Teach Children Mediation Skills

I’ve been working in the nursery in our church (a class for 18-month-old to three-year-old children) and it’s such a joy. I love to watch the way the little ones interact. Most of the time they are cute; they do and say darling things, but it’s even more entertaining when they are mean! They grab toys aggressively, pull or push another child down for no reason, or hit with surprising force when they want a toy. Of course, I find this entertaining because these are not my children, but I also enjoy these moments because I have a secret weapon! I have the most powerful tool for these situations, which I have written about before, but being around these children reminded me of it and I wanted to reemphasize it and share it again.

In a nutshell, the tool is “use your words,” but you must give the child the exact words to say.  A two-year-old doesn’t know what to say to solve these problems, and if we come in and solve the problem for the children, they don’t learn what to say. I’ve always felt that it far more important to teach children to keep the peace than to teach them to share. If they know how to keep the peace, they have mediation skills, and these can serve them in a variety of problematic situations.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  For clarity, I’m going to use T and S for the names of the children.  Let’s say that T is playing with a toy, S comes over and grabs it, and T starts to cry or fuss.  As the leader/parent I come over and gently hold S’s hand that is holding the toy.  I say, “Ask for the toy, say, ‘Can I have it?’” S then repeats “Can I have it?” (Or sometimes she looks blankly at me and I repeat the instructions.)  If T seems like he won’t mind giving it up I instruct T to say, “Sure, you can have it.”  If T appears upset at losing the toy, I say to T: “Tell her, when I’m done you can have it.” Again, the instruction might need to be repeated if T doesn’t understand.

It is amazing to watch the transformation that occurs when this process is followed.  The children relax, as if they are relieved that there is going to be a peaceful solution.  Just by saying “can I have it?” tensions are calmed and the atmosphere becomes friendlier. Saying those words, even though they are simply copying you, empowers the children and gives them a sense of control.

Sometimes I might explain to T: “If you’re done with it you can say yes, but if you want it for longer, you can tell her she can have it in a minute.” If S continues to fuss about wanting it, I will ask T, “How many minutes to do you want it?” If no answer is forthcoming I’ll offer some ideas: “Five minutes?” Eventually T will say, “Yeah, five minutes.” Then I instruct T: “Tell S, say, ‘You can have it in five minutes.’”  It literally does not matter the number of minutes chosen.  Knowing that there is a time limit gives both children peace.  Usually T will give up the toy before it’s even close to the five minutes. As we all know, the allure of a toy is when someone else wants it.  Once that is diffused, the child usually moves on to another toy.

I don’t believe that forcing a child to share makes the child kinder in future situations. Being forced to share creates a feeling of resentment and a sense that sharing results in unhappiness. It’s much more effective to gently encourage sharing while teaching children how to get along in general, using tactics such as finding another toy of that type for the friend who wants your toy or finding a way you can both play with the toy. Teaching your child how to use words to get what he wants and to resolve conflicts takes more time in the short term, but in the long run you will be mediating fewer conflicts.  And your training will give your children strong personal relationship skills that will be beneficial throughout their lives.

For more on this topic, see Use Your Words.

Some Quick Ideas I Learned Too Late (and One I Didn’t)

There are some helpful parenting ideas that I heard about after my kids were too old to implement them. I wanted to explain them here in a quick post as an aid to other parents.

1.Give each child a certain amount of money to spend on each vacation you go on. The amount could vary, obviously, with the age of your children, the nature of the trip, and your personal finances. I spent way too much time on vacations negotiating with my children in gift shops, trying to convince them they didn’t need whatever trinket or stuffed animal they had encountered and set their heart on. I also agonized over what treats to buy them and when. If I’d given them their own money, I could have saved myself a lot of emotional strain and relationship contention.

I also like this idea because it’s another way (besides weekly allowance) to allow children to learn about money, what it buys and how it feels to spend it, and what the value/worth is of the items to be purchased. When they are asking for a $20 stuffed animal, they don’t have a relative idea of how much that is. But if they were given a certain amount each trip, those prices would start to mean a lot more.  There are many advantages to this trip souvenir strategy; I wish I’d heard of it sooner!

