by Julia Steiny
“Americans assume that good relationships are about harmony. They are not. On the contrary, good relations are those that handle strife well. Our task is to know and teach that every relationship involves conflict and resolving conflict.”
– Donald Shriver, President Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary
Statistically, children have the best health and welfare results when raised by their married, biological parents — with one huge caveat. Kids growing up in high-conflict households tend to have stats that look like those in single-parent families stressed by tight resources.
All kids have stress and adversity. But warring parents cause what’s called “toxic stress” in their kids, according to the CDC. Often, over time, such stress makes kids physically sick. When steeped in their parents’ yelling, broken dishes and ugly silences, kids suffer much higher rates of asthma, suicide, heart, liver and lung disease than their peers in peaceful homes. Domestic fighting wrecks kids’ social, emotional, and mental health with decreased graduation and college-going, increased drug and alcohol use, and early sex and teen parenting.
As Dr. Philip M. Stahl put it, “In many ways, it appears that the life of the child must stop while the arguments between the parents continue.” Kids aren’t doing their homework when Mom and Dad are duking it out in the kitchen. Normal development stops as kids pray that harmony resume and that the family please, please stay together. If the adult relationship stabilizes, the effects of the earlier toxic stress can actually be reversed. Kids thrive in stability, with regular family dinners where everyone talks things through, building faith that together the family can face adversity.
Life itself is rife with conflict.
All families fight. People disagree. But in healthy relationships, no matter how spitting mad the partners are at times, they develop ways of negotiating solutions.
Donald Shriver — quoted above — is an international hot-spot expert, participating in incendiary negotiations like the South African Peace Commission. A man dedicated to easing rage, vengeance and hate, Shriver wrote a book called An Ethic For Enemies. I’ll boil his thesis down to two rules:
One: Stay at the table. Don’t be running off for your baseball bat, Glock 9 or lawyer. A good resolution, suitable to all parties, is impossible unless everyone sticks it out with one another. Take cool-off breaks, but no matter what: stay at the table.
Two: Be able to state the other guy’s position without snarky editorial. You don’t have to agree, sympathize or concede a thing; just wrap your head around what the other guy wants or needs, well enough that your “enemy” feels heard and understood. Like all Restorative paths, this doesn’t always work. That’s okay, because the alternative, war and head-butting, never work. Restorative practices work most of the time, and the results — as in South Africa — are often marvels of the human spirit and mind.
Conflict is a marvelous if dangerous thing. Creative, even hot-headed, tension can lead to decisions that make things better for everyone. Or to people trying to destroy one another, taking down those around them as collateral damage. In families, the unintended casualties are the kids. In the case of the government, well, that would be the rest of us.
If you want harmony, model the behavior you want to see.
Family counselors routinely tell parents they’ll need to be good role models, or they’ll get back what they dish out. Yell, hit or withhold love and the kids will do that too. If such advice is good for families, why not Congress? How dare Congress scrap with one another like junk-yard dogs, for all the public to see? If a teacher yells at a kid in a hallway, she just gave the entire student body license to yell. Monkey see, monkey do. When Congress commits verbal violence, they give the nation license to do the same. Leaders should be modeling negotiation, listening, speaking from the heart. Parents need leaders to be their role models.
I need to understand and be able to express how my enemy imagines the ideal solution. So if ObamaCare ain’t it, what is? Be specific. Granted, I live next door to the highly-successful, ever-improving home of RomneyCare, so I acknowledge bias. Still, Congress, what does it look like when we have it right? For America, all of America and not just some chosen few? Really hard question, complicated and nuanced. So put on those Congressional thinking caps and get to the table. No going for baseball bats or media uzis.
I’m no expert on the federal government, but after parenting myself and working in many schools, I understand modeling. Congress is an image of bad parenting on steroids. Structurally, they can’t get a divorce. They can rip the country apart, but they can’t rent a separate apartment, get a mediator and start custody arrangements. They have no choice but to get their eye on something bigger than themselves, their own importance, their next election and in short, their narcissism. How does the other guy see it and how, pray, are you going to make a country, a household, that at least listens respectfully to all sides?
Model the behavior you want to see. If this slugfest is really about healthcare, the resulting toxic stress is making us all sick.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.