Not Understanding Trauma: What Plagues All Science in Understanding Human Nature

So many see science as only the scientific method. There’s a hypothesis, tests, and then conclusions. Good science in most people’s eyes is marked by large sample sizes and repeatability.

Here is the thing about science: it changes and evolves over time and the APPROACH changes. The approach in fact dictates what will be studied and how. You have to understand that the approach is different based on what you are studying and can affect thinking and conclusions greatly.

The idea of testing what you are studying (the scientific method) certainly was a great scientific advancement in the area of physics. Before the Enlightenment, Aristotle dominated scientific thought. And certainly Aristotle brought a lot to humankind. Whereas Socrates (through Plato) said truth is in the heavens; Aristotle said we could study earth. He was the first biologist and an outstanding one. He documented in detail many animals.

However, Aristotle did not adopt a view that to know truth about causal relationships, you have to test them. For instance, his view on falling objects is they go in a straight line then fall to the earth. He had a complicated system of spheres to explain the movement of the earth and sun, which was dogmatically considered truth for centuries. These were taken as truth without study.

In the Enlightenment, it was to humankind’s great advancement that thinkers started to test things. When Galileo rolled balls down a ramp over and over again, studying them intently, he came up with new and valuable insights about motion. Certainly this approach changed the entire world for the better.

I contend however that this has been applied incorrectly to studying human nature. Most approach the study of humans as if they are balls rolling down the ramp, expecting the same predictability.

The study of humans usually comes down to how they were handled and what the outcome was. For instance, a decades long study about spanking shows it has harmful effects. Certainly I applaud this study. I bring it up but to show the approach: you do X with humans and the result is Y. If we dump humans down the ramp, what happens? This dominates most thinking about studying humans. Scientists ask: is a behavior nature or nurture? And study after study scrambles to find out, trying to get large enough sample sizes.

I propose that human nature cannot be studied until a solid baseline of the typical maturation of a human is developed. In the same way that Aristotle brought enormous detail to understanding animals, we must have a chart of human development from birth on.

This is something I’ve been doing. On this website, you see a “Child Development” tab. It has what I’ve been documenting as childhood developmental milestones. Per the theory that children fall apart at certain times, I’ve been documenting times when children go through such a “stage” where they become difficult to deal with–often becoming whiny, needy, or aggressive. I mark each such stage as a “milestone.” I then document what seems to be the new emerging abilities. I do the work primarily with my own 3 children, taking in feedback of other parents as I receive it.
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Here is one way that a solid baseline would affect studies. There was a study done in which children who only got 11 hours of sleep at night showed greater tendencies towards misbehavior whereas children who got 12 or 13 were well behaved. The conclusion? That parents need to make sure their child get sleep otherwise the child misbehaves. It is the ball going down the ramp: what we do to the child (X) will affect their outcome (Y).

My work shows a different picture: children who go through developmental stages don’t get good sleep and at the same time they tend towards “misbehavior” such as aggressiveness. Nothing you can do will change it. It’s not that the parents are doing anything wrong. If you understood the milestones, you would see those children not getting sleep may have been in a developmental stage. Yes, even just one month, sometimes even one week, makes a difference.

The other major thing that affects studies with humans is a lack of understanding of trauma and its effects.

Here is the thing I have found in my work: it is imperative to do it with children who live in non-punitive homes. And it’s actually more than that. The children have to live in homes where they are fully *accepted* and few demands are placed on the child. The child, as Montessori says, to be studied, must be left free, just as we study live butterflies not dead noes that are mounted.

This has been difficult for me in doing this work. I cannot take everyone’s feedback because of it. If a parent says “my child isn’t listening” or “won’t do what I ask” or “I’ve tried everything, timeouts–everything!–and they are still defiant,” I can’t take their feedback. They have an expectation on the child that seems to be, per the defiance of the child, developmentally inappropriate. The difficult behavior is not necessarily an age-related stage. It is known that punitive measures create rebellion in children. It is imperative that to set a solid baseline of human maturation that children who were deeply respected and loved be the ones who are studied.

I see this issue of unrecognized trauma plague other studies as well. For instance, I read a study about how people tend to retaliate against people who they saw as not being fair. One of the things that trauma affects is the fight or flight response. It may be the trauma inflicted part of the brain that is retaliating over the sense of being treated “unfairly”–an off balance fight or flight response is at work. I can tell you through better emotional health, my instinct to retaliate has greatly diminished. And here’s the thing: almost everyone has deep, painful memories of being treated “unfairly” in childhood. Nearly ALL studies about adults have trauma at play. That’s the difficulty in getting a solid, healthy baseline: it has to be done with children who were deeply, deeply loved. And statements like “You’re a big boy, get over it,” or “Life’s not fair, get used to it” or “How selfish and spoiled you are” are ubiquitous and a form of trauma.

So I propose that instead of trying to study countless little humans to try to determine child development, we must start with a well detailed one with a few children who had this kind of deep love. I loosely think of this as the “Ideal Child Project.” Certainly from there more and more little humans can be studied. But until you can study large batches of children, you need somewhere to start. That’s what my work provides.

I will be shopping for a person or organization with more resources than I to do further work on this. My vision is that in the same way the human genome gets mapped, all childhood developmental stages get mapped. If you are one or know one, please send them this work!

See my book on toddlers, Misbehavior is Growth. My one on preschoolers is in the making.

Misbehavior is Growth

Top 5 Tools for Dealing with Children’s Emotions

In the hierarchy of emotions between parent and child, parents manage their own emotions and field the big emotions of their children, and never the other way around. See this post on the Top 5 Tools for Staying Patient. This one is about dealing with children’s big emotions.

1. Validate Their Emotion

Whatever emotion children are feeling, it is always valid, whether it’s bubbly happiness and joy or sadness and fear. They should be allowed to be scared of thunder, shy to talk to a stranger, hurt after they just scraped their knee, annoyed with their sibling, disappointed with something they created, and sad or upset even if at Disney World. Not all actions are permissible but all feelings are. Learn the language of emotions, which means to identify the emotion they are feeling with a precise word congruent with what they are feeling. “I see you are super angry.” “Oh sweet girl I know you are so sad.” Or simply nod in quiet acknowledgment. When they feel frustrated that they didn’t do a good job, don’t ever repeat any insult they give themselves but acknowledge that they didn’t like something they did. Let them feel all the feels. It’s a tremendous gift to your child to let them feel what they feel–what great acceptance of them.

2. Calm Upset Children Before All Else

If a child is crying or upset, you cannot and should not do anything with them until they are calm. An opposite of this may be if a child is very upset over a conflict with another child and a parent starts in on, “You were wrong! Say your sorry!” This child needs calmed down before asking anything at all about the situation. A child in emotional distress should be seen the same as a child who just scraped their knee. They need Emotional CPR first.

