Helping children to settle their disputes, either in the home or in the classroom, can be a very frustrating experience for adults. It is also a splendid opportunity to teach some needed life skills. After all, while bickering children are an annoyance, bickering adults can do great harm to families, churches, and friendships.
There are a few basic Biblical principles that we can teach our children. Then as we help them to practice applying those principles to their little disputes, we are shaping adults who can apply them to bigger problems.
Principle #1: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you." (Matthew 18:15a)
Tattletales are often driven by vindictiveness or by a desire to gossip. Jesus' instruction frustrates these motives by instructing us to first speak privately to someone who has offended us. My pastor defines gossip this way: Gossip is information that could harm another person's reputation with someone who is neither a part of the problem nor a part of the solution. Using this definition, if a child says, "So and so has done such and such," we should point out that the child is gossiping and needs to go alone to the other child. If that is not successful, then he or she may ask for an adult's assistance. (According to Principle #3.)
One concern with this kind of approach is that the child needs to know that dangerous situations, or situations that are causing damage do need to be brought to an adult's attention immediately. Teach children to know the difference by talking about examples.
Principle #2: "If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." (Matthew 18:15b)
This part of the verse instructs us that the only righteous goal of conflict resolution is to heal a relationship broken by sin. Therefore our primary focus needs to be to approach our brother with love, desiring above all else to be able to extend forgiveness by helping him to see his sin and repent of it. Applying this principle will help our children to do a heart check before they approach one another about an offense. It also teaches them that once repentance is shared, and forgiveness granted, the issue is over with because our goals have been met.
This also helps us to get straight in our minds the difference between problems caused by sin and problems caused by annoyance or a difference of opinion. While we may request that another person cooperate with our desires, we may not use the dispute-resolution process as a means to manipulate them into doing so.
Principle #3: "But if he will not listen, take one or two brothers along..." (Matthew 18:16)
This verse gives us the next step if the first isn't successful. Another person or two may be brought in to help solve the problem. This step, however, does not nullify instructions against gossip. The person being brought in to the situation should not be prepared ahead of time by hearing the offended person's side of the story. The person being brought in should hear the details for the first time with both parties present and able to relate the events according to their own perspectives.
Principle #2 is still valid at this step. The person being brought in to help has as his or her goal the restoration of the relationship by helping each party see his own sin. His role is not one of judge. His goal is not to punish. Only when this second step fails can the matter be referred to authorities for judgment. (The Church in this verse, but Mum and Dad or the teacher in the case of children.)
When teaching this procedure to children, though, it is probably best that an adult be the mediator at this step until the children have seen that role modeled enough times to have learned to do it themselves.
When I am acting as a mediator I generally use this procedure. First I lay down some ground rules about speaking kindly and not interrupting, and restate that reconciliation is the goal. Then I let each party speak in turn to explain their perspectives on the problem. I then ask each party to reflect on what has been said, examine themselves, and repent of any sin or shortcoming in themselves that contributed to the problem. Here the mediator may help each party to see sin they are not seeing in themselves. Each is to ask for forgiveness for their own sins and extend forgiveness when requested to do so.
Principle #4: "Settle matters quickly with your adversary...or he may hand you over to the judge..." (Matthew 5:25)
If the above procedure fails, an adult in authority can take off his or her mediator hat and put on the judge's hat and step in to render judgment or punish as necessary. If the mediator is not someone with authority, the matter can then be referred to an appropriate authority. Avoiding that step ought to be powerful motivation for the children to work things out.
Principle #5: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." (Colossians 3:13)
This principle addresses the nature of our forgiveness. God says our sins are as far away from us as the east is from the west. He says He forgets them. He never brings them up again to use them against us. They have disappeared into the wilderness like the scapegoat of Israel. They are covered by the Righteousness of Christ. And God's forgiveness comes to us by grace, not because we deserve it, not because He owes it, but because He chooses to respond to repentance with forgiveness. He does not demand perfect repentance, either. In the most self-sacrificing act of selfless love the world has ever known, He sacrificed His own Son to make that forgiveness legal and just.
Does our forgiveness look like that? Children must be helped to understand that forgiveness does not permit holding grudges, pouting, cold shoulders, or bitterness. It does not allow for retribution. Any retribution that was due is a debt that has been forgiven. What forgiveness does look like is the restoration of a loving relationship.
Does all this make a big deal out of children's petty disputes? I think it is important to remember that what seem like petty disputes to us are already a very big deal to the children involved. Teaching them to think Biblically about their disputes will probably, in time, lesson their frequency, though it will necessitate your increased involvement for a while. It is faster, after all, just to say, "Children, stop bickering," and let them pout and make faces at each other. But the greatest blessing is that they will carry these essential skills into adulthood and be able to promote peace in their own homes, congregations, and relationships.