To Intervene or Not to Intervene: Reacting to Children’s Arguments

I was in a waiting room watching preschool age siblings fight over a toy.   The older child had a toy that the younger child was trying to get.  They both yelled.  Their mother reached over and, without saying one word, took the toy from the older child and handed it to the younger.  The older child yelled and cried.   Mom clenched her teeth and said, “Stop it” and the child cowered in anger and defeat.   She handed the child a book and turned away.  The child threw the book down. 

This scene may feel familiar to you.  As adults, we want to solve the problem.  We too often simply reach over, step in, involve ourselves and end the possibility that the children could have solved it themselves.  In the situation in the waiting room, not only did the mother wordlessly intervene, she did exactly what we tell the children not to do – she grabbed the toy.  We tell children not to grab from each other and then we grab to end the fight.

I remember being at the playground with my boys when they were little.  Inevitably, one child on the playground starts telling everyone else where to go and what to do.  It is apparent to everyone watching that the other children don’t want to do what the child tells them to do but some of them comply.  As a parent, I wanted to run over and say, “Hey – don’t tell them what to do.  Kids you don’t have to listen.”  I didn’t run over there.  I was the parent who wanted to see if they would figure it out on their own.  If my children didn’t figure it out in a way that I thought was to their benefit, we would talk later.  Besides, I didn’t need to say anything – just like there was always a bossy kid, there was also a parent who couldn’t stay quiet.

The question for every parent (and caregiver and teacher) is when to intervene in your child’s social dilemmas.  At what point do the children need our help?  We will never know if we don’t give them the chance to work it out.  Take a breath.  Give them a minute.  See if it can play out safely without your interference.  We cannot, of course, let arguments become physically dangerous.  Intervening when someone will get hurt is part of teaching children about respectful boundaries.  We are obligated to teach our children about respect for property, people and health & safety.   If everyone is physically safe, we need to give them a chance to let situations take a natural course.  You would be amazed at how often they actually do work it out.  You will also be surprised at how they know when they need your help and ask for it.  When you see your children arguing, remember:

  • Arguments teach us a lot about socialization.  Sometimes we win.  Sometimes we lose.  These are valuable lessons.  No one wants to see their child upset.  We forget that is how we learn.  I have learned the greatest lessons from not getting what I want.  I have learned that each defeat isn’t the end of the world.  I have learned to try again.  I have learned to cope.
  • When your children come to you upset about an argument, don’t solve it.  Teach them to be critical thinkers.  Ask questions.  What can you do?  What should you say?  What should you do differently next time?  Teach your children to take a deep breath when they are angry.  They will be able to think more clearly if they know how to calm their physical reactions to upset.
  • You are their role model so don’t get emotionally involved.  When we are calm, we teach our children that problems can be solved logically rather than with negative emotions.  We also provide an example of maturity.  I spent many years watching parents at sporting events acting emotionally less mature than their children.  There is something so wrong with that.  Children learn what they see.  Seeing is believing, after all.
  • Instruct – don’t grab, make declarations or bully anyone.  It is our job to teach our children.  When the struggle for the toy is getting physically dangerous, put your hand out and say, “Please give it to me.”  Make a couple of attempts to get the toy.  Don’t do what you don’t want to teach the children.  You don’t want to be their example of grabbing.  You don’t want to be their example of bullying.  Instead of grabbing, hold the toy with them and help them to take turns.  Remember that preschoolers cannot really share in a way that adults interpret the word sharing.  They are egocentric and each need to feel possession of the item.  Being able to cooperatively play with one item is typical 5 year old behavior, not 3 year old behavior.  Adults need to facilitate sharing.

Children become confident in their ability to navigate social situations and solve problems by doing just that.  If we never let them stand up for themselves, how do they know that they can?  If we always intervene, how will they know that they can be fine when we are not with them?  It is hard to watch our children struggle but it is nice to watch them able to function on their own.  Sometimes, the difference between the two is one short breath.  Take a breath.  Watch.  See what they do. 



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Copyright 2014 © Cindy Terebush
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