Living with Children: Don’t just ‘settle’ dispute, solve it


QUESTION: Our sons are six and four. When their same-age cousins, come over, they all go down into our basement to play. Invariably, within thirty minutes my youngest comes upstairs crying because his older brother is causing the cousins to gang up against him. I end up going down into the basement every half hour to settle these disputes. Is there a way to solve the problem once and for all?

ANSWER: You’ve discovered, the hard way, that “settling” one of these conflicts does not solve the problem. In fact, settling 1,358,495 of these disputes will not solve the problem. In further fact, you serving as a mediator is making matters worse.

Unwittingly, by coming to your youngest son’s rescue, you cause the other boys to resent him and want to get back at him. When they do, he cries, you come running, you rescue, and again they resent him, and around and around it goes.

Some experts might tell you to ignore it. That’s unrealistic. I couldn’t ignore it. In fact, I’d be every bit as irritated as you are. Another expert might say, “Let them work it out.” Not me. That may take years. Meanwhile, you will slowly become a candidate for The Funny Farm in Outer Mongolia. I say you should help them work it out.

The secret to helping them work it out is to transfer the emotional burden of this problem — the monkey of the problem, so to speak — from your back to your sons’ backs. Leave the cousins out of this. They are guests in your home.

Here’s how to do it: The next time the cousins come over, let only one of your sons down into the basement to play with them. Flip a coin to determine who it will be.

Say, “Obviously you both cannot go down into the basement with your cousins at the same time without causing a problem. I’m tired of the provoking, and I’m tired of the crying, so only one of you goes down today. And this is the way it’s going to be for quite some time. Today, I’m going to flip a coin to determine who goes down, who stays up. Next time the cousins come over, the child who stayed upstairs today is allowed downstairs, and the child who was allowed downstairs today will be upstairs. Are you ready? Heads is older, tails is younger. Here goes!”

Bada bing, bada boom! The problem is solved. If the weather is nice enough to let them outside, let only the son whose turn it is to be in the basement go outside with the cousins. What this does is cause both boys to become highly motivated, and equally so, to solve the problem. And they will.

Maintain this policy over the next four times the cousins come over. Then, when each of your sons has experienced “forced exclusion” twice, and the cousins are scheduled to come over, ask the two of them, right before the cousins show up, “Do I need to keep one of you upstairs today?”

I don’t need to tell you what the answer will be. Let them both play with the cousins until a problem develops, then separate the son who would have been excluded that day.

Before your boys can tame the monkey of the problem, the monkey must be on their backs.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond: Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond]