When I was a child growing up in an evangelical household, my mother would frequently admonish my siblings and I when we were fighting by telling us to imagine that Jesus was standing right there with us. Would we fight in front of Jesus? What would Jesus think of our squabbles, and of how we were treating each other? We would look at each other guiltily and stop fighting—at least until later, when mom was out of the room. Today, for the first time, I found myself tempted to ask the same thing of my own children. There’s only one problem—I’m no longer religious.
My children are at an age where quarreling is sadly common. Sally is in grade school and Bobby is in preschool. They frequently get along just fine—playing games together, putting together puzzles, and making imaginary ships out of the kitchen chairs—but when they fight, boy do they fight. This morning Bobby helped himself to one of the gingerbread cookies Sally and I baked last night. Sally was angry, because she felt possessive of those cookies, and she’d planed to frost them after school.
I had just gotten out of a shower and was finishing dressing when the two of them came up the stairs going at it over the gingerbread cookie. That’s when the words popped into my mind—“What would Jesus say if he saw you fighting like that?” I paused. I couldn’t say that, they didn’t have the context. But what could I say? Was there a similar way to encourage them to think about how their fight might look to someone they admired, someone they cared about? I began grasping, running through a list of people I know my daughter admires. Finally, I latched onto one.
“Sally, what would Anne Frank say if she saw you fighting over gingerbread like that?”
She paused, and I could see the wheels turning in mer mind. Sally shares my childhood obsession with the children of the Holocaust, and is intimately familiar with Anne Frank. Anne would have understood fighting—she was herself constantly at loose ends with her parents or sister—but she also knew deprivation.
“Anne Frank would have shared her gingerbread,” Sally said slowly.
And that was it. The fight was over. I didn’t have to step in and arbitrate anything—though I did go downstairs and pack the rest of the cookies away so that Bobby couldn’t help himself to any additional gingerbread before decorating time arrived.
I’m left pondering the different ways we, as parents, arbitrate fights and manage conflict. If I’d followed my usual course during this fight, I would have encouraged each to consider each other’s needs—Bobby’s desire for a gingerbread cookie and Sally’s desire to save them for frosting—and then look for a solution. I would probably have guided them toward the solution we ultimately reached—letting Bobby have one cookie and then putting the rest of for later.When my mother asked us children what Jesus would have said about our fighting if he were standing right there with us—and we did believe he could always see us—the primary emotion I remember feeling was shame. While there have been reams written about the use of shame as a measure of social control, I prefer to minimize its use in my parenting. But when I asked Sally what Anne Frank would have thought, her response didn’t seem shame-based. Anne Frank was imperfect, after all, like Sally. And unlike Jesus, Anne Frank didn’t expect perfection.
Rather than inducing shame, my question seemed to give Sally a moment to get out of her own head and think about how someone else—someone she admired—would have experienced her situation, and how they might have responded differently. While encouraging Sally to consider her needs and her brother’s needs, identify the point of conflict, and find a solution that works for both parties is important, I suspect that there is value, too, in helping her look at the situation through different eyes.
Still, I may shift my wording in the future. “What would Jesus think if he could see you fighting right now?” always felt different from “What would Jesus do?” The first felt shame-based, but the second—with its omnipresent WWJD bracelets—often felt clarifying. If I use this framework in the future, I will reframe my question, asking Sally what Anne Frank—or Barbara Johns, or Florence Nightengale—would have done in her situation, rather than what they would have thought. The goal, after all, would be to encourage Sally to consider other responses, actions, or approaches, and to emulate her heroes and role models, not to make her feel ashamed of her behavior.
The next time Sally is annoyed with her homework and wants to give up, I may just ask her what Marie Curie would have done in her place. 🙂
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