I am certain that Mom and Dad were mystified by us. We were basically good kids but, in spite of all their good example and effective teaching, we kids regularly fussed with each other. And as our numbers swelled, so did the din of our disagreements. There seemed to be no end to our teasing and tormenting.
My just-younger brother and frequent target of my attacks, Alan, is a good-hearted, compassionate, good-natured guy. I have never had any preference for unkindness or violence. But we still teased each other endlessly. I resolved disputes as long as I was bigger than Alan by locking him in a hall closet. Later I turned to goading and tormenting him verbally.
Mom and Dad tried everything they could think of to help us settle differences and to encourage peace. On one occasion after I had been tormenting Alan, and when all efforts at negotiation and calm persuasion had failed, Dad suggested we wrestle. Well, Alan whipped me—which, incidentally, did not bring peace and understanding to our relationship; my determination to conquer only increased. On another occasion Mom and Dad suggested that we settle our differences through a foot race. I outdistanced Alan. I am certain that his bond with me was not strengthened by being beaten in a race.
These methods of resolving differences did not bring peace and understanding—though they may have marginally increased our physical fitness. In fact, one strategy for dealing with bickering might be to direct children’s anger toward physical contests and hope that maturity will set in to quell the rivalries. Such a decades-long process may have some advantages, yet it cannot teach skills of peacemaking.
I remember another occasion when Alan and I had been arguing over some small difference. Dad, a peace-loving man if ever there was one, was weary of the contention. He turned both of us to face him and invited each of us to tell our side of the story. Alan, through tears, told of my picking on him and rude treatment of him. When it was my turn, I calmly and sensibly told of Alan’s misdeeds and carefully wove psychological explanation into the tale. As I told my story I warmed to the challenge and embellished the story with plausible, though invented, details. I knew that my Father was a rational man. Alan was more likely to be judged in error by Dad. The only thing that process revealed was that I had a greater talent for creative storytelling than Alan. Or, to be fair, I was better at lying than Alan who is, to this day, a very fine storyteller.
There were times when Mom held the warring factions to an accounting. Mother, always sensitive to the underdog and emotional suffering, was more likely to see my error.
The irony in investigation is that every party in a war contributes something to the misunderstanding. While one party may contribute far more than another, it is impossible for any of us mortals to weigh guilt objectively and dispassionately. We all have biases.
My battles with Alan and the accounting before our parents underscore what may be the first law of human dynamics: When someone tries to take something away from us, we cling to it more tenaciously. If Dad or Mom tried to convince me that I was wrong, I would renew my data collecting and analyzing to prove I was right. I would also add passion and indignation. Given that the human tendency to see ourselves as right is almost universal, what’s a parent (or any other negotiator) to do? How can we move people from the natural-man tendency to stake out a territory and defend it at all costs? How can we keep people from exaggerating their differences? How can we teach cooperation and harmony? How can we hope to establish peace in our families?
Two pediatricians have said something that is both profound and pertinent: “We can feel empathy only if someone has been empathetic and caring with us” (Brazelton & Greenspan, 2000, p.5). That applies not only on the global, life-history scale but also to the micro-events of our lives. Empathy is a better remedy than investigation.
Imagine that Dad had attentively listened to the two separate dramas as if they did not have to be woven into one story. He could listen for each person’s personal reality. He might have said to Alan, “Son, it sounds as if you are tired of being pushed around. It sounds like you would like to be able to play in your bedroom without your brother telling you to get lost. Is that right?” Alan, through words and gestures, will tell Dad whether he has captured the emotional essence of his experience.
Then Dad might turn to me. “Wally, it sounds as if you would like to be able to work on your projects without being interrupted. You would like your brother not to bother you when you are in the middle of something. Is that right?” As Dad attempts to understand our perspectives, he is inviting our cooperation and trust.
When each of us feels understood, we are prepared to offer compassion. We are ready to look for solutions. “I wonder if you boys have any ideas how you can solve those problems?” In such a setting I might have volunteered, “Well, I could be nicer to Alan. And I could let him know when I really need quiet.” At Dad’s invitation Alan might have volunteered to be quieter when he could see that I was concentrating. He might also have volunteered to play outside during some projects.
When people are looking for solutions rather than problems, wonderful things can happen. When their better natures have been invoked, people may choose to offer kindness and sacrifice for the common good.
The only real gifts are those that are given gladly, unstintingly. When people are shown that they are valued and understood, and when they are invited to solve a problem, they may make surprising concessions. They may make freewill offerings that change the course of history. Understanding invites understanding. Compassion is more useful than adjudication.
It is important to note that none of this peacemaking comes naturally to most of us. We may struggle for many years to learn better ways. I have worked for decades to get past being right and get on to being good, kind, compassionate, helpful.
When parents in Haim Ginott’s parenting classes complained of the difficulty of learning new, more compassionate ways of talking with their children, he is reported to have said, “You may always speak this new language of compassion and understanding with an accent. For your children, it can be their native tongue.” There can be progress across generations.
By the way, I cannot imagine that anyone on the face of the earth had better parents than Alan, Beth, Brent, Paul, Bryan, Lorene, Levi, and I. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for doing everything you knew how to do to teach us peace. You will be glad to know that Alan and I love each other as brothers and that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren are indeed learning the language of understanding and peace that you strove to teach us.
Brazelton, T. B., & Greenspan, S. I. (2000). The irreducible needs of children: What every child must have to grow, learn, and flourish. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Ginott, H. G. (1965). Between parent and child. New York: Macmillan.