Monday, March 16, 2009

Kids Handling Conflict

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

One of the most useful things I've picked up in all of my Positive Discipline (PD) reading and in practice has been teaching the kids how to negotiate their own conflicts. In Kids Are Worth It!, Barbara Coloroso has an entire chapter devoted to this subject, and much of Siblings Without Rivalry revolves around this topic, too.

I touched on the subject of negotiations in my post "Positive Discipline and the Trader Principle" but the focus of this post is the process of conflict resolution.

To state what I hope is obvious, people living together in close proximity are bound to have disagreements from time to time. Sometimes, I think that parents believe that either something is wrong when their kids fight (disrupting a fantasy of childhood harmony) or that their conflicts are too juvenile or silly to be taken seriously. This is an observation based on parents I've encountered in real life.

Now I remember what it's like to have siblings and I also know what it's like to live with my spouse. None of these people has ever just done everything I wanted or the way I wanted and, yes, it's really freaking annoying! it can be a problem from time to time.

Teaching the kids how to work through their own conflicts accomplishes two important goals. First, as I think I said in a previous post, I, as Supreme Mommy Extraordinaire, have no wish to be judge, jury, and executioner in their conflicts. If they become dependent on me to solve their conflicts, then that creates a lot of extra work for me and I've already got a lot to do.

Second, I do not want them to arrive at adulthood unable to work through problems. I don't want them to view every conflict as a Complete and Utter Disaster and want to run away from them (this is how I used to be). I don't want them to view each conflict as a Fight to the Death either. Or as an opportunity to bring up every wrong from the past. Or as a way to vent one's anger in a big explosion but then never resolve anything.

I want to provide them with tools for solving problems with other human beings in a rational, respectful way. Because the cold, hard facts here are that while they will one day stop living with each other and us (sniff!), they will have lots of roommates, spouses, coworkers, and colleagues to fight with. And they need to know good ways to handle conflicts.

Old School Method (aka, How it Went Down when I was a Kid)

Two kids are fighting over a toy: "It's mine!"

"No, it's MINE!"

"Moooommmmm: she took my toy and it's mine."

"No I didn't! He told me I could have a turn and then he grabbed it!"

Mom, extremely motivated to make the noise stop, must make a spur-of-the-moment decision. No matter who gets the toy, someone is going to be sad and angry at Mom. How does Mom know how to be fair? Does she even care about justice at this particular moment? Mom is tempted to toss the toy in the trash and tell the kids to hush, but knows the kids are looking to her for an answer: "Give it back to him. It's his."

One kid has won and the other has lost. This is a solution to the problem--but not one that everyone had input into or agreed to. Is this really a solution for the kid who lost the judgment? And is this really a solution for Mom? She is not only the target of some strong emotions (anger, resentment), but will also be expected to arbitrate the next conflict. And she's already got enough on her plate, don't you think?

When the responsibility for solving a conflict is the responsibility of the children involved in the conflict, Mom is no longer in an impossible position. Instead of being asked to solve the problem (one way or the other) for the kids, Mom is now in the position of facilitator, the objective third party who assists the kids in talking through the process of solving the issue.

Taking the same example--two kids screaming and fighting over the same toy, just after the spine-tingling "Moooommmmmm!"

Defining the Problem

Mom says: "Sounds like a problem. What can I do to help?"

Both kids start talking at once, in a hurry to get Mom on their side.

Mom says: "First of all, why don't I be the one to hold the toy while we talk about this problem. Also, I can't understand the problem if you're both talking at once. Morgan, why don't you describe the problem for me?"

Morgan: "Well, I was having the first turn and then he took it away and I wanted a turn!"

Mom: "So you were expecting a turn and you feel mad because he took the toy, right? Okay, Ryan, now you tell me about the problem."

Ryan: "It's MY toy and she didn't tell me she was going to take such a long turn and it's MINE!" [In real life, Ryan's explanation could take minutes. Edited for Clarity, Brevity, and Sanity.]

Mom: "So you weren't expecting her to take such a long turn and you'd like it back, right? Okay, let me make sure we all know what the problem is: Morgan would like a long turn with this toy and Ryan wants the toy back now, yes?"

If I didn't get the problem exactly right, then we'd spend a few more minutes identifying the main issue(s).

Time for a Plan

Mom says: "Before I let go of this toy, you two need a plan. When you've agreed on a plan, then you can let me know who this toy goes to." Often at this point they'll start fussing at each other and I'll remind them that they need a plan.

Morgan, the younger of the two, and somewhat likely to give in to Ryan and his demands because she just doesn't want to deal with it any more (which I can relate to!), will sometimes just say "Okay, I'm all done with my turn." And that will be that.

However, if she has been giving in frequently, or I can tell that she is really wanting a turn and needs some assistance articulating her desire and/or standing up for herself, I'll try to help her out a little more by saying "Would you like me to help you know what to say?" She'll agree to this quite often.

Negotiating a Plan

A typical negotiation will go something like:

"Ryan, I want a turn."

"It's MINE."

"But, I'm not done yet!"

"It's MINE." (He's nothing if not crystal clear on this particular issue.)

If the kids aren't negotiating so much as they are just disagreeing, I'll remind them: "Remember, you guys need a plan. What's your idea for how you can take turns with this toy?"

