Resolving Conflicts and Problems – Helping Our Children and Ourselves to Find the Answers

Solutions to conflicts with our children are normally expressed as discipline, punishments, and rewards. Books are written on effective discipline, debating whether to use physical punishment, time-out, stern words and tone, rewards, natural consequences, conflict resolution techniques or some combination therein.

If we defer to our upbringing or our peer groups, we are not making a conscious choice in the way we choose to resolve conflict. When we are authentic and loving, making self-responsible independent choices that are allowing and nurturing, we can resolve conflicts in a loving and positive way. As we embody the qualities associated with being authentic and loving, developing our character and wisdom, we are empowered to make better choices as we seek that one correct choice that will resolve the conflict in the most beneficial way for all concerned.

Most of the conflicts with our children are due to our relative development as parents. The less authentic and loving we are, the more conflicts we create. Parents create conflict when they are controlling, blame, judge, lie, personalize behavior, act disrespectfully, are reactive rather than choosing a response, feel they own their kids, and do not value, appreciate, or sincerely attempt to understand their kids. Parents who do this create children who may be hostile, rebellious, resentful, angry, uncooperative, unhappy, feel unloved, and have a low sense of self-worth, resulting in family, social, and school behavioral problems. Interestingly enough, when this happens, parents often look to other sources for an explanation: school, friends, television, music, or other parents. They’ll blame their kid’s problems on the lyrics in songs and the violence on television. Taking responsibility is painful for these parents, so as they blame their children, they blame others. They exonerate themselves in claiming they love their children, yet they may not be close to actualizing their love.

Therefore, our need to discipline our children is often in response to conflicts that we have created. As we continue to create conflict, it often deepens and intensifies. This process may continue to spiral and repeat itself, escalating to the point where, in the worst cases, parents either throw up their arms in disgust leaving their children to their own devices, do physical harm to their children, or kick out older children temporarily or permanently. In other cases, children decide to leave on their own, or children act out these conflicts in the world, hurt others, or find themselves in increasingly more trouble.

Conversely, the more we are authentic and loving, the fewer conflicts are created. If we could embody these qualities and principles from the moment of our children’s birth, our children would model our behavior and actualize their own innate virtue: they would be kind, patient, cooperative, considerate, loving, self-motivated and passionately involved in the world around them. While we may not be ready to elect them for sainthood, they are still human after all, they would be happy, contented, self-responsible, honest, and loving.

We face a significant challenge if we wait until our children are partially grown before we decide to become authentic and loving. We have not embodied the associated qualities and principles since our children’s birth, so we have created and are still creating a certain amount of conflict; we become torn between our need to resolve conflict quickly and our desire for more beneficial long-term results. As we work on ourselves and try to reduce conflict with our children, we need to make decisions as to the most effective ways of resolving these conflicts.

Physical Punishment

The use of physical punishment has been debated extensively for many years. As independent individuals we should evaluate this issue and decide for ourselves what and how we feel. To do so, we should separate ourselves from our conditioning and preconceived notions of right and wrong. Perhaps instead, we should listen to the counsel of our hearts.

Adults in this society are not allowed to strike other adults. If we do, it is called assault and battery and is subject to the punishment of imprisonment; we have decided collectively that it is morally wrong. Behind the moral judgment is the premise that we can’t allow adults to decide what is acceptable when it comes to striking another adult; society draws a line because it knows that individuals will step over the line all too easily.

If you push, shove, slap, or strike an adult, he can charge you with assault. If you were to hit an adult with a belt or other device, or repeatedly strike them by putting them over your knee or in any other manner, he could and probably would have you arrested. However, adults are given a certain latitude when it comes to striking children.

There is an acceptance within some parts of our society, that parents may, even should, strike their children as long as the damage is not severe or permanent. This accepted viewpoint might be due to a consensus that we own our children. We don’t own other adults, so we may not infringe upon their right to feel and be safe; we are legally prohibited from physically and emotionally imposing our will or intimidating other adults. However, if we own our children, then as our possessions we are legally given the freedom – within certain limits – to treat them as we wish.

Our society tacitly encourages us to use corporal punishment by not discouraging it more actively. If there was a law prohibiting parents from striking their children at any time, we would see fewer physically abused children.

