Oh, the squabbles. You know the ones I mean: not the Real Arguments™ or Actual Disagreements©. The ones that start small and stay small but go on endlessly, throughout an entire interaction such as a car ride or an after-school snack. They begin as a few off-kilter notes and usually they continue along, a quiet low disgruntled hum. On occasion they hit a sudden angry crescendo when you least expect it over something minor that turned out unpredictably to be The Last Straw.
I am fortunate. My kids don’t tend to squabble that much. In general, they get along better than most siblings I know, and are genuinely good friends. But when one of them is tired or in a bad mood, things get rolling in a bad direction quite easily. I generally try to stay out of their arguments, counseling them to talk to each other about it and work it out. Sometimes they get really stuck and do need my help. My tendency is to listen while they each share with the other what their needs are and facilitate them working it out.
But recently the two of them were grumping at each other incessantly as we walked to the car after school. Little nitpicky, mean comments were flying back and forth. I stopped short and crouched down next to them. At first I was at a loss for words (yes, me!) because I was so incredibly annoyed with their behavior.
Finally able to talk, I noted sternly, “You two are stuck in a circle of unkindness. It doesn’t matter who started it or what it is about. The problem is that this could go on all afternoon because you both keep it going. This will take all the fun out of our afternoon and I will be much less likely to want to spend time with you.” They were listening intently. (Although maybe this is because I was kneeling in front of them and had them backed up all the way against the schoolyard fence. But, hey, small details.) I went on, “The only way to stop a circle of unkindness is for one of you to make the choice to start a new circle: a circle of kindness. It’s not easy but I know you are both capable of it. I hope one of you will choose to do that so that we can have an enjoyable afternoon.” And then I stood up and walked with them to the car without another word.
For a moment both walked along quietly. One (and I won’t name names here, but one of my children might be a wee bit less flexible than the other and it might surprise you to know which one that is) continued to walk with a deep scowl on his face. The other, however, walked alongside him a few paces and then suddenly addressed his brother in a cheery voice about a new topic. And it worked. That particular meaningless spat was over and he’d effectively hit the reset button on our afternoon. You’d better believe I heaped on the praise.
It sounds so basic. If you told me this was trite I wouldn’t argue. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I believe it’s one of the hardest things to do, because you’re not only “dropping it”, you’re given the onus of making the effort to start over in a kinder way. It requires practice. A lot of it.
Please understand, I am not suggesting we should all just get along. I don’t think we ought to stop fighting the good fights, and we aren’t always going to be nice about them, nor should we be. But I do believe that if we stop and think about it, there are many people in our lives (partners, siblings, neighbors) with whom we have these relationships filled with meaningless, continuous little spats that really amount to circles of unkindness no one is willing to break.
I challenge you with this: if my grade schooler can do it? So can you.