In school, as in life, part of our job as adults is mastering the complex “arts of peace” on behalf of our kids. Let’s face it – when imperfect children spend time with other imperfect children (…and imperfect grown-ups!), there are bound to be occasional conflicts, misunderstandings, or tensions that test us. When your child comes home from school or soccer and tells you a sad tale of being mistreated by a friend, classmate, or coach, do you leap to protect your innocent, misunderstood child? Do you say, “My poor little angel, how terrible that someone did this?” Or worse, do you launch into action to fix everything, gather evidence as if you are preparing a lawsuit, or lash out in anger at whoever made your child feel bad?
Or maybe you opt for a different approach. “Well, Billy, you must have done something to deserve it!” Or perhaps you dismiss the complaint as overly dramatic.
These are all understandable responses, but none is what children need when navigating the inevitable painful experiences and challenges of life. What our children and students need is emotional leadership not an emotional broker or, worse yet, an emotional overlord, who will become swept away as they attempt to bear pain for their child.
There is no doubt it is a balancing act. When we bear a child’s pain without becoming overcome by excessive empathy (i.e., perhaps stemming from our own flood of childhood memories and emotions), we help them cope with hurts and disappointments. In the process, they eventually learn that something can “hurt”, but that they can handle it. Bearing the pain also means noticing the times that our children tell us about a “terrible” event – getting us all worked up about it – and then running off to play (!). We listen, which is what our child may need, but then it’s our turn to let it go. And sometimes this is where adults get it wrong.
When we lose perspective and really feel the urge to rush things (e.g., email bluster, accusatory postures, confrontations, etc.,), we don’t just tell children what they should do, we end up doing it for them. Instead, it is always prudent to seek more information calmly. “Let’s ask your teacher about that.” Many upsets and drama are the result of misunderstandings, half-truths, and misinformation. We also need to remember that we seldom have the whole story. It’s always best to seek a middle ground between “that’s horrible!” and “what really happened?” And it never hurts to remember that every child is motivated by his or her own self-interest when “peer shenanigans” are involved.
In their book Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, authors Thomson and O’Neill-Grace warn against “interviewing for pain” when discussing school day experiences with kids. Child psychologist, Steve Baskin, recommends “interviewing for power” instead. He believes it sends the subtle but undeniable message that “you are capable and I believe in you” and I want to “hear about your successes.”
Of course, if something truly difficult or threatening happens, we should never ignore it. But truly challenging situations are actually quite rare.
In the meantime, our children need to know that we believe that “they’ve got this!” and that we are there right behind them, just in case.
Ric Anderson, Head of School