“You’ll be there on the repenting bench all day if you keep just telling me what the other person did. The only way off is to tell what you did.”
We were living in England and one day, driving past an old church, I had an idea. Our small children had been particularly feisty lately — that is the kind way to say it — and it seemed like we were spending half our time trying to sort out their conflicts and sibling rivalries.
The old Church of England building was either going out of business or redecorating, I'm not sure which, but they had pews for sale. I bought one — a short, hard, uncomfortable one, and wedged it halfway in the trunk and brought it home.
I shared my idea with Linda, who helped me refine it a bit, and at our next family meeting we introduced "the repenting bench."
We explained that we were tired of trying to figure out who was right and who was wrong every time there was a fight or a squabble or an argument or an erupting sibling rivalry. After all, they weren't our disagreements, they were theirs!
The repenting bench, we explained, was where any two kids who were fighting or arguing would go (or be sent) to resolve it.
To get off of the bench, we explained, three things were required:
1. To think of what you did wrong. Not what the other kid did, but what you did. It takes two to tangle, and you have to think of and admit what you did to contribute to the problem.
2. To say you are sorry and that you'll try not to do it again.
3. To give the other kid a hug.
The fun part of that first meeting was the role playing that came next. We had Sam and Kate (names changed to protect the not-so-innocent) re-enact the fight they had the day before (to the encouragement and cheering of the other kids) and then we sternly demanded, "to the repenting bench!"
Sitting on the bench, Sam and Kate's acting skills really came out. "She started it!" "He hit me!" "I had it first!" "She called me a name!"
"You'll be there on the repenting bench all day if you keep just telling me what the other person did. The only way off is to tell what you did."
"OK, I did call her a name." "And I slapped him." They role-played getting it right — and then the apologies — and then the hugs and being "released" from the bench.
Then there were a couple more role-plays, involving the other two kids. We had plenty of material to draw from.
And then came the predictable question, from little Evan, the feistiest of them all: "Well, what about when you and Mom argue? Can we send you to the bench?"
"Absolutely! We will go to the bench, and we have to do the very same three things to get off." (Over the years, we have spent a lot of time on that bench ourselves, sometimes stretching out the repenting — and the hug — for the benefit of our watching kids.)
We now have a lot of years of experience with the repenting bench, so let us give you some observations and feedback:
It really works — even with preschoolers, and extending up into the teen years — to give kids ownership of their own disagreements and conflicts.
Over time, with "the bench" kids learn that there is no bailout, no one who is going to intervene and no one that they can whine to and get the other kid punished. Gradually, steadily, children become responsible for their own conflicts.
The repenting, especially with small kids, can sometimes be a little perfunctory — almost a ritual — and perhaps not always as sincere and heartfelt as one would wish — just a way to get off of the bench. But it is still better than you being the judge and jury, trying to figure out who did what and who is most or least to blame. You often get it wrong, and you take ownership of the conflict away from your children.
Some kids get so good at "repenting" that they never even make it to the bench. They hear "to the repenting bench" and they are already hugging, saying "I pushed her" and "I'm sorry and I'll try to never do it again. There, Mom, I repented."
The real beauty of it is that little tiffs and disagreements get nipped in the bud — get resolved before they start to grow. For us, the greatest blessing is that our kids, now grown, are each other's best friends, without the burden of long unresolved and buried bad feelings or resentments.
The repenting bench, over the years, provided a lot of entertainment and drama. Fights often turned into laughs. Teens tried to send their friends to the bench. Stubborn kids were sometimes on it so long they had to eat their meals there.
Today, as we write this column, we are at Bear Lake having our family reunion. Our married kids are here with our grandkids. Against the wall sits the repenting bench, still doing its job!
The Eyres' next book is "The Entitlement Trap: How to Rescue Your Child With a New Family System of Choosing, Earning, and Ownership." Richard and Linda are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit the Eyres anytime at www.TheEyres.com. For information about preordering "The Entitlement Trap," see www.valuesparenting.com.