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"He's totally conflict avoidant, so it isn't like we ever fight about this stuff," my friend recently explained to me, referring to how she and her hubby address their differences. She seemed proud that the fighting in her household registers low on the Richter scale. Meaning: conflict is bad; glad we don't have it.
It's true--conflict can be very uncomfortable. Whenever what we want seems at odds with someone else's desires, we have conflict. In preschoolers and among siblings, conflict is most often about contested toys or space. My 7-year-old is super-obsessed with rules and regulations and fairness, so conflict for her comes when people aren't following the rules to her satisfaction. My best friend has read about a hundred books on teasing and bullying, because that is the type of conflict her sixth-grader has been dealing with since the third grade. And no matter our age, most of us have been known to argue about contested opinions and beliefs.
But because conflict fuels change, it is also what makes life interesting. Think about what a snoozer a movie would be without conflict! Conflict is entirely necessary for intellectual, emotional, and even moral growth. Good thing, because even if we'd do anything to avoid it, conflict will always exist. Conflict between children is like the air they breathe: research shows that playing kids experience about one conflict every three minutes.
Why Conflict Matters
If we want our children to lead happy and meaningful lives, they are going to need lots of positive relationships. And if we want them to be able to foster strong friendships, the best thing we can do is to teach them learn how to deal with conflict by doing more than avoiding it.
We may avoid conflict between adults, but most of us parents and teachers are constantly addressing it with kids. Kids don't know how to settle disputes constructively until we teach them. One exhaustive study showed that left to their own devices, 90 percent of conflicts between elementary school children go unresolved or end destructively.
Most kids shun conflict or try to crush their opposition; more than 60 percent rely on adults to resolve their conflicts. After reading a dozen or so studies about conflict resolution, I have found that my own cutie-pies regularly model three unhealthy ways to deal with conflict:
1. Force. As when Molly just rips a toy she wants out of Fiona's hand and runs.
2. Withdrawal and avoidance. When Fiona says, loudly, "I don't want to talk about this anymore," and then walks out of the room.
3. Giving in. As when Fiona is nagging Molly for something she doesn't want to give up. Molly, sweet child that she is, often decides that it isn't worth enduring Fiona's heckling and so--seizing the opportunity to gain approval from me--will very sweetly give her exactly what she wants. (Note to self: stop praising the kids when they give in to sibling heckling.)
Just Stop It
There are two main ways that we adults intervene when our kids start to fight. The first is what I'll call the "just stop it" method: We tell them what to do ("give that back and say you're sorry"), physically separate them, or take the object in dispute away. We are judges and umpires, generating solutions and commandments without much help from the bickering masses.
Necessary though all of this often is, the "just stop it" method does not teach constructive conflict resolution, nor does it teach kids to resolve their conflicts themselves. Effective conflict resolution requires empathy--the kids have to be able to take into account their friends' points of view, making for a natural opportunity for children to learn to consider other people's feelings.
The other way we can intervene is to act as a mediator, or coach, rather than dictator. Instead of stopping the conflict or imposing solutions, we can help kids see other people's perspectives, and we can encourage them to generate their own solutions.
In addition to helping our kids foster strong friendships (and therefore lead happier lives), research shows that learning positive conflict resolution brings loads of benefits to kids, boosting their academic performance and increasing their self-confidence and self-esteem. It has also been linked to increased achievement, higher-level reasoning, and creative problem solving.
Learning how to resolve conflict with siblings and peers helps kids cope with other kinds of stress, making them better adjusted and more resilient as teenagers--and more successful as adults.
Published with permission from The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and Raising Happiness: In Pursuit of Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.
About the Author
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center who studies the childhood roots of happiness. She is the author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents," and the director of Greater Good Parents, a blog and website that offers parents research-based tips for fostering joy, resilience, and compassion in children. She has two daughters and lives near San Francisco.