As parents, if we feel we own our children, we may feel it is within our rights to strike them; they are ours to do with as we please. If instead we view our role as caretakers, then we see ourselves more as guardians, respecting and protecting our children’s right – as it is our right as adults – to feel safe from physical and emotional intimidation.

Some may contend it’s acceptable to strike your children if you express your love afterwards, or if you are loving towards them most of the time. In other words, if it is done on occasion, it becomes acceptable.

There are potential problems with this. First, if you strike your child when you are angry, you may hit her much harder than intended. It is the rare adult that can strike his or her children in a detached fashion; hitting a child is often not an act of impartial discipline, but often the act of striking out in anger. The danger is that as a much more powerful adult, it becomes easy to physically harm a small child. In the heat of passion we may not regulate our strength and power. Second, once you start striking a child – whether it’s actually hitting, pushing, pulling, or grabbing – it may become habitual, a repeated learned response; it is not an impartial decision in relation to the situation, but an emotional reactive response that occurs spontaneously.

Some may still contend that if we could be impartial when we strike our children – in effect dole out the punishment without physically injuring them – and only strike them on an occasional basis, we would not emotionally damage them; it would not compromise the loving foundation that has been created. In other words, our children can “weather the storm” because they are loved at other times. However, does a ship retain its structural integrity and sail farther in calm seas and a steady guiding wind or in turbulent waters and gale forces?

If we are to be authentic and loving, we should seek to embody life-affirming principles and ideals. The choices we make need to reflect these principles. As for physical punishment, we need to examine its consequences relative to the principles inherent in authenticity and being loving. Is it a choice we are consciously making? What kind of control are we exerting over our children? Does it build trust in our relationship? Does it send the message that we value our children, making them feel worthwhile? Is it respectful, making our kids feel they are important? Are we treating them as a possession, as inferior in some way? Are we creating hostility and resentment towards us due to our children’s perceptions of the treatment? Are we aiding or thwarting our children’s innate drive toward self-actualization, the realization and expression of their individual authenticity and loving nature? If we ask ourselves these questions and remain silent momentarily, in our heart we will know the answer.

Non-physical Forms of Punishment

Besides physical punishment, other punishments may take the form of time-out, withdrawal of privileges and rights, and verbal admonishment.

One basic principle of punishment to remember is that it is a form of behavior modification. That is, we seek to change our child’s behavior through the punishment. We should be careful this does not become our underlying assumption of how children learn. If we believe this, we may try to punish our children into conforming to our desires for them. In other words, we create constant conflict through our punishments, rather than seeking to model the behavior we know is important. And we don’t allow our children the freedom they need for their own self-actualization.

If we are truly authentic and loving from the moment of our child’s birth, there would be little need for behavior modification, because there would be little conflict. However, until we can fully embody these principles, reduce and eliminate the conflicts with our children, we need to determine the most effective and least damaging ways to resolve conflicts. If we are to use forms of punishment, then we should be careful that they are fair and administered in a loving, kind and respectful, way.

Administering punishment in a fair and respectful way can be a serious challenge. If we are angry with our children, blaming them and feeling victimized, then being fair and loving is difficult at best. It is difficult because when we are angry we can’t feel the love. If we can’t feel the love, it is difficult to actualize the love. Instead we actualize anger and hurt, and in projecting these feelings, strike back and often hurt someone. Unfortunately, that “someone” is often our child.

However, if we are to become self-responsible and learn to choose our thoughts, feelings, and actions, we can stop and pause in that moment of anger. We can use the tools discussed in Part I to reduce our anger. We can also walk away from the conflict momentarily in order to calm down.

If we do lash out and punish our children unfairly and disrespectfully, we can apologize and adjust the punishment when we have calmed down. We do not have to be rigid, thinking that if we change our minds it reflects a lack of resolve and indecision. What it does reflect is a human being correcting his or her mistakes and again committing to a loving path.

In recommitting to a loving path, the form of non-physical punishment becomes less important. If we are fair, kind, and respectful then our children are receiving loving admonishment, not punishment. They will get the real message: we love and believe in them. They may still resent our attempts at controlling their behavior, but they will not feel unloved or unworthy. If they can still accept themselves because they feel loved and worthy, then they can still accept us. And if they can accept us, they can accept the punishment on a level that will not create spiraling battles of rebellion and punishment.

