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Mediating In Your Own Backyard: Family Mediation Without Divorce

Summertime can be trying when you’ve got a house full of teenagers at home, and this summer, mine was no different. Conflict abounded and reached a peak one hot August evening when my daughter’s puppy got into my son’s room, destroying his favorite wallet, sunglass case and a $20.00 bill! What’s a mother to do?

Instead of calling the therapist, I decided to call a mediator to help resolve the conflict in our home and here’s what happened: First, I called each of the kids and told them they were “ordered” to be at home between the hours of 4:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M. that afternoon. Next, I invited (but did not order) their Dad and younger brother to attend. Although they were not a part of the actual conflict, I sensed that they each had a stake in the outcome and might also greatly benefit the process. Third, I headed to the office, where I gathered legal pads, bottled waters and bags of M&M’s (both for authenticity and to sweeten the proceedings) as I do in every mediation.

I intentionally arrived home early, at about 3:30 P.M. to do my “pre-mediation” convening. Because I knew my son wouldn’t be home yet, I started by talking with my daughter. Much to my surprise, she presented a lengthy “agenda” of issues arising out of a lifetime of resentment. It turns out, that she perceived her brother as having gotten special treatment for all of the years that the rest of us just saw him as quirky and often difficult to get along with. Being a Psychology major, I should not have been surprised that her issues were deep-seated, introspective and all “under the table”. My son’s issues were much more direct. He wanted reimbursement for his destroyed things and an agreement that his sister would take responsibility to make sure the puppy was unable to enter his room whenever she left him home alone. What she wanted was respect, and an acknowledgement by the rest of the family that just because he was 6’4” tall and keyed up about going away to College soon, we should not be quite so deferential to him.

Next came the tricky business of staging the proper environment. I realized that our home was filled with telephones, televisions, and rectangular tables. Since it was August, I opted for the backyard. There, we could sit around a round table, instead of appearing to take sides, which was our only option indoors. That way, too, the younger brother could (and did!) hop in the pool if things got too heated, and his father could opt to sit in his air conditioned office, within earshot, but still removed enough until he felt it was safe to come outdoors and participate.

As in every mediation, we spent a long time working creatively and attempting to ensure that each party’s views were really heard and expressed. Because it was awkward for them to state their positions directly to one another, I asked them to address all comments to me, and I then attempted to articulate what they had said. The hard part was re-framing the statements to both attempt to soften them, and remain neutral myself. In my eagerness to give this new model of mediation a fair chance to fully unfold, I kept remarkably cool.

In the end, the kids “settled” on six specific written points of agreement, ranging from refraining from berating or belittling one another in the presence of their peers, to buying a new sunglass case. If either one violated the agreement, they agreed to put $1.00 on the other’s Jamba Juice card per infraction. They each signed the agreement and it went up on our family bulletin board that evening! Voila.

The following day, the three of us had lunch together. My son, in his teasing way, berated my daughter in the presence of her friend. When she called him on it, he generously (but without explanation) picked up the tab for all four of us. Now that he’s gone away to College, I can’t say their whole childhood rivalry has been erased, but they certainly have laid down a solid framework upon which they can begin to re-build a broken relationship. They even communicate voluntarily via e-mail with some regularity now.

While my own children teased me about operating our family as a business, they inspired me to enhance my business by operating families. If this template was welcome and successful in our in tact family, I can only imagine how useful and welcome (and truly necessary) it would be in Step-Families, families going through a divorce, or in any family with predictable “life conflicts”, such as births of new siblings, beginning High School or College, leaving home, even loss of a parent or grandparent. With so much conflict in our everyday lives, any skill and insight we mediators can offer should be welcome, even if we need look no further than our own backyard. After all, as Dorothy said in “The Wizard of Oz”, “There’s no Place like Home.”


Jan Frankel Schau

Attorney Jan Frankel Schau is a highly skilled neutral, engaged in full-time dispute resolution. Following a successful career spanning two decades in litigation, she has mediated over 700 cases for satisfied clients. Ms. Schau understands the nuances of trial and settlement practice as well as client relations and balancing the… MORE >

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