Sometimes my sons say hurtful words to each other. As we all know, words can hurt. Because my husband and I have little patience for unkind speech, we are highly motivated to put a stop to this behavior. We have tried a number of methods to instill change. All too often we end up correcting an instigator and calming an injured party. Recently my husband and I tried something new.
Guess what? It works! In fact, our new plan works really well. We are relieved to have something life-giving to utilize and teach our sons. Today, I want to share it with you.
When one child says something mean, the initiator of irritation must share 3 things he appreciates about his brother. For example, when Matthew says something mean to Andrew, Matthew then goes back to Andrew and expresses 3 things he appreciates/likes/enjoys about his brother. This sounds all too easy because it is. Sort of. But it works.
Just the other day Matthew said something mean to Andrew who then started crying. In his upset, Andrew said, “Matthew is ALWAYS mean!” I found Matthew and told him to go quiet himself while I comforted Andrew in his distress. It is normal for Matthew to appear relatively unconcerned when I question him about this behavior. In most cases he will justify his words and responses and show little remorse. This time, after comforting Andrew, I pulled Matthew aside and asked him if his words brought Andrew joy. He said, “No” then I reminded him who he is and who he is not. “Matthew, you are the kind of boy who brings people joy and it’s not like you to be mean. Your behavior does not match the kind of boy I know you to be.” At this point I would usually send him to repair with his brother but in a short amount of time there would be playing then fighting then we are back to square one.
This time I added a crucial step. Instead of simply repairing, I told Matthew he must return to Andrew and share 3 three things he appreciates about his little brother. Matthew went to Andrew and told him “I appreciate that you share with me. I appreciate building with legos with you and I appreciate riding our scooters together. You are fun to play with!” Moments later they decided to start a Lego project together and ran off to play together.
This is the piece that has transformed the tone of my house. Here is why it works.
First, Matthew must think of the things he appreciates about his brother. Usually these are the fun ways he enjoys playing with Andrew. Remembering moments of fun restores the relational part of Matthew’s brain. Remembering the fun moments also helps Matthew reflect on why he actually enjoys his brother and reminds him how much fun it is when he plays with his brother. When Matthew verbalizes his appreciation to Andrew, it transforms Andrew’s face and voice as he goes from grumpy and non-relational to peaceful and engaged. Andrew is reminded of how good it feels when he is getting along with his big brother and it brings the realization that, ok, Matthew is not always mean. Andrew feels appreciation as he hears Matthew’s words and hearing appreciation wakes up the relational circuit in Andrew’s brain as well so at this point both boys are glad to be together and feeling calm and connected.
This exercise has been a remarkable turnaround for the boys. After one of them shares 3 things he appreciates, both boys will decide to do a fun activity together, such as building Legos or playing tag in the yard. The fun can last a good long while without additional ruptures.
I am pleased with the progress I see in the boys as they express what they enjoy about each other whenever there is a fallout. I’m beginning to think this exercise not only helps young children but couples, coworkers, friends and families could also benefit from the effects this exercise brings. I’m pretty sure all of us would be touched and transformed if we regularly expressed the qualities we appreciate in other people. Just imagine what church, school, government and, more importantly, our families would look like! A little joy can go a long way.
Check out the book Transforming Fellowship: 19 Brain Skills that Build Joyful Community to read more about these skills.1