Making the Most of Conflict

My two year old and his buddy were playing in the back yard. Robert discovered the big fire engine, climbed into it with great delight, and proceeded to play fireman. My son saw his friend's delight, and immediately wanted a part of it. He began to climb right in--though there was only room for one--absolutely determined to play. Robert cried and protested briefly, then suddenly decided he didn't want to be a fireman after all, climbed out, and found something else to engage his attention.

Happy ending, right? There are no longer signs of conflict, each child seems peacefully engaged in play. We heave a sigh of relief. "No need to try to help sort out yet another argument over toys." Robert had gracefully solved the problem for all of us.

Yet I couldn't help thinking, "At what expense?" I had seen him do that many other times before--making a clear choice about what he wanted, then, in the face of determined opposition, deciding that he didn't want it after all. Was this the attitude toward choice, goals, and opposition that I'd like to see him grow up with? For that matter, was my son's action the approach to getting things that I would choose for him? Was the resultant lack of conflict an indication of any kind of success, or real peace? It just didn't sit well.

I thought about how deeply invested most of us are in keeping levels of conflict as low as possible. We don't like it. We don't want it in our environment. We'll do just about anything to make it go away. So we try to legislate solutions, more or less arbitrarily, with more or less participation by the children--and more or less success. We try to teach them skills--how to listen and state their position, how to negotiate, how to compromise.

While these skills are invaluable, and can be used successfully in many situations, they seem to have significant limits. So many fights are picked over totally insignificant objects, because the person is upset about something else that's too complex or abstract to get a handle on. The toy (or whatever) becomes the symbol for that larger issue. No matter how good a solution you negotiate about the toy, it's not likely to address the larger problem (and the person, deprived of that handle, will probably look for another in an attempt to get help with the real issue).

With this in mind, I decided to reopen the conflict and go for the roots. I got in close and suggested to Robert that he really did want to play in the fire engine; he'd been having a great time and hadn't shown any signs of being done. No, he responded, starting to cry again, he wanted to play with something else. I kept gently suggesting, with my arm around him and the fire truck right there, that I was pretty sure he hadn't been done when his buddy had pushed him out. He kept resisting more and more vehemently. I encouraged him to go for what he wanted, reassured him that he didn't have to give up. He kept crying, harder and harder, but began pushing at my son as he cried. He did want the fire engine--and he was going to fight for it! We were back to the messy situation of two children wanting the same toy--and I was delighted.

I don't even remember how we worked out that particular conflict. All I can remember was watching that little boy start to give up once again, my decision to step in, and helping him fight back to the point of going all-out for what he wanted.