Butt Out, Mom! What Your Kids Learn From Working It Out Alone

Take Charge on 04.23.12
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Photo: Rene Syler

A few years back, my then pre-teens were at each other's throats about something. I don't even remember what it was, as the arguments then (and sometimes now) were too numerous to count. I sat them both down in the midst of one of these inane battles and said, "Look, you two are going to need to learn to work out your issues on your own because I'm not always going to be here to play referee."

"You mean like when we go to camp?" Casey asked.

"No, like when I'm dead."  Of course that was a shocking answer, but it got the point across: They needed to figure it out on their own.

I would love to say the battles ceased that day and they walked off, hand-in-hand, vowing never to come to mom again, but who would believe that? So the other day, when they came clamoring into my room, shouting over each other about whatever the infraction was, I looked up and calmly said, "Work. It. Out."

I don't jump into the middle of the kids' chaos anymore (well, rarely) because I view it less as conflict and more as a learning opportunity. By arguing among themselves, they learn how to fight fair, how to negotiate and how to compromise, critical skills that pay big dividends now and in the future.

The art of negotiation seems lost these days with so many people thinking a "win" is when you've beaten the other side into submission and can walk away with all the toys (money, power, or people can be substituted here). Crushing your opponent and coming up with a solution that works for only one side is not a win. Casey and Cole learn how to listen to each other, take each other's feelings into account, and negotiate a solution that will work for them both.

They learn how to compromise and I love it. When I see this, I know Casey and Cole have figured out how to put someone else's needs or wants ahead of their own, even if they're doing it to get something they want. But that's life isn't it? We learn that to get, we must give. It's really about being considerate and sharing and isn't that something we've been harping on since the first pre-school playdate?

Working it out on their own gives texture to their relationship -- and one of the many added bonuses is that they learn how to rely on each other. We just got back from a short cruise where Casey and Cole didn't know anyone (other than me) on the ship. You know what? They had a blast. They ran around, ate and explored together, shared goofy jokes, made fun of each other and laughed until they cried. They didn't want to hang out with me at all, preferring each other's company instead. I know there were probably times one wanted to do something the other didn't but somehow they worked it out. It's amazing what can happen when I'm not in the way.

By relying on and respecting one another I see them developing sort of a communication short-hand. They share inside jokes and can convey to one another, "Mom-is-a-dork" with just a look. And I don't even mind. In fact, I secretly love it because, and not to be morbid (I mean other than the above reference) I get a glimpse into what they'll be like when I'm not around. And let's not forget the other bonus; the headache you are spared from not having to hear the yelling and screaming.

Of course you have to teach them how to fight fair and that does not include calling names or hitting. If that does happen, all bets are off, mommy steps in and someone's gonna lose something (freedom, access to computer, bedroom door) very near and dear to them.

How are you with your kids and arguing? Do you let them work it out on their own and if so, have you been pleased with what you see?

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