Opinion

Don’t Referee Every Schoolyard Conflict. Help Kids Learn to Solve Them on Their Own.

Most days when I pick my two daughters up from elementary school, they happily bound out the door — another day of high-spirited chatter about whom they played with and some facts about the Battle of Saratoga. But occasionally, there’s some kind of schoolyard spat. One of them will stomp out, furious about some perceived slight, which they reveal to me on our way home.

And usually — crucially — I can discern, without too much difficulty, that my child had some role in the conflict; someone doesn’t just threaten to disinvite you to his birthday party for no reason. But recently, one of my children reported an unprovoked attack from a little lout who insulted her.

My knee-jerk, semi-facetious advice was: Tell him off with some choice words that can’t be printed here. It wasn’t my finest parenting moment but it wasn’t my worst. I realize that giving a 9-year-old a context-free license to ill isn’t ideal, and we had a follow-up conversation. We discussed that she shouldn’t aggressively retaliate, but that no one should talk to her that way. Even after I dialed back my initial response, the basic principle remained: I want my kids to be able to stand up for themselves, within reason, and I want them to build the social skills needed to manage peer conflicts without having to run to an adult to intervene.

In previous reporting, teachers have told me that conflict resolution is a social skill that has atrophied: Children are quicker to run to a grown-up to solve a problem than they were before the pandemic. This spring, when my Times colleagues polled 362 school counselors, 73 percent said that students were having trouble solving conflicts with friends.

I wanted to better understand the motivations of my kids and their classmates, so I called Scott Hershovitz, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of a delightful new book, “Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids,” which goes deep into the ethics of playground fights. “Kid culture is in many ways a full-on revenge, honor-based culture,” Hershovitz told me. “The playground is a place, especially as they get older in elementary school and middle school, of social hierarchy, and they’re super keyed into the way they’re seen and perceived in the pecking order.” He thinks parents should recognize that, and be realistic about it.

Hershovitz is not recommending that we allow children to be a part of some “Lord of the Flies” hellscape, or that we allow anyone to be bullied. His framing is just meant to help us formulate responses that address their real concerns, which, he explained, are about self-respect and social status. No child wants to be seen as the kind of kid whom other kids can push around with impunity.

One of the ways Hershovitz and the three child mental health experts I spoke to recommend we help kids deal with peer conflict is by teaching them about extinction, which is “a fancy psychology term that means ‘ignore it,’” said Jacob Towery, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist in Palo Alto, Calif., and the author of “The Anti-Depressant Book: A Practical Guide for Teens and Young Adults to Overcome Depression and Stay Healthy.”

Dr. Towery gives the following example, which involves two kids who sit together at a table in class: “One kid is being annoying and they keep making a sound that’s irritating and they’re doing it on purpose to bug the second child. The more the second child can ignore it and not act bothered and give the first child no satisfaction, pretty quickly the child will get bored,” and they may stop the behavior. You can return attention to the other kid when they aren’t being so irritating. (In 2019, Dr. Towery wrote for The Times about children’s annoying habits and how to deal with them.)

“When you think of the way the social hierarchy is structured, it has the potential to work for kids,” Hershovitz said of extinction. “High-status people don’t get injured by low-status people. If I signal ‘I’m not injured,’ it’s a way to signal my high status.”

All four of those I talked to also recommended trying to get your kid to empathize with the kid he or she is sparring with. Sally Hunter, a clinical associate professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said she tries to tell her kids that they might not have all the information about what is going on in another child’s life that may lead them to lash out. She tells her sons that they can’t control how someone else behaves, they can only control their own responses: “Life is 10 percent what happens to you, and 90 percent your reaction,” she said.

In terms of their reactions, if our kids find themselves getting overly heated in an argument with a friend, Dr. Towery said, though it takes a lot of maturity, we can advise them to just walk away until they’re less worked up. “Let the other person know, and then come back when you’re more calm.”

While we want to give our kids tools to deal with conflict without having to get directly involved ourselves, that doesn’t mean we should leave them to fend for themselves in a bullying situation. I asked Saskia Ferrar, a psychologist at Montreal Children’s Hospital who has done research on adolescents and conflict resolution, about how to tell the difference between bullying and “normal” conflict among kids. She emailed:

If you suspect your child is being bullied or is the bully themselves, speaking to your child’s teacher, camp counselor, another child’s parent or another authority figure involved would be appropriate. But when we can, we should try to butt out, especially as our kids get older. “I would encourage parents to follow their kids’ lead: some will want their parents’ help and advice, while others might just want support and validation,” said Ferrar.

In my daughter’s case, she just wanted to vent, and she was mildly horrified by my joking suggestion of a retort. Even though she knew I wasn’t seriously suggesting that she mock the other kid right back, I do think she appreciated that I made it clear he was in the wrong, and that she didn’t have to accept his disrespect. Though I hate the idea of anyone talking smack to her, “a part of life is learning how to navigate that and get a thick enough skin,” said Dr. Towery. “The more parents stay out of that, the more kids will learn how.”


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