Q: My two sons are 7 and 4. When their cousins, who are the same ages, come over, they all go down into our basement to play. Invariably, within 30 minutes my youngest will come upstairs crying because his older brother is being mean to him, excluding him from games and causing the cousins to gang up against him.
I find myself going down into the basement every half hour to settle one of these disputes, but I’d like to solve the problem once and for all. What can you suggest?
A: You’re absolutely right. Settling one of these conflicts does not solve the problem. In fact, as you’ve discovered, settling 1,358,495 of these disputes will not solve the problem.
In fact, your willingness to serve as a mediator is making matters worse. Unwittingly, by coming to your youngest son’s rescue, you cause the other boys to resent him. They want, therefore, to get back at him. When they do, he cries, and you come running again, and again you rescue, and again they resent, and it’s just a matter of time before another episode occurs.
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. It may take the children years to work this out. Meanwhile, you will slowly become a prime candidate for The Funny Farm. 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 you do it: The next time the cousins come over to play, 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.
What this strategy does is force the boys to solve the problem, something you cannot do. But before your boys can tame the monkey of the problem, the monkey must be on their backs.
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