3. Always Acknowledge Their Wish/Need and “Exaggerate” it at Pertinent Times

When a child wants something, at the very least, always acknowledge what they want. Exaggerating their wish or need means accommodating it and then some. If they want a drink, for example, you might get a drink and get a bottle of water ready for later. If you can’t accommodate the need, you might indulge their fantasy greatly. For instance, I was at the grocery store with my daughter. She wanted to get a giant sized tub of whipped cream and I only agreed to a small tub. She was crying and upset in the store. Had I said, “No! I said no!” she would have kept crying. I said, “I know how much you want that big tub. I wish we had a tub as big as this whole store!” She stopped crying. Another handy tool is to draw something they want if you can’t give it. This works well also at bedtime if they want you to stay with them but you can’t. You might draw a picture of the two of you together or leave them with some other tangible thing.

4. Anticipate Their Need

Anticipate their need ahead of time. One way this applies is to serve meals at regular times in anticipation of when they are likely to be hungry. For preschoolers, you can anticipate that they will want you to help them put shoes on, go potty, etc. It has less to do with their inability to do these things and more their desire to have connection with you. This work on childhood developmental milestones can help anticipate the need in a big way. Look through some of the milestones and imagine how you might react to a whining child. It can help prepare your heart.

5. Descriptive Praise

There is a lot of confusion about praise, and there really need not be. Praise intended to manipulate a child into a desired outcome is not healthy–and is also not praise. Praise in genuine admiration of something the child does, for no other reason than to celebrate their good quality or accomplishment, is always good. Think of it as a compliment if that makes it easier. It should be specific and detailed. Take notice of the creative efforts of your children. If they come up to you excitedly with a rod they made out of Unifix cubes, notice that they put a red one on the bottom, then two blues, then a yellow one, etc. I see no reason why this is controversial. I also see no reason why we shouldn’t go around complimenting people with our authentic admiration all the time. Also, since we’re on the topic, never insult your child. Ever.

This list of Top 5 Tools will be in my upcoming book Misbehavior is Growth: Preschoolers. A more expanded version of them is in my first book, Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years.

Follow me at The Observant Mom on Facebook

Preschool Conflict Resolution Tool: Make a Book about a Conflict with the Child

As anyone who has read Misbehavior is Growth or reads my blog, The Observant Mom, knows, I favor an educative approach with children. Instead of admonishing bad behavior, teach ideal behavior. I also put a heavy emphasis on modeling healthy conflict resolution. This tool of making a book with a child about a conflict that has happened is both–and is long lasting and teaches so much more.

It’s a real simple idea: make a book about something that went wrong and with the final solution. I thought of the idea when my son, around 4 years old, told me books were made at book factories. I wanted to make a book with him to show what an “author” was. What better way to teach that than to do it? It turned out to be so much more. The first question was: what to make a book out of? Well, why not make it something about him. A book where he’s the star! We made a book called “The Boy Who Got a Hair Cut.” It was about how he was scared to get his hair cut but his dad talked to him to find out that the issue was he was worried his ear would get cut. His dad then worked with him to make sure he and his ear felt safe. It was a great book to read over and over again. It reminded him that we would approach him with this kind of love. It reminded us that this is the ideal parents we strive to be. And it was a huge hit when I showed it to grandma, my husband’s mother.

I made one with my daughter as well. I wrote about how you may as well be ready with social lessons when a child turns 4. This book idea is one way of providing an educative social lesson to a child. It’s not so much a lesson to tell them how to behave but to show that when conflicts arise, mom and dad and whoever else will work towards a solution. Then it’s forever memorialized in your book! It can help them learn to read too–what an interesting book to want to read! Here was our book with my daughter about “The Day We Forgot Kitty.”

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The Day We Forgot Kitty by Mom
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We went to “Let’s Play,” an indoor playground
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It was time to go. We forgot kitty!
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Emily misses kitty!

When I made the book with my kids, they wanted to make sure certain details were added. Here they wanted to make sure that daddy and Henry were recognized as going with us to rescue Henry. Relationships are so important to them!

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We rescued Kitty with dad and Henry
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Mom gives Kitty to Emily. Emily is so happy!

Do you know anyone who would love this idea? Please share it with them.

For more educative ideas, find me on Facebook as The Observant Mom and see my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years.

The Four Levels of Energy

This is something I put together to manage energy and over time helped in ways I didn’t even know it would help. It’s an energy scale with 4 levels and how to handle being in any of the levels.

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The first level is you are highly energetic. That’s a great time to do something creative. The second is you are OK but not “euphoric.” Doing normal things is good. The third and fourth are when you are drained and what I want to address.

The third level is when you are just kind of down. A pep talk might help. Telling yourself, “Maybe I could make some better choices” might help. Kicking yourself in the butt to just to the laundry so you have time later is wise.

The fourth level is different. It’s when you are completely beat dead. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation, an illness, or looming dark feelings.

I think when people give advice to people who are down, they are far too quick to assume that a person is in the third level as opposed to the fourth. “The dishes can wait!” is an example of advice that is going to be poorly received by someone in the fourth level. They are thinking, “And who else will do them? I need them done. I am drained. I need help.” “The dishes can wait” is usually terrible advice anyway.

When you are in the fourth level, you need to go rest. You need to speak up for yourself as soon as possible. Dragging on like this will make it worse. The quicker you are about speaking up, the less time you will need to recover. You’ll get to the third, then second, then first levels quicker and be there more often.

The way I didn’t realize it would help me is that I monitor this for my loved ones now too. If I see my husband is burned out, I offer to let him go sleep or do something rejuvenating. I don’t force it. I don’t tell him, “Oh you need a day to do X. I INSIST you do X. Here I bought you all the stuff so you can do X.” I just offer the time and space for him to rejuvenate and he has full control over what it is. Please just take the time and come back full of energy!

Do you have a similar “energy management” system? How might this help you in the effort to stay strong and patient during difficult parenting challenges?

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, which has other emotional regulation tools

When a Child Turns 4, You May as Well be Ready with Lessons About Social Behavior

As a child turns 4, they really start to grow in creativity. They have BIG ideas. They might start to ask “what if ” questions. Like “What if you had my head and I had your head?” They might ask, “Could we make my brother a girl?” They might come up with something clever, like a dance where the spin around then fall to the floor dramatically, and demand you “watch their moves!” They may become enamored with super heroes and how they can fly and lasso bad guys. They want to make things happen. This is the start of Preschool Milestone 14, which I’ve yet to name.

With all this new growth comes odd behaviors. In their desire to make things happen, they take more risks, and some of them aren’t healthy. They might slam doors. They might really, really aggravate their brother or sister. There is a big chance they will harass someone and won’t stop even when asked to “Stop.”

Even if you’ve already explained how to shut doors nicely and how to to respect others, you are likely to find yourself revisiting these issues again. I find 4 year olds are remarkably receptive to formal lessons and understanding rules. The idea is to teach them ideal behavior rather than admonish them about bad behavior. Four year olds respond really well to this educative approach. If you don’t have one, I would recommend a chalkboard or white board for impromptu lessons as they arise. My favorite way to teach social lessons is to recreate the conflict for them on a chalk board or white board.

