When I began teaching straight out of college, I had much experience with children, but my degree was in political science. People used to ask me how my BA was useful in teaching nursery school, to which I often replied, “I do a lot of conflict resolution.” Since then I’ve received my Masters degree in Education, and my Political Science degree has been relegated to education for education’s sake, but conflict resolution remains a huge chunk of my professional life. Children have conflicts, and one of the important tasks of childhood is learning how to manage conflict successfully.
Ideally, education in conflict resolution begins at pre-school age or even earlier. With appropriate help from parents, even pre-verbal children can benefit. In order for conflict resolution education to work with children this young, it needs to be offered within an authentic context. Information that is relevant and meaningful is always learned more easily and understood more deeply. For young children who are not yet thinking abstractly this cannot be overstated. That is why conflict resolution programs that emphasize rehearsal of various strategies of deescalating conflict can be useful for older children but would not be appropriate in a pre-school setting. Thankfully, real life provides no shortage of opportunities within which to practice strategies for handling conflict.
What are the conflicts that young children face? One of the most common disputes among toddlers is over a mutually desired toy. This may be a toy that legitimately belongs to one child and not to the other, or it may be a toy that is held in common, belonging to the whole family or group. The best parents have lofty goals for their children, wanting them to grow up to be kind and generous human beings. This legitimate aspiration often leads parents to strongly encourage or even force their children to share their toys with others. What many fail to recognize is that kindness and generosity necessarily come from a place of security. Not many of us find it satisfying to give to someone who has just tried to steal something of ours, particularly something to which we attach great value. Yet that is exactly what we expect from our children. Rather than being our child’s ally and protector, we so often side with the child who they experience as the aggressor. We fear being perceived as selfish or greedy and strive to make our children act generously. Our response to the conflict has the undesired effect of making our child hold their toy ever tighter. In fact, they are no longer even playing with the toy, but simply holding it to make certain that no one takes it away. Where they should be losing themselves in play, they are now hyper-vigilant to the ever present threat of their toys being grabbed. Instead of being the friendly welcoming children their parents would be proud of, they loudly proclaim their ownership of the object in question when another child approaches. Unfortunately, this defensive posture becomes necessary when there is no one to defend their rights. These conflicts are often punctuated by bursts of crying, screaming, and grabbing.
Let us deal first with the situation of two children fighting over a toy that belongs equally to both children. How can we respond in a way that will bring out the kind, generous, loving potential in every child? By first respecting a child’s need to have exclusive use of a toy until she has achieved a sense of completion. When your child is given the freedom to use a toy until they feel ready to move on to something else, then they can loosen their grip on the toy in question.
So, how can we help to resolve the conflict without forcing the children to share? There are a few simple strategies that when practiced over time, and paired with a true respect for both children’s needs, help young children learn to resolve conflicts peacefully. One of our jobs as parents and teachers is to give children the words that they need to use to successfully navigate the world. One helpful phrase for children to learn is, “Can I have that when you’re finished?” This phrase allows the child to get their needs met in a direct, yet non-confrontational manner. They are stating their needs while simultaneously reassuring the other child that they will wait until they are finished, and will not grab. In many cases, this simple turn of phrase is all that is necessary to transform what would have been a crying, grabbing, screaming match, into a successful dialogue. Often the child will quickly finish up with the toy and hand it over. If your child is used to having her toys grabbed, or being forced to give them up, she may need some additional reassurance from a parent that she will be able to use the toy until she is finished. At the point when it is clear that she is finished with the toy, it is beneficial to encourage her to actually hand it over to the child who is waiting. This way, she is actively giving the toy rather than passively allowing it to be given. This ensures that she will not feel that the toy has been taken from her before she was ready to let go. Handing over the toy also develops a sense of empathy. She understands that something she does has an effect on how another person feels, and that she has the power to make another person happy. Empathy cannot be taught to the young child during a conflict. Developmentally, they can only respond to another person’s needs when those needs are not in conflict with their own. It is important to encourage moments of empathy that are appropriate to the child’s stage of development. Having them hand over the toy when they feel ready, allows them to exercise generosity in a way that feels safe to them.
In the case of the pre-verbal child, parents can ask the question in a way that involves the child. For instance, “You want that toy, but Tim is playing with it now. Let’s ask him if you can have it when he’s finished.” “Tim, can you give Jane that truck when you’re finished with it?” As the child begins speaking, she will have already integrated the concept. She may start by simply saying “finished?” A nearby parent can intercede in case the request is not understood.
Children can also be taught to say, “You can have it when I’m finished,” if someone is grabbing or demanding their toy. This serves as a way to protect their rights, while simultaneously deescalating the conflict by letting the child know that they will have a turn, just not quite yet.
In the case of one child coveting a toy that actually belongs to another, I invite parents to think about your own possessions. You may cheerfully write out checks to various charities that respectfully ask for your money to do good works that you value. At the same time, you may be loath to give your money to someone who demands it, regardless of how needy they may be. Who wouldn’t feel violated if while riding the subway we came across someone who wanted our jewelry, pocket book, or even newspaper, and simply took it? Children can often be persuaded to give something of theirs so long as their rights are respected. Most children are able to give if they are asked first, and if their experience shows them that it is safe to trust that their toys will be returned.
It is important for children to have something that belongs only to them. This could be a beloved stuffed animal or blankie, or something else that they regard as special. Other children in the family can learn to respect that a particular toy is their brother or sister’s special toy, and is not to be touched without permission. Toddlers can certainly be trusted to figure out the word “mine !” and are well within their rights to use it. Parents can help children ask to join a game, and can help older siblings figure out a role for their younger sister or brother in their game. Eventually this type of problem solving becomes second nature to children, but not without an adult first investing a lot of time. Children should not be forced to play with a sibling. This will cause resentment rather than effective problem solving
One special case that needs mention is the play date. Play dates are unique because all or most of the toys are likely to belong to only one child. No parent wants to invite another child to their house and have to tell them that they cannot play with any of the toys. At the same time, you do not want to throw all your principles out the window and try to force your child to share when they are not ready. It is important to prepare one’s child for a play date before the fact. Parents can ask children either to choose some toys that are special, to put away for personal use later, or to choose several toys they are willing to allow their friend to use. Parents may also want to bring along a choice game or two when going to play dates at other children’s homes.
Conflict is something that many adults shy away from. Watching our children engage in conflict head on can be scary. Young children however, have a special opportunity to learn to resolve conflicts without severing relationships. Children, who live so much in the present moment, do not tend to hold grudges for long. We should grab this opportunity to help our children grow before the stakes start to feel too high. Learning to manage conflict in an assertive yet non-confrontational manner now, will serve them well throughout their lives. Respecting their rights now also frees them to engage wholeheartedly in play.