Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Brownies diplomacy

My family got into a little fight on Sunday morning. I could try to come up with a more elegant word – a moment of dissension; a disagreement – but I prefer to just call it a little fight.

It began when my 11-year-old, Tim, finished breakfast and went upstairs to play a computer game. No computer games this morning, my husband Rick told him. Tim had been playing computer games almost all weekend. Rick was right: his eyes and his brain needed a change of pace.

Tim was not happy, and while he was protesting, Holly put on a DVD. Let’s take a break from all screen time, Rick decided. No computer; no video games; no DVDs; no TV. It’s Sunday morning, after all.

But Tim was still angry about it, so Rick tried to explain his viewpoint. You spend too much time at your computer, he said to Tim. You should play today. Spend some time outside.

The problem as I saw it was that Rick is not a good model of this behavior. I, on the other hand, am. I spend tons of time outside. In fact, to my mind it’s one of the best things about being self-employed, right up there with always being available when the school nurse calls. I go running; I go for walks; I take care of the barnyard animals; on a warm day I’ll even take my laptop out to the porch to work. Time outdoors is peppered throughout my working day.

Rick is not like that. He works at his desk all day. When he exercises, he uses the treadmill. During baseball and swimming season he spends plenty of time outdoors; at other times of year it’s not so much of a priority.

So even though I supported his Sunday-morning ban on computer and video time, I found it a little hypocritical. Instead, Rick talked to Tim about all the things he did outdoors as a boy: fishing, running through the woods; tag football and wiffle ball with his friends. “After church, we can go for a walk in the woods,” I suggested to Tim. But Rick argued that this was not the point. “It’s not about you organizing something for him to do,” Rick said. “The point is that he should find his own things to do. He shouldn’t rely on you to plan his recreational time any more than he should rely on his computer or his Xbox. Don’t organize a hike; let him find something to do himself.”

Holly, though initially disappointed when told she couldn’t watch a DVD, was already busy with something else. She doesn’t have the reliance Tim does on electronic entertainment. She likes DVDs and even kid-oriented computer games occasionally, but she’s just as happy to draw on her whiteboard or play school, which is what she was doing as Rick and I continued the debate with Tim.

To my surprise, the morning ended with Tim deciding to go to church with me – something he’s done maybe once or twice all fall – and Holly deciding to stay home and play, which is the opposite of what usually happens on Sunday mornings. At church, I had plenty of time for silent reflection. Though it wasn’t on the level of prayer, I silently reflected on my hope that my family could all just calm down a little as the day wore on and find some ground for harmony.

Inexplicably, that’s just what happened. We didn’t discuss it further or negotiate terms: who can use computers and video games and for how long; who has to engage in what outdoor activities; what rules cover children but not parents; what rules we can all agree to. No treaties were drafted, no pacts created. We just stopped talking about it.

And as the day wore on, everyone had fun. Holly invited a friend over; Tim went next door to visit his grandparents. But the best part of the day was in the late afternoon. I wanted to go for a run and told the kids I’d go up to the track rather than doing my usual neighborhood route if they wanted to bring their bikes up or play on the playground next to the track. Holly decided to come with me and do some biking; Tim then decided he’d come too. So while I ran, they took turns riding Holly’s bike and running behind it, and they goofed around together on the playground, and they played with the dog. We stayed for a half-hour and got some good outdoor time and some exercise. Everyone had fun.

So the day started with a little fight but ended with everyone happy. What I take from the experience is not only how well it all worked out but also how no big discussions or negotiations needed to take place. When Tim and I left for church, everyone was cross; when we returned, it had blown over.

It’s what I call brownies diplomacy, not to be confused with Amelia Bedelia diplomacy, named after the children’s book heroine who always resolves problems with her employers by baking them a tasty treat which reminds them how indispensable she is. When you bake a pan of brownies, the most important thing to do after you take them out of the oven is set them aside. If you try to cut them right away, they will crumble into a gooey mess. Put them aside for thirty minutes and they’ll slice up beautifully, chewy but not messy, warm but not too hot to eat.

And so with the family disagreement. Just set it aside to cool and all will be well. It worked this weekend. Some disagreements surely need to be resolved with words, with contracts and negotiations. Others just need to be left to cool. This was definitely one of the latter times, and we were all the better for recognizing it as such.

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