Johnny is playing with a ball and Janie comes up and takes it. Janie then runs around the yard with it until she spies some cool dinosaurs in the sandbox. Johnny has watched this and heads over to the sandbox and snatches the dinosaur out of her hand. She starts crying.
A common adult response would be to physically take the toy and give it back to Janie, while telling Johnny that it isn't okay to take things from other people (see the irony here?)
This certainly is true and a valid statement. But there is a greater opportunity for learning and it can look like this:
Adult: Janie is upset that Johnny took the dinosaur she was using. Let's talk about this.
(Keeping both children close by...)
Adult: What happened, Johnny?
Johnny: She took my ball, so I took her dinosaur!
Adult: Oh, I see. Johnny was playing wth a ball and Janie took it. That upset Johnny. Then Johnny took Janie's dinosaur and that upset Janie. Is that what happened, Janie?
Adult: So I wonder how we are going to solve this problem. Janie and Johnny both are wanting to play with this dinosaur. Hmmm. I wonder who had an idea?
Janie: I do! I have an idea. How about Johnny plays with that ball and I play with the dinosaur?
Adult: Does that work for you, Johnny?
Adult: Hm, that doesn't work for Johnny. Who has another idea?
Janie: I do! How about he rides a bike?
Adult: Hm, it sounds like that won't solve this problem either. I wonder what we can do.
Johnny: Maybe we can get another dinosaur.
Adult: Would that work for you, Janie?
Janie: Yeah! Let's get a big, scary T-Rex for you, Johnny, and I can run and hide!
Adult: I see you two solved the problem.
Conflict resolution in preschoolers takes time to learn. But having spent the past four years watching it in action at our preschool, I've seen children flourish in their ability to talk through problems. By the time they reach kindergarten, they can confidently navigate conflicts with peers.
We use this approach (often) at home. My boys will be in the playroom and then I'll hear the tears. I generally give them a few minutes to see if it's something they can work out themselves. If not, I head in and comfort the one crying, while warmly saying to the other one, "I see your brother is upset. What happened?" By remaining impartial (on the outside anyway), I can create a safe space for them to work things out and arrive at a positive outcome. And when I do, they almost always return to play that is more cooperative, flexible and fun.
Steps for Conflict Resolution:
1) Attend to the needs of an injured child and validate feelings first ("I see how hard this is right now and I'm here for you.")
2) Ask, "What happened?" even if you already know.
3) Narrate using each child's name instead of pronouns like "you" and "he." This maintains the impartial aspect that is critical to successfully empowering children to resolve conflicts. For instance, "Janie and Johnny both wanted the blue cup. Then Johnny took it and Janie was upset."
4) Ask for solutions: "Who has an idea to help solve this problem?" With two-year-olds, you may need to help a bit at first. "I see a red cup over there. I wonder if someone would like to have that one?" Or one child might just acquiesce and go play with something else. That's fine, too. You can say, "Oh, I see Janie no longer is interested in the cup. So Johnny can have it." As they get older, the ideas can be quite fun. Don't be afraid to pause and give them a chance to stretch their minds towards solutions.
5) Simply state (with a smile), "Johnny and Janie solved the problem!"
I promise that if this becomes your approach with siblings, or with regular play date friends, you will see an incredible uptick in peaceful play.
And we need some more peace in this world.