Not long ago, a conversation with a friend was interrupted by her shrieking teenage children fighting over the then-crucial issue of who got the couch. “Sibling rivalry,” shrugged my friend conspiratorially, “a fact of life.” The scene surprised me. Now my kids are not zombies or repressed time bombs. Yet our differences are marked more with laughter, gentle teasing, and yes, even affection. How had we gotten there?
I remember the day. Standing in the kitchen, I had just given a cookie to my young son. His younger sister was protesting loudly while the youngest of the three siblings played quietly nearby. “It’s not fair!” she cried. How to respond to that universal complaint? “Life isn’t fair” was the answer I got as a child. As a teen, the Rolling Stones added, “You can’t always get what you want.” I looked—really looked at my daughter. Ah, this was not about the cookie. She hated that kind of cookie. She saw her brother get what he needed, yet her needs went unmet. And her already contented, younger sister felt no reason to join in. “It’s not fair,” repeated my daughter. “Darling, what do you need?” I responded. And then a shift happened. Gone was the cookie, the complaint, the fight; she really just wanted me to read her a book.
I cannot claim credit for this insight. It just came—a gift. And it worked. Whenever fights erupted, I would step out of the details and ask, “What do each of you need?” For that was usually the real issue; someone, if not everyone, was not getting what he or she needed. Happily that was often different for each child, so an accord could be crafted to satisfy all.
I listen to news stories about crushing poverty, the environment, racism, ever growing numbers of refugees, and relentless conflicts in the Middle East. It can all feel endless and inevitable, much like sibling rivalry feels to my friend. I have read that the behavior of nations often matches that of young children. Based on the success of my conflict-resolution approach in childrearing, I propose a wider adoption. The issue may be oil or genocide instead of cookies, yet honoring the right of each to thrive and then hammering out solutions in which all may flourish could just move us beyond the stalemates, broken cease-fires, and longstanding conflicts into a world where differences are marked more with laughter, gentle teasing, and yes, even affection. This I believe.
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