I smiled as I walked into the family room. I heard the voice of Batman "saving the world from the evil influence of The Joker." As my 13 and 9 year old sons enjoyed hanging out together and simultaneously keeping the universe free of corruption, I thought about how seldom I hear raised voices in my home.
When my children were very young I taught them the art of conflict resolution with a method, which I called "Face to Face." My oldest boys were about 3 and 5 years old respectively when they had their first lesson in conflict resolution.
The Lessons Begin
I pulled two diningroom chairs out from the table, situating them about a foot apart and facing each other. I then instructed the boys having the disagreement to sit in the chairs. I wish I could say that their faces mirrored eager willingness to interact with one another in a positive, life-giving manner. Nope! There were clear signs of impending disaster marring their foreheads and igniting their eyes.
I began: "Okay, clearly there is a disagreement. But, in this family we will communicate with a calm spirit and a fair-minded attitude. We are a team! You will now learn the art of listening, compromise, and reconciliation."
Silence met my ears as they were now both staring at ME! Well, at least they were now united ... in thinking that I had lost my marbles!
Here is a brief description of my method and some tips for making it work in your family. For our example we will use a scenario, which is common in all families with children. Daniel has taken a Lego part, which Philip found necessary for his creation and the disagreement has quickly escalated to near riot-like proportions.
Give Them Ground rules
I began by setting the ground rules so that they both knew what to expect.
1. The Youngest goes first: The youngest gets to speak first, briefly and calmly describing the situation or problem as they see it. I encouraged them to keep it to two or three sentences - no more than 30 seconds. No voices were to be raised. We are problem-solving, not viciously accusing or verbally abusing one another.
2. No interrupting: Whoever is speaking has the floor and you may not interrupt. You are not to roll your eyes, make faces, gesture wildly, shake your head "no", or sigh loudly. You are to listen! That is your job!
3. Mirror back what you have heard: Before you respond to what your sibling has said, you must mirror back to them what you have heard. For instance, if Philip says, "I built that big Lego airplane and then you took away the propeller piece that I needed!", before Daniel responds in any fashion he must mirror back, "What I hear you saying is...." He then sums up to the best of his ability what he has just heard. This teaches children to be active listeners. If they are sitting there trying to have their next response ready or are dreaming up good "zingers" with which to sting their opponent, they will be unable to mirror back what they have heard. I deliberately built in this step to insure that each child learned empathy and compassion for others. Then, and only then, the second child may explain the situation from his perspective.
4. Repeat as necessary: This same cycle was repeated until a resolution was reached. With each cycle, they were able to express and work out greater nuances of the difficulty. They did not leave the chairs until a peaceful resolution had been reached. I did need to help them occasionally move along the process. Let me give you some examples of possible resolutions from our Lego scenario: "We will share the Legos" or "I'm sorry I took your part. I didn't realize you needed it. You take it and I'll find another one to use." Or: "I'll take a break from Legos and color for a while so you can create without me accidentally taking parts." Or: "Let's both take a break and play outside." Any of these solutions, if arrived at with each boy being satisfied and happy, is equally appropriate. I tried really hard not to guide them to the outcome that I would prefer. It was their fight, not mine. Really, when I gave them the skills, they came up with solutions that I would never have considered. Whatever you do, DON'T get in the middle of their disagreement! They knew that if I had to intervene, then I would insure that neither one of them was happy with my solution. The goal is to give them the skills to do this on their own.
Give Them Direction
You'll notice that when I began teaching them how to take part in a "face to face", my youngest was three years old. This is an age at which language and emotion are difficult anyway. I don't know a three year old who is self-aware enough to use words to express disappointment or frustration. That's why three year olds have temper tantrums. So, I had to help him find his "voice" for a time until he gained the skills to use his words and not his anger in reacting to his sibling. I did not allow one child to get stuck in repeating the same thing over and over again. For instance, I might interject, "You've already told your brother how much it hurt your feelings that he took your Lego piece. He has replied that he is sorry and did not realize that you were using it. Do you have something new to add, that he does not already know?" This insured that negotiations did not "stall out". I sat nearby - but never between them. When either of them got stuck I supplied some possible verbs or adjectives, which helped them continue with the process.
Give Them Positive Reinforcement
After the "face to face" as complete, I told them how proud I was of their problem-solving skills. I used specific examples when I had heard them display empathy, kindness, and consideration.
Give Them Space
Sometimes, while they were playing I would hear raised voices. I would call out, "Do we need a face to face"? At times, they would answer, "Nope! The problem is already solved." Other times, I would hear the diningroom chairs being pulled away from the table a few minutes later as negotiations began. Honestly, after a few sessions of me offering guidance and support, they preferred to have me leave the room. I was told, "Mom, we got this. If we get stuck, we'll call for you." I had to give them space. Regardless, I didn't allow a contracted time of irritation and an argumentative spirit to reside in my home. By the time they were 5 and 7 years of age, every once a while I would walk into my diningroom to see two chairs pulled out from the table - facing each other. I would shake my head and smile. I hadn't even realized that they had been having a disagreement. And that, is as it should be.