Three Surprisingly Simple Ways to Teach Compassionate Problem Solving Skills
In this age of over-loud opinions and I'm-right-you're-wrong discourse, compromise has become a despised concept, as well as a dirty word.
It's easy for kids to get the wrong idea. That peacemaking is weak or cowardly. That the most courage belongs to the loudest voice and the reddest face.
We must teach our children the quiet strength of compassion and the courage involved in solving problems peacefully.
The decades-long case studies featured in Raising Peacemakers by Esther Sokolov Fine will inspire you to bring her strategies into your own home. This book is a quick read, but let me summarize it for you.
In the early nineties, Fine worked with an innovative group of teachers, parents, and students at a small elementary school in Toronto. They chose to view ordinary child-to-child conflicts as learning opportunities, so they began what the students called, "The Peacemakers Project."
The book reveals the methods and impacts of this project through a series of interviews, some conducted with the children back in the nineties, others as recently as a few years ago. The effect of the Peacemakers Project was nuanced, but one thing was imminently clear: even children as young as kindergartners are capable of making peace among their friends and siblings. And these skills, when learned young, shape the way they interact with the world throughout their lives.
As the parent of three strong-willed kids, I know the truth behind what Fine called "ordinary child-to-child conflict."
Yesterday, I came out of the house to see one of my children tossing flip-flops at her little brother while riding her bike. Meanwhile, he chased behind her shaking a garden spade. And that was before their actual conflict, a messy ordeal involving many tears, accusations, and at least one parent (that would be me!) wondering what would happen if we just walked away.
Raising peacemakers is a process children can learn to master. It's a skill adults can refine as well. The three strategies below will help us discover more compassionate, peaceful ways to resolve the conflict in our lives.
Three everyday opportunities to teach peacemaking.
Make a space for solitude.
Peace in the world begins with peace in your own body. Help your whole family cultivate inner peace by creating an actual physical space that encourages calm and quiet. In our house, this means "the cozy chair" and its strategically placed "invitations" to quiet down, including
- a cozy blanket,
- a few calming books (currently Emily Hughes The Little Gardener and Mary Oliver's Dream Work, but they change often),
- a pile of river rocks that we stack and re-stack.
I used to direct them to "the cozy chair" when any of my kids seemed frazzled, bored, or grumpy. Now, they often take a seat on their own, rifling through the books, stacking the rocks, or staring out the window for a few minutes until they're ready to move on.
Be a conflict-resolution coach.
Parents seem divided over sibling squabbles. Some see parents as the judge and jury in any sibling fight, while others insist we should let the kids figure it out on their own. At Doing Good Together, as well as in my own home, we find the best answer combines both approaches. With a little coaching and a few strategies, kids – even those who are very young – are more than capable of peacemaking among their siblings and friends. Ultimately, these skills will serve them well in future relationships, the workplace, and any other potential conflicts they seek to resolve.
Here's what you can to do to be your kids' conflict-resolution coach:
Teach kids to assess their emotions. The ability and language to recognize nuanced feelings – their own as well as those of others – is essential. Visit our free Feelings Flashcards and choose a game to get your child started.
Practice perspective-taking. Help kids consider the conflict from the other point of view. Get in the habit of asking, "How do you think she felt when...?" whether the conflict in question involves a story from school, a favorite book, or a slamming door in your own home.
Memorize the playbook. This is the big lesson from Esther Sokolov Fine's book. Kids need a script to begin their roles as peacemakers, starting with the simplest question: Do we want to solve the problem? My kids, ages 6, 10, and 12, have taught me repeatedly that no conflict can be resolved when one participant is unwilling to talk through the issue. In that case, we give each other some space. Later, when everything cools down, we try to solve the issue again. What happened? How was everyone involved affected? What can we do to solve the problem?
Raising peacemakers empowers kids, and parents too, to address conflict head-on, with empathy, courage, and resilience. You may want to revisit our recent exploration of forgiveness and apologies too!
Expand your social circle.
Part of being a peacemaker is knowing how to connect meaningfully with others. Be intentional about reaching out to people in your community.
This may mean volunteering to bring treats for your soccer team, signing up to help out at a local parade, or even gathering some friends to race for a cause. Whatever you do, engaging with new people in new ways helps kids develop the social resilience necessary to be peacemakers and risk takers later in life.
Visit our piece on Growing your Tribe: Six Fun Ways to Expand Your Social Circle, Teach Empathy, and Unlearn Prejudice for more ideas.
The quote above – often inaccurately attributed to Lau Tzu and the Tao Te Ching – is popular because it strikes such a poignant chord of truth.
To create peace in the world, we must strive for peace among our own neighbors, peace within our homes, and peace in our own hearts.
I've seen this first hand in my own family. When our busy lives overflow into our peaceful moments, the resulting sibling battles can take an ugly, garden-spade-wielding turn.
However, when we've created room in our lives for downtime, silence, and rest, we each feel more personally peaceful. When we intentionally practice solving our disagreements with tools like Esther Sokolov Fine's version of peacemaking, our home takes on a kinder, more supportive atmosphere. And when we strive to build community among our neighbors, whether it's at soccer practice or a local festival, our world feels like a more peaceful place to live.
Some days will be messy. Some conflicts may involve a flip-flop to the head. Ultimately, though, the peace we make in our own homes can make a meaningful difference in our communities.
How do you inspire your young peacemakers?
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