My kids are all grown. They all have their own children. It’s been a few years since we had children living at home. But these days our yard is often strewn with plastic toys. After dinner we have lots of small bits of food on the floor and we once again have car seats in our car.
One of my daughters has come back to live with us – this time with her husband and three young children. With the current shelter-in-place orders, I’m spending a lot more time at home these days.
Frankly, I’d forgotten what it’s like. Life had gotten quiet over the past several years – and I’d grown accustomed to it. Things stay put where you leave them. No Cheerios on the floor. No sudden bangs from objects crashing to the floor. No raised voices of protest, objection or indignation.
I’d forgotten what it’s like. Then overnight everything was back as before. Except this time it’s different. After our own children grew up I went through mediator training. As a result I’ve developed a deeper sense of dispute resolution; of power and negotiation. I’ve now mediated scores of cases. And this time around I see the noise, the howling, the crying, and the frustration through new eyes. It’s not all bad. My new young citizens are learning the art of negotiation and dispute resolution first hand (and in a safe environment).
It’s a fascinating exercise. I see these young people (my grandchildren) using available tools to get what they want. Their actions are a study in power and control. What they lack in size they make up in volume, tenacity and energy. I sometimes see them weaponize their voices. If they feel they have no say in a matter they will level the playing field by using volume – instantly. Prized objects sometimes become the subject of carefully orchestrated negotiation. People (both children and adults) are played off each other. These children are unbelievably affectionate. But they are also becoming skilled negotiators. They use charm and their available power so interchangeably it’s almost like an alternating current. They are learning motivation techniques, value identification and how to push buttons. It’s truly a study in power (and human dynamics).
One of my grandchildren recently asked me for an item (but they asked me in an unpleasant tone). I responded that I’d be happy to comply with their request if they asked me nicely. The response was instant and rather than asking in a nice, pleasant tone of voice they turned to their father and made the same request.
Fascinating. I was ready, willing and able to give them what they wanted. But they wanted it on their own terms – and rather than submit to my terms (i.e. asking in a nice tone of voice) they tested their available power with another adult who might provide them with what they wanted (without having to submit to my terms). It was a complete microcosm of human relationships – and a study in power.
The outfall of all this has not escaped me. Sometimes I mediate probate or trust disputes where children have grown up. A mediator might think that child-era relationships in a grown family would have been superseded by intervening adult relationships – but this isn’t always so. Many of the family dynamics that existed decades ago when people were young are still fully present in these mediations. With my grandchildren under foot I sometimes feel like I’m watching relationships form in real time that will be played out over a lifetime.
Nothing is more fascinating than the people around us. It’s easy to think that children are lesser citizens because they lack power. Not so. I see them skillfully identify and use available human relationship tools every day. They act rationally, capably and intelligently (if we don’ squelch them because of own power). I recognize that their soft spots (sugar and television) may be more pronounced than with some adults – but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of these young citizens. They are fully skilled and capable within their own orbits – even at two years old and watching them observe, capture and then shape their world is not only a study in power – it’s a study in joy.
Robert B. Jacobs mediates business, real estate, construction, personal injury, probate and trust cases throughout California. He is a designated SuperLawyer. He holds an AV rating with Martindale Hubble and is serving as the chair of the Contra Costa County ADR section and the co-chair of the Alameda County ADR section. Reach him at [email protected].