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The Real Issue

When Matt and I were first married, one of our ongoing fights was about counter space.  Matt took a practical approach.  Anything you use on a regular basis should stay on the counter top.

In the bathroom, the toothpaste, deodorant, and shaving cream should be stored on the counter.  In the kitchen, the cutting board and toaster stay up top all the time. 

In my view, spaces should be clear and free of clutter, save the cute color-coordinated themed containers we registered for and received as wedding gifts!

It may have seemed that we were fighting about counter space.  But we later came to realize, as many wiser people before us have put it, that "the issue is not the issue".

Yes, we really did have preferences and opinions about counter usage and aesthetics.  But that wasn't what fueled the animosity.  The question underneath the surface was always "Do you care about me?  Are my desires important to you?"

Rather Listen?

This post was featured on The Homeschool Solutions Show with Pam Barnhill. Use the player below to hear me read it to you!

Just as with any relationship, the "issue" is not the issue.  Security and trust in a relationship are based primarily on a confidence that the other person cares about your needs, concerns or interests.

Without this foundational trust, conflicts feel  like a stand-off between two gunslingers. Nobody is going to be the first to lower their weapon.  If you aren't looking out for my needs, then it's up to me!

The Only Requirement is Care

Very often when the children are tussling over an issue, they get bogged down in the details of "the issue" - who had it first, who had it last, who had it longer, who gets it next, etc.  At this level, it is very unlikely that they will ever reach an agreement.

Have you ever overheard two children on the "No it isn't!" "Yes it is!" loop on repeat? Each person feels that they need to support their own interest because they doubt the other(s) have any concern for their desires.

So, do the kids have to share?  Or does the owner have ultimate rights?  How long is too long of a turn?

While I may need to mediate those questions, there is really only one ultimate rule between siblings in our home.  You must express that you care about the other person and their needs.

Only through the assurance that the other will sincerely take his needs into consideration can one sibling be persuaded to engage in genuine negotiation with the other.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4

Stop. And Talk.

"Care" is a very nebulous concept, especially when you are little.  What does that mean?  What does that look like?

Of course, eventually, I want my children to understand organically what it looks and feels like to treat others as they would want to be treated and to demonstrate that the needs of others are important to them.  But as we transition to that level of maturity it is helpful for them to have a format or a framework to make use of in order to get the hang of demonstrating care and concern for others.

In our home, the format is "Whenever you realize that someone is upset with you, Stop. And Talk."

Sometimes people get upset with us unreasonably. We don't want to operate on the principle that "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" - that wouldn't be healthy or helpful for anyone.

The children don't necessarily need to comply with all the requests of others.  But they do have to Stop. And Talk.

If someone wants what you have and you know that they don't have a right to demand it, that does not entitle you to ignore them and walk in the other direction, smiling with smug satisfaction.

You are not required to give over what you have.  But you do need to stop and engage with them.

Explain what you are doing, work out a plan or - if needed - seek Mama's help in mediating the dispute.  The ideal would be that what is communicated throughout would be "Seeing that you are upset makes me sad and I can't just proceed on with my day when I see your unhappiness!"

This is just another form of weeping with those who weep - a basic skill of living in community with others in a loving way.

A Tool, Not a Fix

Stop and Talk doesn't fix all problems.  It shouldn't be evaluated on the basis of how "effective" it is, if by "effective" you mean "quickly ends the argument".

In fact, the long-term goal of interacting with sincere care isn't just quickly ending arguments, but preventing more of them in the first place by establishing relationships on a basis of trust that enables the two parties to interact with confidence.  But, of course, disputes will still arise.

Even if stopping and talking doesn't comfort the upset sibling, it will still be a very useful tool for you, as the mama, to see more about the heart of your children.

We want our children to value relationships over things, people over activities.  Giving up your things is not the only way to value people over things.  Sometimes love and care involves saying no.

But even if it isn't appropriate to give, it is always appropriate to stop and talk.  This tool (or your own variation of it) gives your children a way to show they care without necessarily having to give in to the demands of others.

  • Well said! Thank you for sharing your awesome strategies 🙂

  • Thank you. All these insights have really influenced my thinking with regards to my correction and reaction to my boys as they sometimes fight over everything! (I’m an only child who loves harmony so I just really don’t get it!!)

  • I’m so glad I came across this email in my inbox! I have six little girls, ages 12, 9, 7, 5, and twin 3 year olds. Good gracious the fights sometimes in our home. Like another commenter said, I desire peace and harmony. And a lot of times I’m left asking, “why?”. And I have never been sure how to handle the disagreements other than ME doing the talking.
    I have always desired for them to care about each other’s concerns. They don’t always fight. But when they do, Oh Lord, help me!
    This is SO HELPFUL. Oh my gosh. I can’t wait to tell my husband and talk about this with my girls. Thank you so much!

  • Jessica Myhrberg says:

    This is wonderful.
    Thank you Lynna!

  • I always find your perspective so valuable, practical, and helpful. Thanks for continuing to share, Lynna!

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    Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.