our patience, but alone, each of them is calmer, happier, and less dangerous to us and themselves. Imagine living with and having to “be nice to” someone who pulls your shirt, pilfers your cheese stick, squirts a pouch of Honest Kids in your lap, and randomly sings The Wonder Pets theme song at top volume. That’s a lot for a five year-old to endure and sometimes the kid simply needs some quiet time alone with mom and a stack of chocolate chip pancakes.

That leaves me with Arlo who, when separated from his brother, is the sweetest and most adorable of nature’s beasts. Whether we’re throwing rocks into the river, abusing the Android tablets at Target, or building a windowless temple (a recent obsession of his), he’s agreeable and  calm, but still asks, “When are mommy and Silas coming home?” every 12 seconds. “Soon,” I say. “That’s a long time, daddy.” From a distance, togetherness seems so tranquil.

Divide and conquer is not without cross communication. My wife and I text each other little poems with pictures attached “Having a blast at the diner.” I’ll send back a cute shot of Arlo folding a sock, and TADA, via the miracles of technology, we experience a kind of virtual domestic bliss, like a Sci-fi family that exists only on Skype.

Eventually, of course, the two family halves must be restored, at which time we quickly put on a movie that ends right at bedtime.

Do boys eventually learn to hang out with their brothers peacefully for more than five minutes, or do they go straight from arguring over crackers to arguing about girls and then to whether “Dad’s still with it”?

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27 thoughts on “The Divide and Conquer Technique

  • Are there really no comments for this post? How is that possible? Are they all on Facebook? Deleted for obscenity?

    Anyway, this post is really resonating right now. Except we have three so one of us is always outnumbered. We have divided and conquered (sort of) since 6am. Husband wakes up with 2 year old, I snatch sleep in two minute bursts with twin babies. One baby wakes up and I pull the “I was up all night with them” card and pawn the baby off on him. Now I’m up and he goes out with just the two year old. And I’m typing this while the twins complain that I’m ignoring them.

    And yes, 2 year olds do not want you to have an adult conversation. The house will be destroyed unless you also bang a tambourine and sing Mary Had a Little Lamb with he

    • Somehow my computer did not register the comments below. Not an idiot. Although I do have three small children, so…

  • Here’s all you need to know about two kids (aged 5-18) getting along.  Get a second computer.  It is TOTALLY worth every penny

  • this reminds me of my two (brother and sister) who are now 20 and 22. they “hate” each other with every other breath; but God help the person who says one negative word to either one of them, because they will defend each other to the death! enjoy the chaos while it lasts…one day you will have a silent house; and while that is awesome for the first few weeks, you will son find yourself missing it.
    Thank you for putting a smile on my face this morning.

  • LOVE THIS!  Especially the bracketed line about Simon Says- so true and so damn annoying!  Why is it that no game I play with my kids ends nicely and calmly and logically.  Try chess (my seven year old is obsessed), but if I dare make a move to check his king, or capture his queen, or even a pawn, screams fill the air and pieces fly and I get accused of cheating and ‘it’s not fair’ and ‘you didn’t warn me’ and ‘We’re starting over’ and ‘I’m not playing.’  Try monopoly (junior), and if someone lands on something that I own,  or if they missed the pile of cash, forget it, tears ensue, they have to roll again, the dice malfunctioned, etc etc.  Sometimes the only option for me is to lie down or walk away as you described!  But then I have to come back to clean up the game.. and comfort the tantruming child. And admit that they (ALL) won first place.  Why do I bother.  Divide and conquer is the way to go!

  • Your first paragraph describes our nightly “family” dinner perfectly. It can sometimes take my husband and me 20 minutes to finish what would normally be a 5 minute conversation because we’re so busy refereeing food flinging, the 5 year old instigating the 2 year old across the table into acting silly, and being interrupted mid sentence with such questions as “Mommy, Mommy Mommy??? You finished eating?” for the 5th time in 30 seconds.  Good times.

  • The only thing that changes is that there comes a point when you can leave them in the house alone to annoy the hell out of each other when they get a little older. 
    Although that raises its own issues  My brother and I are 2 years apart, and I used to raise hell when he got money for babysitting me. So my mom had me “babysit” him every once in awhile – although when I ask her about it now, she says, “Yeah, and you never noticed that you never got paid.”

      • jasonmgood add us to the list of folks accusing you of installing the hidden surveillance camera in our home.  If I were more prolific, or funnier (or taller?) maybe I’d beat you to the punch on a pop reference in my column more often!  You and I are the same age and our kids are the same ages so I think you’ll continue to write my mind.  Your stuff slays–keep it up!

        • jasonmgood timmydaddy will do.  at home from work with a sick kid (wouldn’t you know) so I’m working on the next post!

  • It’s not just brothers, about 6 months ago my son and daughter realized the joys of annoying the hell of out each other for fun.

  • Oh this is so true! I have 3 girls though, looks like we need to invest in another adult! Lol

  • I agree with Molly.  My boys are 4 and 8, and it’s been pretty much a nonstop trauma until a few months ago.  It started back in August when we taught my older son how to fight back and intimidate his little brother, who until then always had the upper hand.  That helped a lot, but it’s only in the last two months or so, as my little one hits 4 and a half, that they actually PLAY together happily.  Just yesterday they spent an hour (!!) in the older one’s room (a previously unthinkable intrusion) playing with hexbugs together.  My 8 year old seems to really enjoy teaching his little brother how to do things now.  So do not give up hope!  I thought for sure they were going to be enemies for life but we are seeing some light at the end of this tunnel.  Not sure how long it lasts, but I’ll take it!

  • Your posts are so funny- I enjoy reading and laughing out loud because of how true it all is!  I have 2 boys ages 4 and 2 and we battle all these things on a daily basis as well.  So nice to know we are not alone :)

  • Be happy they have each other to fight with, mine is an only child and only has me to annoy.

  • My two boys are 6 and 8 and it is heavenly (most of the time.) They play together, they are each other’s best friend, they miss each other when they are apart. They still sometimes fight when one or both is in a certain mood, or gang up on us in coordinated annoying behaviors, but for the most part it is so great to have two boys so close together. I’d say the transition started in earnest when they were around 4 and 6. You will get there!

  • If I recall enough cousins and younger siblings growing up…I believe they learn to drive and take at least half their fights out to the public arenas rather than at home with the refs.  This leads to the most popular arguments about who gets the car and why they shouldn’t have to share it.

  • When you get a third and have to switch from Man on man to zone defense everything changes.

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