And what is fair? When we are not angry and hurt but instead act kindly, we all have a feeling for the parameters of “fair.” Whether we use time-out or take something away from a child, the concept is the same: we are taking away a right he previously enjoyed. If we are going to be fair, we need to decide whether a child is going to sit on a chair for two minutes or 30, whether he loses his television rights for one day or two weeks. We also have to decide whether we have the means and desire to enforce the punishment.

When punished, kids may exclaim, “That is not fair.” To which some parents may reply conventionally, “Life is not fair.” Whether life is or is not fair is not the issue. The question is, do we aspire to be fair, and do our actions embody that aspiration?

Logically speaking, if we are going to take something away from our kids, the application of “natural consequences” makes some sense. Natural consequences mean that the punishment is related to the behavior. For example, we tell a child they can only ride their bicycle on their block. They leave the block, so as a natural consequence, we take their bike away for a period of time; we wouldn’t punish them by restricting television.

As we develop our character and wisdom, enabling ourselves while deepening the context of our relationship with our children, we can – as an alternative to punishment – seek to apply what we are learning. If our child breaks the bicycle-riding rule, we could explain why we created the rule and how we feel about their breaking the rule. Perhaps if we give them a chance, and communicate in a loving way, our children will understand we are genuinely concerned for them and their safety. Perhaps if we are respectful towards them, they will be respectful towards us; they will respect our wishes and decide to ride on their own block without further challenge.

Communicating our concern in a loving way is what I refer to as loving admonishment. There is conviction and strength in our voice that is tempered with respect and kindness. We care enough about the welfare of our children to let them know we feel strongly about what has occurred, are in touch with our loving feelings, and can communicate this strength in a kind and respectful way: we are concerned, not angry or annoyed, and our words, tone, and body language are not threatening or imposing.

Unfortunately some parents may do the opposite. In attempting to modify their children’s behavior, they threaten, ridicule, name call, put-down, insult, give angry or disapproving looks, point their finger, gesture, and posture in threatening ways. This is not loving or verbal admonishment, this is verbal and emotional abuse.

Some parents may reprimand their children by asking rhetorical questions such as, “Are you stupid? What is wrong with you? What are you doing, Einstein? Where were you when they were passing out the brains?” They may have been parented this way or they may feel that it doesn’t have damaging consequences. If we are true to ourselves, we can examine some of the ways we have felt hurt by others. If we do, we’ll realize that people we cared about who treated us in disrespectful ways caused much of this hurt.

Our children are sensitive beings who seek our love and are crushed by any expressions and messages of dislike and disdain. If we commit ourselves to being loving at all times, then our comments are no longer an issue, as they naturally will be supportive and nurturing.

Physical and verbal punishments are both demonstrations of power. We use our size, strength, and verbal abilities to intimidate. We dominate our children and seek their submission. These kinds of actions are neither loving nor nurturing. Love is gentle. In gentleness there is another kind of power: a power that builds up rather than tears down, a power that encourages rather than discourages, and a power that creates emotional stability rather than instability.

If love is gentle then we know how to act towards our children. A toddler who refuses to leave the playground is spoken to kindly, and gently lifted and removed if necessary. A four-year-old who is crying and carrying on in a department store is not dragged out the door by the arm. An eight-year-old who doesn’t do something we asked is not ridiculed and embarrassed in front of her friends. A teenager who stayed out past curfew is not screamed at and threatened.

As a guiding principle, we should remember that we express our anger as punishment. Punishment is a form of striking out and back at someone. We express our love through kindness. The challenge for us as parents is to express our love as a kind conviction that ensures the safety and welfare of our children.

Rewards

Rewards are an alternative to punishment as a way of changing our children’s behavior. Some people view rewards – and punishment – as a natural reflection of cause and effect in the world. In other words, through punishment and rewards we are simulating the real world for our children and are teaching them valuable lessons. If they do things the “right” way in the world, they will be rewarded. If they do things the “wrong” way, there will be a negative consequence; they will in effect be punished.

The real world, however, works spontaneously. Our simulation as parents may be arbitrary and self-serving. Our children really learn the lessons of cause and effect, or reward and punishment, when given the freedom to try to do things on their own; when they are not overprotected and allowed to act in the “real world.”

