What Taking Children Seriously taught me about resolving conflicts

“Resolving conflicts is not about mucking around in the inner lives and emotions of people; it is about dealing with what is right there out on the table and resolving that conflict.”
– Janet R.


From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 27, 1998

Encouraging children to express their big emotions fully instead of actually solving the problem is not taking children seriously

As a person with a strong Psychology background, who had worked as a counsellor and therapist for many years, I thought I knew what it meant to resolve a conflict between two or more people. But I was wrong. As I have come to understand the Taking Children Seriously style of non-coercive parenting, I have come to an entirely different conception of the idea of ‘resolving a conflict’.

What I knew how to do, and to help other people to do, was to ‘come to terms’ with artificial limitations, to make sacrifices, to ‘learn a lesson’ about life, and to learn ‘rules’ about social interaction and getting along with other people. I knew how to create situations and scenarios that would help people ‘get in touch with their feelings’ and express them more freely. Of course, almost always these were negative or uncomfortable feelings—anger, frustration, fear, etc. And I knew how to help people connect up experiences and feelings that they were having in the present with experiences and feelings that they may have had in the past—helping them to ‘discover’ themselves and to learn about ‘who they really are’ and ‘to cope better’.

What I see now, and failed to see before, was that all of what I just described is either about coercing someone, helping someone to coerce themselves, or helping someone to swim around in the painful emotional muck that is a result of coercion. It often has very little or nothing to do with helping someone to really resolve a conflict.

With the psychological methods that I knew, the object was to help the person more clearly see, feel, and experience the emotions that surrounded whatever conflict the person was having. If a person tried to stray from the conflict, that was seen as backing away from the negative emotions that the conflict stirred up, and that was seen as a dangerous thing to do. Thus, as a Psychology-oriented person, I knew it was important to help direct them back to the conflict and its emotions. ‘Resolving’ conflicts was often a very painful process. Having a conflict to resolve in the first place was often something to avoid or to deny, if one possibly could.

And, of course, with children, what a Psychology-minded person wanted to do was to help the children ‘resolve’ any conflicts right then and there, so that they did not continue on to become a problem, to fester, and become a source of future conflict. That definition of ‘resolve’ generally meant something like ‘let the child emote freely until the feelings become less intense and begin to fade.’ Such people see themselves as being ‘supportive’ of the expression of feelings.

Recently I happened to see a psychologist on television describing how he handled his daughter, who was five, when he was late picking her up from daycare. She was frightened and angry with him when he finally showed up after all the other children had gone home. She told him that he must promise never to be late again. He said ‘Oh, yes, dear, I promise.’ He emphasised how he respected her emotions and let her express them freely. He didn’t try to in any way dismiss or diminish her anger or her sadness. His daughter told him that next time he comes, he must be early—earlier than all the other parents, and that he must peek in the window so that the other children will see that he is there to pick her up. He said, ‘OK, honey. I will do that because it is so important to you.’

He went on and on about how important it was to let her express the feelings that his being late caused his daughter. He clearly believed that it was allowing her to express these feelings that prevented this situation from being an unresolved conflict that his daughter would carry around with her in some sort of negative way for the rest of her life. He said that if for some reason he was late again the next week or some other week, she would have even more intense feelings and it would be even more important to listen to her feelings, respect those feelings and promise to do better next time.

I listened to this man talk and thought to myself ‘But what about resolving the conflict?’ It was very clear to me that what this guy was doing did nothing to resolve the conflict at all.

What about finding ways to deal with a situation when the father is or might be late? Where is the planning ahead so that both people involved clearly know that the father can make arrangements so that he is not late? What about finding some suitable other person, agreeable to both father and child, to be there to pick up the child, someone who can and will not be late, on days when the father cannot make it on time? Where is the telephone number where the child can reach the father immediately if she is in doubt as to his whereabouts or his intentions about picking her up? Where are the arrangements for the child to have something fun and interesting to do while she waits for her father, if he might be late in picking her up? Where is the discussion about whether the child wants to attend daycare at all on days that her father might be late?

In other words, where was all the real resolving of the problem? Obviously, it wasn’t even being dealt with. This psychologist father was too busy dealing with the child’s emotions to even begin to think about ways to resolve these kinds of conflicts.

Here is another typical example of a Psychology-oriented approach to dealing with a conflict between two young children:

Say two young children begin to fight over a toy. The Psychology-type adult reaction might be to say things along the lines of ‘Tommy, you sound really angry right now! Billy, can you see that Tommy is really angry? Tommy, if you are really angry, let’s find something like a pillow for you to hit so that you don’t hit Billy and hurt him. Here, hit this pillow. Keeping hitting it. Pretend it is Billy—the person that you are angry with. Or hit Billy with the pillow if it’s OK with him. Go ahead, express your anger—get your anger out. See, now do you still feel angry? Not as angry? OK. Can you tell Billy here why you were angry?’

