“Conflict is inevitable, the source of all growth, and an absolute necessity of one is to be alive.” ~ Jean Baker Miller, Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women
Recently, an incident happened amongst a group of children at the birthday party of my son’s classmate. Several young grade school children were involved. What started as play turned into children being hurt, angry, scared, and very upset. A couple of children were crying, other children were angry, others were just observers. The details of events are not important, but what happened afterward was something miraculous, something I had never experienced before.
Of course parents and children had the usual reactions and actions after this kind of incident… but feelings lingered. The trauma was still palpable for parents and children. So that caused me to propose something to the parents to address the heavy unresolved feelings. I asked that we try the Social Inclusion Method for conflict resolution that parent educator and author of Simplicity Parenting Kim John Payne teaches.
I had attended a few of Payne's lectures at the Haleakala Waldorf school in Maui, Hawaii, and twice at the Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder, Colorado where Payne told a story about an ancient tribal system of conflict resolution that involved the whole community coming together to hear each person's perception of what happened. This concept was totally foreign to each of these parents (whom I didn't know very well; some I had just met that day). And I was truly in awe that each of them agreed to try it, and that they would have the open heart, risk being vulnerable, and put forth a trust in this kind of "social experiment" that involved the emotional wellbeing of their children. Some doubted such young children (ranging from 5 to 9 years old) could articulate well enough to really be heard, but everyone was willing to try.
"We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience." ~ John Dewey “Reflective Practice” - A 2014 Harvard University study shows that reflection locks in the learning experience given the chance to "synthesize, abstract and articulate" lessons from the experience.
All parents and children came together the next day at a family’s home. We sat in a cozy circle on comfy cushions where we could all see one another, nothing obstructing anyone's view of body language or expression. We let everyone know that this was a no-blame space. No one would be judged as right or wrong. This would be a place where each person would be heard to tell their story and how they felt, and their story would be honored as their truth (which didn't have to match up with anyone else's truth).
As each person held a "talking stick" (indicating that they have uninterrupted and unlimited time to speak), each story unfolded to reveal not only what happened, but why... what motivated a certain action, then what caused a reaction, which caused another reaction, and how each of those moments felt to that person speaking.
As we all listened to each speaker, we could really feel as if we were in that person's shoes. This is where the experience became transformative. The learning came from true understanding. It was clear that each child could see how they played a part in what happened at the party the previous day. Each child could see where there was misunderstanding, communication gaps, and the natural reactions that were not intentional meanness. We discovered together that one child was laughing when he really felt fearful and helpless. Each child could also see where they could possibly do something differently next time.
After everyone was heard, those heightened feelings around the incident dissolved. Peacefulness came from feeling understood. Reflecting on the experience the day after the incident provided the emotional environment to create a powerful learning experience. There was true resolution and a true healing.
Adults: Avoid The Blame Game
So often conflict amongst a group of children breaks out and the immediate (well-meaning) adult reaction is to find the cause, who is to blame, and what behavior was to blame that caused harm. Conventional wisdom has us focus on a solution of teaching the children to resist doing that behavior.
Generally, that sounds like a reasonable way to go about creating peace—to stop the person that is behaving "badly." So for the adult, it makes sense to “sus-out” the person behaving badly and reprimand—ask that person to apologize for the "bad" behavior. The adults then feel satisfied that they have done their job in educating the child and creating harmony.
The question is for us adults (referees/disciplinarians) to contemplate: Was what we heard or witnessed the entire picture? Was there something motivating that behavior that may have happened prior to what we witnessed? Was what we saw the end of a chain reaction of events unbeknownst to us and even other parties involved? How can we know what really happened if we don’t hear each person’s story?
New Research: Blaming Others Is Contagious... According to a 2009 study in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, blaming someone else for one's mistakes is a socially contagious condition—the behavior literally spreads from one person to the next.
(The Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa “Rashomon” is a similar and perfect example of examining the nature of truth as four people recount different versions of a man’s murder and rape of his wire)
Some may say there is not enough time in the day to hear each person out every time there is conflict. I have since done this with my children and found it is possible to take under 5 minutes to hear each side. With this method, the children can each feel he/she is being treated fairly and being heard. In hearing each other recount the story, and since they see where they took part in creating the conflict, there is no need to discipline because that understanding is the lesson. The children get to reflect on the situation and form their own conclusion of where exactly they made a misjudgment, and see where the situation turned from there. This kind of lesson sticks in their minds for the next similar occurrence much more strongly than if an adult were to discipline, lecture, or tell the child to apologize for something they don't feel totally responsible for.
“This reflective-experiential learning provides a "road map" where the child has been before and can cause a self-regulating shift in their behavior when they sense they are heading down the wrong road.”
Another aspect to the "no-blame" storytelling is that no one has to be identified as the "bad guy" or the "victim." If children are called out repeatedly into these roles, labels start to shape their expectations of themselves, then as a result they tend to attract situations to fulfill that expectation.
Research shows the use of labels can be harmful to children. The relationship between labelling and stigmatisation, although complex, is well established. labels, unfortunately, tend to stick. This can make it hard for children to leave behind negative reputations and start afresh.
As adults, it is a quick and easy reflex to make fast judgements, point out blame, reprimand, lecture, then ask for apologies without understanding the whole picture, the underlying causes and the unseen chain of events.
Here is a simple alternative that helps a child to develop empathy and self-regulating social tools:
1. Call together all involved for a no-blame meeting 2. Set the scene and rules using the talking stick with no interruptions, hearing each participant out fully, anything to make discussion helpful and create a safe space 3. Breaking the ice and setting the "No Blame" mood: Adult tells their story of a time when they experienced something similar (teasing, getting too rough, etc.) (Optional, but helpful in highly charged situations) 4. Telling their story: Each participant holds the talking stick to tell their story (Kim John Payne's model has instead the adult hear each story separately before the meeting, then the adult recounts the story and asks the child, "did I get that right?") 5. Brainstorming/heart-searching/reflection: Adult says, "Can you each say what it is you need to make the problem better? (In everyday situations, I've found just hearing the other person talk is sometimes revealing enough and this step does not seem necessary) 6. Adult leads the conversation by saying, "Let's work out who will do what and when you will do it." 7. Follow Up: "We'll meet again tomorrow/next week to see how things are going. What is the best time?" (For our birthday party incident, the adults debriefed through a thread of emails until it felt like the situation was fully put to rest.)
Angeline Chew Longshore is a writer for The Huffington Post and Arianna Huffington’s new online team Thrive Global for emotional well-being and wellness (launching November 30th on Medium.com) You can consume more of her content (emotional life design, sensible parenting, love relationships, and lady-entrepreneurship) on those online sites, and her website at and her iTunes podcast audio show 'Your Sensible Girlfriend's Guide To Life'. Angeline is a mother of two grade-school boys and has the “child-whisperer” skill by way of remembering her own mental/emotional state since she was an infant. Angeline guides mothers in life strategies with her live online learning programs through her Sensible Girlfriend’s Guide To Life community.