This is one we did. My daughter kept hugging and tackling her brother to the ground. He kept saying “STOP” and she wouldn’t. So I drew this on the chalk board. I showed what happened. And then, and this is super important, show the ideal way of handling it first. The reason: as soon as you draw something, your child will do it. If you draw the unideal way first, they will copy that immediately. You want them to get hands-on practice doing it nicely. So I drew her stopping after he asked her to stop and showed how everyone was happy:

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I do typically draw the unideal way as well. This is optional. I do think it’s nice to have things to compare to so the child knows what’s good and bad. Be prepared they will do the unideal way. This turned out to be a win for us, because I then got to coach my son about how he could handle it when this happens. I told him he could very forcefully tell his sister, “I don’t like that!”

I did another lesson like this where I showed my daughter what was happening when she kept trying to push her brother off the swing. In the moment, I admit I got very angry. Be prepared for this behavior so you can respond better than I did. Later, I did a lesson on the chalk board like this. She looked at it and said, “Oh. I’m sorry.” I really felt like our relationship was salvaged. Before I felt terrible for yelling but once I saw how she easily responded to the lesson, I was reminded of what an astute girl she is and how good she is at relationships. Seeing wins like this help me re-center and refuel.

Be prepared for this behavior if out in public. My daughter kept demanding her dance instructor, for instance, watch her cool, new moves. The director was not impressed, apparently. Oh how I wish more understood these stages!

Some other lessons you might do are showing them how to shut a door quietly or any other lesson about social behavior. You might also like the tools of Four Year Olds, If Needed, Can Handle More Rules and Restrictions and Preschool Milestone Conflict Tool: Family Meetings

I’d like to make a gentle suggestion to not see the child doing this as “testing boundaries.” I’d like to change it to “pushing their own limits” or “growing greatly in creativity” or “finding their inner super hero.” The idea behind my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth, is that we deal with the aggressive behavior (with educative means as described) but we see this as growth and use it to nurture what is growing inside them. So, what can I do to nurture this skill set? What BIG and IMPORTANT things can I get my 4 year old doing? Hmmmm…..

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

 

You’re Right: Traditional Education Sucks

It is totally infuriating to me when someone says something like “Only 20% (sometimes 5%) of students think and work hard at school. The rest of them are lazy and will fail.”

Really? A 80-95% fail rate and the problem is the students? No wonder Progressives hate education: it’s a waste of time!

Yes, traditional education is bad. It’s bad because it’s evaluative. It puts too much responsibility on the child. It gives very little thought or support to the needs of a child in how they learn, then expects performance. Those who make it, make it. Those who fail–the 95%–are losers.

But I take serious issue with Progressives who say to simply delay education or to simply have less of it. It’s as if they want to fight poison by taking less of it. No, education needs a fundamental uprooting from bottom up and top down. We need to learn a better, more accepting, more playful language while educating our children. You see that’s the whole thing: it can be and should be a joy. But you need to get away from this blame-oriented and evaluative approach. Completely.

Bad traditional approaches start when children learn to read. When a child is learning to read, they are likely taught letter sounds, but when decoding the letters in a word, they get very little assist. All responsibility is put on them–and anything else is seeing as giving away the answer, which will somehow result in children “just memorizing words in any haphazard way.” They are told, for instance, to sound out “c-a-t” on their own. The adult might say, “Come on, you can do it, you have to do it … what does this say … come on, ‘c,’ ‘c,’ ‘c’ …. oh why bother. It’s like pulling teeth.” It’s too much. It’s too much to ask a child to decode the sounds and make a word, without any further assists.

In the approach I put together, how to do this is broken down into the simplest of steps and the child is given the most easy of assists to get to the happy result of reading. For instance, at one step, to teach a child to read, they match the movable letters “c,” “a,” and “t” to those very letters spelled out right in front of them with a picture of a cat there. Through this simple matching game, they start to get the idea. It’s so easy. It’s a joy. And they read.  See my program here: Get Children Reading! We can’t just delay reading until children are 7. We must get better at it. (And if you want to delay it, that’s your right, but please outline how you would do it. Simply delaying it is not enough of an answer.)

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As far as “learning in any haphazard way,” actually their brain is geared to integrate. Giving them answers in straight forward ways doesn’t result in chaos, it results in remarkable clarity and precision. You see, that’s the whole secret: trusting their mind and its drive to learn.

Now take math. Math is an exciting topic. Read through the history of the development of math, and it’s a riveting, breath taking story with drama, persecution, and triumph. But children don’t know that. They aren’t taught the history of math, just the end results, which they are expected to master in nothing but a mechanical way. It is notoriously an awful subject for the majority of children.

Of course it meets this fate. The teaching of math is thick with the idea that the child must perform on their own, using methods that actually stunt their natural curiosity in numbers. See this study about the harmful effects of carrying and borrowing which found that teaching children to carry the 1 cause them to get worse at mental math between second and forth grade. Children aren’t allowed to have calculators when solving problems. They can’t look at the back of the book for answers. They might be expected to stand up and say memorization tables from memory.

There are much better ways. When a child must memorize addition facts or multiplication tables, they bypass crucial steps to play around with those tables and notice patterns. Like, “Wow. 9 + 2 is 11. I can break that up into 9 + 1 to make 10 and 1 more is 11.” If they learn it like this, they learn it. They also set up better foundations for later like “99 + 32 can be broken up into 100 + 32.”

When we do math at our house, we do it as a joy. We sit with calculators out. My children always have the right to look at the back for the answer. When I teach a new concept, the answer is right there in front of them. For instance, when my son wrote 1 – 100 on a 10 X 10 grid, I did one right alongside with him and gave it to him so he could see the answer. He still struggled with it. He still thought about it and did it. It was not just busywork to copy. It was a clear assist, a conceptually clear concept, a clear demonstration of what was right. It reduces needless complexity and confusion, which allows him to move on to bigger challenges. I let him have a calculator (he is currently 6) and he often uses it to solve real world problems. He loves to do patterns on it like “what happens if I keep adding 3 over and over again?” It’s an incredible learning tool. That it is ubiquitous for teachers and parents to deny a child a calculator out of a fear of cheating is … it’s maddening. It’s criminal. We’re not raising children to do only that which a calculator can do.

Here is my daughter, at 3, counting the dots on 3 dice to add 3 + 5 + 2. It’s a hand-on way to learn and the answer is right there: you can physically see that 3 and 5 and 2 make 10. We are playing a “Tic Tac Toe Math” game. I include also the picture of the look of joy on her face after she added the numbers:

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When we do any educational activity in our homeschool, we approach it with joy. It should feel like you are cozied up in warm blankets, drinking a coffee, and learning. It should not feel like pressure or a fight.

