As a fledgling sixth grade student teacher, I soon learned part of my job was to make a final call in disputes. When students were lined up for lunch or recess, every so often an obvious difference of opinion broke out, evidenced by pushing and shoving…or something worse. As I would approach said disruption to see what was happening, I’d meet a sea of pointing fingers with accusatory words to match. “He pushed me.” “She looked at me.” “I did not.” “He called me a Dork!” Unraveling competing blames got old really fast.
Frustrated by my insecurity about being fair to the parties, I developed the “I Want You to Know What I Know” speech, which I delivered on the first day of school, with deep sincerity and good humor, as follows:
“Here’s what I know about how the human body works. Bones don’t move by themselves. When arms, legs and mouths move, muscles do the moving of the bones to which they’re attached. Further, muscles don’t move unless they receive a signal from nerves. Nerves are the means by which the brain communicates with the muscles. Some of the signals the brain sends work automatically, like keeping your heart going. The other kind of signal the brain sends is a direct result of a decision the brain makes to send them, like when you want to pick up a pencil. Brain says “Pick up pencil” and hand picks up the pencil.
“Therefore, please know what I know. If your arm hits someone, your body merely responded to your brain’s decision to hit. So here’s how it is. On those rare occasions when I am compelled to respond to an argument or fight, I will listen only to the people actually involved. You will report on your part only. I will not be listening to any blaming of someone else. Period.”
Funny how quickly students learned there was no benefit in escalating trouble by blaming somebody else because if disputing parties did not accept responsibility and show willingness to make amends, it became my job to adjudicate the dispute, and I assured them, should that be the case, no one would wind up happy!
At home, when children’s disagreements get ratcheted up in a control battle of some proportion, separation and retreat to different spaces for time to think about and own what each brought to the battle makes resolution possible. Children can learn the process with a few rounds of practice facilitated (and modeled by an adult. The process is:
- Calm heightened feelings.
- Bring the parties together and ask each to report his or her part in the dispute.
- Each child can share an underlying dynamic that may be behind the scene, if they choose. (Postpone and follow up later if it distracts from addressing the current problem.)
- Provide the opportunity for expressions of how they plan to handle disputes in the future (in the interest of feeling better about themselves and the other).
- Make a new agreement geared to prevent and/or address the next conflict.
- Make room for apologies.
By accepting that the conflict is probably about one child’s needs clashing with another’s, or where the children’s values differ, parties of good will can build trust and connection by accepting responsibility for their choices and making new agreements. No blaming. No excuse-making. As a matter of fact, whenever blaming or excuse-making is heard, it is a signal that responsibility is being avoided!