On a recent summer day, I glanced outside to see my two boys sitting side by side in lawn chairs, taking turns using the binoculars to watch a wild turkey in our field. Getting excited, they decided to get closer.
“C’mon, Evan, I’ll show you how to walk quietly,” says 9-year-old Brad. Evan follows, mimicking his elder brother’s mincing footsteps.
“Good job!” Brad praises. “That turkey will never hear us – we’re being so quiet.”
“Wait!” whispers Evan. “My shoe is untied.” Brad quietly leans down to tie his brother’s shoe and pats him on the back as he finishes. “There you go, little buddy. Let’s see if we can get even closer.”
“OK,” agrees Evan. “Here, do you want to use the binoculars now?”
Wait a minute! Where did this fictional family come from? If your house is anything like mine, the reality of it looks more like this:
“Hey, those are my binoculars! I got them for Christmas from Grandpa!” bellows Brad, trying to wrench the coveted object out of Evan’s hands.
Evan protests, digging his feet in for battle. “I’m using them right now!”
“You can’t use them. Give ’em to me – now!”
The good old English language is given up in favor of brute force, taking both boys and their chairs to the ground, the wild turkey all but forgotten. A rough tussle results in a skinned knee, a pinched finger and two very angry boys (not to mention a frustrated mom). As each child out-yells the other – flinging accusations and insisting that I choose a side – all I can do is sigh.
Reaching a Breaking Point
While the daily struggles ebb and flow, the episodic battles that sometimes seem to continue for days on end try my patience. With all of the tattling, finger pointing and accusations going on, at times I begin to sound more like my mother than myself! My youngsters’ continual needs to report any injustice directly to me often leave me in the position of playing judge and jury – a position, quite frankly, that I am not interested in holding. The more involved I became in an argument, it seems like the more frequently they expect me to referee.
One recent afternoon saw an argument between the two boys surge to new heights. I had cautioned them already, but to no avail. I stood in the middle of the kitchen and just yelled – not at anybody in particular; just an amazingly attention-grabbing, cave-woman style yell. I had already coerced, bribed and pleaded, and still they continued to bicker and argue and fight. So, I did what any half-crazed mother does in a situation like this: I locked myself in the bathroom.
I didn’t lock myself away intending to come up with a solution, just to place some distance between my tormentors and me. But, as generally happens in the bathroom, an idea came to me. I didn’t know if it was a good idea, but it was an idea born of desperation.
As the boys moved their argument outside, I released myself from my self-imposed prison and started working. Using an old coffee can, I decorated the outside and boldly labeled it “Sunday Night Council.” In the plastic lid, I cut a slit that would allow a small piece of paper to be dropped inside. I set the can in a conspicuous spot near the dinner table, with index cards and some pens and then waited for my next move.
I presented the idea to my family at dinner.
“This, boys, is the Sunday Night Council can,” I intoned in a mock-serious voice. “I am no longer interested in hearing why you are angry at each other. I am no longer interested in hearing why your brother is the worst brother anyone could ever have. I am no longer interested in hearing about the inequities you face as a member of this household.”
As they listened with wide-eyed uncertainty, I continued: “From here on out, if you have a complaint, it gets written on a piece of paper and dropped into the jar. Every Sunday evening, after dinner, we will open the jar, read each complaint and discuss possible solutions.”
Silence. I’d be lying to you if I said they thought it was a terrific idea. They were skeptical at best.
“But Mom, I can’t spell!” complained Evan.
“You can whisper your grievance into my ear, and I’ll write it for you,” I volunteered.
“You might laugh,” he worried.
“No, we’ll make it a rule that I can’t discuss the complaint at all. I’ll just write it down whenever you ask me to.”
He seemed pleased with this solution, but now it was his brother’s turn.
Brad hesitated at first, but then boldly asked, “What if we have a complaint about you?”
I faltered, but then coolly replied, “Those complaints can go in as well. We will discuss all problems in the can fairly and as a family.” (I clearly hadn’t thought this out well enough!)
In the end, the plan was accepted quite easily, considering the last minute rules that I had invented on the spot. There was a clamor for the index cards and pens as each child rushed to declare a past injustice. Within 24 hours, the jar held at least 15 folded pieces of paper.
But, while I had to be involved on a certain level by writing complaints (with a straight face, no less) and helping with spelling, there had been little expectation for my involvement in solving the actual problem. Amazingly, once the problem was written down, the offended child seemed to be done with worrying about the infraction.
Plan in Action
Throughout the first week, there were many angry words started, and then abruptly stopped by a simple reminder: “Put it in the Council Can.” By allowing the boys to write it out instead of act it out, they were able to channel their anger at each other onto the paper. Knowing that their complaint had been successfully submitted into evidence seemed to be enough to ease their frustrations.
By the end of the week, both of the boys began asking, “When is Sunday Night Council? How many more days?”
While I appreciated the relative calm we had experienced this week in the wake of the new plan, I knew that the real test would be our actual meeting. Could we discuss the issues placed in the glorified coffee can calmly and come up with a satisfactory solution?
Our dinner that Sunday night was fraught with anxiety and excitement. The boys couldn’t wait for the council to convene. After clearing away the dishes, we all sat at the table. My husband delighted us all by arriving at the table with a ladle, which he loudly banged on the table, declaring, “The first official Sunday Night Council is now called to order!” The boys thought this to be an hysterical addition to an already interesting concept, and we lost them to a fit of giggles for a short while. Once calmed, we proceeded to draw each slip of paper from the can and read it aloud:
“I don’t like Brad just leaving me to clean up stuff.”
“Evan spits and goes la-la-la-la-la and he pinches too much.”
“I don’t like that Brad’s opening his mouth and being sassy.”
Many complaints pulled out of the can that night were discarded as being too silly to even present. Some silly ones, however, did make the discussion.
“Brad called me a poop-head,” I read aloud.
“Yeah, and I don’t like that!” Evan insisted.
“Well, are you a poop-head?” I asked, having a little fun with him.
“Alright, so what could you do next time he calls you a name?” I prompted.
“I could tell him I don’t like it.”
The forced cooling off period between conflict and council eliminated the anger, the emotions and the frustrations that the boys were unable to let go of in the heat of battle. With a little time between infraction and judgment, the boys could plainly see the problems that seemed bigger than life just a few days ago were really pretty insignificant.
As long as both of my children are living under the same roof, I know that there will be a certain amount of friction that results from close quarters. But, by using our family’s new judicial system, we are able to eliminate some of the unnecessary squabbles. While the name calling that seems to go hand in hand with childhood has yet to be completely removed from our household, I haven’t had to use my cave woman bellow in quite some time.
Kris Bordessa is a wife, mother and freelance writer.