Sunday, 18 April 2010


It has been a strange few days. All flights in and out of the UK are grounded due to a cloud of volcanic ash high above Europe that may damage aeroplane engines and windscreens. There is talk that the Royal Navy may be drafted to assist stranded UK travellers needing to return to the UK. All the romance of Dunkirk, the age of steam, land and sea travel... If only we had gone abroad this Easter.

Aside from the sheer novelty of not seeing or hearing a plane in its usual place in the sky over south-west London for four days, we are being spoilt by a burst of clement, clear and warm weather. The communal garden that we call ours was teeming with residents today. The obligatory shirts off (so delightfully European) temperatures were to be savoured. As was the wafting aroma of burning sausages, spilt wine, cut grass and fresh blossoming flowers. On days like these one remembers why one moved to London. The quiet of the skies only enhanced the impression that one was luxuriating on a village green rather than an urban playground 58 seconds walk from the busiest westbound artery to the now deserted Heathrow and beyond.

The communal garden is a snapshot of modern life. A melange, if you will. Young couples hand in hand over the Sunday paper, smile dreamily at their own reflections in each other's sunglasses. Still new parents enjoy the first tentative steps of the soon to be toddler; vigilant, proud and almost as dreamy as those news hungry young lovers. The older folk bring their own chairs - the park benches being too hard and upright - books and cups of tea. Clusters of older children, finding a "homey" and playing "It" (or "catch"), chase and cycle and search energetically for cats and squirrels to torment. The weary but oh so relaxed working parents soak up the sun before another week underground and inside, ignoring the children because for once they can.

The children want for nothing - playmates, food, freedom... drama, enmity and turf battles.

And so in the midst of this spectacle, I, semi-recumbent reader of Lee Child thriller, took it upon myself to broker peace between this Lord of the Rings-esque ensemble of players. I have a new calling - my son told me afterwards that I should consider working full-time as a "Negotiator" (his words) as I managed to repair some broken hearts at the sandbox, secure guarantees of forgiveness and sharing and quell the growing rivalry over the spoils of communal garden conflict. Needless to say these skills have been honed in my own home through much of my life. It is my dream that my son will emulate the style and aplomb at the sandpit in solving his own conflicts going forward. It seems to be the case that while he has been exposed to (subject to) my style all his life, he is now seeing how successful it can be in achieving a happy resolution. I doubt it is novel. While I know mine is a different approach to that of some teachers in our short and sometimes chequered schooling history, (another post will be needed to do justice to the myriad modern means of tacitly encouraging persistent bullying in the interests of building resilience), I would have thought most mothers could sort out the old sandpit shenanigans fairly smartly.

So forgive me if I state the obvious - blogs do sometimes stray into that arena I believe - but inevitably my thoughts turn to sharing these strategies for conflict resolution - not because I hold any key, but because my son perceives that I do!

Could I pen a handy guide to managing conflict among the under 10s. What do I really know? What works? I hasten to add that I am only dealing with extra-familiar conflict. In terms of minding my own house, I am open to suggestions. The usual threats to call the babysitting agency, suspend some perceived treat or to remove the guilty party(s) from the equation, or object of conflicting desire to the bin or charity shop, are ceasing to generate the fast and certain results they once did.

But enough dirty laundry. At least at home it is only me being driven to distraction. In public the risk to unsuspecting, though not always innocent bystanders is such that it is imperative that I model or instil some reasonable mediation techniques as often as I can. Maybe the Off-Spring can learn from these situations to resolve their issues not only with neighbours and friends, but also each other.

Or perhaps by definition siblings cannot apply that learning at home. I suppose that there is some consolation in the fact that kids seem to split upon family lines when fighting outside the home. They must love each other after all...

Here goes. The Negotiator's tips to sorting out the garden/playground/street battles of the chattering middle classes under 10's (ie where there are no knives, swear words or gang issues in the mix):

(My recently silenced inner voices are moaning now. Not another bloody list, Springgirl!)

1. Never take sides.
2. Bring all factions together in one place - face to face. This avoids the name calling, disingenuous blame laying and face-losing tears that can occur if the parties are separate.
3. Make sweeping statements about life being too short for all this animosity. Chances are they will lose the will to fight back as their little brains stew over what animosity means. Also the whole "life is short" notion seems to be very effective with this age group as they grapple with the concepts of death, hell, ghosts and retribution on a daily basis.
4.Threaten those under your control/guardianship with time out indoors if they cannot bring a spirit of reconciliation to the sandpit. The recent memory of grey wintry days stuck inside with nothing but fights with their siblings to break up the tedium will ensure compliance. For those not under your control this suggests a modicum of authority that their parents, sipping Verdelho on the other side of the garden, may lack at that moment.
5.Seek no information as to the source of the problem or conflict. Keep above the fray and thus keep them focussed on the prize - a long summer of fun outdoors.
6. Ask each child for their personal buy-in to the notion of moving forward with kindness towards each other. Like an entente, when one comes in, they all capitulate.
7. Praise them for their sensible and mature rapprochement.

I am sure I can make this work in other contexts. I hasten to add that this works where there are multiple protagonists, strangers with whom one has yet to lose credibility and with small girls who heretofore have managed to be mean and nasty under the radar and thus are already disarmed by the fact one has approached them in the first place. The above 7 point plan seems not to work in the sanctity of the family home among one's own children. In that context the tears, obfuscation and name calling barely stops long enough to allow any of the negotiation/mediation to really begin.

Inner voice - is there some learning for us there, Springgirl?

Let's hope all of the weary travellers for whom entrance or egress from Europe is important soon manage to make or complete their journeys in the coming days.  Nothing worse than being grounded.

1 comment:

  1. What great advice Zoe. I will definitely take that on board. I was always impressed by your negotiating skills and endless patience. Tell me, did you have anyone in mind when you wrote "small girls who heretofore have managed to be mean and nasty under the radar..."? I can certainly think of one!