April 30, 2008
There's something about fleeting moments like these. The ones that are surreptitiously captured on "film" and speak some truth about them as children, as individuals. Such is the case for this snapshot. Two strong, busy little women sharing a moment of tenderness. You have no clue how much this touched me. The two of them together? Let me just say that they make frequent trips to our "Peace Table" to talk about their feelings when one or the other has been wronged. This moment? So beautiful. It's something I've been pulling for, in the hope that all of the "Peace Table" work would bear fruit.
So much of the conflict that I see among young children can be attributed to a not-quite-fully-developed ability to empathize and express one's emotions in a healthy way. I once heard about a little girl who took a pair of scissors to the new Easter pants of the annoying class bully. That same little girl would scratch the arm of other children who were not following the rules or who were being mean. Who was this diminutive devil who couldn't control her emotions or express her feelings in words? As it turns out, I once knew her very well, even though time has muddled my adult memory. I was her. And somehow, she became me.
Every child has something that he or she needs to work on. For some it's reading. For some math. For others, it's fine-motor coordination. For others, it's self-confidence, and for others it's humility. For me, and for countless other children, our "work" was to learn how to relate to other human beings with empathy and patience. Let me just give a shout-out to my mom and dad, who encouraged and supported me through all of my "work." I think it's been about 20 years since I scratched anybody. Just ask Patrick. No, no - I know what you're thinking - the scratches that he occasionally sports are from the cats. Honestly!
So yes, every child (and adult) has her own special "work." We wouldn't be who we are without it, and without it life would be just a bit too easy. And, like any other challenge, it's not something that can be overcome with a simple decision, at least not for the child. The young child needs to practice this life skill, over and over, under various circumstances. This work is so personal that no adult can tell the child what to do. The adult can provide a loving example or a helpful routine, but the child must learn by doing. And, like learning to ride a bike, the child will fall. Many, many times. Imagine what your reaction might have been if, as a child learning how to ride a bike, your parents and older siblings got frustrated with your constant falls and eventually told you firmly, perhaps even yelling, that falling off your bike was not allowed, and that you were a bad person for having done so. Would you have tried to ride a bike again? Probably not. Now consider the child who is learning to express and control her emotions. She fails, again and again. Certainly, the best way to help her out is not to yell or devalue her as a person. She needs encouragement and certain helpful tools that will help her get to the point where she can ride out her emotions with confidence. What are these tools? Vocabulary for the emotions and a clear, consistent routine for dealing with conflicts peacefully, such as a Peace Table. Here are some ideas and resources:
How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way. My favorite part of this book is the chapter on siblings and family life in which the author tells you how to set up a Peace Table.
A stone, tabletop, or hand-held labyrinth. Offering the child a labyrinth to walk or trace when he feels like he's getting frustrated or angry is an excellent tool for calming and redirecting the onslaught of emotion before the situation escalates out of his control. Once the child has walked or traced the labyrinth several times, he might be ready to use his emotional vocabulary to express his feelings in a respectful manner at the Peace Table.
Emotions cards. Working with these cards gives young children practice in identifying the physical manifestations of emotion, increasing empathy. At the same time they learn the vocabulary they need to express their own feelings. I also love Amanda's idea in The Creative Family of playing a family game of charades with the emotions.
Do you have any other ideas or resources for helping young children learn peaceful conflict resolution? I would love to read about them in the comments.