by Linda Booth Sweeney


Book Title:        The War with Grandpa
Book author:    Robert Kimmel Smith
Publisher:         Dell Publishing:  New York
Format:             Chapter book 
Age range:
        8 and up

Systems Thinking Concepts and Tools: 
simple interconnectedness, reinforcing feedback loops, balancing loops, unintended consequences, escalation, behavior over time, stock and flow structures

A Quick Look at the Story 
Peter’s newly-widowed grandfather comes to live with him, and at first Peter is thrilled.  He really likes his grandfather.  But then, Peter learns that his grandfather will be moving into his room, the room 10 year-old Peter has lived in his entire life. Peter is forced to move to the much darker attic room upstairs.  To Peter, this turn of events is downright unfair.  Urged on by his two best friends, Peter declares “war” on his grandfather in an effort to recover what he thinks is rightfully his.  At first Peter’s “attacks” are small — a threatening note, a turned-off alarm clock.  But then, as Grandpa begins to retaliate, Peter’s attacks become more hurtful and, as is the nature of wars, the whole thing escalates.  Eventually, Peter calls a truce, remembering why he loved his Grandpa in the first place. In the end, through a great amount of suspense, sadness and even a bit of humor, we learn a lot about the healing power of familial love.

Teaching Tips
Robert Kimmel Smith writes a wonderfully compelling story about escalating behavior and the often unintended consequences of our actions and choices. Peter’s win/lose mindset (as revealed in this note to his Grandpa:  “I WILL NOT/BE DEFEETED./But you will./The Secret Warrior” is one of several plot threads to explore from a systems perspective.  What are the outcomes of this mindset in the story? As we see, this all-or-nothing view brings about only hurt and confusion for Peter and his Grandpa and, over time, only makes Peter’s living situation worse.  It is certainly one of the mindsets that contributes to the escalating war between Peter and his Grandpa.ii

You can begin by encouraging students to describe the significant dynamics that they observe in the story. For example, if students were to select the growing tension between Peter and his Grandfather, they would first decide the time horizon, that is, over what period of time is the behavior of interest observed? If the students focus on one event (for example, Grandpa’s stolen false teeth), encourage them instead to look over a period of time.  As an educator, you can help students to be aware of and hopefully eliminate a very common mental habit (one that is demonstrated by people of all ages): that is, the tendency to focus on isolated events and to not look at the full period of time over which the dynamic or behavior unfolds. If we were to graph the tension between Peter and his Grandfather, the graph would look something like this: 


After students have created their own behavior-over-time graphs, ask students to describe what  “engine” or set of interactions might underlie the growing tension between Peter and his grandpa.  A typical explanation might sound like this: 

  • Peter wants his grandpa out of his room. At the same time, he really loves his Grandpa so he has a hard time being mean to him.  Nevertheless, Peter begins to do things to bother his Grandpa. At first, his Grandpa tries to ignore him but when Peter goes too far for too long, Grandpa enters the war by stealing Peter’s Monopoly pieces. And it only gets worse until Peter steals Grandpa’s teeth, the “last attack” which finally brings the war to an end. After that, Peter and his Grandpa come up with an idea of how they can both have living spaces they like, eventually leading to Peter moving back into his old room.

A simple feedback loop describing the initial phase of the conflict between Peter and his grandfather might look like this:


In the above balancing loop, we see that Peter’s frustration and anger at losing his room leads to Peter waging war against Grandpa.  Initially, Peter feels good that he showed his Grandpa how upset he was.  Over the short-term, Peter’s frustration then diminishes (thus the “o” sign) and Peter takes a break from his attacks.  At the beginning of this cycle, Grandpa attempts to be understanding and patient.   Eventually, however, Peter gets his grandfather’s goat and Grandpa becomes annoyed.   As Grandpa enters the war, we can trace out a figure-8 reinforcing cycle of escalating attacks: 


As Grandpa’s frustration with Peter goes up, he gets into the war.   As Grandpa strikes back, Peter’s level of frustration continues to go up and he continues the war with Grandpa.  As Grandpa outdoes Peter, Peter becomes more frustrated. As Peter escalates the war, Grandpa’s patience decreases and his level of frustration slowly increases.  Unlike many escalating structures, Grandpa may not be motivated to “outdo” Peter but merely to put an end to Peter’s increasingly aggressive attacks. 

Eventually, Peter and Grandpa show us how to turn an escalating dynamic into a win/win situation: after Peter returns Grandpa’s teeth, they both stop reactingand start talking to understand what is going on.   They both try to shift their perspectives from one of blame to one of understanding by understanding the other’s position (see pages 127-128). 

One of the premises of systems thinking/system dynamics is that structural analogies (e.g., recognizing the escalation archetype in The War with Grandpaand in an every day scenario, such as what might happen between two combatants on a playground) exist among systems in widely different situations.   As students learn to recognize these similarities, they are better able to transfer problem-solving insights from one context to another. So, go ahead and challenge your students’ analogical reasoning abilities by asking them to consider other escalating situations, whether they be in the home, at school, on the playing field or in the newspapers.  Taken to the extreme, the structure underlying The War with Grandpa could be shown to be similar to the structure driving global and regional conflicts now and in the past.    Opposing parties see the other’s actions as a threat and so react aggressively, defending their respective positions.  From a systems thinking perspective, looking beyondseemingly quick and easy solutions and attempting to dive deeper in understanding the “problem” or phenomena at hand is perhaps one of the most profound insights that children can learn.

  • What behaviors changed during this story? Encourage your readers to think of as many ideas here as possible. Here are some examples: 

    • Family harmony
    • Peter’s love for Grandpa
    • Grandpa’s appreciation of Peter.iii
  • How did the elements or behaviors above change through the course of the story ?

  • What happens when Peter tries to solve the “Grandpa problem”?

  • How is Peter defining “the problem”?

  • How might this definition actually get in the way of solving the problem

  • How do Peter and Grandpa make the problem worse?

  • How would you describe Peter’s and/or his Grandpa’s problem-solvingapproach?

  • Can you think of a real-life example of the kind of escalation you readabout in this story?

Partner Stories 
To further explore the dynamic of escalation, I would suggest partnering My War with Grandpa with a reading of Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book (Random House, New York, 1984). The good Dr. Seuss tells of an intensifying feud between the Yooks and Zooks which all comes down to a single conflict:  one group butters their bread on the butter side up, and the other butters their bread on the butter side down. For another story that addresses escalating behavior, see Billibonk and the Thorn Patch by Philip Ramsey (Pegasus Communications, 1997).

The author thanks Larry Weathers and Robin Goldstein for contributions made to an earlier version of this review.

How can you recognize a potential escalating structure?  These assertions, from The Art of Systems Thinking by Joseph O’Connor and Ian McDermott, can help you to see when an escalating structure may be at work:

  1. We’ve got to match them step for step.

  2. If only they would let up, then we could too.

  3. I’m not letting this go without a fight.

  4. If they think they can get away with that they have another think coming.

  5. I’ll not be the first to back down.

  6. I’m with you every step of the way.

iii To be able to use these variables in behavior-over-time graphs, causal loop diagrams and stock/flow diagrams, the “things” or behaviors are most easily expressed as nouns that can either increase or decrease. 


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