Monthly Archives: January 2014

Conflict-free classrooms?


“Peace isn’t the absence of conflict. Peace is the respectful resolution of conflict.”

Heather Shumaker’s excellent book, “It’s OK Not to Share, and Other Renegade Rules For Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids” (the source of the quotes herein), lays down a number of surprising rules, from the one in the title to other nuggets, like, “Kids don’t have to say I’m sorry”, “We’re not all friends here”, and “Kids need conflict”. That last one is all about the priceless opportunities kids have to learn about peace from their earliest days in school. Shumaker does a great job of putting conflict in its place. And, she says, the place for conflict is right in the middle of the school room.

“Many of us avoid conflict and confrontation at all costs”, Shumaker writes, describing what is really an epidemic attitude in the U.S. … the avoidance of pain. Nobody wants their kids to face the pain that comes from conflict …. But when we shelter our kids from conflict, we deny them the opportunity that pain presents to adapt and learn. Shumaker describes how conflicts and problems are the way to learn about true peace, the kind that comes from facing and overcoming difficulties. She argues that far from protecting our youngest from these hard lessons, we need to allow them to pass through them, trusting in a young child’s ability to discover and try solutions.

“Children learn about peace by having problems.”

When conflict arises in the classroom, we (mature!) adults help children mediate conflict, not by preventing it, but by educating young ones about their part in making conflict, and helping them discover their part of the solution. We identify the causes of conflict (“When you passed by, you knocked over something that she made.”; help a child think about how their actions can hurt another (“It sounds like she is sad and a little angry that her project is knocked over.”); and model, or guide a child in, identifying solutions for the benefit of all (“What can we do now?” … “Let’s offer to help her build it again!”).

There is no real way to avoid conflict. It’s part of how we adapt and grow. Conflict only becomes a crisis when one tries to silence or limit the freedom of another. That’s what makes war between us grown-ups. Let’s teach our kids how to face conflict with patience and grace. It could change the world.

“Talk of peace isn’t meaningful to young kids. Neither is ‘being nice.’ Kids need chances to navigate conflict firsthand and learn what’s appropriate. What do I do when conflict comes up? What do I say? How do I set a limit on another’s behavior? Once kids know these answers they can mediate their own conflicts in most amazing ways.”

[This post originally appeared on Parenting On The Peninsula’s Blog]

An Education

Recently a young girl of 4 1/2 sat on her own in a corner of the preschool room. She had a little dish and little tongs and she was feeding little plastic counting bears to a great big stuffed animal. She was totally focused. She was gentle, patting and cooing to the dog. She whispered to her charge inaudibly. She took her time.

Was this big stuffed dog (easily as big as the girl) a proxy for a pet at home? Or was the floppy toy reminding her of a sibling, and was she playing parent or big sister? Was the dog a ‘friend’ who needed love? Or was it a stand in for herself? What relationship (friendship or family) or what needs (loneliness, hunger, or security) were being worked out? Are these questions surprising?

For a child, play is not separate from life. Play like this is a kind of theater, where a child rehearses … everything. And for a child, everything is relational: children learn who–and how lovable–they are from those they relate to; and they learn about the relative trustworthiness and goodness of the world from those they interact with. Since childhood can be fraught with uncertainty, often children work out their own responses to relational anxieties through play.

Who knew that plastic bears, tongs, and a stuffed animal could engage a child’s attention exclusively for long periods of time? And who knew that spontaneous dramatic play could be so rich and meaningful? In fact, the meaning of this brief vignette goes beyond the sweet implications of a young child working out compassion, or whatever.

When we think about the skills our kids will need to be successful, it’s normal to want to be able to check off requirements. In fact we usually want to check them off early (so they will never be behind!). For example, we want the kids in our charge to learn writing, spelling, and language– skills that get a disproportionate level of attention from new parents who feel an intense responsibility to give their child every academic advantage. So we look at this kind of quiet play with a touch of anxiety … shouldn’t we be preparing her for the challenges of Kindergarten? Shouldn’t we be spending more time laying a foundation for later language requirements?

But what if she was laying that foundation already … with no intervention from a teacher or a parent?

Practically speaking, this little one was encompassing a well-rounded preschool curriculum, one perfectly suited to her age. She was manipulating small toys using a tool, and working her fine motor skills, which are the essential precursor skills to writing (using tongs to accomplish a concrete task, this girl was getting ready to hold a pencil to accomplish something more abstract, using symbols to represent language). She was verbalizing her thoughts to another, working out the communication of feelings in a low pressure environment (stuffed animals are known to be very good conversation partners). She was building relational confidence. And all of this was happening in the context of a drama largely hidden to the observer. What thoughts or feelings drove the girl to minister to this creature in this way? It doesn’t matter. They were important enough to require special attention, and that in turn became an occasion for her to accidentally practice a number of really useful skills.

