Too Stiff-Necked?

Q: We make jokes in our family that we are clear reflections of the am kshei oref (stiff-necked people), as we all have definitive opinions on many topics and emotions often flare among us. Even making minor decisions can cause great machlokes, and my husband and I have spent much time serving as referees between children locked in volatile arguments. To make peace between the “warring parties,” once one side feels he has been wronged, or not listened to, becomes a major ordeal.

It’s as if it’s a competition of wills. Whoever can make the best argument to back up their opinion tends to get the most respect. In this way, our children who are less articulate and can’t express themselves as well seem to lose out. I try to intercede by expressing the viewpoint of the “underdog,” but even I get steamrolled by the more verbal and expressive child.

Further, if one child seems cheap, or messy, another sibling can’t tolerate these limitations (believe me, we are all blind to our own limitations!) I try to reason with my children, but my efforts generally meet with limited success. Any suggestions?

A: One of the most cherished life-time tools that a parent can give to his child is that of giving in and being mevater. One needs to attempt to be non-judgmental and open to new suggestions that were not on their original agenda. To this end, every person needs to either verbalize or write down the extent of his own ability to compromise. Chazal say:Hamaavir al middosav, mochlin al kol pesha’av” (loosely translated, that he who forgives another’s character flaws is forgiven for all of his sins).

To compromise and be mevater in life’s daily occurrences is virtuous (except in the area of definitive ethical values). Being able to understand another person’s needs — even if it reflects their character flaws — indicates a higher expression of ahavas Yisrael. This is particularly helpful for obstinate children who find it very difficult to accept any opinion but their own.

Parents need to conduct themselves as role models when working on compromising with family members, and this is especially important if there are children who are very set in their ways. Modeling how to compromise effectively is also teaching children how to avoid power struggles with other human beings — besides their parents and siblings. In this way, all parties involved can maintain their dignity and feel that their opinions are being validated. Neither side may receive totally what they desire, but each one’s self-respect is maintained.

When conflict does arise, it is a good idea to define the issue and the place where the sides are “stuck.” Then, each side writes down possible solutions to the challenging situation. (When a person’s ideas are written down on paper, he feels much more validated and less resentful when the final outcome is decided.)

Everyone needs to listen respectfully to each idea suggested, making sure not to show anger at “unworkable” suggestions, and then together problem-solve by coming to agreement on mutually agreed-upon solutions.

A parent can actually create a written contract with both parties’ signatures, if the issues involved are of a serious nature. This technique is most helpful with teenagers, as well as strong-willed younger children.

In general, a parent needs to embark on this journey of problem-solving with the view that some compromise can be reached. The vision of having a win-win situation where all sides feel some sense of satisfaction needs to be internalized by all parties involved. This process involves trial and error, where possible solutions need to be attempted until a workable solution/group decision can be reached.