This is my son happily doing work out of a workbook. Once I started doing “Workbook Buddy” with him where I do a question then he does a question, he finally liked this work. In fact, after a few questions, he often takes over. When I tried just giving it to him, after but a few examples, putting the responsibility on him to finish the work (something not important to him in the least) he all but revolted.

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Or take history. History is a great adventure–the story of all stories to tell. Yet it’s reduced to facts and figures in boring text books.

We told history as a set of stories, one after the other, and put them on a timeline in my son’s bedroom. His memory of the stories is beyond stunning. We can bring up almost anything–from WWII to St. Nicholas–and he remembers it and applies it to life situations. Maybe because he wakes up to this timeline every day, which he can ponder at will:

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Finally, the last subject I want to look at: science. One of the worst practices in traditional approaches is demanding a child develop a hypothesis before a science experiment is done. Teachers do this, “What do you think will happen Guess!” And that’s what it is: a guess. That’s not how hypothesis work. Hypothesis are educated guesses. Asking a child, who has no experience with what you are about to do, to guess is making an uneducated guess. And it shows the absurdity of this pure “cognitive” approach: a child is expected to have an answer literally before the information has been presented to him or her. I take this to further task here, “Stop Questioning Students Before Teaching Them.”

One science experiment we did: a melting point race. Which will melt first: water, butter, or chocolate? It’s exciting to find out!

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My children exploring the results after we reversed it and froze them:

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See the elementary science program that I am developing. It has hands-on experiments done in a highly conceptual and playful way. I give tips on how to teach without being evaluative.

When children are failing, we need to go to them, not the other way around. When a child is not reading well for example, stop labeling them and putting them in a remedial class or group. Identify, cater to them, and move on. Give them books at a level lower than average that they can handle and that they can enjoy.

The problem is not the students. The problem is the educational approach–the problem is the adults. This is THE problem: an inversion of responsibility, putting the problem on children instead of adults. Until adults take responsibility for this, you will not see a better success rate. You will also see the people it produces: blame-oriented people who seek to avoid punishment, not seek joy. This is THE issue of our lifetime, in my opinion. Want to reduce violence? Have better relationships? Have a world of problem solvers? End traditional education. Demand educational freedom and let those with alternative views try their hand at education.

If you know of anyone who is struggling with traditional education, please send them this article!

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years about the developmental stages children go through and understanding them to develop a highly sophisticated educational philosophy.

Misbehavior is Growth

Four Year Olds, if Needed, Can Handle More Rules and Restrictions

As a child nears the age of 4, they can handle rules and restrictions a lot better than before. Preschool Milestone 13 starts around 3 years, 10 months and brings with it a child who can hold many complex variables in their mind and make decisions with them. They can play a more advanced game like a modified (cooperative) version of Clue. They can make the decision of when to cross the road pretty well (though I still recommend supervision). One thing I found, almost by accident, is that if need be, you can ask of them to follow rules and they adhere so much better.

Here is a story from when my daughter was just about to turn 4 years old. I told this story as an example of being willing to sit through difficult emotions (my own):

I was having a real issue going to karate with my kids. There is not enough room for people to sit, let alone with 2 active, small children. Instructors kept asking the children to be quiet. Parents, embarrassed by this, did nasty things to their kids to get them to be quiet. I refuse to be a yeller and was in a pickle. (And I have a real issue with being around parents who are nasty to their child, compounding my emotions in the situation.) I threw my phone at my daughter, who tends to be a screamer, something I really don’t want to do, just to deal with it in the moment. I felt angry that they don’t have a better design to deal with this life problem and questioned if maybe we should withdraw.

I read the rules on their board. It was like … be on time, sit quietly, etc. I was straight up mad, but I accepted that they want a quiet atmosphere. I started to work with my daughter on being quiet. She proudly told me, “Ok! I won’t scream! I’ll be quiiiiiieeeet!” And she did. She stepped up and did. I was shocked. I wondered why I doubted my child so much.

How can this help you? Can you prep a kid before going somewhere about what you expect of them? Perhaps to be quiet at the library? Perhaps to work on something like if a child has a toy, you can’t take it from them? Would it help to work with them, in calm times, about communicating their needs with words instead of whines?

You might also like the idea of having family meetings starting at this age to try to manage behavior, as they can talk about the “rules” that the family abides by and can give their input and also know what their parents want.

My daughter at this age:

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See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years for more highly age-related descriptions, tools, and activities.

 

For Life Skills and a More Peaceful World: A Negotiation-Based Approach to Conflict Resolution with Preschoolers

Someone directly solicited my input on the following conflict between children. This is from a Facebook post from someone else, which was spread as a photo:

MY CHILD IS NOT REQUIRED TO SHARE WITH YOURS.

As soon as we walked in the park, Carson was approached by at least 6 boys, all at once demanding that he share his transformer, Minecraft figure, and truck. He was visibly overwhelmed and clutched them to his chest as the boys reached for them. He looked at me.

‘You can tell them no, Carson,” I said. ‘Just say no. You don’t have to say anything else.’

Of course, as soon as he said no, the boys ran to tattle to me that he was not sharing. I said, ‘He doesn’t have to share with you. He said no. If he wants to share, he will.’ That got me some dirty looks from other parents. Here is the thing though:

If I, an adult, walked into the park eating a sandwich, am I required to share my sandwich with strangers in the park? No! Would any well-mannered adult, a stranger, reach out to help themselves to my sandwich, and get huffy I pulled it away? No again.

I am a homeschool mom of 3 children. My children, at the time of writing this, are 6, 4, and 2. I have sat in many baseball stands, sidelines at karate, library classes, playdates, and more and seen children together and all of their many conflicts. In particular, I’ve seen my own children operate. I think this behavior of children demanding that other children share and then running off to tattle should be seen as abnormal. These are children who have not had proper conflict resolution skills imparted on to them.

I don’t intend to be judgmental of the woman in the story. I am going to pick apart the story entirely for educative purposes. Please forgive me if I come across as harsh. I <3 her and her son Carson, and I share her belief that Carson should not have to share.

It was difficult for me to answer this question at first, which is how I would respond as this mom, because the behavior of the other boys is not how my children would operate. I don’t see it often. My children, specifically the 6 year old and 4 year old, have largely taken over the conflict resolution process. If there was a toy they were fighting over, they would most likely negotiate it between each other. They very often do this, and come to an ideal solution that works for both of them with little guidance from me. Showing you how I imparted this skill set is what I want to show you in this article.

The main issue in the story, and many conflicts, is that adults have taken over and dictated the solutions to children. How often do you hear, “Jim and Grace: share!” as the children in this story no doubt have heard. The children have learned to run to adults to settle conflicts as evidenced by how the children in the story ran to tattle to their parents–something my children never do. (When they do come to me, it’s because there is an especially difficult problem to solve or one is having an especially hard day; it’s not to tattle on the other with the expectation that I punish the other.)

