The other day, there was a fight in my house over the last bag of BBQ chips.
My husband buys these boxes of snacks at Costco. (Does anyone else know a grown man so completely obsessed with Costco? I need to write a piece about my husband’s love for Costco. But I digress.)
The boxes have seemingly random numbers of different snacks: Fritos, Cheetos, cheese puffs, Doritos (red and blue), Funyuns, regular chips, sour cream and onion chips, and . . . you guessed it, BBQ chips. They always have the least amount of BBQ chips. Are they more expensive to make? Or do people not like them as much? I don’t know. But in my family, we’re all obsessed with them.
This particular box had three bags of BBQ chips. One of the children ate the first bag, and then somehow we forgot the box was open (there were other more exciting snacks at end-of-the-school-year picnics and such). I rediscovered the box on the last day of school and helped myself to one of the bags of BBQ chips that night (I’m weak).
The next day at lunch, I mentioned the box of snacks. “If there are any BBQ chips left, I call them!” my 9-year-old son, Max, said. He was out of his chair and running down to the basement (where we keep said box) to check before anyone could stop him.
“No fair!” my 7-year-old daughter, Georgia, said. “He can’t have them! They’re mine! He had the last bag!” She was now near tears.
“No, I didn’t! You did!” Max yelled as he came back up the stairs, bag of BBQ chips in hand.
Georgia started screaming. Max told her to be quiet. I grabbed the chips from him. My husband said maybe he should just eat the bag so they’d stop arguing about it, and I was wishing that I had done just that the night before.
There we were, all out of sorts to some degree because of summer vacation starting, and that stupid last bag of BBQ chips became everything.
I pointed out the obvious solution was to just share them. Max said no way. He insisted that my husband had promised him the chips. Georgia insisted they were hers. My husband hastily decided they would play a game of “guess my number” and whoever guessed the number would get the chips. This happened quickly, before I could protest, and Georgia won.
Max started crying. Then Georgia started crying, because she didn’t want to win them that way. “He can just have them then,” she said through tears, but that seemed to make Max even more frustrated, because he didn’t want her to have to “give” them to him—he thought he should have had them all along. My husband was nearly about to lose it for real.
As the scene was spinning before me, all I could think was: This is literally how wars start. This is how tribal conflict escalates. There are multiple claims on valuable resources—and it’s not only the resource itself, it’s the idea that someone else would think they have a claim on that resource that really takes the conflict up a notch.
Everyone feels powerless to stop it because they are so caught up in their response to it, whether it’s anger, frustration, guilt, or shame.
There’s the “you win and I lose, so I’m mad,” response, the “I win and you lose, but I feel guilty,” response, the “if I can’t have them all, I don’t want any,” response, the “here you take it, but I’m going to hold it against you” response—and my children, right before my eyes, were firing through all these responses.
Finally, I grabbed the bag of chips, popped them open and divided the contents evenly into two sandwich bags. Max was protesting all along that he didn’t want to share. “You don’t have to eat your half then. I’ll happily eat it,” I said as I handed them each a bag. “Since you’re each only getting half of the bag, you can also have some of the popcorn,” I said, grabbing the large bag of popcorn (procured at Costco, natch) from atop the fridge.
They wound up taking their snacks in the car, because my husband was driving them to the trampoline park. He reported that they happily ate them without a grumble.
Later, my husband reflected that the number game was probably not that great of an idea. “Yeah, probably not, but I get why you tried it,” I said.
“It’s just, a lot of times in life, things are going to feel unfair. Everyone doesn’t always win. Shouldn’t they get used to that?”
“Maybe,” I said. I understood what he was saying: Kids do need to learn to be tough and to deal with disappointment. “Still, I think it’s our job to make the win-win available, so that they learn it’s an option,” I said.
I’m fortunate enough to write for the coaching school iPEC, whose founder pioneered the idea of the seven levels of energy (writing for them is a little bit like getting a contact buzz of ideas). It works like this: We spin around in these lower levels of energy, consumed with anger and blame, sure that we are victims. We can’t move to higher levels of energy until we are aware that we have a choice about what energy level to tap into in any given moment.
Maybe some children have a higher set point and automatically operate at a higher energy level. If yours do and you have 27 stories about it, that’s fantastic for you. But mine don’t. They fight over the damn chips. And then sometimes we all wind up fighting. Tribal eruptions at the dinner table.
There are levels of energy beyond the win-win, like being so in tune with the universe, the chips cease to exist. The win-win is a pretty good baseline to manage conflict though. It’s also extremely scarce at the highest echelons of business and politics, which is deeply disheartening right now.
Our leaders are all grumbling around, stuck in zero-sum games, fighting over the last bag of BBQ chips and committed to the lowest energy levels possible.
But you and me? We can do better. So can our kids. We just have to show them.