I was recently at a social gathering where gangs of children swarmed around the house and the land, while adults socialized. As I chatted with friends, I could hear an increasing volume of children shouting, shrieking, arguing and crying, all coming from one of the children's bedrooms. Some exasperated parents went in and out of the room attempting to gain control of the situation to no avail. I wasn't involved as my kids weren't involved, until a couple of my friends came and told me they needed some peaceful parenting emergency help, so to the rescue I went - da da da!!
There were at least 9 loud, upset and distressed kids involved in this conflict. I had to raise my voice initially to start to get their attention, but within minutes of reassuring the kids that I was interested in what everyone had to say and that I really believed that they could work this out, things started to settle somewhat. I could sense their relief that I wasn't trying to figure out who was in the right and who was in the wrong allowed them to shift out of fight/flight into problem-solving. They could probably tell that I wanted to be fair and was willing to listen to them.
The group of boys and girls ranging in age from about 3 to 8 took turns giving their version of what had happened and explaining the current problem. I mediated the turn taking with messages like; "Josh I'm really keen to hear from you, let's just let Aiden finish first". As they listened to each other, possible solutions started to emerge, I affirmed that I was interested in all ideas (not attempting to evaluate the solutions or give my own solutions), some great ideas and potential solutions came forward, then some collaboration.
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It turned out that a toy had been thrown onto a very high shelf in a moment of chaos resulting in a screaming meltdown on the part of the girl whose room it was. I could well imagine it may have been the last straw moment for the girl whose house had been taken over on this day, fun but stressful! Before long, there was a team effort and a coherent plan of action to get the toy back down. The owner of the toy calmed down and looked hopeful as people turned their focus to the rescue mission.
After the toy was strategically retrieved by the children using a sweeping brush, there was still debate about who was to blame so I continued to mediate to help them resolve the hurt feelings that lingered on. The process of resolution progressed in a similar fashion of respectful communication; I simply focused on reassuring them that everyone would be heard, that everyone needed to be heard and facilitated the turn-taking. There was sharing, listening, reflecting, apologizing and acknowledging that brought them back together as a much stronger team of children than they'd been before.
You might also like to read "The peaceful parenting approach to kid's conflicts"
It's interesting to think about all that the children may have learned from this experience. They gained a rich experience of what resolving conflict without anyone being blamed or punished can look, sound and feel like. All children need to know how to resolve conflicts at times (those tricky 3-way dynamics). They learned about the power of listening and acknowledging each other resulting in everyone feeling more heard and valued, and a successful problem-solving experience.
The power of active listening. They may not have understood this cognitively, but they learned that when an adult meets their needs to feel heard and trusted, that they are very capable of reconnecting with empathy and acting from integrity. Helping the children understand these concepts after such a situation by talking through all that happened will help them make many higher level thinking connections in their brain. "You all patiently listened to each other, even though you were feeling upset. You each had the opportunity to give your side of the story. You all contributed ideas, listened to each other's ideas and agreed on a plan of action. You worked together to make the plan happen and got the toy back. See how well you guys can all work together when everyone gets to hear what everyone else is thinking."
You can’t, and it’s better if you don’t, solve all of your child’s problems, but you can share them.
How many great opportunities for learning and growth would have been missed if I'd simply gone in there and assigned judgments "why did you do such a thing?", "how would you feel if someone came to your house and threw your precious toy?", "you should have more respect than that", "I'm very disappointed in you kids", punishments "you 3 go outside now and don't come back in till I tell you you can!!", threats "you won't be allowed into these rooms again unless you sort this out immediately" (not recognizing that they don't have the skills to sort it out), my solutions "I'm going to climb up and get the toy down because it's too high for you children and I'm afraid one of you will get hurt. Everyone out of this room and you're not allowed back in here."
A group of adults who have a disagreement can really struggle to hear each other and work together to agree on a solution that everyone's happy with. Yet adults so often berate children for arguing in the first place and for not just sorting it out. There are many skills involved in conflict resolution, skills that need to be taught, that children need to be guided through. But with a few experiences of this kind of calm mediation, it's amazing how fast they learn how to resolve things respectfully themselves when they're not too upset.
They were clearly all pleased with themselves, not just because they didn't get in trouble, but because they did what was the right thing to do and were helped to do that.