The mom who told her child it’s OK not to share also dictated a solution. She told her son, “Just say no, Carson. You don’t have to tell them anything else.” This is a specific way to handle this problem, which overrides the child’s thoughts, potential desires, and underestimates his ability to solve the problem. First, his emotions needed to be dealt with first. It is a bit much to even ask him to simply say “no” while he is filled with anxiety. So that’s the first problem. The second problem is that it assumed too much about what may have actually been going on in his brain. It is possible, after he is calm and you talked to him, that Carson may have been OK with sharing with those boys.

In the approach I am going to put forward, she would first untangle big emotions and help raise everyone’s awareness. She might tell him, “I see how shaken you are.” She might tell the other boys, “It looks like he doesn’t want to share right now.” Once you establish this safe environment, calming the boy down and getting the other boys to temporarily back off, then you start in on a solution–without dictating it.  Get his genuine feelings about it, and then what to do will likely become obvious.

Rejecting Punitive Means for a Better World

The following approach to conflict resolution, which I proudly call negotiation-based first and foremost rejects punitive measures to deal with children. It is vitally important if we wish to see a world without the use of force or violence that we use non-punitive models of dealing with behavior at young ages.

Way too often conflicts are settled by force even in adult society. It is clear as day, for instance, that those in leadership positions tend to clamor for power. Whether  it’s a conservative waging a drug war, a leftist penalizing people for hate speech, or many other more mild or more exaggerated examples, politicians in charge primarily enforce their vision of society on others through the use of force. The majority of political debates are not about how people can be more free or how we can find more solutions, but which use of force should be applied and why. For many, it seems to be the only solution they understand.

On a more local level, when I watch teenagers be given leadership roles over others, I often see that they wield their power with glee, being harsh on their subjects for sole reason to be harsh–it is after all what they’ve been taught is leadership. This is true even in respectable organizations that try to teach values, but which still rely on punitive measures for discipline. It is a culture that engenders toxic masculinity and mean girls–yes even at religious organizations, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, sports team, and more. Corporations often default to punitive and blame-oriented solutions to “motivate” employees. These are all illiberal and ineffective ways of dealing with people, which destroy joy, productivity, and many other things.

If people are to grow up loving peace and freedom and with a heart and mind to solve problems, we must let them feel what being left to peace and freedom feels like at early ages.

A Negotiation-Based Approach for the Good of the Child

But more more than creating a better world, this non-punitive, negotiation-based approach will impart an impressive set of life skills to children. It is, no doubt, an approach which requires a higher level of skill on the adults part than any other current approach with children. But I all but passionately plea with you to consider it even in the preschool years when the very skills regarding social conflict are developing. In the not so long run,it will make your job easier when your children take the process over. And even more than that, it will make a deep impression on a child’s character during these sensitive, forming years. Children who were deeply accepted, deeply felt, powerfully guided, and respected simply glow.

But first it means dealing with delicate and even shocking issues in non-punitive ways. Are you ready?

Why “Negotiation-Based”?

I call this approach negotiation-based, because that’s what it is. It applies the central principles of negotiation, which apply also to adults, to young children, focusing on their unique status and problems. This idea of “negotiating” with children is often mocked, and I’d like to address this first.

This article by Janet Lansbury is entitled, “Stop Negotiating with Your Toddler.” This was the “negotiation” that a parent was using and was asking about:

At nap time recently, [her child] pulled my glasses off my face and refused to give them back. I said give them back or I will have to take something of yours. (What are the options here?) After he refused to give them back, I pried them from his hands and put his toy on a shelf. He cried, and I left the room. My husband returned, talked to him, and gave him back his toy.

In the morning, my son and I talked about the glasses and consequences. He hasn’t done it since, but I didn’t feel very good about how I handled the situation. It’s a constant cycle of what feels like threats (if this/ then that) and taking the stuff he loves. What’s left? (Emphasis mine)

This isn’t negotiation. What the mom did was a threat: do something or I’m taking something. Pretend it’s an adult: stop walking across my lawn or I’m taking your [whatever]. The lady who asked the question herself said it was a threat, yet the title of the article is about “negotiation.” Wut. This mom did try to appeal to the idea that a child can understand a “if, then ..” situation, which the child perhaps can’t, certainly not when upset. This is an appeal to cognitive understanding, but this is not negotiation.

Perhaps “negotiation” is given a bad name because people think it’s entirely reason-based. It’s not. It begins with an emotional component. Negotiating with adults starts with an emotional component too. A conflict by definition means both parties are upset. Those emotions must be dealt with first. Yes there is a very strong reason-based component, but it’s an entire package. Let’s stop dichotomizing emotions and reason and throwing one or the other out because we’ve seen only bad versions of them.

Other people think “negotiating” means perhaps pleading with, bribing, or nagging a child. That’s also not what it is. It’s a package with three main components: active listening, boundary setting, and problem solving.

A Negotiation-Based Approach

I learned about what I am about to put forth primarily from Dr. Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. I have read many approaches to preschoolers. I favor this negotiation-based approach as put forth by Dr. Gordon, even though he wrote his book about teenagers. I also round this approach out with what I have read about young children’s emotions and how to handle them. I also insert my own knowledge of the developmental stages that children go through. My point: I’ve evaluated many thinkers, picked the best, blended some together, and added my own observations for what I describe here.

In this approach, all issues are seen as unresolved needs. Let’s say a preschooler won’t get into a car seat. The issue is not that the child is being disrespectful. Let’s say they are crying. The issue is not that their cry is an undesirable behavior that we want to discourage. Their cry and defiance is seen as communication. You have a conflict of needs here. You want them to get into the car seat. They wanted to keep doing the fun activity you took them from. That’s it. That’s the issue that needs dealt with. We are not going to attempt to manipulate the child to be more cooperative in the future. We’re not going to bribe them (though if this works; it works, but I suspect it works mainly because you unintentionally satisfied the underlying need). We are not going to “ignore” their cries in an attempt to “not reward” this behavior either–something I am most opposed to and will go into detail further down. We deal with the issue directly, finding a solution that works for them and you.

In this example, dealing with the issue might mean talking to them about how fun the activity was that they are leaving. Sometimes it means giving something similar in the car. Sometimes it means giving something yet more fun and distracting, perhaps telling them all about their favorite movie: their primary need, after all, is time with you. Sometimes, though this will probably be rare, it means picking them up and just buckling them (this doesn’t usually go well). But we always acknowledge their point of view. With a remarkably high success rate, the result is a comfortable, cooperative child.

The other major principle, and I learned this from Dr. Gordon, is to identify who owns the problem. This is so crucial. Accept this: the fact that you want to get the child in the car seat is your problem. It’s not the child’s problem. When a person decides to “ignore” a child’s cries, for instance, they are attempting to manipulate the child into acting a different way to make the process go smoother. I hate this advice. I hate this advice. I hate this advice. You’ve just made your problem their problem. The problem is on their shoulders: they are too whiny and difficult and need to stop. Who owns the problem will greatly affect your approach.

