Arbitration Hesitation

I’m not one of life’s natural referees. I find confrontation incredibly difficult to handle, whether the issue is between me and someone else, or between two other people. If anything, I find the latter situation a great deal more stressful. When tempers flare and words fly out faster than lip-reading will allow, all I want to do is sink into a hole in the ground when I find myself at the centre of two expectant stares.

If I have to do arbitration, I much prefer to tackle one offended person at a time, if only so I can concentrate on what they’re saying without being distracted by the infuriated vibes emanating from the other offended party. This is particularly important within the family, I find. I have painful memories of an incident a few months back when my dad’s cake slice went missing. All three grandchildren professed their innocence, including my son. He looked genuine, but:

  1. I know how expert he is at adopting his innocent expression; and
  2. I know his cake-snaffling history.

Now, it wasn’t very brave of me, but I kept schtum about my suspicions because I had too much of a lipreading headache to tackle it at the time. I raised the issue back at home. This time, he admitted to snaffling cake, but said he didn’t know it was Grandad’s, because none of the usual tripwires and booby-traps had been set up. In fairness, my dad does usually employ a high-security approach to safeguarding his cake. Keeping a straight face, I gave Bas the brief, stern talk about taking any cake that wasn’t handed to him as his own.

So yeah, it can be tricky playing referee between adults, or adults and kids—but it’s really hard keeping the peace between kids. Nightmare!

Let me transport you across time and space to a footie match some weeks ago, on a wee pitch on a tiny field in Southern England. Picture the eager sun, seeking to heat the air; feel the cold spring breeze; picture the goalie hurling his gloves onto the grass in disgust and storming off into the distance.

My son was the goalie.

His discontent was over an illegal (off-side) goal.

And I had no idea what had just happened, because the wind had forced me to turn my hearing aids off. Lipreading the man who was talking to me (a cheery Samoan) took considerable concentration. His lungs had such immense capacity that he didn’t need to refill them between paragraphs, so the fast talking was tricky enough. Then there was the accent (albeit gentle), and then again the peculiar disparity between his uproarious laughter at his own anecdotes and what his anecdotes seemed to be about: the varied and ghastly implements his grandmother hit him with while he was naughty as a kid. I had no idea how to react–and was just reassuring myself that he was clearly someone who clearly saw the funny side of being walloped with a snake–when I saw my son heading for the tree line, shoulders stiff with fury.

After a hasty sprint and a conversation that required me to balance sympathy and sternness, Bas returned to the match, donned the gloves, and did really well.

You see, that was easy. Because in a one on one situation, I had no reproving on-lookers waiting for me to tell him off. In the privacy of the sulking shrub, I could ask him to repeat himself when I needed him to, and deploy the child-bolstering weapons of bribery, flattery, and blowing raspberries. I put in one sentence about seeing the striker’s point of view, but that was it. I would return to that point again, later, when alone with him again.

After half an hour of peaceful play, I found myself being shovelled towards the goal by several purposeful boys (ages 5-8), while other unwilling parents were bullied onto the pitch as well. It was left to one very little boy (who I will call Ernie) to explain the new rules to me while the rest of the players gathered at the far end of the pitch for a pre-match pep-talk, delivered by the world’s most confident seven-year-old.

I couldn’t hear Ernie’s instructions. Even with my hearing aids back on, his voice just didn’t register on my spectrum. His lips were moving at high speed, but no sound emerged. I shot my son an expression of entreaty, one that begged ‘please-come-back-and-translate’, but he just gave me a thumbs-up and rejoined the ‘big’ huddle at the far end. Traitor.

Ernie really did try to convey the rules clearly, with a great deal of arm movements and dashing about. But none of it helped. Taking his gestures literally, it seemed that I must first comb a lion’s mane, then drag it (the lion) in reverse through a field of bamboo, and, finally, reverse-park it just outside the goal box. I was working my way towards my third “pardon?” when the match started.

It turned out that the cheery Samoan was going to be one of my two defenders. While the ball was at the other end of the pitch, I meekly requested a re-run of the rules. He chuckled and gave me a friendly slap on the upper arm that nearly tipped me sideways.

“You know football rules, right?”

“I know normal football rules, but—”

“Ah, you’ll be ‘right, then. That’s what we’re playing.”

“Right.” I probably didn’t sound any more convinced than I felt.

Still, two stinging legs, forearms and a sore tum later, I hadn’t disgraced myself in goal at all. I’d saved six shots! My son, goalie at the opposite end, gave me a double thumbs-up out of pure, astonished pride.

At the end of the match, both teams wrung hands, backs were slapped (or waists, where the littl’uns were appreciating the grown-ups) and all was well until the striker decided to renew the off-side goal row with Bas.

Oh boy. As ever, it took me a moment to realise that there was a scene going on. I didn’t pick my son’s voice out of the hubbub, because I just can’t. It’s a good job I’m not a penguin, really.

I jogged over to find Bas red-faced, indignant and in no state of mind to take on board constructive criticism, while the striker was red in the face, hopping up and down, with no intentions of giving any constructive criticism. Well, criticism was clearly on the agenda, but not much else, I surmised. But it was difficult, between their high-pitched voices and arm flurries to point out to the striker that not many people had seen the shot as being legitimate, while suggesting to my son that he might do well to shut up while he was ahead (in nice language, of course).

And then the Samoan guy tried smoothing things over.

“Fellas! Sebby, you’re a county-class goalie. Russ, you’re a sharp-shooter in the making. You’re going to disagree often, and you’re gonna want to stick each other’s face in the mud, but you’d make an awesome team. So, how’s about a handshake and forgetting about it?”

Bas and the striker looked at each other. Their expressions suggested that they’d prefer a half-hour of combing the slime off a bucket of sea cucumbers. It struck me that neither would go home peacefully until they’d had a mutual, moderate degree of vengeance. So they did the bush-push challenge to see who could shove the other furthest into the rhododendrons.

Okay, it wasn’t sophisticated, but it was effective. The striker got a good shove in, but Bas’s was no weaker. Both boys went home proud and vindicated. And Bas gave me a big grin as I ran his bath, telling me I should ‘referee’ more often.

I’ll treasure that, because I’m not sure how many times I’m ever going to hear it.

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