Yesterday, I read an article about boys roughhousing and in some of the comments, there was some discussion about how things escalate and somebody always gets hurt.
I described to my friend what I look for in an interaction:
- When there is conflict, do they try to address it verbally or do they go straight to violence? (In my experience, there is almost always a verbal attempt. Or four or five.)
- When they begin to scuffle physically, is it very hard or is it a properly weighed cuff--hard enough to sting, but not hard enough to do serious damage?
- When somebody hurts someone to the point where he cries out in real surprised pain, is there a hesitation, a slight backing off to check it out, or does the aggressor keep going to hurt more?
Backing off momentarily indicates empathy and caring, and you can stay out of it; ignoring pain and continuing to hurt or trying to induce more pain is a sign that you should immediately wade in a grab the hitter and move him away.
I think most people don't notice this slight hesitation or understand its significance. Most children are naturally empathetic and have this reaction. (Notably, my sweet 3yo did not when he was 2 and sitting on his 6mo brother.)
Another thing people miss, in terms of escalation, is that although there is frequently a small intensification of back and forth smacks and punches, accompanied by screaming, it usually quickly peaks to a mutually agreed ending. It is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but after a flurry of beating each other, one or both backs off.
- Either they both agree that justice has been served (ie the little one broke the bigger one's castle, so the big one smacks him, and the little one smacks back, and the big one smacks back, and they all agree that justice is served and they both back off, emotionally satisfied).
- One decides that pursuing it is not worthwhile (ie one wants a toy and tries to take it and they yank it back and forth and smack the bejeebers out of each other and one decides he's been smacked enough). He may walk away crying, but note that it is already de-escalated without you doing anything. In that situation, I give hugs and kisses and sympathy (only if I am approached by a crying child), but I do not interfere with the justice of the jungle. Often, after a brief cry, the child will find some other way to interact.
It is important to notice that what adults think is fair or just in this situation is not the same as how the children experience it. I am astonished how often a swift delivery of justice, followed by a retaliation, followed by another cuff of justice/retaliation, is considered equitable to both parties. I have observed this multiple times.
It is also valuable to let children who are having conflict to physically work it out. Watch carefully and note how measured the hitting is. It is not so hard that it will cause damage, and yet it is with enough force to sting. There are often hesitations and pauses while they learn how much force is too much and how much is just right, and they respond and back off in reactions to exclamations of intense pain. These are lessons in socialization and emotional intelligence. It trains children to respond empathetically and to notice nuances in expression, and to grasp emotional subtleties. When adults don't get involved, you will also observe that children are inclined to back off based on an internal tolerance limit. They are also inclined to take some time to regroup, and then rejoin with a different approach. These are things we all would like our children to find the internal fortitude to practice. Children who rely on adults to intervene often do not have the experience of looking within for these approaches.
If you find that one child is beating another and there is crying out and you do not observe a peak and a slight backing off (but make sure you are not interfering too early--watch first and look for subtle signs of empathy in the midst of the fighting), then separate them.
My preference is to physically move them apart but not to speak. I haven't found that saying anything is helpful or useful. It more likely conveys disapproval and anger that is not beneficial to the child/ren.
But it is really astonishing, if you learn to observe signs of empathy and internal de-escalation, how infrequently you will have to get involved. I'm not saying it doesn't get loud. I'm not saying there is no crying. And I have punted the phrase "No hitting!" from our home. But the spurts are brief, intense, and noisy, and frequently end with some time of agreement. It's more Wild, Wild West than civilization. But read up on justice in the wild west and you'll be surprised at how fair it generally was.