“Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but delight in airing their own opinions.”
Proverbs 18:2 NIV
I remember the first time I went to stay with my fiancé Charlotte’s family for Thanksgiving. They have a big family (seven kids!) and had a lot of traditions and family customs that were different than mine. Not to mention, their family of nine made way more food than my little family of four!
Their preparation took all day. They started cooking at 8 a.m. and only stopped at 7 p.m. when it was time to eat. I realized very quickly that in their house, Thanksgiving is an “all-in” holiday. Even I, as a guest, was expected to help. In the culture of her home, they had been taught that being a part of a family is to step up and contribute on holidays. If you don’t, you’re signaling that you have something better to do than be a part of the family. In my family, however, the kitchen is my mom’s domain. She is the best cook, we all know it, and we are supposed to just let her make a miracle happen every year. She cooks, everyone eats, and then she rests while we clean. That’s been my family’s cultural “normal.”
The reality is, the behavior of everyone that you (and your children) meet in life is shaped by the cultural norms they experienced in their formative years. We learn how to interact with the world based on what was modeled for us, and that’s where our understanding of the best way to live comes from.
Here’s another quick dose of reality: the majority of conflict in life stems from the clashing of cultural “norms.” We all grew up believing that the way we act is right – and why shouldn’t we? However, if I believe that my way is right, and you believe your way is right, we end up having a problem. Now, imagine how that feels for your kid when one of their friends starts acting in a way that clashes with their norm. Maybe it’s malicious, maybe it’s not – but to your kid, who has primarily seen you show them how to live, clashing with another person’s norm feels like an attack not just on them, but on their whole world as if that other person is attacking you, too.
Part of maturing and growing deeper in Christ is understanding this truth: “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Proverbs 28:26 ESV)
Scripture is teaching that part of wisdom is looking beyond my own mind, my own understanding (my norms), and putting value in someone else’s. This process isn’t easy, but it’s a worthwhile investment because the payout is a valuable double portion of humility and insight. There’s a reason other people act the way that they do, and what feels ridiculous to us could actually be valuable if we understand where they’re coming from.
Being able to understand another person creates compassion within us, because we’ve often felt the same thing that they’re experiencing in a conflict moment. If we can sift through the troubled emotions of the conflict moment and push to understand what is causing the issues in friendship with another person, we can approach them with understanding because we’ve been there before. When we seek to understand why someone is acting in a way that affects us adversely, when we listen to what they’re saying and remember times when we’ve felt how they feel, we can then move from fighting against them to fighting alongside them for connection in our friendship. That should be the top priority: connection.
Conflict is a given in life. Family, friendships, marriage – conflict takes place within all of these relationship venues because it must. Learning the skill of navigating conflict with connection as the goal creates an incredible bond of trust. When we learn to abandon the self-preservation instinct in the conflict moment, and instead move toward openness, genuineness, and bravery, conflict stops being a weapon we avoid and becomes a tool for connection.
Parents, your kids will not naturally know how to move toward conflict to build connection with their friends. I’d like to gently suggest that many of them don’t know how to do this because we adults haven’t been great modeling healthy conflict well. We haven’t shown them how to see understanding. We’re a lot better at sarcasm, self-protection, and passivity – and I include myself in that. If we can redeem the purpose of conflict in our homes, modeling what it looks like to seek connection via understanding, we will be off to a good start. If we can learn to do that with our kids, we’ll be even better off.
Moreover, the part of their brains that will help them rationally examine the hurtful behavior of their friends is not fully formed yet – they will not have the capacity to do this without you. Redeeming their friendship drama and teaching them how to have conflict that builds connection means that you get to both model it for them and you get to teach them how to seek that understanding for themselves by sitting with them and talking through their experiences.
Alex Shwartz is the Middle School Ministry Director for our Student Ministry.
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