So here are the three principles.

Boundary Setting

When you’ve established that you own a problem, you employ boundary setting. The main tool with boundary setting are I-statements.

What is so crucial here is you simply state your concern without dictating to the other person that they do anything at all. You keep the problem where it resides: with you. You air your concern and you trust that the other person likely has empathy to respond.

Can I stray just a bit and tell you how much this helped me in my marriage? It was everything I had in me sometimes to not yell at my husband, “Well just go do what you want!” or something similar. (I’ll save details for us.) During especially trying times, and when I was still truly learning this approach, I remember how much I held back, specifically not dictating a solution, during intense times, due to my understanding of healthy negotiation. It is hard. It is so hard. But so worth it.

With preschoolers, this is the exact thing we must desist from. We must not tell them exactly how to solve any given problem. We provide mentorship, guidance, a sounding board, a calm presence–so many things–but not the exact solution. They must learn the language of healthy negotiation.

An I-statement has three parts. (1) The offending behavior (2) How you feel about it (3) Why. Dr. Gordon says it’s the “why” part that people so often miss. If a preschooler is riding their tricycle in the house, it must be, “(1) I don’t like (2) when you ride your tricycle in the house (3) because you might run into walls or hit your sister.” That third part must be there. This I-statement is said as opposed to anything that dictates a solution such as “STOP!” or “GO OUTSIDE AND DO THAT!” In using this approach, the problem of solving it is turned over to the child. They might say something like, “Well what if I’m really careful”–and then they are.

There is a constant hum in our house of I-statements. “I’m sad that … ” I’m disappointed that … ” “I’m worried that … ” This last one is said most often. My children have absolutely picked up on it. They know how to identify their own problem or need and verbalize it exactly like this. It really helps in resolving conflict. Instead of rushing over and pushing their brother or sister, they can say, “I’m worried you will fall off the stairs!” Pushing their brother or sister may have otherwise been their solution to making sure their brother or sister didn’t fall. That they use I-statements so readily really helps to get to what they are thinking. And underneath children’s odd behavior is usually a desire to do something right or compassionate.

Active Listening

If it is the child who owns the problem, you employ active listening.

The first step with this is almost always geared towards emotions. Children, especially preschoolers, may be flooded with emotions. I found these emotions were actually much worse at the ages of 4 – 5 than they were at 3 – 4. When something happens that they are upset about, they are likely to go way off the Richter scale. It is going to come out as very, very, VERY angry emotions. They might become aggressive. They might whine a lot. It’s not pretty. You need to deal with the underlying need.

The first approach is to always identify the emotion. “I see how angry you are.” Try not to make this a “You” statement. If you say something like “You are very angry right now,” they might become argumentative. “No, I’m not!” Try also saying “I see how angry you are right now,” emphasizing for both you and them that the feeling is temporary. It can and likely will dissipate soon. Either way, the emotion they are experiencing should always be met with sincere acceptance. It’s understandable that they think someone just stole their toy and they are angry–and then dug their nails into their brother. They do not have the maturity yet to deal with this in a peaceful manner. It’s our job to make room for that. This will go terribly at first.

For the preschool years especially, I really exaggerate the emotion. My son at 4 was pounding on a calculator once because he couldn’t get “0” to repeat several times. It just said “0” and not “00000000” like he wanted. I said to him, “I see how angry you are. I bet you want to throw the calculator out the window!” He said, stunned, “No, mommy, that would hurt the calculator.” Right. He calmed down after this. Or another time my daughter, 3, had dug her nails into her brother because she thought he was taking her toy. I said to her, “If we need to, we’ll get you 100 toys.” This calmed her down greatly.

Only after all these emotions are dealt with can you get them to communicate their real need. Please do not ask them to “use their words” while emotionally flooded like this. I found children easily give their thoughts. If you practice I-statements as previously described, they already have that language and can communicate to you their problems.

The other thing to do when coming upon a conflict with preschoolers is to just start describing things. “I see a vase spilled over.” “I see this board game spread all over the floor.” “I see how Emily is crying really hard.” In doing this, you might find they start filling in the holes of how it got to be that way. If you are non-punitive in your approach, they are much more likely to fess up to what happened so you can help them through it.

Problem Solving

If you have stated your need and you’ve listened to theirs and nothing is getting resolved, you have a conflict of needs. You need to go to a problem solving stage.

First, I leave open the possibility that children might solve the problem on their own. Unless a child is in extreme pain, during a conflict, I give them at least 30 seconds before I step in. Here is my son at 4 years old arranging with his sister a deal where they each took turns taking a bite of the very last piece of bacon. I’m willing to handle some germs for the sake of problem solving in action.

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For tougher issues, in a negotiation-based approach with older children, it means sitting down together and brainstorming. That is not possible with preschoolers, who do not have the long-range planning yet, although which shows up somewhat in the late 4s.

Instead, I favor modeling problem solving over and over for them. You, the adult, come up with a creative solution. This will infuse them with the idea that solutions to problems likely exist, even if not immediately seen.

Doing this might mean providing safety so one child isn’t hitting another. It might mean distracting a young child temporarily. It could mean lots of things. It’s hard to exhaustively cover the possibilities here. On my summaries of the child development milestones, I have ideas attached to each milestone of how to solve typical problems that arise. My ideas often involve doing something to give them in fantasy what they can’t have in reality. Or doing something in high alignment with their development, meeting a developmental need in the time of a conflict, which can help. Often times in the preschool years, problem solving means giving a lesson to help them untangle questions they have about how to solve something. See my post The Time my 5-Year-Old Stomped on His Sister in Public for an example.

Now, let’s employ this approach to some examples.

Whose Toy Is It?

Here is an example from a story I read a mother tell on social media.

She and her daughter were at the beach. Another child was playing with sea shells. Her daughter went to join this child. The mother stepped in and told her to wait her turn. Then it was her daughter’s turn and another boy came and took all the sea shells. The daughter was left in tears. On social media, other mothers piled in to tell the mom she should have confronted the “little brat” because “her daughter can’t defend herself yet.”

Let’s rewind this story to the beginning. It would have been fine for her daughter to go up to the first child and attempt to join the first child who was playing with the sea shells. I find children are remarkable at connecting with each other. I’ve watched my children go up to complete strangers and arrange fun games spontaneously. My daughter and two other girls, all about 3 or 4 years old, spontaneously put on a play together once. And this was especially beautiful because the prior time I was at this place, a parent chased her kid away from the play area, in the name of “wait your turn” as my daughter was in there. (It was a small house with a window and puppets in it.) And, yet, when allowed to just be together, the children were not offended or territorial but connected in a fun and tremendously healthy way: putting on a play together. (Yay, imaginative play!) My son often organizes games of tag with random children at the playground. Children around the world are known to spontaneously organize games of pick up. They are wired to connect. Let them!