Morgan: "Well, I want to finish my turn. Can I have 5 more minutes?" (Note: "5 more minutes" means "extra time." Neither of them has any real sense of how long 5 minutes actually is.)

Now, Ryan might agree to this, or work her down to 3 minutes. (Three is her favorite number because she is three. I wonder if she'll change to 4 in a couple of weeks.)

Or he might say: "No! I want it right now!"

So I can say, "All right--you don't want to let her take 5 minutes. What's YOUR idea for a plan with this toy?"

Ryan: "I think she should ask me for a turn next time."

Mom: "So would it be okay if she finished her turn now, if she promised to ask you for a turn next time?"

Ryan: "Yes."

Mom: "Morgan, is that agreeable to you? Will you ask him next time?"

Morgan: "Yes."

Making Sure Everyone is Clear

Mom: "Okay, so it sounds like your plan is that Morgan can finish her turn since she has promised to ask next time, right?"

If everyone agrees, then you're set! Until the next time. :o)


Now this entire process takes a while to complete. Way more time than just me saying "Give the toy back to Ryan." or "Just let her have a turn!" But there are many, many advantages to taking the time to help them learn how to handle their conflicts independently.

First and foremost--they solved their problem. The conflict didn't just go around in circles until somebody's (okay, my) head exploded. An actual solution was reached, a solution that everyone could live with.

Solving problems this way requires good communication skills. Morgan tends to just "Blllaaaarrgghhh!" when in a fight with Ryan and my helping her find appropriate words to say is giving her skills and tools she can use the rest of her life. Ryan tends to barrel over anyone in his way, and the back-and-forth style of the negotiations helps him practice listening to what others have to say, which will (I hope) eventually help him discover that it's only fair that others get to have a say in how things are handled.

Since each child had actual input into the solution, they are much more likely to stick to the agreement. If someone tries to alter the agreement, then the other child (or I) can say, "But you agreed to do XYZ." And that reminder usually helps them go back to the original agreement.

Inherent in the conflict resolution process is using one's mind--the faculty of reason. Just like any other muscle in the body, the brain needs exercise, too. Excellent practice for burgeoning minds.

Anger and resentment aimed at Mom is lessened to a great degree. Because they're kids, they still mistake my assistance for interference and might feel mad at me, but I know from having accidentally reverted to Old School methods, that the "loser" will usually be terribly mad at me for imposing a disagreeable judgment upon them.

The kids are motivated to solve their own problems when they know it's their problem to solve. Nobody can play with the toy until there is a plan. If you don't have a plan for watching movies (such as who gets to pick the next one), you don't watch movies. If you can't agree on who gets to sit where on the couch, then you don't sit on the couch.

Putting the onus for problem-solving on the kids helps them learn to be independent in this realm. They also get practice pursuing their selfish values, while learning that others have selfish values, too. There's that Trader Principle again!

The Downside

This method takes LOTS of time and repetition before the kids can do it on their own. But wait! Didn't I say at the top of this post that Mom has a lot to do already? Yes, yes I did.

But like any good parenting technique, the time and effort you put into it at the beginning pays off in spades later. I do not have to help the kids negotiate their problems to the level of detail described above. Often, I simply need to remind them that they need a plan, watch out to make sure Morgan is getting a fair chance to say what she wants, remind her to use words. In other words, I watch to make sure that the negotiations are playing out in a fair manner.

The other downside is that both kids need to be at least 2-3 years old before the negotiations can really begin to be effective. This doesn't mean that you can't begin until the kids reach that age. You can walk them through the process, especially if there is an older chlid you are trying to teach. Often, I'll speak for the younger child. I'll say "It sounds like Sean wants a turn with that toy. When can he have a turn?" That also helps everyone begin to see the baby as someone with valid needs and wants, too.

An unanticipated downside for me is when the kids are playing with other children who expect adults to handle their problems, and haven't been taught negotiation skills. What I do when conflicts arise is walk them all through the negotiation process as described above. The other child is often bewildered at this process, and I've been told a couple of times that they just want me to make a judgment. A good reply to this request is "Oh, I'm not going to solve your problem for you. But I will help you two solve your own problem." And then forge ahead in the conflict resolution process.

The Payoff

My older kids and their friend Livy are all very good at working through their problems without too much adult intervention. For reference, Ryan will be 7 years old next month and Morgan is 2 weeks away from turning 4. Livy is 5.5, right in between my oldest two kids.

Since they expect to handle their own problems, they will begin stating the problem and coming up with solutions without input from any adult. As I said, I'll watch to make sure things are proceeding in a fair way, especially where Morgan is concerned, since she's younger and still needs more assistance than Livy or Ryan. Parents only get involved if the emotions are running too hot or if they can't agree on a solution.

The solutions they come up with are so creative. One day, the three of them were disagreeing on the use of a particular toy, which has many parts of varying shapes and colors. Instead of coming up with a plan to take turns as I expected them to do, they agreed to divvy up the toy according to color, and each child took pieces of a certain color and went off to do their own thing with them. Blissful peace! Also, extra time to write super long blog posts!

No, they don't do it perfectly every time, but they are improving their technique every time there's a conflict. Since this happens several times a day, they get lots of practice! And you know what? So do I. Having been raised Old School, I have learned better ways to handle my own conflicts with others and have become more confident in solving problems with others in rational, respectful ways.

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