The air in the loft was steamy from the commingled respiration of the half dozen preschoolers massed together in the tight space. Emotions were balanced on a tipping point. Clearly, some serious rule breaking had taken place. Everyone was commanding someone else to “Stop!” As our children stood up for their rights, no one was entirely in the right and no one was entirely in the wrong.
Preschool rules tend to be of the black and white variety: no hitting, no biting, no name calling. The “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” statute, however, is a different animal. On the one hand, we don’t want to exclude others; on the other we need to honor our friends’ need to do their work without the disruption of outside elements.
In this example the core conflict stemmed from a group of diligent play dough baking princesses who objected to an invasion of some sort of band of rescue heroes wearing masking tape over their mouths. If the princesses sat idly by their game would be wrecked by all those extra bodies. Defending the world they had built together meant excluding someone. In a court of law the defense attorney would argue self-defense, while the prosecutor would counter with the rights of individuals to use public property.
In other words, “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” is a gateway law into the adult world of legislative ambiguity.
At heart, most three- and four-year-olds are fundamentalists. They are still feeling out the shape of their world and just as we adults have learned to start puzzles by locating the sharp corner pieces, they first understand social relations in their extreme forms. In inattentive moments we’ve all tried to correct our children when they express their fundamentalism in stereotypes such as “Boys can’t dance ballet,” or “Girls can’t be firefighters.” We point out exceptions to the rules only to have our rationalizations rejected or ignored. Like it or not, our words simply do not reflect the reality of our children’s experiences. Even if we think they’re wrong, even if we know that they will one day have to revise their thinking, and even as we work to bring that about, we ought also to be proud that they trust their own instincts and experience over our second-hand wisdom.
“You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” is a place where the hard line between black and white is pierced. It’s messy as it always is when fundamentalism meets the pea soup of social reality. Even such obvious real world laws like those against murder are miasmatic swirls of gray. What about the death penalty? What about abortion? What about war? What about self-defense? Even as adults we tend to stake out fundamentalist views on our rules, but most of us know that reality must be shaped from compromise.
And compromise is messy.
When conflict erupts in class, our first responsibility as adults is to insure safety. Handling physical aggression is our highest priority. We use our superior strength to grab swinging arms and restrain kicking feet. We clutch out of control bodies against our own if we must. We do it from love, even if it looks like a little like violence.
That accomplished, both sides need to be given the opportunity to state their case. Everyone should be given a chance to talk – even bystanders. We can’t make the others listen, but we can compel the primary disputants to stay within earshot. It’s important that we give everyone the opportunity to hear the other side of the story. I like to try to paraphrase each side’s perspective, both to let the child know she’s been heard, but also to give the other party a clear, simple picture of the other perspective. If someone is still too emotional to speak, I’ll try to at least point out the feelings (e.g., sadness, anger, frustration, fear) that the altercation has caused. Understanding the other side’s point of view is the starting point for any successful compromise.
In an ideal scenario, the adult sums up the conflict succinctly, then offers a statement along the lines of “I wonder what we should do about this problem,” or “We need to find a solution.” Often it’s the bystanders – those not so deeply invested, nor so befuddled by strong emotion – who make the first suggestions. I try to encourage children to speak directly to each other rather than through me. Our instincts as adults is to “know” what’s right and to try to steer the conversation toward a certain solution (e.g., sharing, taking turns), but I’ve found it can be profitable to resist this urge.
I’ve seen children fighting over a stuffed animal decide that all 6 of them will carry it around together. They then spent five happy minutes wandering around the classroom each gripping an appendage, until it was finally dropped to the floor as the group moved on to other more pressing matters.
A conflict over a small pennant was solved when one boy – a bystander – got the others to agree to hand over the flag each time he said, randomly, “Ding!” It was a game that lasted a half hour and grew to include several other children.
When one child monopolized a small drum, beating it continuously for over an hour, the adults tried to get him to share it, but his friends refused, saying, “It’s his drum.”
Naturally, the children will more often than not need your adult wisdom to help them arrive at a “solution”, but I like to at least give them the chance to come up with their own compromise.
When I arrived on the scene in the loft I blocked the stairs with my body in order to keep everyone together. The rescue heroes pulled the tape from their mouths to claim, “They said we can’t come up here!”
I said, “You should tell them how that makes you feel.”
“You can’t say you can’t play!”
A princess responded, “We were playing here first!”
I said, “We need to find a solution.”
One of the rescue heroes looked at me with an expression that plead for escape. I moved aside and the boys tumbled down from the loft. By the time their feet had reached the floor, the princesses had returned to their baking.
Compromise is tough and sometimes it’s too much work. That’s why we also learn to pick our battles.