“He’s sitting next to me on the sofa, mom. I don’t want him to. Tell him to get off.”
“I can sit here if I want you.”

What usually happens next is predictable. Some kicks, punches, some name calling to spice it up and it’s all downhill from there.

I used to be naïve enough to look for reasons. I figured the kinder them would be hidden inside there somewhere, and if coaxed properly will come out.

But it’s like this: If the boys sleep well and enough, if there’s no nasty colds to get over and if their moods are sunny, conflicts are rare and easy to manage. But life is not perfect and neither are we.

Every now and then moods are swampy, at least one nose is runny and thus annoying, people at school are mean, and… well, you get the idea. It’s called mayhem. The boys act mean to each other, they push, shove, punish each other, and in the process they punish me.

The reverse is also true: Bad days can make the calmest parent lash out. Zen mothers are a rare breed and I am not one of them. I’m learning though.

Acting mean comes out first, I often tell the boys. Like a bad reflex that should’ve disappeared by now.

I used to reach for excuses rather than solutions. You blame others for the inability to act beyond meanness. So you need a mirror of some sort and I believe children are the best mirror there is.

They see, learn and apply. Nice things and ugly things alike.
Every human being acts mean at some point. Life’s big shoes step on all our ten toes and being gracious about it is not part of the plot.

But here’s the kicker: Every time, without an exception, when I mentioned the murkiness of my day, the boys or others have tried to help.

It was a liberating feeling: I was no longer the upside down bug kicking its legs in the air in a mad attempt to regain its dignity.

It works for the boys too, except that they often don’t know how to explain their troubles. They are still learning the ways of the world. If they have a bad day, they give each other heck.

They know just like most people do, that acting mean hurts people. Occasionally they acknowledge the deed and apologize.

But often they don’t. The way I see it, they have to be helped to reach that point sincerely. The last thing they need is being lectured about right and wrong. They know it’s wrong. They don’t understand why they are suddenly the perpetrators of wrongness.

So nowadays I do my best to skip the lecture. I tell them if an action is mean. They know meanness hurts. Boundaries are to be learned no matter what. But, I tell them again and again, acting mean does not make one mean.

Feeling rotten inside tells us exactly that and keeps up from doing it all the time.

I learned to ask them (and myself too) whether meanness solved the problem or brighten the situation at all. The answer is usually “no” except for the smarty pants answer “He did it to me, I did it to him,” which I am still working on finding an equally smarty-pants retort for.

Playing the voice of reason between the boys has taught me to find my own. Seeing them do the things I do and am not proud of, the things I say that I should not say, the aforementioned mirror that is, has made me aware of one thing: Admitting to a rainy day inspires people to hand you an umbrella or share theirs.

A few years ago I read a book called “Principles of non-violent communication” by Marshall Rosenberg. The boys were young and angelic and fights between them did not exist.

I read the book and smugly thought it was a good one for those who needed it and that was not me.

Fast forward a few years; I have humbly remembered the book and the two things that managed to stick despite my smugness: Using “I” instead of “You” in a conflict always makes room for negotiation instead of resentment, and secondly, using words like “never” and “always” in a conflict creates more conflict.

Simple as they seem, these two things don’t just roll of the tip one one’s tongue. It takes practice. Like learning to ride a bike: You stumble, lose your balance, fall and try again. But once you learn how to do it, it’s there for life.

(Originally published as “How to survive swampy moods” in the Kamloops Daily News on Saturday February 23, 2013)