Back to the story, once the child was told they must wait their turn, they are put in a submissive position. The daughter, the “good” one, is doing as is told–but is also neutered to act. When the boy came running along and took all the sea shells, she can feel nothing but injustice. And now a typical a stereotype has been created and reinforced: the “good” girl and the “bad” boy.

I consider that boy not to be bad but to be that mother’s muse–and he was. She went on to social media to find better answers. I didn’t respond but this is my thought: it is OK to let children work things out on their own at first, assuming no one is in any physical or emotional distress. If, and only if, tension is created, an adult should step in to help them handle it wisely. If the girl had gone up and asked to play with the sea shells, the other child may have been agreeable. And now it’s a mega-win. The key is to not dictate a solution.

When They Become Aggressive

This example really breaks down the steps of negotiation-based conflict resolution and for one of the worst case scenarios: when a child is aggressive.

Let’s say you have two children: One, a boy, is 4 1/2 and another, a girl, is 2. (Confession: These are my kids and this actually happened). The 4 year old is using the chalkboard, doing mathematical equations. The 2 year old, who is always interested in her big brother, comes to the chalkboard, with her own chalk, eager to copy her older brother. The 4-year old shouts at her, then growls, trying to threaten her to go away.

Step One: Manage Your Emotions

I’ll tell you some things that go through my brain when this happens, which, right or wrong, contribute to the situation. First, I’m thinking: I really wish her brother would let her play with him. She no doubt would learn from him. Is it really a big deal that she scribbles next to him while he does equations? Second, I’m thinking: G%$#$&%, my 4-year old is being a jerk.

It is clear the aggressive behavior needs to stop. I admit I used to get so over the top mad at my 4-year old for being aggressive towards his sister, that I didn’t care if he continued his original activity. The following are better steps to handle this situation.

Negotiation has an emotional component and one of those components is your emotions as a parent. The very first thing to do in this situation is manage your own emotions. I cannot deal with the situation if I am angry. I learned from Dr. Tsabary to ask, “what am I really feeling?” in times of emotional outburst. Just by identifying it–I am angry at my son–helps to deal with it better. A deep breath, counting to 4 and back, is not just cliche advice, it’s neurologically proven effective advice. This prevents you from adding to the chaos such as if you were to hit or yell.

Step Two: Provide Safety 

The second thing is safety. I physically restrained my son, to stop the aggression. Notice how proactive this is. This approach is not passive. It is in fact more proactive and more hands on than the parent who tries to control the behavior by yelling at the child (probably about what the rules are) from a distance. Go to the child and be physically present. Notice that physically restraining him is a bit like a hug.

Step Three: Calm the Child Down

This next step focuses on calming the child down. I then asked my son to take a deep breath too. I told him I had to protect his sister, and when he was calm, I could let him go.

Step Four: Find the Solution

In this situation, after my son was calm, I gently lifted his sister up and away from the chalkboard, and got her doing something else. Happily, at 2 years old, she is very easily distracted like this. Per my commitment to indeed make him feel safe and secure to do his activities to his heart’s content, without anyone taking from him what he was doing, I told my son that he had a right to use the chalkboard until he was done.

I didn’t punish him. I didn’t make him stop doing what he was doing. I in fact let him continue using the chalkboard, despite the aggressive behavior. Some would probably disagree with this and say I just rewarded bad behavior. I strongly disagree and this thinking is what erroneously stops this approach from being used. First, punishment is not a teacher. It gains temporary obedience. It does not give a lesson learned. Positive Discipline books argue that people cannot be changed by blame, shame, or pain. Plus, it is nearly impossible. It was difficult for me to restrain my 4 year old as it is, let alone enforce a “punishment,” such as timeout on him.

Let’s look at the situation: He had a legitimate reason to be angry. Did he handle it the best way? No. But he was 4. And knowing how to deal with situations like this is a learned skill.

Step Five: Enjoy the Fruits of this Approach

What happened in the future is that there were a lot less conflicts like this. I find that when a fight breaks out, my children have an extraordinary amount of patience as we work through the situation. It’s as if they think, “A fight is breaking out. I know in time a solution will be found. My needs will be met. I won’t have to be aggressive to get what I want. I can trust that we’ll all move towards better understanding and conflict resolution.”

This approach makes them feel safe and protected. My son knows I will deal with sister when she is positively annoying him. Both children know nothing will be taken from them against their will. I’ve removed his need to wig out when his sister threatens his activity. This is what is needed. Not adults barking at children to “share”–which is not something they really mean, but something they learned from their own youth and a wish for the conflict to just go away.

Now for some erroneous approaches

The “Ignore Them” Approach

So many proudly say they ignore a crying or whiny child with the explicit thought this will eventually discourage this crying, whining behavior. I most passionately disagree with this approach. Here is why I think it “works” to the degree it does and what it misses.

When you consciously decide to “ignore” a child, you’ve at least decided to keep a check on your emotions. This is a good thing. You’ve also decided not to punish them. That’s also a good thing. In that it keeps you moving calmly towards action, it’s a good thing. But look at what it does to the child. It tells them their crying is unwanted. Said another way, that their problems and concerns are not wanted. That their crying is something to preferably hide away rather than express.

I find when I lean in to their cries, very often the real need is something deep. It’s something to do with their development. They always want mommy or daddy in some specific way. Often I can offer them something in high alignment with their development. For instance, as their thinking grows in complexity, they might understand the full plot of their favorite movie. If I talk to them about their favorite movie, not only do they become calm and I can get them down a scary set of stairs in a parking garage, I am also working on reading comprehension with them. Look at what you MISS if you don’t take them seriously!

Most importantly, of course, is that I communicated to them that their problems are important. I untangled the real issue and got to genuine comfort, because they actually are comfortable, not a manipulated seeming comfort because they know that asking mom or dad to meet their needs is futile.

The irony is when you lean in to the cries, eventually you get less cries. You will likely deal with crying, whining, or aggression all the way up to the age of 5. After that though, if you impart this sophisticated set of negotiation-based and problem solving skills, you turn the keys over to your child to manage their own emotions and solve their own problems. Of course, you are still there as an ever-loving presence and sounding board from then on (as any adult even needs).

A Rules-Based Approach

It is common to use a rules-based approach to handle children. How many of us watched Supernanny in the early 2000s and watched her spell out the rules on a white board and dish out “consistent” time outs when children broke them, coming in with cuddles afterwards?

I find rules can be used in context. When we go to the library, I tell my children the rule there is to be quiet. This is such a novel idea to them that they tend to take it very seriously. Occasionally I employ a rule such as “whoever has a toy first can keep it until they are done” if and only if it is becoming a consistent problem.

