Mediating In Your Own Backyard - Family Mediation Without Divorce

Courtesy of Jan Frankel Schau

Summertime can be trying when you have a house full of teenagers at home, and this summer, mine was no different. Conflict abounded and reached a peak one hot August evening when my daughter's puppy entered into my son's room, destroying his favorite wallet, sunglasses case, and a $20.00 bill! What is a mother to do, divorce her family?

Instead of calling the therapist, I decided to call a mediator to help resolve the conflict in our own home and here's what happened: First, I called each of the kids and explained they were "ordered" to be at home between the hours of 4:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. that afternoon. Next, I invited (but did not order) their Dad and younger brother to attend. Although they were not a part of the actual conflict, I sensed that each had a stake in the outcome and might also greatly benefit the process. Third, I headed to the office, where I gathered legal pads, bottled water and bags of M&M's (both for authenticity and to sweeten the proceedings) as I do in every mediation.

I intentionally arrived home early, around 3:30 P.M. to do my "pre-mediation" convening. Because I knew my son wouldn't be home yet, I started by talking with my daughter. Much to my surprise, she presented a lengthy "agenda" of issues arising out of a lifetime of resentment. It turns out, that she perceived her brother as having received special treatment for all of the years that the rest of us just saw him as quirky and often difficult to get along with. Being a Psychology major, I should not have been surprised that her issues were deep-rooted, introspective and all "under the table". My son's issues were much more direct. He expected reimbursement for his destroyed things and an agreement that his sister would take responsibility to make sure the puppy was unable to enter his room whenever she left him home alone. What she wanted was respect, and an acknowledgement by the rest of the family that just because he was 6'4" tall and fired up about going away to college soon, we should not favor him.

Next came the tricky business of staging the proper environment. I realized that our home was filled with telephones, televisions, and rectangular tables. Since it was August, I opted for the backyard environment. There, we could sit around a round table, instead of appearing to take sides, which was our only option indoors. That way, too, the younger brother could (and actually did!) hop in the pool if things got too heated, and his father could opt to sit in his air conditioned office, within earshot, but still removed enough until he felt it was safe to come outdoors and participate.

As in every mediation, we spent a long time working creatively and attempting to ensure that each party's views were heard and expressed. Because it was awkward for them to state their positions directly to one another, I asked them to address all comments to me, and I then articulated what they had said. The hard part was re-framing the statements to both, attempt to soften them, and remain neutral myself. In my eagerness to give this new model of mediation a fair chance to fully unfold, I remained remarkably cool.

In the end, the kids "settled" on six specific written points of agreement, ranging from refraining from berating one another in the presence of their peers, to buying a new sunglasses case. If either one violated the agreement, they agreed to put $1.00 on the other's Jamba Juice card per infraction. They each signed the agreement and it went up on our family bulletin board that very evening! Voila.

The following day, the three of us had lunch together. My son, in his teasing way, berated my daughter in the presence of her friend. When she called him out, he generously (but without explanation) picked up the tab for all four of us. Now that he's gone away to college, I can't say their whole childhood rivalry has been erased, but they certainly have laid a solid framework upon which they can begin to re-build a broken relationship. They even communicate voluntarily via e-mail with some regularity now.

While my children kidded me about operating our family as a business, they inspired me to enhance my business by operating families. If this template was welcome and successful in our in tact family, I can only imagine how useful and welcome (and truly necessary) it would be in stepfamilies, families going through a divorce, or in any family with predictable conflicts, such as births of new siblings, beginning High School or College, leaving home, even loss of a parent or grandparent. With so much conflict in our everyday lives, any skill and insight we mediators can offer should be welcome, even if we start with our own backyard. After all, as Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, "There's no Place like Home."

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