No Rules: Healthy Conflict Resolution with Children

One of the things I get complimented on the most about my children is how well they play together. Not so coincidentally, one of the things that is most important to me is teaching them healthy conflict resolution.

It is so important to me that I no longer call the situations that call for it “Discipline.” Instead, I now call it “Conflict Resolution.” If you were to look at a typical situation, say a child won’t get in their car seat, this is not a matter of discipline. In a different situation, the child could continue to do whatever it is they wanted to do, perhaps ride their bike. The issue is one of conflicting needs: they want to ride their bike; you want them to get in the car seat. “Discipline” is developing a healthy habit of action or thought as to perform something with excellence. It is achieved through practice and education. I consider it to be something different entirely. The entire paradigm in our house revolves around healthy conflict resolution. It is something living and breathing at our house that we model, teach, and work on every single day.

The rule in our house is that we don’t use rules to handle conflict. Setting clear expectations, coming up with contextual codes of behavior, and understanding the rules of an establishment, such as when you go the library, play a role in conflict resolution. However, as overarching rules to try to subsume all potential situations, they fail. I know because I tried.

I tried to use rules to manage behavior.  I tried to keep the rules to a minimum, knowing too many rules would overwhelm a child. It didn’t work. It came down to one rule, “Whoever has a toy first can use it until they are done.” In spirit, I support this rule.  I want my children to understand that I support their right to keep using a toy that they are using so that they feel protected and thus can invest in doing creative and focused things with it. No one will force them (unnecessarily) to give it up.

But here’s the thing: Many situations arise that would cause this situation to go poorly if this rule were blindly applied. What if a second child comes up to the first child, and the first child has no problem letting the second child play with them with the toy or even have the toy? This happens–and often before the children get a chance to work this out, an adult admonishes the second child. What if you can’t let the child keep using a toy as long as they want? Perhaps you are at a public place and there is only limited time and only one of a particular fun toy. It would be unfair to let one child use it for the entire play time. Or, even stickier, one child uses the toy, then abandons it without putting it away, and than another child uses it, and the first child says, “Nooo! That was my toy!” The only way to enforce the rule is with more rules: Now you might make sure the first child puts the toy away when done. Or it would require heavy adult intervention: You must watch and make sure the first child is done before letting the second child use it. The rule approach breaks down quickly, especially with children.

I also don’t even lay down a rule like “No Hitting.” I get flak for this, as if it is obvious to do this. If my child is in a dangerous situation, perhaps an adult is trying to take advantage of them, I want them to hit and to hit hard. I was watching Captain America once and Peg, the love interest and heroine, punches a misogynist who attacks her for being a woman. I laughed to myself as I saw this and thought of a book we had at home, Hand are Not for Hitting. I strongly stress that everything must in context, so, no I don’t lay down this rule either.

Healthy Conflict Resolution Principle #1: Don’t intervene when you don’t have to!

Here is an example from a story I read a mother tell on social media in which the rules approach really breaks down and even prevents what could have been positive interactions.

Another child was playing with sea shells at the beach. Her daughter went to join this child. The mother stepped in and told her to wait her turn. Per the rule of “Every child gets to use the toy until they are done,” this is how to enforce this. 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.

Healthy Conflict Resolution Principle #2: Defuse the Situation, Get to the Underlying Need 

Here is another example of how to handle a situation when it does become tense. In the preschool years, from the late threes all the way until five, children are working on these very skills.  It is vital to understand conflict resolution and actively teach it at these ages. And, in my opinion, it’s vital they be allowed to get into conflict with other peers in order to learn this very skill (while guided by adults). The point of my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth, is that when children first grow in their skill set, they are completely awful at it–and not just kind of struggling but aggressively terrible at the skill. They are wild and out of control. It is up to the parent to see it as the growth it is, connect with the child even in these moments of outburst, and redirect the behavior into a robust and healthy skill set. This is how I see the preschool years: as fertile, if tumultuous, ground to develop healthy conflict resolution skills. If you have read Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, you will easily recognize how the following approach is in alignment with an observant style of parenting. It focuses on raising everyone’s awareness of what is going on before jumping to any solutions.

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.

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. Here are better steps to handle this situation:

Step One: Manage Your Emotions

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.

There are other methods to calm emotions down. Once my son started beating on a calculator because every time he pressed “0,” more “0”s would not appear on the screen. I said, “I see how angry you are. I bet you wish you could throw that calculator out the window.” This validates the emotion in a big way. He calmed down immediately and said in bewilderment, “No mommy that would hurt the calculator.” Right.

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.

My children, at 6 and 3, at this point have largely taken over the process of conflict resolution. My son led the way. We actively taught him ideas of consent in his early fives, which by the way, we taught on a day after he became violent with his sister in public. Now, my children don’t come up to me to tattle on each other. They don’t do the thing where they hold their finger right in front of their face and say “I’m not touching you!”–one of the ill effects of a rules heavy approach. If they break out into a conflict, they sometimes get mad, sometimes set boundaries, sometimes resolve it, it just all depends, but it’s mostly them doing it. I step in only occasionally, and probably only because one is going through a stage.

I am always stunned when I am around other children and when a fight breaks out, they immediately are telling me, “Miss Amber! It wasn’t my fault!” … they start defending themselves immediately. These children were clearly under a rules heavy approach. How different of people will be produced from these two fundamentally different approaches?

IMG_20171228_201710965I promise you they fight sometimes

I can’t even tell you the number of compliments I have gotten about my family. Complete strangers tell me they were noticing my “sweet” family all through dinner. They tell me my children are full of life. Babysitters tell me my children play well together better than any children they know, including theirs. The night before I wrote this, my 3 year old said, “John I’d like to hug you.” My son, 6, said, “Emily I’d like to super hug you.” And as they spun around, my 3 year old said, “John I love you.” This set of skills applies to my marriage too: my husband and I are responsive to each other’s needs. It is the fuel that keeps my family going.

You can imagine how disheartening it is for me when I go out and families are picking fights with each other, or ours, over the smallest of things, perhaps not saying “please” or “thank you” for every single socially appropriate situation. I won’t even go to indoor playgrounds anymore, certainly not during busy times. If you sit back and watch parent and children in any social situation, you see mostly lots of yelling. Occasionally I go to a public park and there isn’t as much yelling. The worst part is all of the missed opportunities: children cannot connect.

I want to see this change and to see healthy conflict resolution more widely adopted. That’s why I write articles like this, which are available for you to share. Please do! I suspect this article will be fertile ground for healthy discussion at the very least. 🙂

Find me on Facebook as “The Observant Mom.” I’m on instagram now! Find me at amberdomoradzki

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