Seeing kids argue can be awkward and uncomfortable, but discover why you shouldn’t solve your child’s social conflicts (and what to do instead).
No one likes to see their child in a skirmish with another one. But when I witness social conflict, I use this awkward moment as an opportunity.
Maybe it’s the little girl who takes every item out of your child’s hands. Or the boy who wants to borrow his shovel. Or even the child who approach your son despite his desire to play alone.
Each of these situations can lead to a teachable moment if we don’t jump in and solve their social conflicts.
That’s why I prefer it when my child gets into a scuffle and the other child’s parent doesn’t solve the issue. They might force their child to share. Or force their child to relinquish a toy he took from my son. Or they distract their child without explaining what just happened.
Why you shouldn’t solve your child’s social conflicts
We parents tend to overreact when it comes to our kids’ social conflicts. We might even think it’s “bad parenting” not to get involve when our child has a tussle with another at the park. The mom who continues to sit on the park bench must be lazy for not intervening with her child’s conflict.
But it wasn’t too long ago when kids played freely on their own. Parents hardly hovered, much less refereed every conflict. And kids learned valuable lessons, such as empathy, negotiation and holding on to your beliefs.
When we get too involved, especially with older and more verbal kids, we don’t give them these benefits. Author and educator Jessica Lahey says in her book, The Gift of Failure:
“The social conflicts of childhood are all part of our education in human relationships and failure to negotiate also provides its own lessons. Squabbles are opportunities to be valued, not emergencies to be managed.”
Even if no positive outcome came of kids resolving things on their own, that itself is a valuable lesson. Your child stomping away because he felt treated unfairly will have learned what he values in friendship or how to better negotiate. Failure to come to a consensus can still be a learning moment.
And besides, we overestimate the magnitude of these social conflicts. Siblings fighting over the same toy shouldn’t elicit the same response as one of them getting a cut or injury. They’re not the emergencies we make them out to be.
Other times, we put on our mama bear suits the minute we feel our child is slighted. The problem? Your child will grow up unable to navigate social interactions without your help. And most important, you send the message that you don’t think he can do it on his own.
When you do need to step in
Sometimes kids really do need our help with social conflicts. They may be too young to speak for themselves. Or the interaction has gotten out of hand where someone can get hurt. And other times they need you to guide them on what to do.
Even then, it’s still important to guide, not resolve social conflicts for them. Here’s how:
1. Describe the situation
Young children aren’t the most verbal. Start by describing the situation as well as acknowledging their feelings. Hearing words to describe the situation helps children label their emotions. They realize that the situation is normal, despite any strange feelings they may have.
You might say, “Looks like you both want to play with the shovel.”
2. Explain that certain behaviors aren’t appropriate
Let’s say your child grabbed a toy from another child. Explain why we don’t behave that way. Make sure he knows this particular behavior isn’t the right way to act.
3. Offer potential solutions
With older kids, you can ask them for solutions on what they should do. (“What can we do to solve this?”)
But for young, non-verbal children, offer solutions on their behalf. You might ask if he’d be willing to take turns playing with the shovel.
4. Honor their choices
If your child prefers not to share the shovel, accept it and don’t force him to share. You might address both kids and say, “Looks like he’s not ready to share the shovel yet. Maybe later you can take turns.”
Don’t feel bad that the other child will walk away empty-handed. Honor your child’s decisions to continue playing alone with his shovel. Just as you would respect another child’s wish not to share, either.
5. Discuss the situation later
What may seem like a simple scuffle between two kids can be a confusing moment for kids. Think back to the “petty” drama you had as a child. How little fights among you and your friends caused you so much pain and anguish.
These are real conflicts to your child as he tries to understand his emotions. He may need help and reassurance to sort through what just happened.
Discussing the situation will also help him identify emotions. He’ll have a better idea of what to do next, and initiate his own solutions without adult help.
I can understand why we’re quick to jump in and solve our kids’ social conflicts.
We want to protect them, or keep them from hurting others. We’re embarrassed. We don’t want to seem like we don’t know how to handle our own kids. It’s easier to swoop in and nip it in the bud. And sometimes the situation calls for it.
And I will step in if either child is about to hurt the other. I’ll also guide them if it’s going nowhere.
But social conflict isn’t another mess to clean up. Another antic our kids have gotten themselves into. They’re still learning about our world and the ways we conduct ourselves among others.
Teach your child at an early age how to acknowledge his emotions. How to handle other kids, peer rejection and other difficult situations. And he’ll navigate social conflicts throughout childhood, all without adult intervention.
After all, a squabble at the park isn’t nearly the emergency that requires adult intervention we parents sometimes make it out to be.
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