There’s a ton for children to quarrel over—the last dino chunk, who’s taller, who gets the chance to be Juniper’s BFF of the Week. In America, guardians have a tendency to react to these adolescence squabbles with irritation, hopping into ref mode and driving children to share or apologize or cool off on inverse sides of the room. We need peace, and we need it now … kindly In any case, there’s another approach: let kids duke it out. In the Wall Street Journal piece “Child rearing the German Way: Let the Children Fight,” Sara Zaske composes that when she lived in Berlin, she found that the guardians and instructors there don’t mediate in each contention—rather, (Best Preschool in Rego Park)they assume that children can work most things out without anyone else if given the possibility. She clarifies:
Of course, it’s natural for children to fight. But the way German teachers at our kita [kindergarten] approached these conflicts was very different than in the U.S. They didn’t rush to interfere, unless a child was about to be hurt. They didn’t punish, hand out warnings, write names of naughty kids on the board or clip them down on the rainbow-colored behavior chart of doom.
Instead, German teachers spent time observing the situation. Sometimes they took children aside to talk to them individually; sometimes they spoke to the whole group about fairness and kindness directly, or indirectly, by reading stories that touched on the issue. Sometimes they did nothing at all.(Best Preschool in Rego Park)
Did the kids all magically live in harmony after that? Well, no. Zaske writes when her daughter was five, she had issues with her two close friends and was “un-friended and uninvited to distant future birthday parties dozens of times.” (My American mom-heart wants to call those kids’ parents right now for a little chat.) But the teachers would never scold children over that sort of thing. Rather, away from the heat of the conflict, they would help them think through their actions, emphasizing the consequences for others, which has been shown to motivate both kids and adults into shifting their behavior. And then they would step back and let the kids figure things out on their own.
The payoff would come later. In Japan, parents and teachers take on a similarly lax approach to fighting, seeing it as a natural rite of passage for children. A study compared American and Japanese fourth- and fifth-graders and their thoughts on fighting, hitting and related acts. When asked why they shouldn’t do these things, 92 percent of American kids talked about not wanting to get in trouble. External forces shaped their actions. The vast majority of Japanese kids, on the other hand, did not mention punishment and explained that they shouldn’t fight or hit because it hurts others. They gained the wisdom and maturity that can only come from lived experiences.
Zaske’s daughter learned some powerful lessons that year in kindergarten. “By the time she made it to elementary school, she was known as a peacemaker,” explains Zaske, who wrote a new book called Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children. “To this day, she rarely has an issue with a ‘mean girl,’ either as a victim or being one herself.”
It can be more difficult to hang back and observe emotional situations than to try to solve problems for your kids on the spot. But what they need is consistent guidance, a place to explore their feelings, a model of kindness. What they probably don’t need is a referee monitoring every single play.
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