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My two oldest children, boys ages eight and 10, are 18 months apart. They have been integral in teaching me a great many things, but there is one topic that seems to be an endless trove of new fatherly lessons. It’s the subject that tops them all — resolving conflict and how to apologize.
Conflict is at the forefront of every day with young boys this close together. And it’s not limited to conflict between the two of them. Conflict with mom, with me, neighborhood kids, and school relationships. They seem to have an innate ability to start it, and to escalate it. But somehow or another, the ability to apologize and resolve isn’t quite so in-born.
Perhaps, my most significant task, as their dad, is to guide them through the minefield of living relationally with others.
So why are young boys (and grown-up boys, honestly) so apt at getting themselves into conflicts? It is a great mystery. You could call it fallen nature if you’re religious, animal survival instinct if you aren’t.
Regardless of what origin story you’ve landed on, we have to unlearn concepts that we don’t even remember learning in the first place, like the idea that the successful resolution to a conflict is winning. Maybe it’s the influence of sports or courtroom dramas, but for some reason, we men tend to approach discord as though we are in a mental boxing match. In truth, the opposite of conflict is not victory. It’s peace.
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A couple of years ago, my second born was on a particularly impulsive streak. It seemed as though he was not in control of his body. He would get so excited, wiggle around, and throw things — not angrily, just without thinking.
One day, as he and his brother were playing in the yard, he picked up a rock and launched it into the street. He didn’t think. He just threw a rock. Almost “perfectly timed,” someone drove by. By some crazy miracle, the car’s window was rolled down, so what would most definitely have been a shattered window ended up being a surprise rock in the lap of a very alarmed elderly man.
Now, when I say this guy was mad, I’m really not doing him justice. He screeched to a halt and came flying out of the car, veins popping, already in a profanity-laced tirade. He pointed his big, boney, scary finger in my little guy’s face.
I felt all of my protective instincts rise up. My chest began to puff. I wasn’t going to touch this guy, but I wanted to verbally rip him to shreds in defense of my son.
I wanted to say: He’s just a kid. It wasn’t intentional. No harm, no foul. You need to calm down. You have no right to speak like that to a six year old. And, of course: Stick that crusty old finger in MY face, and see if you get it back in one piece.
And if I’d said any one of those things, I would have felt justified. I would have defended my innocent, albeit impulsive, son who made an honest mistake. But it would have served nothing to resolve the problem, and it would have taught my boys nothing about how to really deal with the wrath of an angry man.
The reality was that the old man was scared. The rock startled him, and he didn’t know how to respond to that shock. I could see it in his eyes. Past all the anger, he was quite frightened by the experience, and I offered an understanding ear. I needed to apologize and say: I am so sorry.
“I am so sorry” are probably the four most important words for any man to learn.
And then assurance, “My son didn’t mean to throw a rock in your direction, and I’m so glad you’re okay. I promise you this won’t be something we brush right over.” And then an olive branch of peace in a handshake offer. You see, almost no man I know can resist the offer of a handshake. Even in a hot moment, it is practically impossible to refuse. So before I knew it, our angry neighbor, who in fairness had every right to be upset, was literally hand in hand with me, comforted and assured, and going happily on his way. I don’t think he knew what hit him, other than the rock, of course.
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Whether it is a stranger, a close friend, or a relationship in the home, it’s of the utmost importance that we dads realize that our young sons are watching. Every time Dad loses his temper, there is an opportunity for a son to see a strong man apologize, admit he’s wrong and seek forgiveness. For every exchange with a frustrated neighbor, there is an opportunity for a son to see a strong man pursue relationship over winning an argument. A kind word turns away wrath, and our sons will only learn that by example. Who better to teach how to apologize than us dads?