One Among Many: Negotiating Conflict

by Shelley Welch

 When my children were very young, I became aware of what I viewed as a disturbing phenomenon among children (it would be a few more years before I realized that this dynamic spans every age group). I eventually named this aspect of human relationships the zing. Here’s what I saw: children on the playground surreptitiously harming other children all the while pretending innocence or ignorance. Usually this zinging occurred when parents were otherwise engaged: talking with other parents, caring for younger siblings, etc. The zinger often had some upper hand in the situation (older, bigger, more confident, more articulate) and, therefore, I grew to view zinging as a power play, a social strategy for getting one’s own way and silencing uncooperative (or unpopular) children. Ultimately, zinging is a tool for navigating a social environment in which being on top is the ultimate goal, even if unconsciously.

Vivian Paley Quote

Children who are allowed to exclude others grow up thinking they can continue to do so. In fact, a lot of adults practice this kind of exclusivity in society. An entire book can be (and has been) written about this adult state of affairs, and I don’t intend to explore that idea here. I want to address the very complex problem of children excluding and being excluded. I say complex because there are many perspectives on this issue ranging from forcing all children to play together no matter what the circumstance to allowing cruelty to continue unaddressed so that the children can “learn to work it out”. As often, I believe there is a middle road and, of course, finding that middle road requires that we practice mindfulness and awareness with children.

The problem with exclusivity is that it begins the social status journey: who is on top, who is on bottom? This dynamic is not helpful to either top or bottom, although the top child will feel that he really does have the advantage and the bottom child will feel a certain level of disempowerment. I recognize that our current social structure has as its foundation this type of organization. Perhaps those who are the hands-off type of teachers, the “let them duke it out” kind of educators will justify their stance by asserting that the world is a competitive place and children will have to navigate it soon enough anyway. They view any intervention as coddling and ultimately unhelpful to the children.

However, equally damaging is the teacher who intervenes immediately, who, in fact, is poised for conflict, at the ready to swoop in when any tension arises. This approach certainly can keep the peace in a classroom; however, it is based on an image of children that is unhelpful. This approach views children as incompetent to navigate any part of social conflicts. It is often much more about the teacher needing to feel needed or desiring a very controlled classroom.

In the middle is an array of approaches that are based on a teacher’s willingness to be intensely mindful and aware of the dynamics of her classroom. There is no written guide available for this approach. It requires emotional intelligence, responsiveness, trust in children, compassion and a willingness to sit with messy emotions while clearly providing unconditional love to the children involved in the conflict. It requires that adults, in their own interactions with children and other adults, model equanimity and fairness, kindness and compassion. We must have the tools for coping with conflict before we are able to share them with children. We must be  humble enough to recognize that, even for adults, using those tools is an ongoing endeavor. Children come into the world with many of their own unique qualities; however, they do not come into the world with tools for handling conflict. So, we must share our tools while also practicing them in our own lives. Eventually, children will internalize these ways of negotiating problems with others. When they do so, there is no need for power struggles or a race to the top. Children begin to desire collaboration and problem-solving rather than zinging and powering over.

One Among Many

But what about the child who refuses to amend her behavior, even after collaborative problem-solving and negotiating? Despite all efforts by other children to work with her behavior, she continues behaving in an offensive way. Many of us know adults like this! Ultimately, children are responsible for the behavior they choose: we can lead them to the tools, but we can’t make children pick them up and use them. In these rare situations, I remain mindful, responsive and compassionate to all children involved, and I encourage the children who are frustrated with the offending child to choose other friends for the moment. I also encourage the offending child to address what is happening with her that is causing the behavior. This separation (not exclusion) is a natural consequence. After all, it is not loving to allow someone to behave in hurtful ways. Setting boundaries needs to be a part of a child’s tool bag for handling conflict. Helping children set and maintain boundaries allows them to engage socially without losing themselves and teaches them that they are a valued part of the classroom: they are one among many, just as all the children are.

© 2016 Shelley Welch