When big emotions bubble up in a little person, parents are tempted to react — especially when they know they can quickly end a dispute. The problem? Playground fights and squabbles can be learning moments that lead to kids learning about empathy and developing social skills that help them make future friends. Interventionism isn’t necessarily the best approach. That said, there are times when it’s necessary to step in.
“Parents, or any adult, should always intervene if there is bullying going on,” says Holly Schiffrin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington and co-author of Balancing the Big Stuff: Finding Happiness in Work, Family, and Life. “Bullying means repeated acts intended to harm another child, especially if there is a power differential – the perpetrator is older or bigger.” And, Schiffrin adds, if there is any physical danger, of course, parents should swoop in and protect their child. However, in most disputes, it’s a great time to let kids work on building some bigger skills.
“When a conflict begins parents should listen at first and see if the kids can work it out themselves,” Schiffrin says. “They do need to be careful that the ‘resolution’ isn’t always the older or bigger child getting their way because they’re bigger. Children learn important social skills about how to interact with others and problem solve from these early experiences.”
If the conflict seems to be getting worse rather than better, it’s time to step in and help. Parents should have the kids each state their case, and state it back to them very plainly, Schiffrin says. Then ask the combatants how they think they can solve the problem, and how they could handle things differently in order to avoid conflict. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean resolving the conflict, just forcing children to have an argument in a more adult manner. Offering a solution is a different approach and less powerful. Kids don’t learn much from arbitrary policing.
“Helicopter parenting undermines competence in two ways. First, parents may be unintentionally sending the message to their children that they don’t think they can solve their own problems,” Schiffrin says. “Second, they aren’t giving them the opportunity to practice those problem-solving skills and become proficient at them.”
How to Intervene in a Playground Dispute
- Unless someone is in physical danger, or it’s bullying, try to let the kids work it out on their own.
- If it escalates, approach the kids to have a conversation.
- Let each tell their side of the story in their own words. Repeat back the story to them.
- Help them come up with a resolution. Ask questions like: What can you do to help him feel better? What can you do that would be fair to everybody?
- Go with their resolution if it’s reasonable. Nudge if necessary, but do not impose your own solution.
- Let them go back to playing. Do not hold a grudge.
These are skills that are definitely a stretch from playground-aged kids all the way through high school, according to Eileen Kennedy-Moore, family therapist and creator of the video series “Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.” “To be reasonable, period, is an emerging skill at this age,” she says. “One study that found negotiation and compromise doesn’t become the main way people resolve compromise until age 19. That doesn’t mean they can’t.”
That said, there are some excellent outcomes from resolved childhood conflicts, Kennedy-Moore says. “If you look at the development of children’s friendships, it’s fueled by the ability to get along.”
She points to academic studies that repeatedly show that mediation is better for the parents: They feel like they taught their kids good skills. They feel rewarded for the effort. The kids felt better, too, because they felt like they were heard. So why don’t parents pull out the mediation tool every time?
“Life can get in the way,” Kennedy-Moore says. But she adds the studies don’t suggest mediation must be used every time. “But do your best when you’re able,” she says.