The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

March 7, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Sometimes kids need guidance mediating

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — In the past, a sibling disagreement in our house would almost certainly end in one of three ways: one girl refusing to play with the other ever, ever again; both girls being separated when they couldn't get past yelling their demands at one another; or me forcing a resolution with rules and demands of my own.

I've always preferred the third way, personally. Except that way doesn't give my kids the chance to figure it out on their own. Plus, it plants me in the unpleasant situation of lifelong referee duty, which doesn't suit me at all.

Shortly after I'd heard about the problem-solving approach, my girls were once again arguing over a toy. Instead of waiting for the situation to devolve into madness, I stepped in. I brought my notepad and a big handful of faith.

Step 1: Name the problem. "Okay, girls, what's the problem?" They both started speaking at once, and I wrote a synopsis on my notepad. This alone silenced them. They crept closer to peek at the written proof of their anger, so I read it back to them.

"Is that about right?" They nodded and looked ready to throw some more blame-daggers at each other.

Step 2: Brainstorm solutions. "So, now that we have a problem, let's think of some ways to solve it. Any solution will do. We could run to the store and get another of this same toy. That's one way to solve the problem. I'll write it down."

My first-grader was baffled; this did not sound like the mother she knew.

"Let's just share ideas first," I said. "Then we'll all decide on the best way."

"She could let me have it because it's my favorite toy and she had it all day yesterday!" Four-year-old angst was noted and transcribed.

"Or I could keep it right now and give it to her after lunch? Because I'm in the middle of a game!" Seven-year-old anxiety was aired and charted.

We threw out several more possibilities, some completely off the wall, then settled down to review the list.

Step 3: Implement an agreeable solution. Anything that upset one girl or the other, and anything that was deemed unfair or unnatural was checked off. That removed the new toy option, as well as some other doozies like "throwing all the toys in the trash if I can't have the one I want."

After a few minutes of filtering out the least helpful solutions, the girls agreed on something that would suit them both: They would put the toy away and go paint pictures instead.

It wouldn't have been the first solution to come to me, and because they claimed ownership of the process, the resolution felt exciting to them.

At the outset, teaching problem-solving to our kids feels like more work than simply stepping in the fray and tossing the kids into separate corners. But a few minutes of calm, respectful discussion gives our kids the tools to eventually problem solve on their own, without supervision or a notepad of ideas.

Then, when our kids are away from parental involvement, we'll have armed them with concrete ways to think without demanding and compromise without caving.


Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.