Can I Get a Flag?

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[photo credit: Hector Alejandro]

It has been a long-established habit of mine to stand back when children argue; to support them both as they work toward a solution, but to refuse to tell them what they should do. Recently I was asked why I won’t just tell them what’s fair and put an end to the bickering. Most of us were raised in homes and schools where this was commonly an adult’s response to children’s arguments. As we entered parenthood, the classroom, or the field of child care, most of us naturally used the same strategies on our children which were used to rear ourselves.

Yet it’s important that we re-examine our strategies from time to time when we are working with children, to remind ourselves of our true intentions, and to confirm that we are leading children to the place we desire them to reach. When I was questioned about this particular strategy of mine, I was thankful for the opportunity to check in with my motives that way. So the next time such an argument arose, I evaluated my own response and the traditional response:

Allison and Jaylin were playing soccer near the playground. Jaylin saw an old water bottle left in the grass. She called out, “Look!” but Allison was faster and beat Jaylin to the prize. They came to me with the timeless conflict, “I had it first!” both with compelling reasons it should be theirs.

The traditional standard response from the teacher/parent would be, “Jaylin saw it first. It wasn’t nice of Allison to run ahead and grab it before Jaylin could. Allison, give it to Jaylin. It’s only fair.”

And here’s what would typically follow: Most likely, Allison would refuse to hand it over, and the teacher would probably have to take it herself to give to Jaylin. However, even if Allison accepted the verdict and surrendered the prize, Jaylin would walk away feeling triumphant. She would be thinking something like, “The teacher took my side. I convinced her I was right and Allison was wrong,” with smug satisfaction. Allison would walk away feeling defeated and thinking something like, “The teacher is so mean and unfair. I deserved to keep it. Jaylin is a mean bully and a teacher’s pet,” with bitter resentment. The girls would probably spend the rest of recess either fighting or avoiding each other, and maybe even going to their friends to brag or vent. The next time they had an argument, Jaylin would come tattling to the teacher, hoping she would take her side, and Allison would believe the teacher would rule against her, resenting the teacher before Allison even told her side of the story.

So instead of using the traditional response, I summed up their dilemma for them, “You both feel you deserve the water bottle because, Jaylin, you saw it first, and Allison, because you touched it first. So far you’re not agreeing on who should get to keep it, but I have total confidence you can work together to find a new solution that makes you both happy.” As I walked away, I heard,

Jaylin: “We could throw it away so no one gets it.”

Allison: “No, because I really wanted to use it to collect flowers.”

Jaylin: “We can collect flowers to put in it and then give it to someone.”

Allison: “Let’s give it to Miss Sheryl.”

Jaylin: “I don’t want to give it to her. Let’s give it to Miss Jackie.”

Allison: “Okay!”

They spent the rest of recess happily collecting dandelions, clovers, and fallen leaves together. They brought them inside and worked to arrange the items into a bouquet, and decorated the bottle with sharpies. They were so proud to give it to their teacher.

This interaction and its result illustrates the three main reasons I choose not to make the calls for my children and instead encourage them find solutions on their own:

  1. To discourage tattling.

Let’s be honest. As a parent, teacher, or carer, (second to tantruming,) tattling may be the most obnoxious sound we hear throughout the day. The most effective way to minimize tattling is to refuse to referee. Teach children to resolve their own conflicts. Once they realize you are only going to encourage them to find a solution on their own, they will be less likely to come to you for a quick verdict, and more likely to attempt the process by themselves.

  1. To avoid rivalry and polarizing, and to foster positive peer relationships

When a call is made for them, one child is often the clear winner and the other the clear loser. It can be interpreted by the children as a statement of where they each stand with the authority figure, leading to assumptions of favoritism or neglect, and causing feelings of jealousy or pride surrounding the relationship with the parent/teacher/carer. It can easily breed negative feelings between the children, causing them to rival and scheme against each other, rather than conspiring for cooperation.

  1. To give them opportunities to practice

The ability to resolve conflicts is an important life skill still very necessary in the adult world. If children don’t have the opportunity to practice this skill in their day-to-day lives, they will be severely handicapped and frustrated when they reach young adulthood and realize they no longer have a personal referee, nor know how to resolve conflicts with fellow adults. For this reason alone, we do them a great disservice to insist on making the calls for them as children.

It’s never too late to instill the skills of conflict resolution in your children and students. If this is a new strategy for them, it may take some practice and support to get the hang of it. It often helps to summarize the conflict, express your faith in them to solve it on their own, and then walk away. For example, (summarize) “Neither David nor Sam want to walk the dog.” (express faith) “That’s a tough one. I have complete confidence the two of you can come up with a solution to this problem that you both can live with.” And walk away to let them figure it out by themselves.

If you hear voices beginning to rise, you can interject something like, “It sounds like you’re having a hard time finding a good solution,” and mediate their efforts. And it’s always okay to suggest a break, “I can tell by the volume of your voices that you could use some time to clear your heads. Let’s take a break and finish talking about this after dinner.”

Just take care to let the solution be one of their own creation! They’ll probably come up with some that really impress you! And they will be more willing and able to work together toward a solution next time if they’ve already had a victory.

Today and always, I wish you well.