13 years ago, I took my second son, then a newborn, to the office to meet my coworkers. I will never forget how ecstatic one of my colleagues was at the news we had two little boys.
Boys are the best, Adrian exclaims. His eyes dance with life. They will grow up to be best friends!
I wasn’t necessarily convinced on either of those fronts, but his enthusiasm was certainly entertaining. He has also raised two boys himself and I have always had profound respect and admiration for the deep relationship he and his sons share. I tell him this.
He pulls me aside, sits me down, takes my baby son into his arms and offers his wisdom.
Let them fight, Adrian says simply.
Seriously, he goes on. If there is one gift you can give your two boys, it is to let them learn to work out their problems themselves. Don’t intervene unless you really need to. Begin from the assumption that they can resolve their problems on their own and respond only if they really need your help. This will help develop their emotional intelligence, build skills and strengthen their relationship.
I have to admit I was a bit amused by the prematurity of his advice at the time. (I figured I had at least a couple of years before I would need to really exercise my conflict management skills with my kids.) I nevertheless took it to heart.
As a mediator, I know this to be true. People do have the capacity to manage conflict on their own. And sometimes they need support to do it. The trick is knowing when and how best to help when that support is required. I certainly don’t always get it right. With my kids or in the mediation room.
As a parent, when I hear the telltale signs of escalating conflict between the boys – crying/yelling/screaming (when they were younger) or door slamming/muttering/sulking (now that they are older) – I have learned to first stop, listen and wait. (This, by the way, is WAY harder than it sounds!) My mediator hat is always at the ready, of course. But I don’t always need it. Listening at the door, letting them fight, I am regularly astounded by how frequently my boys get through their conflict of the moment without my help and are able to carry on with life as usual. Do they always get along? No. Can they always resolve their problems without help? No. But they do share a strong bond that I believe is cemented in their ability to be profoundly mad at each other, find a way to recover together and then move on.
Tension is not something to be avoided. It just is. And working through it can be a profound experience of learning and growth. And relationship building. Embracing this idea – that conflict is OK – is something I’ve had to work hard at integrating (I grew up in a Mennonite community and have very strong, competing instincts of “flight” and “fix”). And it has taught me something important. There is something that happens in relationships when people experience the galvanizing heat of tension and find their own healthy way forward. It can and does change things for the better. I see it in my boys.
Just like Adrian promised.