Monday, May 25, 2009

Use Conflict as an Opportunity

Some of you may sit down tonight to watch the season premiere of Jon and Kate Plus 8, the TLC show about a couple with twins and sextuplets. You may already be a fan, or you may have heard the rumors about the instability of their relationship.

We are drawn to conflict. Adult conflicts can seem pretty complex and it may be difficult to see a resolution to the terrible things we do to one another. However, if we can look at conflict in terms of how we teach our children to resolve it, the path may be clearer.

What do you tell your children when they have wronged another child?

1. Tell me what happened.
To fix a problem, we need to know what happened. We ask each child to tell us the truth about what happened. Some children may lie. Other children will begin the story by talking about what the other child did. They learn early in life that talking about the other child will deflect blame from them. It is a natural reaction to getting into trouble. "I didn't do anything!" "He started it!" "She hit me first!"

Telling the truth is only effective if your children realize that they share responsibility in the problem. Insist that they start at the beginning and talk about what they did to either create the conflict - or what they failed to do. Once children take ownership of their part in a conflict, they can move on to the next steps.

2. Say you're sorry.
You can tell when a child is sorry. There is a sadness in the eyes, a sincerity to the voice. The apology is not rushed. It is not glossed over with mindless chatter about the other child. You can simply feel the difference between a real apology and one that is uttered just to get it over with.

Apologizing is difficult because it places blame. By apologizing, your child is acknowledging misbehavior and accepting the consequences of that behavior. Don't allow them to play victim or to shift blame. That just causes all kinds of difficulty later in life.

Say that your child attends a party where there is drinking or use of drugs. Even if your child did not participate in the drinking or drug use, their presence at the party suggests blame to the authorities. In this case, they should apologize for their choice to go to the party - or for not leaving as soon as they saw what was happening.

3. Make it better.
Some parents stop the discipline after step two. But it is step three that supports change. Talk to your children about how you expect them to behave in the future. "Hands are for helping, not hurting" and "We love each other" are simple ways that we teach our children about caring for others. For older children, it might be a phrase like, "We avoid even the perception of wrongdoing by our words and actions" and "What you do also represents and reflects on your family."

Children who learn how to make things better in the midst of a conflict will be better at conflict resolution as adults. They will learn to view conflicts as opportunities for improving their relationships or improving themselves. Conflict won't be something that they try to avoid by lying or pretending it's not there.

Too often, the world tells us to hide the truth, avoid apologizing and do very little to make things better. We have lost our ability to talk through problems, preferring to ignore or avoid the potential for more conflict. We are told that it's better to "move on and forget about it." It might seem like a good idea to forget, but forgetting only invites the chance for it to happen again. And yet, nursing our pain forever will breed resentment and probably physical illness.

How do we make things better? If only a hug or handshake would do the trick like it does for our children. But adult minds are often too set in their ways and belief patterns.

Instead, I invite you to work through steps one and two and then spend the rest of your days living in ways that show care and concern for others. Some relationships are easy to demonstrate this, like with our children. But others who have been hurt by our past actions or inaction may require more time and effort on our part to prove positive change.

Thank goodness that most of us don't have to work through conflict in front of a national audience. For Jon and Kate, I hope they and their children have a strong support network that promotes communication and reconciliation — and forgiveness in time. Be patient. Use this storm as an opportunity to make it better - to become the person you've always wanted your children to be.

Now that would be a great television show.

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