At this point Billy, who probably doesn’t want or need to be told why Tommy is angry, may be trying to get away from the scene. A Psychology person will direct Billy back to the scene so that this problem can be ‘resolved.’

‘Can you tell Billy what he did that caused you to be angry? Billy, do you see that you upset Tommy by grabbing his toy away from him? How would you feel if someone grabbed a toy out of your hands? That’s right, you wouldn’t like it, just as Tommy didn’t like it just now when you grabbed the toy out of his hands. It isn’t a very nice feeling to have something grabbed out of your hands. How are you feeling right now Billy? Would you like to let Tommy know that you feel bad for grabbing this toy away from him? That you are sorry you did that? And that you won’t do that anymore?

Now, since Tommy had the toy, let Tommy have it, Billy. After Tommy plays with it for a few more minutes, and you ask him nicely, instead of grabbing it out of his hand, Tommy will share it and let you play with it. Won’t you Tommy?’

Even if Billy sits and pouts until Tommy finishes playing with the toy, this is considered to be a ‘resolved conflict’—the ‘lessons’ of not grabbing toys and asking nicely were ‘learned,’ anger was expressed in an ‘appropriate’ way, the emotions of both children were ‘respected and dealt with,’ and, probably the most critical criterion, the active fighting stopped. It was clear, this problem was ‘resolved’ from a Psychology point of view.

Of course, from the point of view of Taking Children Seriously style non-coercive parenting, not only was this conflict not resolved at all, but this method of dealing with children is loaded with tons of hideous coercion. This method does not resolve problems, it creates them.

When I first was exposed to Taking Children Seriously and began to think more about creative problem solving and reaching agreement, I tried to adapt the above hideously coercive style by clearly avoiding ‘taking sides’ in the conflicts between children. I would attempt to treat both children as the ‘wronged’ person in the conflict, but continued to focus on the feelings of the children, and to looking back over what just happened to see what ‘went wrong.’ I would continue to encourage expression of feelings and ‘emoting’ angry or frustrated feelings in a ‘healthy’ and safe way. And in this atmosphere I tried to get the children to talk about what happened and to get each child to articulate his point of view, and tried to help each child see the point of view of the other. It seemed to me that nothing could be resolved if the child didn’t understand what was going on with the other child in the conflict, and how the conflict happened in the first place. This was all too often a tedious and unsuccessful method.

What it took me a while to understand is that the emotions and points of view of the child are largely private, and not up to me to speculate too much about, let alone to encourage the child to share. And, equally importantly, that doing so takes one down a false path that doesn’t lead to a real resolution.

Resolving a conflict has much more to do with thinking than it does with feelings. If there are negative feelings involved in the process, they can be used as a guide—a signpost that really says, ‘You are headed in the wrong direction here.’ They do not need to be explored and encouraged to be expressed and emoted and dwelled upon. They are signs of pain—they need to be relieved, not elaborated upon.

Finally, I understood that all I need to know from each child in a conflict is if they are happy or not, content or not, satisfied or not, pleased or not, OK with what is happening or not—and if not, what they think might help. A child can communicate that verbally and/or non-verbally. My role changed. It was no longer to be a part of attempting to lay bare and or deal with the inner lives of the children, but to help them, in this very moment, to get to a place where each child was happy, content, satisfied, pleased, OK with what is happening.

I do that by thinking—which I do best if I stay calm, relaxed, alert and responsive. So, to use the example I gave above, I found that I began to develop a very different style of dealing with Tommy and Billy, one that left each child’s inner life, inner motives, and personal emotions to them. It was a style that did not involve dwelling on ‘looking back’ at what just happened, but involved moving forward in a way that works better.

‘You guys both want to play with this toy? Oh, is there another toy like it around here so that you each can have one? No? What about this one? Well, what are you using the toy for—maybe we can find something that will work even better for that purpose? Hey, I bet you could build something like that with the Lego, don’t you think? Or do you think we could make one out of papier mâché—we’ve been wanting to do a papier mâché project one of these days. Doesn’t Larry next door have one of these? Shall we go see if he will lend it to us so you can both have one to play with right now? Oh, by the way, I saw that cat you like out in the yard a little while ago—is either one of you interested in going out and playing with it right now—it looked a little lonely to me. I was about to fix a snack for myself—do you want a snack to eat in the playhouse as long as you are out there? Oh, and next time we go to the garage sales we could look for another toy like that one so we have two, if you think that’s a good idea.’

Really resolving conflicts is about moving away from painful feelings—not toward them—by finding ways to alter the situation so that it no longer generates any painful feelings for anyone involved. Resolving conflicts is not painful, or energy draining—it is fun and energy giving. It is not about mucking around in the inner lives and emotions of people—or trying to—it is about dealing with what is right there out on the table and resolving that conflict. I like the view much better when I get the Psychology out of the picture. 

See also:

Janet R., 1998, ‘What Taking Children Seriously taught me about resolving conflicts’, Taking Children Seriously 27, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 11-14, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/what-taking-children-seriously-taught-me-about-resolving-conflicts

Leave a comment