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Helping Kids Through Conflict

September 15, 2015

Let’s face it.  Most of us grew up in a hierarchical family.  Parents were the rulers of the household, and kids were expected to follow as loyal subjects.  If we made our families’ operating principles explicit from the perspective of the child, they might read: 

  • Do as you are told.

  • Do not talk back to your parents.

  • Do not question your parent’s authority.  They know best and do not appreciate explaining their reasoning.  Simply trust that they know best.

  • When rules are established, you are expected to comply with them.  When you don't, you'll be punished.  The punishment will vary depending upon your parents’ subjective assessment of the situation and also upon their current mood and disposition.

  • Your parents love you, regardless of how they behave.  When they express disappointment and anger toward you, do not question their love for you.  In fact, such expressions reflect their deep and abiding love.

Of course, the operating principles of your family may have been different.  Some of the younger parents that I know grew up reacting so strongly to these hierarchically oriented principles as children that they simply rejected them after becoming parents themselves.  As a result, some of those parents have elected a different set of principles that might read:

  • There shall be no hard and fast rules.

  • When your parents find your behavior displeasing, the situation will be discussed in an adult fashion (and often ad nauseam) in an attempt to improve your behavior.

  • Your parents will sometimes have breakdowns and lose their temper.  In such events, you may be punished.  The punishment will vary depending upon your parents’ subjective assessment of the situation and also upon their current mood and disposition.

  • Your parents love you, regardless of how they behave.  When they express disappointment and anger toward you, do not question their love for you.  In fact, such expressions reflect their deep and abiding love.

  • Notwithstanding the occasional parental breakdown, these principles still apply.

Regardless of the principles employed by your own parents, or the principles you may be following as a parent yourself, chances are they have not been made as explicit as those listed above.  If they were, perhaps we’d all be inspired to evaluate them more consciously.

 

In my family, we’ve had our share of breakdowns in the past.  One memorable breakdown involved my daughters, Melanie and Holly, when they were 14 and 10 years old.  One of Melanie’s chores was to do the laundry for both girls.  The breakdown occurred because the laundry wasn’t getting done in a way that worked for Holly.  Regularly, Holly would run out of clean socks, jeans, or something else and ask Melanie, “Please, do the laundry!”  It’ll be no surprise to parents that Melanie did not take kindly to having her little sister reminding her of her chore.  Every time Holly would ask, Melanie would respond by saying, “If you ask me again, I’ll wait even longer before I do the laundry.”  Clearly, my girls were at an impasse.

 

One evening the situation erupted into tears and I decided to step in.  The three of us sat down together in the living room and I said only a few words to “open” the family meeting.

 

First, I asked Melanie what was going on from her perspective.  “Dad, I know the laundry is my chore and I do it.  I just hate it when Holly is always pestering me.  It drives me crazy.  Can you please make her stop?!?!”  I repeated back what I heard as neutrally as I could and asked whether I had heard Melanie correctly.  I had.  (This drove Holly crazy.)

 

Then I ask Holly what was going on from her perspective.  “Dad, it’s not fair.  Melanie does the laundry when she needs something cleaned, but never does it when I run out of clothes.  What can I do?  If I ask her to do the laundry, she gets mad at me.  If I don’t say anything, I’m always running out of clothes!”  Again, I repeated back what I heard as neutrally as I could and asked whether I had heard Holly correctly.  I had. (This drove Melanie crazy.)

 

I then shared my perspective that both girls are truly kind and loving people.  They express their love to me and to each other most of the time.  But in this situation, they were stuck in a pattern that made it difficult to be their best selves and live according to their highest principles.  “The problem as I see it,” I said, “is simply that you have no agreement about when and how frequently the laundry will get done.”  I explained that such an agreement would have to make clear what was expected from everyone involved and how it should be handled when any part of the agreement is broken.

 

What happened next was magical.  Both Melanie and Holly reiterated what they want.  Melanie didn’t want to be pestered by her little sister, and Holly wanted clean clothes to wear.  They then went about crafting an agreement that works for both of them.  During their discussion, I remained mostly silent, asking questions only when it appeared to me that their proposals wouldn’t serve their respective interests.  Within very little time, Melanie had agreed to do the laundry every Monday night in time for school Tuesday morning.  Holly had agreed not to ask Melanie to do the laundry unless it was nearly bedtime on Monday evening.  They now had an agreement.

 

What was even more heartening was the conversation that followed.  The girls went on to discuss other areas of tension in their relationship, and all on their own, identified additional agreements they might make to resolve their difficulties.  Wow!  I was over the moon with joy and so proud of these two young women.  They were proud of themselves, too.

 

It makes you wonder… What if every family worked together to create their own operating principles?  What if those principles were embodied in a set of operating agreements?

 

Rather than having all the rules established by the [hierarchical] parents, or having an environment where expected behaviors are left implicit or subject to constant change, what if those agreements offered enough clarity to enable each family member to know what is expected.  Unlike rules, these agreements would reflect the needs and desires of everyone affected by the agreement.

 

What if the agreements also specified what happens when they're broken; and what if even those ramifications were agreed to by everyone affected?  How might that impact your family?  How might this approach help your children grow up to become better leaders, fostering agreements between communities, teams, organizations and nations?

 

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