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“How do you intervene non-coercively when one child is attacking another?”
See also: Is coercion always wrong?
If, say, one child is attacking another with a cricket bat, it is vital to intervene to protect the victim, even if that is against the will of the cricket-bat-wielding child. But some ways of doing that tend to add to the distress and coerciveness of the situation, while other ways are more likely to defuse the situation and have everyone smiling again.
How might we intervene in the cricket bat scenario non-coercively? The details will vary depending on the unique details of the actual real life situation, the individuals involved, and what led up to the situation, but here are some pointers.
Punishment, coercion, the name, blame, shame, and train approach: How to turn a suboptimal situation into a catastrophe. Definitely not taking children seriously.
Fallibility: We are all fallible human beings, not omniscient godlike beings. We sometimes lack the knowledge that would make a difference. Things happen. People make mistakes. Maybe there is an identifiable cause, that we can think about for the future, or maybe we don’t know. Maybe it was just a moment of bad luck.
Psychological innocence: We are all doing the best our conscious mind has to offer in the moment. Sometimes our best is decidedly suboptimal. As when you find yourself swinging a cricket bat at a person instead of a ball. Or when you glower menacingly at the child wielding the cricket bat.
Truth is not manifest: When a voice in our head asserts that something is obviously true or right, or obviously false or wrong, that voice is not the revealed truth, it is coming from inside our own mind – our fallible human mind that can be mistaken. Thus, when someone else (in this case a child) does not see the rights and wrongs of a situation the way we ourselves do, it does not follow that the other person knows the truth yet is wickedly wilfully choosing to do the wrong thing.
Knowledge is not a fluid, and the mind is not a bucket: It is impossible to pour our (far superior, obvs) idea into the child’s mind. (When someone else tells you off, trying to pour into your mind the idea that you are bad and wrong and how dare you, does your mind just passively sit there like a bucket receiving that person’s judgement?)
The growth of knowledge takes creativity: Much as it would be convenient to be able to correct errors magically, jumping from the current problem situation to a better problem situation by a mere act of will, that is not possible. Improvement (learning, making progress, going from one theory to a better theory) happens through a creative, critical rational process. (We cannot correct our own errors by a mere act of will, let alone other people’s alleged errors.)
The journey to improvement starts from where you are: The problem in front of us is the one to solve. We each start from our own problem situation that is unique and changing from moment to moment. The others involved may well have a very different conception of what the problem is, given their own problem situation.
Meet the child where she is: How does she see the situation? What is her point of view? What is her experience of the situation? What is the problem as she herself sees it? What is her interpretation of events, the situation, the circumstances, or of the person or persons involved? In attacking the other child, what problem is or was she trying to solve, and why? N.B., I am not suggesting interrogating the child, I am suggesting that you bring human empathy to bear to see it from her point of view – (as it were) be the child: create an accurate rendering of the child’s mind in your mind – a recreation of the child’s experience of the situation, the child’s problem situation, the child’s viewpoint, the child’s thinking about the problem, how she herself sees it, her feelings about it all, what problem she is trying to solve, and so on – really getting what it is like for her in her own mind. To do this you have to venture out of your own head and put yourself in the child’s shoes.
Resistance creates persistence: When we simply plough in with criticism from our own point of view instead of meeting the child where she is, what is that like for her? From her point of view we are resisting or rejecting or uninterested in or oblivious to her point of view. So from her perspective, whatever problem we think we are solving, we are failing to take into account her point of view, the problem she was aiming to solve, her concerns, her problem situation, what she wants, and so on. We are not addressing her problem situation, we are resisting it. What happens when you have a disagreement with someone and you can tell that they have not even remotely understood how you see it, they are just ploughing ahead with what they themselves think should happen, which does not in any way address your problem situation? You can feel even more stuck in your position, right? You may not be able to move forward unless your own concerns are understood and being taken into account. You may not be able to assess and criticise your bad behaviour while there is a psychological fight going on. Whereas when we feel heard and understood, and not maligned, we no longer feel defensive, and we can feel safe enough to look at our own behaviour and to see it from the other person’s point of view – and now we can correct our own bad behaviour and solve the problem together.
Instead of resisting the child’s point of view, put her cricket bat theory in its strongest form: What is her reason? Was there a misunderstanding? Was she interpreting something in a particular way that makes the whole thing totally understandable? Maybe she had expressed a wish nicely but you were too busy with something else to pay attention and meet her need? Maybe she was feeling very frustrated and this felt like it would relieve her frustration very effectively! Maybe the person she was really angry with was you or some other adult, not the other child, but it did not feel safe to attack you or the other adult with a cricket bat? Or maybe it was nothing to do with feeling angry – maybe she was wondering whether it would make the cracking sound it makes on cartoons when cricket bat meets head? Or maybe she wanted to feel what it is like to swing such a heavy object around, and her brother got in the way? Or how about this super positive idea: Maybe she was channelling an action adventure superhero character wielding the cricket bat to defeat the forces of darkness and save the world?! Wouldn’t that be exciting?! She wants to save the world! Or maybe she was exploring being daring, or brave, or what it is like to stand up for yourself even when you feel scared?
Wholeheartedly engage with the child’s cricket bat wielding theory as if it were your own: Don’t just calmly understand it from a superior position far above, looking down on her for having such a misguided theory, grasp it as an equal, as if it were your own theory. Don’t just get the content of it, get the feeling of it – the excitement, the courage, the daring, the frustration, the wondering what if, the desire to explore, to learn, to have an effect on the world, and so on. And what good theory is there underlying this incident, that you can acknowledge? What positive commitment or goal was this expressing?
Get everything out and on the table: Check with the child that your guesses are right, don’t just assume they are. Put yourself in the child’s shoes and see it from her point of view; show her that you actually do see it from her point of view; and check with her that you are getting it accurately. Check that there is not more left unsaid that matters to her, and keep checking and modifying and adding until there is nothing else not on the table, and she feels, and is, fully heard. Do all this positively and wholeheartedly, with lightness and ease, right there with her, in her shoes, as opposed to graciously deigning to forgive from above.
Are you getting the picture?: Any element of interrogating, getting her to explain herself and justify her manifestly wrong actions, any blaming, shaming, maligning her motives, exuding ‘wrongness’, looking down on, etc., will interfere with this and actively prevent this problem being solved.
Continue until the process is complete: When the child feels heard and understood, and there is nothing not being allowed on the table, there is a noticeable shift. Relaxation. Psychological space. Freedom from the fight, from the defensiveness, from the stuckness. Creativity back online, as it were. And now the problem-solving can flow again.
This need not take long at all: I may have made this sound like a lengthy, arduous process, but actually it need not take more than a few minutes, and it definitely shouldn’t be arduous for anyone! Most of this process is not explicit at all – it is more about us creating an accurate rendering of the child’s mind in our own mind than anything else. It is about deeply and broadly seeing it from the child’s point of view, as opposed to paying lip service to the child’s point of view, or seeing it only narrowly and superficially.
For some examples of this kind of approach and what it makes possible, look up Vivek Patel of Meaningful Ideas. Vivek has deep inexplicit knowledge of how to do this, and manages to convey it very clearly in a number of his videos.
- Is coercion always wrong?
- Why is a three-year-old child hitting and what to do
- If we are fallible and not omniscient, surely it is exaggerating to say it is always possible to solve problems without coercion?
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How do you intervene non-coercively when one child is attacking another?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/how-do-you-intervene-non-coercively-when-one-child-is-attacking-another/