Early Childhood expert and Waldorf educator Trice Atchison addresses the topic of toddler conflict, an inevitable part of child-rearing. Conflict is a necessary (if unpleasant) part of life, beginning in early childhood. Our kids need to experience conflict in order to build the coping mechanisms cope with conflict later in life.
A typical progression for new parents: We have a child, and our hearts are melted. We’re vulnerable, and so is our newborn. We try our best to shelter this innocent child, who grows fast and soon becomes a part of the wider world. We bring him to a play group, the park or a library read-along. The other new parents seem friendly enough, if also a little nervous, and the children happily observe and participate in the activities. This is healthy; this is good; this is peace; this is community.
And then, a little boy not more than two, for no apparent reason reaches out to pull a tuft of our own child’s hair. Hard! Unprovoked! Our child yells in protest. We are shocked and dismayed. This is not what we had in mind. We want a perfect, conflict-free world for our deeply loved child. No hair pulling, no hitting, no teasing, no excluding! These thoughts cloud the present moment, and we lose all perspective.
Utopia is not ideal. As parents, we may strive to offer our children valuable experiences we may have enjoyed, or missed, as children, but we cannot surround them with perfect harmony. Even if we could achieve this end, we would not be serving our child’s best interests. As Barbara Ehrensaft says in Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much, But Not What They Need, “In human relationships, the act of reparation, making good on something that did not initially go well, is far better for character building than providing our children with a conflict-free, idyllic, ‘perfect’ childhood.” Sometimes there’s trouble in paradise. What’s more, this trouble is normal, and a valuable learning experience for all of us as we help children navigate their way through conflict. To do this, we must become more aware of the feelings and preconceptions we bring to conflicts that we and our children encounter, and strive to be more objective and present in regard to whatever manifests in the moment.
Certain trends in parenting can make this objectivity toward and acceptance of conflict all the more difficult to achieve. These trends include: the blurring of boundaries between parent and child, especially common during the early years; an overzealous desire on the part of parents to offer their children an “optimal” childhood, and an overblown fear of conflict of any kind in the name of peace. In these ways, parents may be hampering their children in learning how to co-exist with others. As teachers and parents, we can help children build character and important life skills by accepting conflict ourselves as a normal part of toddlerhood, childhood and adult life. As psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott said, “If society is in danger, it is not because of man’s aggressiveness, but because of the repression of personal aggressiveness in individuals.” In other words, an extreme aversion to (and lack of acceptance of) aggression as part of life, and a corresponding inability to address conflict can actually lead to distorted forms of aggression that can harm individuals, families and the whole social fabric. Further, the lack of authenticity that accompanies this denial of aggression can result in children and adults who suffer from depression, anxiety and other ailments. We had better get a handle on this natural phenomenon, so that our classrooms and communities are not filled with children whose well-meaning parents and teachers are unwittingly creating turmoil, as with the child, Richard, described here:
Pamela and Gordon believed that a crying child meant a failing parent. As a small baby, their son, Richard, was given a warm and enriched environment. He had two parents who anticipated his every need and quietly removed obstacles from his course before he ever knew they were in his way . . . He had a bucolic and blissful first couple of years . . . His parents remained attuned to his every need. Richard smiled most of the time . . . But then it was time for Richard to attend preschool. Nirvana quickly turned to purgatory. Pamela and Gordon had failed to present their son with the ‘gradual failures’ that would allow him to function in the world. Richard’s conflict-free home life existed in stark contrast to his new battlefield at school. Soon the battles were carried home. In the concerted effort to keep Richard satisfied and gratified, he was deprived of the basic tools that would help him cope in the world — patience, waiting his turn, dealing with frustration, problem solving, hoping for something better.
The unhappy situation described above began in infancy, with the parents quietly clearing Richard’s path of all obstacles. He never had to experience frustration or exert himself to solve a problem on his own — even one as simple as retrieving a toy he has flung out of reach. This practice starkly contrasts with the RIETM (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach to young children, which discourages parents and caregivers from intervening too soon in a misguided effort to smooth a baby’s path of obstacles. As RIE founder Magda Gerber writes in Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage your Child’s Natural Abilities — from the Very Start, “To respect your child is to create a little distance so that you refrain from interfering with her experience of encountering life . . . RIE’s respectful approach encourages a child’s authenticity, or genuineness.” In this light, creating a frustration-free environment for a young child can be viewed as a form of disrespect — one that alienates the child from her truest self.
Of course we are meant to protect and nurture our young children; but when we strive for the impossible goal of eliminating even small upsets and challenges — wanting everything to be easy and happy all the time — we can create a sense of helplessness in the child that keeps her from developing confidence in her own strength and emerging abilities. This sense of helplessness can cast a veil of uncertainty over her interactions with life, and is, in fact, an untrue assessment of all that she really is capable of doing.
Trice Atchison teaches parent and child classes at the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School in Massachusetts. She received her teaching certificate from the Professional Development Institute at Sophia’s Hearth Family Center, Keene, NH, a leading training site for Waldorf early childhood education. She has a master’s degree in writing from Emerson College, Boston, a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology from Wheaton College in Norton, MA, and studied therapeutic puppetry for young children through Juniper Tree School of Puppetry Arts, in Colorado. She co-edited “A Warm and Gentle Welcome,” a book of essays on caring for children from birth to three published by the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, and is a certified Simplicity Parenting group leader.