Good preschool curriculum should always allow for a child to choose, as often as they like, their own self-directed play. In this context, children are learning how to learn. Such play always—always—encompasses a rich and multi-layered assortment of learning opportunities. How is this possible? Because a child will call on all their skills, even new and unrefined skills, to accomplish the tasks that they care about. This is where the best learning happens.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

What We Don’t Know

We could talk your ear off about childhood and parenting. Between the two of us, we have lots of experience and training. Anghelika directs a parent-participation preschool, and has worked with kids and parents for 25-ish years. Dave teaches and tutors kids from 1st to 12th grade and is a clinical psychology student. But ask us about the kid in our house who is finishing High School and we are no longer experts. We are parents. And being a parent is totally different than knowing a lot about parenting.

It’s so comforting to be old, experienced, and learned. Except when it’s not. Because our kids, who are entirely unique and not necessarily inclined to behave according to expectations, always surprise us.

In the field of psychology, there’s an eagerness to establish a science of how people tick. This will, it is believed, counter the assumption that the cure of souls is a touchy-feely affair. There is a lot of good research out there, and lots to learn about how people work, generally speaking. But the best minds in psychology (in our opinion) are the ones that recognize that people are too complex and … well, alive, to fit neatly into a formula about how humans grow or develop.

Generally speaking, as educators and parents with an almost-empty nest, we know some stuff about parenting. But parenting, like counseling or teaching, is not really general. It’s personal. As parents, we have the same problems that all parents have: we get confused, frustrated, and disappointed. We worry, panic, and despair. We also laugh, cry, hope, and rejoice. Not much of it is scientific. Not much of it is predictable, even if a scientist might be able to predict it. Yes, we are a bundle of contradictions. We’re parents: we can’t be systematic or formulaic with our kids.

One of the best things that we can do is to keep learning from one another, because when we engage with other parents (and the occasional expert), we get to have our assumptions challenged and we get to learn tricks about making good soil in the gardens of our homes. But, we have to remember that what happens in gardens is often mysterious. We can prepare the soil, but we can’t make the flowers grow.

So we do our best to prepare the soil, but then we stand back and watch with no small measure of wonder at the growing of our kids into amazing individuals. We try to be present, to let them reveal to us who they are, and we get ready to be surprised and inspired.

We have seen some pretty surprising and inspiring things in our home. We could talk your ear off.

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog]

Take a Moment

The Great Season has come to an end. Whether we celebrated one of several holy days, or just enjoyed a break from school and work schedules, the time has come for regularity to return and for us to say goodbye to uninterrupted time with our children. You may be sad about this, or (secretly) thrilled to have some time to yourself again! But it’s here.

So let’s take a moment. The holidays are a time of real beauty (pretty lights and all) and also a time of real busyness. We get swept along for much of the holiday, working to get gifts together to make the Special Day really special, prepping for family dinners, and following the whims of kids now home with nothing to do (while older kids and empty nesters do not need our help filling a schedule, they still impact how we live our lives when they are in the house). Everything is kind of upended—mostly in a great way—and it takes some adjusting to return to … what shall we call it? Normality?

From a psychological perspective, stress doesn’t care whether events are good or bad: promotions and layoffs have the same effect on our physical and mental stability, because they knock us off-balance. It’s helpful to recognize that no matter how good the last several weeks have been, we are coming down off of a stressful season. And even if the events themselves were not stressful, the new year is full of transitions, and these alone can be difficult, especially for our children.

If it all possible, take that moment with your children. Sometime in the midst of the transition from holiday time to regular-time, carve out some time to sit in a comfortable place with them, and slow down for a bit. Or, plan on lingering a bit over breakfast, or while dressing before you go out the door. During this time, you can share with your kid what you and she liked about the last several weeks, or what they are looking forward to in the coming weeks. Have a little quiet time: for our teen, questions don’t work so well, so we’ll just grab him and chill on the couch for a bit (we’ll tell him it’s for us, though we suspect he likes it too). You know what will work in your home—clear a little space, make a little time to ease the transition.

To introduce a little ritual at times of transition helps us acknowledge things that often get lost in the shuffle. For some, it’s important to express sadness at the end of a period of special family time. Others, eager for the return to routine and busy work, may need help not leaving family-time too quickly behind. A pause to reflect, be thankful, and look forward … helps family members of all ages ease from one season to another.

This post first appeared on Parenting On The Peninsula’s Blog