The thing is rules really were made to be broken. Even highly benevolent principles can be broken. For instance, there may be a general theory of color, such as don’t mix “clean” colors (light pink for example) with “dirty” colors (grayed down colors such as mustard) and yet someone highly skilled can break this rule and make it work. The most skilled of people tend to say that it’s very hard to pin down exact principles and rules; there are typically only guidelines, which no doubt do help. That rules can be broken for understandable reasons is what makes “zero tolerance policy,” as my husband calls them, “zero tolerance idiocy.”

You can try your hardest but it’s very difficult to come up with a rule of any kind, especially that pertaining to children who by nature are immature and need room to wiggle and grow and misbehave, that cannot be broken for what are understandable reasons. For instance, try to employ the rule of “whoever has a toy first can keep it until they are done.” Well what if a child uses it in the morning and leaves it out and three hours later another child wants it? Now what? Well you need more rules. Which rule? Should you make them put it away? You will have to maintain that discipline. As it grows in complexity, the possibility that rules can be broken for understandable reasons grows and grows. At some point, you will find yourself fighting human nature. That’s a fight that cannot be won.

So, rules, in context. But I favor this negotiation-based approach as the main foundation of handling conflict.

The “Alpha” Approach

There is an approach that adults need to be in the “alpha” role and actively encourage children to be dependent on them, so they can trust the adult. I find in this approach the child’s needs are often over-riden. The child is told they must go to sleep, put on a coat, and so on. I find it disrespectful to and unaccepting of the child. I say more here, “Children Do Not Need Boundaries.”

Blame-Oriented, Punitive Means

So this is the real evil approach. It’s plain as day that many people use punitive means to get children to cooperate and blame-oriented ones: laying the responsibility of solving a problem entirely at the child’s feet, stating how very frustrated you are with them and how very bad they are. I want to focus on what kind of people this creates.

Once, my son (6) and daughter (4) were putting on their shoes at karate. There is not a lot of room to do this. My son swung with his book bag and hit my daughter. She screamed bloody murder.

A boy, about 14 or 15, went to help her. He tried to do this for less than one second and when it didn’t help her, he pronounced, “This isn’t my kid. Someone help her. It was his fault she fell not mine.” He quickly walked off, almost like he was trying to avoid consequence. It was not said as a joke. He clearly heard this kind of language and repeated it.

Let me try to break it down
1. An idea that people are *probably* going to be negligent and need to be admonished to go to her (I, her mother, was standing right there and was shocked and even hurt.)
2. An idea that my son was “at fault” and quick to point a finger
3. A quick “this ain’t my problem! hooray! i’m not the jerk *this* time!”
4. A sign of a good intention, to help her, speaking to universal compassion, but giving up on any workable solution almost instantly
5. The fear of punishment driving his action, walking off quickly, to avoid any adult interaction

This is what the culture of blame engenders. Instead of wanting to open up and admit wrong doing, children are quick to deny any wrong doing. They are in fact quick to say, “He did it!” You can work in any office setting and find the type of personality who is quick to start pointing fingers when something goes wrong, in an attempt to get attention away from them. When I am around other children and a fight breaks out, sometimes they instantly start telling me, “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!” My children don’t do this. They know we’ll work towards a solution, no matter what.

Which brings me to my next more controversial points about this approach in the older years.

Delicate Issues in Older Years: Sexual Assault

The great advantage of this negotiation-based approach is it grows as a child gets older. You can adopt more complex versions of negotiation, adding brainstorming and such. One of the greatest disadvantages with punitive means is it loses its effectiveness as children get older. They have the means and know-how to get around punishment.

I want to apply a negotiation-based approach to an extremely sensitive issue and how it could be solved through non-punitive means: sexual misconduct among teenagers.

First of all, with the work I do, documenting children’s developmental stages, I can tell you that whenever children experience new growth, it goes terribly at first. When they have a spurt of creativity, at first they destroy things. When they grow sexually, you can all but expect weird behavior. They might make a pass at their parent. They might stare at a sibling’s genitals. You just need to be braced that this might happen and deal with it wisely. Children need to know that they are still OK: they are still accepted and loved but certain behaviors, assuming they are hurtful to someone else, then need redirected to other behaviors or thoughts. If we can deal with the subtle behaviors wisely, we might prevent worse behaviors.

Of course the ideal situation is we are educating children about not just sex but relationships. “Sex education” isn’t just the birds and bees. It must anticipate what a child’s burning questions are. Like, how do they ask a girl out? How do they know if boys like them? We must talk to children about such stuff. We must invest in growing the skill set. Otherwise we can expect to be simply dealing with the fallout when it goes terribly. Education is a good thing, people!

Let’s say however that worse comes to worse and a teenager is sexually assaulted by another teenager. Here is my case for dealing with it in a non-punitive way.

This issue occasionally becomes a big national debate for various reasons, which I will refrain from being specific about. During such debates, some people say something like, “Oh boys will be boys!” They might defend their or other’s past behavior and say something like, “Someone said I did something! I don’t remember that at all!” My point is that this is a pretty big issue and people clearly have guilty consciences. One way or the other, if something bad happens, and a child knows they will get punished about it, they are NOT going to go elders about it to figure it out. They hold on to it tight and they are defensive. A child who knows he will get a whooping will have the instinct to cover up what happened.

The same punitive mindset might prevent the victim from speaking up too. Say a girl was drinking alcohol with boys and was raped. She doesn’t want to tell her parents because she fears the repercussion of doing that so much that she is unwilling to go to them. She’d rather stay silent than face this reality.

Many are probably shocked that I say to not use punitive measures when dealing with something as serious as sexual assault. I think it’s the very punitive measures that prevent us from actually healing the problem. Further, they are way out of hand. You see stories of a 10-year-old being handcuffed for perceived sexual misconduct. Deep down, I think most people can see that jail time over most of this is wrong.

I would be so bold to say that most victims do not actually want their aggressor to be punished for what happened. I would be so bold to say that most victims just want acknowledgment about what happened and an apology. Punitive measures prevent such authentic apologies. Punitive measures prevent children from going to elders, who could provide wisdom and guidance about what happened.

The main, #1 thing is that when children come to us with a problem, we don’t give them an eye roll. We take them seriously.

Conclusion

This negotiation-based approach has great results. People tell me they are stunned by how well my children get along. What I outlined here is the heart and soul of what I do. It’s the magic sauce. This approach does take some skill to learn. It is not a terrible amount to learn but it is more to learn than many other approaches. It is different than other approaches, including ones that say to “set loving boundaries” or “be firm but kind.” A negotiation-based approach still absolutely embraces the emotions of all involved and then after all are calm, turns to reason and problem solving. It’s a dynamic skill set for a child to directly learn and more to see modeled for them day after day in a living, breathing way in their own home. I believe this approach encourages the development of intelligence as well: the real kind of intelligence, where you apply it to solve problems. I think ultimately this approach creates better people and a better world. If you are like I am and want to see an end to violence in human relations and want to see more self-confident, more skilled children, please … please share this article. Thank you.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years