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I like the metaphor of the mama as marriage counselor, because so much of what we do as mothers of siblings is like marriage counseling, rather than playing judge.  Your role as mediator is an important one and how you approach it can have a huge impact on your children’s ability to understand their own hearts and responsibilities in settling disputes.  So, how can you be a mediator your children can trust?

Listen to Both Sides

Proverbs 18:13, 17 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. … The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

This may seem obvious.  In fact, I hope it does.  We don’t want to parent squeaky-wheel style where the first person to run to mama gets the upper hand.  Reserve judgement until you hear from both parties.  Can you comfort your interrupting children by saying, “You know Mama will always listen to both people.”  Is that really true of you?  Do your children know it from experience?

Extend the Benefit of the Doubt

1 Corinthians 13:7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [emphasis mine]

Are your children generally characterized by random acts of malice and violence?  If not, then extend to them the trust that there must be more than was at first reported.  Say, in the hearing of the accused, “I’m sure there is more to this story because it would be very unlike [your sibling] to do that for no reason.  Is there more that you haven’t told me yet?”  It can be exceedingly powerful to point out that one of the reasons children react so strongly to being wronged by a sibling is because the love and good opinion of their siblings is deeply precious to them.

Address the Heart

Matthew 12:34b … out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

James 4:1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?

Words and actions do matter.  But they matter most as evidence of what kind of struggles might be happening at the heart level.  Your job isn’t to pick a “winner” and assign “damages”.  Your job as mediator is to gently lay open the inner workings of each person’s heart.  It matters less who “started it” or whose crime was objectively worse, and more what each child most needs help understanding or learning.  Resist the temptation to play the “gotcha” card.

Appropriate Consequences

James 3:17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

Some parents use “If … Then” charts to lay out consequences for behavior.  I’m not necessarily opposed to these charts and I’m definitely not opposed to having clear expectations.  But please remember that a chart cannot replace gentle, situation by situation wisdom based on an intimate knowledge of the child in front of you.

Consequences must be based solely on the needs of the child and what will most help him to learn and grow.  The degree of consequence should never be determined by such things as how inconvenient this problem was to you, what kind of day you are having or how mad the offended sibling is about it.  We do not give consequences to serve ourselves, but to serve the child who receives them.

Mediation is Costly

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Playing the judge is simple.  Hear the testimony, render a verdict, and dismiss the plaintiff and defendant from your court.  And then you can get back to the really important things, like, you know, math worksheets.  And laundry.  Or, you can invest in the far more costly and far more valuable role of mediator.  It’s messy.  It’s not black and white.  You have to do it from your knees because, honestly, you can’t know their hearts for sure.  But it’s good, Mama.  And it’s what the Lord requires of you.  But be encouraged …

Hebrews 6:10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.

How do you mediate disputes between siblings?  What verses or reminders help you to be patient, kind and wise?

  • This was very thoughtfully said.
    So much of the time my kids don’t have serious disputes but are just teasing or provoking or overreacting at each other and I have wondered if it’s better to try and have them work it out between themselves before getting involved as the mother in what could easily become an attention seeking behavior. What do you think of this?

    Sometimes I have my kids who are whining or griping at each other sit across from each other (and if they are being really slippery then I have them hold one another’s hands until they are ready to say “i love you and i want the best for you”. There are many times their griping turns to giggling when they do this.

    I really want my kids to learn to solve their conflicts without always running to me to mediate everything for them. Not sure if I’m doing that the best way or not. They are 10 and 8, and also a 5 year old thrown in the mix a lot too.

    • Hey there, Julia! There isn’t one right answer when it comes to stepping in or not. Sometimes we need to step in because we realize our kids don’t have the tools (or are too upset to remember to use them) to settle a conflict. But other times we need to give them time to use those tools. Observe quietly for a while and see what happens. Then if you need to step in, begin with a question that might prompt them about what they can do to solve the problem. I know it would be nice if there was one right answer, but most of parenting is wisdom!

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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.