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A Fine Balance

So how does a sensitive 31/2-year-old boy handle interpersonal conflict?

I’ve been wondering about this for ages. Actually, no. I’ve been worrying about this for ages. Many times I’ve seen a much younger child grab something from Simon only to look on as my stunned son stood frozen in place and cried.

As many times I’ve not been exactly sure how to coach him. I’ve heard other parents exhort him to “grab it back!” or “not let him/her get away with that,” but to my mind these parents have confused normative behavior with desired behavior. Which is to say, while I think grabbing is to be expected among toddlers and preschoolers, I don’t think it should be encouraged.

Recently, Simon had a play-date with a dear friend (and daughter of dear friends of mine) who is much more outgoing and assertive than Simon is. She, and I’ll call her Rebecca here, is a happy, spirited force to be reckoned with. As often happens, there were some disputes over toys. Simon has one toy in particular he has a hard time sharing, and Rebecca is fast to grab this toy (and others), and slow to give it up.

I intervened as necessary to facilitate turn taking. Using very neutral tones, I explained to Simon that he had to share all his toys, or a toy went out of play. Hoarding in front of company is not an option. And I told Rebecca that she had to give Simon turns and could not push, grab, or interfere with a toy (i.e. kicking the pedals of a trike while Simon was on it) to get her turn faster.

As the hours went by, I waited to see if Simon would ever stand his ground. And then, at snack-time, he finally did. Rebecca was flicking water from her straw on Simon and his snack, and Simon didn’t appreciate the game.

No, Rebecca, No! You stop it and DON’T. DO. IT. AGAIN!

This may not sound like much, but understand that he was being quite loud and forceful and was waving his left index finger  just inches from her face. This was clearly Simon drawing a line in the sand.

He may have made his point too well as Rebecca, who thought this a fun game and had her feelings hurt, began to cry. Her crying begat tears in Simon, as he can’t bear to see anyone upset. So there they sat, friends wrapping up a play-date with mutual hurt feelings and tears.

This seemed to me to be a teachable moment. I told Rebecca that Simon didn’t mean to scare/upset her, that he just didn’t like having water thrown on his lunch and clothes. Was she OK? Sort of. Could I give her a hug? Yes. She was now not crying, but also not willing to look at Simon.

Then I went to work on Simon. “You didn’t like Rebecca’s game, I understand. And you told her to stop, which is great. But sometimes when you are loud and forceful, you hurt other children’s feelings. So even though you were right to tell her to stop, you should say you are sorry for yelling they way you did.”

Would Rebecca apologize for flicking water? Yes. Would Simon apologize for yelling? After a time, yes.

So then we chatted a bit about how friends can get upset with each other, and that the important thing is to tell each other when you don’t like something and then apologize and forgive if apologies or forgiveness are needed.  By the end of the date, each sought to make it right using the same tools they had used to cause the fight. Simon, the verbal offender, told Rebecca she was a good friend. And Rebecca, who had been physical, gave Simon a hug and a kiss.

It was a small victory in parenting. It is also, I suspect, a skirmish I will look back at from Simon’s later childhood, when things will not resolve so easily, with a heaping dose of nostalgia.

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