2.The second concept I learned about too late also relates to family travel. When you have many young children, you are obviously packing for all of them when you go on vacation. Instead of packing a suitcase or portion of a suitcase for each child with swimwear, church clothes, coats, etc., think of packing for specific events.  For example, church clothes for all the children should go together.  All their swimwear, all their hiking shoes, all their warm layers, and so on, could be packed together.  Then when you get to that part of the trip you don’t have to look through four suitcases to find that specific apparel item.  They will be all packed in one place.  I got this idea from Saren Loosli’s post about family road trips.  If you want to read the rest of her suggestions, click here.

3.The last suggestion is to have assign a child as a “kitchen helper” on a rotating basis. I did hear of this idea when my kids were young, but I dismissed it as too inconvenient. Chores tend to go slower, not faster, when moms have helpers! But, my girls ended up being somewhat picky eaters and that’s also inconvenient. I can’t say for sure that doing this would have helped their pickiness, but I had an experience that made me think it could have helped.

When my daughter Brooke was about ten years old I had her help me make dinner one night. Her task was to slice mushrooms and put them in a pan to sauté. They were then added to a sauce of some kind. Before this she hated mushrooms, gagging when we strongly encouraged her to eat them. That night she decided to try the sauce and said, “These mushrooms aren’t bad!” And she proceeded to eat the rest of what was on her plate. That occurrence helped me see the power of children helping in the kitchen. When they help prepare the food, they get to see it and interact with it in a different way and they have more of a desire to try something they made themselves.  It’s difficult to continuously have kitchen helpers and keep track of the rotation, but if I could do it again I would make more of an effort to do have kids help on a regular basis.

4.One thing that I did do, and I would highly encourage other parents to do, is work with your children instead of telling them what chores to do and checking on it later. The second approach usually ends with the parent getting angry with the child for not doing the chore or doing it wrong. It takes a long time for children to learn to be independent cleaners (somewhere around age 10) so don’t expect too much of them too soon. Make sure you teach them how to do the chore and explain your expectations. Working alongside your child reduces tension, provides a good example, and can even be a source of bonding. See Go Clean Your Room! for more on this.

 

A Treat When You Get Home

I was walking out of the gym the other night and overheard one of my top parenting pet peeves.  A mom was walking out holding her two- or three-year-old daughter.  She said, “You were such a good girl at daycare. Do you know what that means? That means you get a treat when you get home!”

It’s not that big of a deal once in a while, but this parenting technique rubs me the wrong way for many reasons. First, it uses food as a reward. We don’t want to teach our children to turn to food when they are feeling negative emotions or use food to reward themselves. It’s detrimental to our children to pair good behavior and treats.  Second, it’s a delayed reward.  Children aren’t mature enough to remember by the time they get home that the treat is related to their behavior at day care. It also isn’t a natural or logical consequence.

Third, many parents underestimate the power of a nice word, a pat on the back, or a hug. When you are trying to encourage good behavior, these are the powerful rewards you should rely on most often. Just saying, “Thank you for being good at day care!” and giving a smile and a hug are all that is necessary.

We all know it is sometimes easier to notice bad behavior in children than good. And I want to emphasize that it’s very important to point out behavior that you want to continue, but just do it in the right way. If you can be more specific in your praise, that’s even better. You could say, “I like the way you shared your toys with your friends at day care,” or, “I can tell you were kind to your friends, there was such a nice peaceful feeling at the day care,” or, “I appreciate that you do what your day care teacher asks you to do.”

I’m not a big fan of external motivators (also known as bribes) of any kind. I recommend using them only for situations that are temporary, such as a plane flight or a rare family event like a wedding or funeral. For circumstances that are commonplace or every day, such as church or day care or playing with friends, it’s best to reward good behavior with compliments and positive touches.  These are powerful influencers to children and encourage eventual internal motivation.

For more on this topic, see Positive Reinforcement.  Also, don’t forget some other important principles of good parenting: explain expectations, stay close to your children and practice patience.