Sunday, November 15, 2009

Conflict Resolution - Mom style!

As I drove my kids home from school the other day, I listened with half an ear as my six year old recounted his experience with show and tell that day. He had struggled that morning with what to bring, and came to the door armed with two teddy bears that he’s loved since he was a baby. Thinking more along the lines of him not having room in his bag and not what bringing bears to school could do to a boy in Grade One, I steered him in the direction of a family photo recently taken in front of the Mickey Pumpkin during our last trip to Disney. Of course I am distracted as we get his bag into the car, and it wasn’t until after school that I realized he did sneak his coveted ‘Buzz Bear’ to school that day. Showing the bear off to his friends, he was quite surprised to see his friend ‘Joe’ cover his mouth with his hands and laugh. I looked in the review mirror as he showed me what the kid did to mock him, and was instantly irate.

“Joe is a tool”, said I, before thinking it through and realizing what came out of my mouth.

“He’s a WHAT??” asked my son. Helpfully, my 8-year-old daughter explained, “Mom thinks he’s an idiot.”

Oh my. This is when it hit me. I have not done a very good job hiding myself from my kids.

I understand that, in the grand scheme of things, my children live with me in my house and are therefore going to be exposed to the unavoidable verbal onslaught that often comes with my day-to-day life. I have four children, life is stressful, and I don’t generally hide that.

It made me start wondering how much of our real personality we hide from our children, and which is better? Full disclosure with slight modifications, which is generally the way I go or the attitude that we can protect our kids from the world just by the way we react. Never is this more important than when dealing with life’s little issues, which have the effect of a massive roof caving in snowball when left unattended.

Let’s take an example. You are fighting with your husband and it’s about money. Things start to get very heated. Do you take it behind closed doors, knowing that your older children are probably eaves dropping and leaving them out there to fend for themselves or do you argue in front of them, committing yourself not to raise your voice but clearly expressing your anger? 1950’s style Mom would not say a word, continue to clean up from dinner, and if needed, would discuss the matter after the children are in bed. From experience, I don’t know many women who would be willing to wait to have that discussion, especially as everything in our lives is currently so busy and urgent that if you wait, your little chat may never happen.

Should children see us arguing or dealing with conflict? I say yes, but I temper that with moderation.

If you shield them from these types of situations, they will grow up and be shocked as they see other people outside of your home deal with conflict. You will then have missed your opportunity to teach them the correct way of solving a problem. Not only that, I really believe that because it would be so overwhelming to be suddenly thrown into dealing with big issues, they will avoid conflict like the plague. I call this the “head in sand” approach to conflict, and I’ve seen it in my husband and other family members. I don’t like it, and I don’t want my kids to grow up like that.

When they see us dealing with problems, they will soon realize that there is almost always a solution. You can have an argument in front of your kids, deal with it by talking it out in a heated manner, then show them that the problem is solved and move on.

The key here? The problem was solved.

Life is full of problems both big and small, you can’t keep them in a bubble. Children, from a very early age, need to know how to deal with that.

I tend to say what I think in front of my children. If a teacher sends home a rude note about not practicing sight cards enough, I have a hard time biting my tongue and not discussing this with my husband immediately upon reading it. Being the happy little eavesdroppers that they are, they listen in and then ask me questions as to why I am unhappy about the note. What do you say to that? Should I lie? As I have a very strict ‘No Lie Policy”, it’s not something that I would consider. I simply explain that not everyone does nice things, that my opinion is clearly different from the teachers, and that I am going to deal with the situation. What do they learn from this? Once again, Mom has a problem but she’s taking are of it.

I am the way I am as a parent because I’ve been exposed to the extreme opposite of conflict resolution. I grew up in a family where an argument would last for hours and occasionally punches would be exchanged between family members. Yes, that was scary for a little kid growing up. I had real worries as a five year old, including if that argument between dad and my uncle never stopped, someone was going to get a black eye. Yelling was second nature to me; it was how people expressed themselves. What I never, ever saw was a solution to a problem. I grew up thinking that maybe it wasn’t possible to deal with stuff, that huge black clouds hung over our heads for years and years, never to let up.

In contrast, my husband’s family does not fight and argue. They may have had heated arguments or disagreements, but once they did the blinders would go on and everyone would pretend it never happened. For me, it’s like being stuck in a vortex. Not keeping talking about it? Not acceptable! We have to beat this issue to death.

For my children, I have taken what I experienced and armed with my Psychology degree, have come to a middle ground. I will not shield them, but I will not pretend it never happened either. If they are occasionally exposed to my true beliefs about their friends, teachers, or what have you, I will temper that by sitting them down and explaining why I feel that way and that my feelings do not represent everyone. I encourage my kids to talk about what they are feeling, and if they think that their friend Joe is a tool, I let them say that as well. Just as long as they don’t say that in class!

I know there are a lot of moms out there like me, who need to find the middle ground between how they were raised and what they know is right. As far as I am concerned, it starts with how you express yourself to your children. I don’t hide myself or my feelings from my kids. When trying to figure out a problem, I ask myself what I would be teaching them by avoiding the problem altogether.


Then I ask myself what I would teach them by screaming about it for hours and hours.

Once again, nothing.

Remember: Sand is for building sandcastles, not for hiding from the world. Keep your eye on the prize and find the happy middle ground that is your children’s future.

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