"But you promised!"
"She started it!"
"I hate him!"
It is so easy for us as parents to be drawn into our children's battles, large or small. But when we try to impose a solution, our children lose an opportunity to learn necessary social skills, like problem-solving, conflict resolution, seeing another point of view, and empathy.
We have to squash our instinct to go in there and fix it. We know in our hearts it is far more important that our squabbling children learn how to solve a problem together than it is to know which of them started it.
And it is important to tell them that.
When you take the approach of asking him questions, your child recognizes that in you he has a partner who will help him understand. By giving a child the power to know how he can figure it out by himself, by helping him to arrive at his own solution, he will grow. If it is your solution, he won't grow. But if it is his solution, he will flower. That you ask questions is the key.
Scenario: Sandy has just slammed the door on her older sister. She will not play with her anymore. "It's not fair! I hate her!" Sandy insists.
Your first instinct might be to go charging into your older daughter's room in your "protect my baby" battle gear. Or it might be to say to Sandy, "No, of course you don't hate your big sister. Sisters should love each other." Would either of these reactions solve the problem?
No. In the first instance, if you yourself make the solution, you will become a new problem: Your older child will turn against you and your younger one won't learn how to fight her own battles. And neither child will learn how to resolve disagreements. In the second instance, you will have denied Sandy the right to her feelings, and you will have dropped a moral issue into the stew.
A more constructive posture would be to help the children examine what happened, why Sandy feels as she does ("I hate her because she always makes me do it her way!"), and to help the children explore possible solutions ("What can we do about this?"). By focusing on feelings-how each child feels, on what the problem is-you may discover that the older child, for example, feels that Sandy does not respect the fact that she doesn't always want to play with her. By getting them to focus on how to resolve their conflict, you avoid making digressive moral judgments and you help both children see the other's point of view.
Some of the helping questions you might ask include:
- Tell me more about it. What makes you feel that way?
- How do you think your sister feels when . . . ?
- Do you think you could find a way to play fairly? to make time for each other? How?
- What could you do so both of you have fun?
- Do you suppose it might help if you could take turns choosing? How might that work?
- What would happen if . . . ?
By arriving at a solution both children can sign off on, each has an investment in making it work. But agree first that each understands that if it does not work out, this conversation will be reopened and a new solution will be explored.