JOPLIN, Mo. —
I've often said that if it weren't for all the refereeing required of mothers, my job would be a perfect joy. I could focus on teaching basic skills to my children -- picking up after oneself, taking pride in a job well done, refilling mommy's plate of bon-bons -- and never deal with the hair-ripping stress that accompanies sibling battles.
My mood is directly dependent upon how well my children are treating each other, which isn't necessarily a healthy correlation, but there it is. When they get along, tossing the golden rule around in selfless handfuls, our days are lovely.
But when they cannot see their way through even the simplest disputes without devolving into screams, our days can turn very ugly.
Who wants to spend hours each day telling kids how to solve their problems? Who wants to stop everything to decide the winner of each sibling argument, all day long? Not me.
Imagine my surprise when I realized I don't have to be the referee; that it's more important for kids to learn how to solve their own problems than it is for me to ensure calm, happy days.
Robbing our children of the tools necessary to negotiate, empathize and think critically -- all the things I do when I step in to strong-arm an argument into dissolution -- is handicapping them with an inability to cope with social friction.
It's one thing to step back and let the little fighters duke it out on their own. It's quite another thing to put problem-solving tools into their hands and demonstrate the techniques. One makes nasty grudges and angry homes, while the other leads to peaceful families and confident kids.
So, what are these magical problem-solving tools? I've seen them listed on several websites and in a handful of parenting books, and while their authors might differ over minor details, they all paint with the same broad strokes.
When our kids come to us tattling about a disagreement, there are generally three steps to follow if we're trying to teach them how to solve their own problems.
- Name the problem: Just as it sounds, have the kids state their issue. Help them name their feelings and get to the bottom of exactly what's causing the drama. Try not to judge or talk them out of their problem, only affirm that it has a name.
- Brainstorm solutions: Any solution is a good solution at this point. Write them all down -- even the ridiculous ones -- on a notepad and give serious consideration to each.
- Implement the solution you all like best: Walk the kids through each of the possible resolutions, marking out those that are disagreeable, until only one or two solutions are left. When they can agree on a solution, let them put it to work.
It sounds so simple that I've felt there must be a caveat lurking in the parameters. But in the past several months of trying this process with my own kids, I've discovered that there are no lurkers. There is no fancy footwork. It really is this basic.
Our children are learning how to compromise and state their feelings without melting down. The never-ending promise of our involvement is being removed, relieving us of our mind-numbing referee duty.
Next week I'll share a glimpse of what this process has looked like for our family. In the meantime, I'll be dropping my referee whistle into the nearest trash can.
Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.blogspot. com.