The three women on the Conflict Management for Parents course listened intently. I was the only bloke and my toes curled. "Level Two," continued Sue. "Adult intervention might be helpful. Acknowledge their feelings, trust them to sort it out, maybe leave the room." I picked my jaw up off Sue's floor. "Level Three, when the situation may be dangerous," she said, "ask them if the fight is a play fight or real." It was at Level Four ("dangerous situation") that we're advised to intervene.
At the time Sue's advice seemed about as realistic as stopping a tank with a pea-shooter. Yet according to research published to coincide with the launch of the new National Family and Parenting Institute last week, 50 per cent of adults believe they could benefit from parenting classes.
I have four very different sons. Jake, 15, is serious, dreamy and quick tempered. Sam, 13, is cheeky and sociable but can be awkward. Jesse, 10, is sparky but sometimes self-pitying. Calum, aged five, is shy, gentle, sweet and angelic to look at, but in seconds he can cook up a demonic tantrum. Believe me, the possibilities for conflict are endless. But as I left my first class, I had doubts about how effective the five-evening course was going to be.
As the sessions progressed, the importance of taking children's feelings seriously was stressed. Even "ugly" emotions such as jealousy are best acknowledged and discussed as a way of enabling children to sort out the conflict that bad emotions can create.
The key, it seems, is to treat children with the sort of respect that we reserve for adults. For instance, to expect children to share their things is unreasonable. If we have given them something then it is theirs to decide what to do with. Another way of showing respect is refusing to solve their problems. Instead we were told to support them while handing responsibility for solving problems firmly back to them. Where appropriate, children should be responsible enough to take part in family decision- making processes.
At times I felt the chill blast of reality come over me. Could I sit down with Jake, Sam, Jesse and Calum and agree on anything? After five weeks I decided to put the course into practice. The boys and I set off for an autumn weekend in the close confines of a Renault Trafic. Here there would be no hiding in bedrooms; it would be conflict management versus four boys' temperaments.
An hour into the journey I was feeling peeved because the boys in the back were behaving so well: chatting, drawing, reading comics. We passed Oxford and the eerie silence of harmony reigned. I was beginning to despair.
Two hours later it happened. Jesse cried, "Jake! I said put your feet down!" I tried to remember what skill I should use for this situation. Jake walloped Jesse. Jesse screamed. I'd been fantasising about slamming on the brakes and calling a family meeting but it all went out of my head. Instead I shouted: "Just shut up, will you?" Sue would not have been impressed.
Next morning I arranged a walk with a guide but I was worried that trudging through fields with a local history commentary might not be the boys' idea of fun. The course emphasises "congruence", parenting-speak for being honest about our feelings. So I tried the direct approach. "Boys," I said, "I know that you may find this a bit boring but I would feel really embarrassed if you whinged and argued while the guide is with us."
"OK," Sam responded, "we'll have a good argument then."
As we walked along there was no disruption until Jesse started to complain about a sore foot. (He is prone to public displays of illness.) His complaints got louder, saying he had a splinter. Behind this behaviour, I decided, was a need for attention. We stopped in a cafe and Jesse was spread-eagled across a table as we hunted for the offending splinter. The proprietor lent us a needle, a customer gave us a magnifying glass. Jesse had lots of attention and eventually we found a tiny splinter.
A few miles later, the boys were getting fractious. Then the guide admitted that we were lost. I could feel a major incident just round the corner. However, I acknowledged the boys' frustration and tried to keep things calm. But when we found our way, it ran through an orchard littered with apples. Worse, the path ended at a wedding reception. Within moments apples were flying over the guests. Level One of "How to Handle a Fight" (which this will soon become) seemed inappropriate: "Ignore it." I jumped to Level Four ("Dangerous situation: adult intervention necessary") and went berserk.
That evening the boys played football as I sorted out the van. Sam made a fire by the stream. Jake got his drums out. Calum started to dance. Jesse joined in but it was Calum who made us laugh. Again I was aware of Jesse's need for attention and I tried to acknowledge his feeling of jealousy. "It's difficult sometimes when you have a baby brother," I whispered. He looked at me and nodded.
The next day there was a multi-directional outburst of abusive language triggered by some minor taunt. I pulled over and decided it was time for a family meeting on name-calling. I told them it was unacceptable and asked for suggestions about solving it. Blame was passed round, and they waited for me to pass judgement. "I'm not interested in blaming someone. I want to know how to improve things," I said, and asked Jake what he thinks. "Dad, this is just like Jerry Springer," he said.
An incident occurred on the way home which showed how much effort these techniques need, and that they can work. Jesse decided that Jake was annoying him by resting his arm near Jesse's face. So Jake started winding up Jesse even more. I drew up by a garage and said, "I'm not getting involved. I'm sure you two can sort this out." They carried on arguing. I told them that I was going to stretch my legs and that as soon as they'd agreed, we could carry on driving.
Ten minutes later, the dispute was continuing. At risk of looking stupid, I got out my book and read it. "Is it sorted out now?" I asked as I returned. It turned out they'd agreed an arm resting truce amicably and we continued our journey home, in peace.
The Parent Network (tel: 0171 735 4596) runs parenting and conflict management courses.