The most basic principle of conflict resolution, that both parties in the conflict have to be treated as equals, flies out the window when that conflict is with a child or between children.
Equality is a tricky area in parenting. Yes, this child is in every way your equal in humanity and way ahead of you in potential. He or she is undeniably not your equal in size, power, or – for a while – intelligence and experience. If we allow a child equal power in a conflict what we get is a spoiled, obnoxious child who will put his or her own future in jeopardy by making bad decisions.
Equality is likewise tricky between two children, because we cannot count on children not to take advantage of their greater size, intelligence, or experience. A referee is needed.
When we are in conflict with our children, or they are in conflict with each other, we must treat them with respect as the complete human beings they are, while we decisively withhold the power they are grasping for.
The standard steps to conflict resolution apply, but they must be adjusted for the relative sizes of the combatants:
It is all too easy to dismiss a child. You are the parent, you know what they are going to say, and you know what your decision is going to be, so why waste the time, right?
How did that attitude make you feel the last time you were on the receiving end of it?
Take a moment to listen to their side, even if it is ridiculous, because just knowing they are being listened to is a win for a child. This is much easier to do when your 4 year old is explaining to you why she thinks she should have ice cream for lunch, than it is when your 13 year old is explaining why it is not a problem that you caught him smoking. Give them the time to speak, no matter how tempting it is to cut them off.
Actually focus on them and pay attention to what they are saying. Don’t let your mind wander into thinking about what you will say next, or the errands you have to run. The prize you get for listening is a better understanding of your progeny; as a bonus, they then have to listen to you, to be fair. Another win!
Sometimes it helps to set a timer prominently between you and give each person a minute to speak without interruption.
After one contender has their moment to speak, their opponent should repeat back what they heard. Sometimes what we mean to say is not what comes out of our mouths, and sometimes what we hear is not what was actually said.
Communicate, and insist that they communicate.
Don’t fling insults and accusations. Don’t bring up past history. Don’t yell, because yelling looses it’s power quickly. Don’t threaten with ultimatums – they backfire. Never denigrate your child and never label them: labels stick, and children sometimes try to live up to them. Sit down at their level, look them in the eye, speak at normal volume, and stick to the subject.
Don’t make assumptions.
Or jump to conclusions. Slow down and give yourself the time to fully understand, or mistakes will be made.
After everyone has had a chance to make their points, sum them up. Name the problem, list the arguments on each side.
Start with areas of agreement.
In every discussion there are points of agreement. Start with those points, and work from there. We agree that ice cream is delicious, and it does have calcium in it for your bones, but…
In the end, you are the parent and must make the decision that you feel is best. Listening to your children along the way does no harm, strengthens relationships, will make them feel valued, and will nourish their self esteem. Understanding their thought processes and point of view may also help prevent later conflicts. Avoid the pitfalls – jumping to conclusions, towering over your child, name calling – and you will not have damage to repair later.
The experience of being treated fairly and with respect will carry forward and encourage your children to demand respect as they become adults. And learning how to argue without destroying a relationship? Priceless.