Up until a few months ago, my daughter, Lexie, age 7, and my son, Cory, 9, seemed to do nothing but argue. They'd always had a terrific relationship, but suddenly they were locked in a "who's the alpha dog" power struggle. What had happened to my darling dynamic duo?
"It's just sibling rivalry," my mother insisted. "Don't you remember how your three brothers were?"
How could I forget? Their knockdown, drag-out arguments never failed to end with one of them wrestling the other to the ground even in the middle of dinner. Now in their 20s, my brothers still playfully wrestle instead of having a civilized conversation.
Yes, sibling rivalries are only natural. But I didn't want my kids to settle their differences with brute force. I needed a way to teach them to respect each other instead of bickering, shouting and constantly competing. I also wanted them to learn to express themselves calmly and to be good listeners.
And then I realized that the solution was unbelievably simple. I'd teach the kids the same peacekeeping trick that my husband, Troy, and I had been using for years. If it had helped keep our decadelong marriage happy, why shouldn't it work to create harmony between our kids? All we needed was a quarter and a timer! Troy and I put my plan into action later that evening. At dinner, the kids told us about their day, and as if on cue, the conversation started to heat up. Cory and Lexie raised their voices as they tried to outdo each other: who had more fun with their friends, why the things one did were more exciting, important and better than what the other did. It reminded me of some of the less-than-blissful conversations Troy and I used to have: verbal jousting over whose job was harder, who brought home more money and who contributed more to household chores.
"Kids!" My husband finally silenced them. They fell quiet, but not before giving each other one last unpleasant glare. Troy pulled a quarter from his pocket. "Heads or tails?" he asked. I braced myself for a fight over who would be heads and who would be tails, but luckily, they chose opposite sides.
"Now everybody into the kitchen," I announced. Cory and Lexie settled down at the counter, looking mystified as they watched me set a timer for five minutes.
"We have a secret to share," Troy explained. "It's a special way Mom and I use to communicate so we can understand each other."
"This is our way of learning to listen," I chimed in, explaining that once you see things from someone else's point of view, it's a lot easier to find a reasonable compromise.
Lexie tossed the coin. It was heads, so she would go first. We explained that she would now have up to five uninterrupted minutes to talk about what was bothering her. Cory would have to listen silently, and then he would have his five minutes to talk. They'd continue taking turns until a friendly conversation was under way.
Troy carefully listed the ground rules, and then I pushed the "Start" button on the timer.
Lexie began: "Today, before dinner, you were supposed to help clean up the fort we made in the living room, but you didn't, and I got left doing it all by myself. That wasn't fair. I feel like I get stuck doing all the un-fun things just because I'm littler. That makes me sad."
She finished talking before her time ran out, so I turned to Cory and said, "OK, your turn," then reset the timer.
"Just before we were supposed to pick up," Cory said, "Dad asked me to help him out in the garage. I wasn't trying to get out of helping you. But don't forget, there have been times when I've gotten stuck cleaning up too like last week when you went to the store with Mom, and I had to pick up all the Lego cities we made."
I set the timer again and asked Lexie if she had anything to add. "You're right," she said to Cory. "I forgot about you having to clean all that up. I'm sorry. Next time, would you tell me when you're going to help Dad so I don't think you're just leaving the mess?"
The timer had done its job; civility had been restored. I didn't bother to reset it as Cory nicely replied, "Yeah, I can see where you probably thought I was outside playing. I should've told you."Troy and I were thrilled by how this simple exercise opened our children's eyes. Since that day, we've noticed that, even without the quarter and the timer, Cory and Lexie communicate much more respectfully. Granted, arguments still erupt occasionally, but that's when Troy or I ask, "Heads or tails?"
Here are the ground rules the Pinkston family follow when they use their quarter and timer method for resolving arguments.
1. Speak in a calm manner.
2. Suggest a constructive way to settle the dispute.3. Listen respectfully as the other person speaks no eye rolling or interruptions allowed.
Virginia Pinkston and her family live in St. Joseph, Ill.
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