Thursday, June 08, 2017

Every Day In The Sandpit

It was the sort of conflict that comes up almost every day in the sand pit. As one child operated the cast iron water pump, a group of kids were working downhill in an effort to manage the flow of water.

I was sitting nearby watching the play. The kids had dug a hole into which the water flowed and were from there directing it onto either side of our sand pit row boat.

"We need it open so that the water can go in all directions."

"Well, we're trying to stop it in this direction."

"But we need it open so it can go all ways."

"No, we're not doing that. We're stopping it here with a dam."

Up to this point, all was calm, a group of engineers discussing their project, but as the debate continued, with each side essentially asserting their own unchangeable vision for their collective work, voices began to rise.

"Yes we are!"

"We are not!"

One girl said, ineffectually, "Stop fighting!" but judging from the other voices chiming in, it was clear that the majority favored the dam, a fact that neither of the original debaters could notice because they were too busy advocating for their own points of view. Although I was right there, at their level, no one appealed to me and why would they? They were doing what adults do all the time, engaging in debate over matters of importance. 

One could, as the girl did, call it arguing, and indeed it was arguing, but even when that makes some of us uncomfortable it is a part of life: good people argue, sometimes emotionally. But as I listened I didn't hear any of the name-calling or other kinds of ad hominem attacks one so often finds in adult discourse. No one was calling anyone "stupid" or even "bad." No one was behaving violently or otherwise attempting to impose his will on the other. They were simply restating their assertions about what "we" want, albeit with ever increasing volume and intensity.

I've been involved in these sorts of debates among adults: people who are working together, like the parent community that owns and operates our cooperative school. Setting internet political debate aside, I reckon we grown-ups usually do a better job of varying our arguments, adding rationale, nuance, and background by way of being more persuasive, rather than simply restating our views louder and louder as was so far happening in this case. But we have decades more experience with this sort of thing. We've learned, for instance, that it will typically come down to the rest of the group. It will come down to them to either choose sides or suggest a compromise, so we strive to make the best case we can. We know as well that in most debates among adults of good will, the one who loses her composure or who makes it ugly tends to wind up with the short end of the stick.

Up to this point, I didn't figure there was anything for me to do. I could see the tempers were rising, but that in and of itself doesn't mean they needed me. I was, of course, ready to leap in should violence seem imminent or the words turn ugly, but I was curious about where it would go and so remained on the sidelines. 

Then, in a flash, the dam was destroyed with a shovel, "We need the water to go through here!"

This was my moment to step in. I would have said something like, "You can disagree, but you can't destroy another person's things," or something like that. I would have then put myself between them and repeated, calmly and clearly, where I thought matters stood between the primary opponents: "You want a dam and you do not. There is only one stream of water. What can we do?" I would not have expected the more emotional kids to have made cogent suggestions (although I've been pleasantly surprised in the past by some children's ability to think clearly through their tears) but rather relied on the views of the other children involved, the engineers who had been working on the project as well, but who had not yet had their voices heard.

The group would have come to some sort of compromise, I'm sure. Perhaps not the one that we adults would have proposed, but one of their own devising, made perfect by their agreement. Unfortunately, the shovel-wielding boy's mother was on the scene and she stepped in and scooped him up before I could do anything, removing him from the scene. I can hardly blame her, of course. She could see as well as I could that he had been the one to "cross the line," and I'm sure she was either feeling embarrassed or frustrated or perhaps worried that things would just continue to ramp up and was simply, from her perspective, saving us all the headache.

And it might well have been a headache. I've taken part in debates like this that go on and on and on, both on the playground and in the adult meeting room, so her actions might have saved us from that, but at the same time we lost an opportunity to really hear everyone, to authentically engage in a process that lead to true community agreement.

As the kids went happily back to work, their conflict abruptly ended, I sat there feeling the loss, wondering what might have been, but I bucked myself up with the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before we would get another chance. Such is the nature of humans living together: it's the sort of conflict that comes up almost every day in the sand pit.

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