The Cost of Avoiding Conflict

Hearing the story of the teacher who had the class tell the one student how they felt about his behavior, and ultimately “voted” him out, I am sympathetic to the teacher, the child, the parent and the school administration.

I think all fell victim to the current beliefs in our schools, or culture for that matter, that insinuates there is “no tolerance” for conflict. Traditional methods of dealing with conflict are either to punish those who bring it in, and reward those that keep it out. Thus we have created institutions of people pleasers and controllers that fall prey to bully/victim roles. All efforts to not tolerate conflict in the home or classroom leave no other choice for children but to take the unresolved issues to the playground or the internet. We struggle to find the magic strategy that will keep it out for good. Yet the only message that children get is that conflict is “bad”, something escapable or something that they can overpower. The truth is that conflict is a natural process that allows for growth. Everyday we as individuals and institutions are faced with it. From deciding whether to do the laundry now or later, or to build or not build a bridge, or deciding to fight or not fight a war, it is all conflict.

Children are not born knowing the skills for managing conflict in their lives. They express their conflict in various ways depending on their developmental needs and temperament. They depend on adult guidance to assist them in expressing themselves in a way to get others to listen to them. The behavior that often we deem inappropriate is a call for help. Children from as young as age four are screaming for skills on how to manage their emotional states. How we as adults model ourselves to children in our “emotional” moments, teach them what to do in theirs. Children do not learn how to effectively manage conflict when they are threatened, shamed, blamed, coerced or manipulated into figuring how to resolve it. In a situation where one child has grabbed a marker from another child, a typical adult response might be, “Was that nice? That is not how we act in this house/classroom. Tell him you are sorry. Don’t you want to have friends? Your friends won’t want to play with you if you act that way. Give me the marker or I will have to take it from you……” Although well intended, these techniques ultimately focus on the behavior we do not want and end up teaching the very behaviors we are trying to eliminate. Children want to know what TO do. In this situation, it might have been more helpful to say, “You wanted a marker and that was the one you were looking for. You may not grab. Grabbing is hurtful/disrespectful. When you want the marker, ask permission. Say it like this……” Parents and teachers must be willing for children to experience their internal conflict (disappointment in this case) without trying to shut them down or “happy “them up. Disappointment is an internal guidance system from which children learn. It is not bad or wrong for children to feel! It is our judgment of it that gets in the way!

Adults can not teach or model skills they do not possess themselves. As a professional educator and consultant traveling nationally to numerous educational arenas, I hear many teachers and parents express to me how they are struggling with increased conflict amongst children at home and school. They do not know HOW to manage these moments. They too are screaming for the skills.

When the goal is to avoid or resist conflict, we deny children the opportunity to grow; to learn how to respond rather than react to life’s events. Until we are willing to help teachers, parents and our schools to work together in providing an environment that accepts conflict as a learning opportunity, this kind of situation will only multiply.

The unfortunate outcome of the absence of knowing what to do is that every party in this situation has lost. The only ones that benefit are the lawyers, ironically, those designated to resolve the conflict that has been exacerbated by blame, shame and imposed guilt. What’s worse, is that no one has learned how to more effectively manage this situation that is bound to resurface with the next child, in the next school with the next teacher and the next disgruntled parent.

There are better ways to manage conflict. I believe most people are ineffective in managing their OWN conflict let alone trying to help others to manage theirs. We as a community must be willing to open our eyes and hearts to see conflict differently. Only then will children open their eyes and hearts to learn and respond to it more effectively.