If you never learn to play constructively and resolve conflict, adulthood will not go so well for you.
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When I was child, summer break was the best. My friends and I had long, unstructured days to play games. We particularly liked going up to the park with our baseball gloves and setting up an impromptu baseball field. The chain link fence of the tennis court became our backstop, a line of pine trees the outfield wall, and extra gloves and random frisbees became bases. It was idyllic. We had a field of clover, the sun warm overhead, and all day to play America’s favorite pastime.
We would spend most of the afternoon arguing. Balls and strikes, fair and foul, safe or out, these are not judgment calls that competitive young boys are qualified to make. I remember one argument about whether a pitch was a ball or strike that dragged on for so long, neither pitcher nor batter giving in to the other, that two random adults playing tennis nearby finally intervened. They were sick of hearing us bicker. We were ruining their tennis game.
The funny thing is, those two adults were easily able to negotiate their own game, until we started to annoy them, they were having a great time. It’s true that some adults continue to have problems playing well with others, but for the most part, adults have managed to put petty argumentation behind them.
Although games can still become competitive, they rarely break out into an hours-long fight. Adults don’t get into screaming matches about who gets the first turn with the toy truck. I notice, for instance, whenever I play a game of pickleball with my children, we always keep score easily and call the balls in or out fairly. However, if I’m not actively playing, I immediately hear them begin to fight over the game.
Preparing them for the future
When I hear them begin to argue, I never stop them. If anything, I just move to another park bench a little further out of earshot. As much as I want to, I let the disagreement happen without intervening. It doesn’t feel normal, to let my kids be so at odds when I know could fix the problem very quickly. Allowing my children to squabble is not only embarrassing when other parents are around, it also makes me second-guess myself that I’m bad at parenting.
The reason I let it go on, though, is because at some point they’ll grow up and move out of my house. I won’t always be there to solve the squabble. I want them to put fighting behind them as they grow into adults, and the only way to do that is to let them bicker. They need to learn inter-personal communication and the art of negotiation now, not later. It’s best if they solve problems and make their mistakes as children, when the stakes are lower, than as adults when the stakes might be disastrous.
Adults who never learned to play well with others not only won’t be invited the next family game of monopoly, but also might lose friendships or jobs over their inability to handle inter-personal disagrements and compromise.
I remember, for instance, when I was about 10 years-old I got into a heated wrestling match with a friend over a game of touch football. I pretty handily lost the fight and learned from the experience that getting into physical altercations isn’t all that smart an idea. Think how much worse it would’ve been to learn that lesson in a bar fight as an adult.
I suppose one way to look at it is that any lesson we learn over the course of our lives comes with a cost. I tend to learn best when I pay a price for whatever mistake I’ve made. The negative result is what gets my attention and prompts a future change in behavior. The more that my children make their mistakes, grow, and develop when the costs are relatively low, the better it will be for them.
Now, of course their mother and I do try to provide the kids with inter-personal skills for how to interact with each other, and we talk regularly about how to process emotions such as anger or frustration. When an argument calms down, I’ll talk to them about how the disagreement could’ve been handled more smoothly and what they might change the next time that same situation arises.
We do see progress, particularly with the older children, but I cannot deny it can be painful to witness as they figure it all out. Someday, I hope, they’ll be fully-formed adults who are able to play a game of baseball without arguing every ball and strike, who get along easily and comfortably with everyone they meet. Every acquired skill has a price, and that’s precisely what makes the skill so valuable. There are no shortcuts.
In the meantime, I’ll be on the next park bench over with my fingers in my ears, pretending those aren’t my children having a huge argument in front of the whole neighborhood.