In the last post in this series on parenting, we probably came across as pretty laissez-faire parents, what with the old mattress in the middle of the bedroom, and the house overtaken by nerf gun battles.
There were, however, some things we were strict about. We were especially intolerant of unkindness.
When I see parents standing near their kids on a playground and letting them say awful things to one another, without interfering, it really grieves me. There is a common belief that kids learn to function in relationships by being left to themselves. I think leaving kids to themselves allows them to grow into bullies, victims, martyrs and drama queens.
Most of us would not throw our kid into a contact sport and say, “Figure it out.” We teach them strategy, we make sure they know defensive moves, we give them feedback on how to improve.
They need the same coaching in relationships. Decent human beings don’t just emerge, even with parents who are good role models. They need coaches who are right in there with them, communicating on their level, observing them enough to know what they can and can’t handle, and what they’re ready for next.
If I heard my kids saying things that were insulting, domineering, manipulative or dishonest, I would call them on it right away, and coach the one on the receiving end about how to respond.
If they didn’t stop, I would pull a consequence suited to their age and situation, usually some version of time out or missing out on the next activity. The bottom line was, “If you don’t treat your brothers well, you don’t get to be with your brothers.”
I think when we see a pattern, like one kid repeatedly monopolizing the conversation and interrupting, we need to gently point that out to them, probably out of earshot of the other siblings. Likewise, a child who is withdrawing too often needs encouragement to speak up.
As they got older, I would be less directive, encouraging each child to think for themselves. So, “Say sorry,” became “What do you need to say?”
“Tell him to keep his hands to himself,” became, “What do you need to do to take care of yourself?”
Now that our three sons are almost grown, my interference is down to the occasional, “You’re not listening to each other,” or “Dude-respect.”
I’m glad that my husband and I worked with our kids on how to speak to one another respectfully and how to resolve conflict. It serves them well in many areas of life. Best of all, at 20, 18 and 18, they still really enjoy spending time together.
Sometimes when I hear them joking around together or talking until late into the night, I think of that verse from Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.”
I know that as parents we can’t force our kids to be close, or guarantee that they won’t be divided by conflict. A lot of that is up to them. But we can certainly coach them in how to get along and how to deal with conflict in a way that keeps the relationship intact.