The Rockwood Files: Playing Referee

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

When you give birth to your second child (or third or fourth or fifth), the nice people at the hospital usually give you a little gift as you leave to take the baby home. It’s typically something like a new diaper bag or a basket full of coupons for baby products. It’s a sweet gesture, but a mother who has given birth before already has a diaper bag and most of the baby stuff she needs. What the hospital ought to give second-time moms is a black and white striped shirt and a loud whistle. Because she’s not just a mom anymore. She’s a referee.

It’s not like we parents don’t know what we’re getting into when we bring another baby home. Most of us have either heard about or lived through our share of sibling rivalry, so it’s no secret there’ll be some conflict along the way. We figure brotherly and sisterly love will win in the end, and it typically does. But man, oh man, playing the part of referee can be downright exhausting.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said the words “Don’t sit on your brother’s head!” during the past six years, I’d have roughly two trillion dollars by now. And it’s not just the occasional physical scuffles. It’s the bickering, tattling and the pointless arguments about nothing. It wears a mother OUT.

I’ve mediated more sibling disputes than I can remember, but the themes tend to repeat themselves over and over: “I had the toy first,” “He’s not taking turns,” “She only wants to play with it because I picked it up,” “He’s copying me!” “She said I’m a doody head.” The list goes on and on. You do the best you can to be an impartial judge and make sure the guilty party faces the appropriate consequences.

But today was one of those days when I just couldn’t blow the referee whistle anymore. I was tired, and my head hurt. When I picked up my three kids from school, it only took them about eight minutes to get into their first squabble. It was going to be one of “those” afternoons.

When we got home, 5-year-old Jack asked if he could play with his new water blaster toy outside, and 3-year-old Kate immediately tacked on her request to do the same thing. I said they could both play with water blasters but only if they followed one important rule. (One of the perks of being an experienced mother is being able to predict the arguments before they happen and giving specific instructions in hopes of avoiding it.) So I stated clearly, “You may squirt the ground, the plants, the trees and the flowers, but you may not squirt each other.”

Then I walked inside to make a snack for 8-year-old Adam who said he was too hungry to play with water blasters.

About 47 seconds later, a wet, angry 3-year-old little girl burst through the door yelling as loud as she could in the direction of my headache: “He squirted me. Jack squirted me, Mom!” From the driveway, I could hear Jack yelling, “It was an accident, Mom! I didn’t mean to squirt her, but she just walked in front of me!”

So I did something we moms don’t typically do. l left. The maternal referee left the boxing ring. “Listen guys,” I said, in my most menacing mad-mommy tone, “I’m going to go to time-out now because my head hurts and I need some time alone. You guys have to work out your own problem. Don’t come talk to me about ANY of it unless you want to go to bed for the rest of the day.”

Then I walked into the other room and found a dark, quiet spot for my own little “time out.” Honestly I didn’t much care if they both got drenched by water blasters. I simply didn’t have the energy to get in the middle of it.

After about 10 minutes of blissful silence in my “time-out” spot, I came out of hiding, hoping to find that the children hadn’t killed each other. What I found surprised and enlightened me. The three kids were lounging around in the kitchen watching a cartoon and eating popsicles. No one was crying or wrestling or hitting or tattling. It was quiet. It was AWESOME.

The quick, peaceful outcome showed me that perhaps getting out of the way is sometimes just as effective as determining guilt and innocence and doling out consequences. By leaving the ring and protecting my own sanity, I had forced them to work things out on their own.rockwoodheadshot2010compressed1.jpg

I think I’ll be visiting my “time out” spot a lot more often.

Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of She’d love to hear your thoughts and advice on kids and money, so click the orange button above to comment. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here.



  1. Don’t beat yourself up too badly—I put myself in time outs frequently and the world really doesn’t end, much to my surprise!

  2. This is one of those Golden Moments that all moms have at some point: The realization that sometimes (maybe even often) we are impeding our kids’ social and emotional development. It applies to “helping” our children clean their rooms, do their school work, and deal with difficult friendships as well… sometimes they NEED to work it out on their own. As long as you don’t have a true bully in your family, you’re probably on the right track!! Congrats! 🙂

    p.s. if this sounds like an expert, please feel free to snort and roll your eyes. My kids would.

Comments are closed.