As self-responsible independent individuals we realize rewards come as we align ourselves with life-supporting principles and learn how to be loving. When we do not do this, negative consequences occur. If we embody these life-supporting principles, our children will too. In this way our children are guided towards spontaneous right action; that is, taking those actions that will benefit themselves and others, and avoiding actions that won’t.

If we are to use rewards, then it should be done prudently. If we continually reward our children for their behavior, then they learn to behave a certain way because they will get something in return. This is not a very evolved or redeeming way of being in the world; their willingness to act in the world becomes self-serving and essentially inconsiderate. They do not learn the joys, satisfactions, and rewards, the benefits, of being motivated purely to help others. There is no synergy and there is no love in this; they do not learn to focus love outside of themselves, but instead are motivated continuously for their own self-promotion.

Conversely, if we use punishment all of the time, our children’s actions become motivated by self-preservation. They can’t focus on willingly helping or loving others, because they are busy building a fortress around themselves to keep whatever resources they have left and to guard against being wounded more deeply.

To further unwittingly confuse a child, parents may turn rewards into punishments. They’ll tell a child what the reward will be for certain desired behavior. As the parents monitor the behavior and feel the child is falling short, they’ll threaten to withhold the reward as a continuing motivator. Now the child is being threatened with the withdrawal of a reward he or she hasn’t yet received. The parents are covering all the bases in one move. But what kind of message are they sending and what is the child receiving? Perhaps it’s one where the child feels completely thwarted and confused, and inwardly says “the hell with it” and gives up.

We should be careful about using “carrot and stick” rewards and punishments with our children. If we are not, we may impersonalize our relationships, and run the risk of turning our children into circus animals: conforming, pleasing, and able to jump through hoops, but unable to think and exist independently outside of our big tent.

Conflict Resolution

Effective conflict resolution assumes active participation of all individuals in the process. Individuals – the children and adults involved – are willing to accept change and are self-motivated to actually change their behavior because they can accept the solution. They accept the solution because it was not imposed on them; it was one they either suggested or agreed to, or they independently decided to change their behavior. This type of resolution is now commonly referred to as “Win-Win.” Everyone in the conflict wins, because no one feels they lost, forced to comply with a decision they are unhappy with.

Conflict resolution works when it is supported with life-affirming principles. As a skill, it may be ineffective if not supported by an individual’s authenticity and love. Conflict resolution works when we are not blaming others or feeling victimized. It works when we are honestly expressing our feelings in a respectful way. It works when we are independent enough to consider new alternatives. And, it works when we actively seek to appreciate and understand another person’s viewpoint.

Additionally, we may only feel motivated to use this method with our children if we see them as our equals; worthy of being treated fairly and respectfully, and capable of adding value and meaning to the process. When we see our children as less than equal, we are often motivated to impose our solutions on them.

As we seek to be loving and develop our authenticity, conflict resolution becomes a natural spontaneous occurrence, a reflection of the qualities we are embodying. For example, we are trying to read and our 4-year-old starts climbing and jumping all over us. Instead of getting angry and yelling at them to get off, or threatening punishment, we can express our feelings and tell them we are trying to read and can’t do so when they are jumping on us. We can offer to play with them after we are done reading as a solution and suggest something else they might like to do while we finish reading. If they do not like our suggestion, we can ask them what they’d like to do while we finish reading. This sequence of events happens spontaneously because we express our feelings, wish to send messages that our kids are important – we don’t dismiss them – and show respect for their desires, what they would like to do.

Expressing our feelings in a sincere, respectful way – without attacking – may be enough to encourage our children to modify their behavior. However, our habits may cause us to go for the quick fix, to lash out at our children and impose our will on them.

Some parents may try this approach and if it doesn’t work immediately, give up. If you view this approach as a “method” it won’t work. Your efforts need to be consistent, caring, and a reflection of who you are and want to become. If you have imposed your will on your children, your first efforts may not be fully realized, as these qualities are still becoming realized in you. As you seek to embody and manifest them, these qualities will occur more spontaneously and purely. Because you have previously imposed your will on your children, they will still be referencing rebellious feelings. Thus, you need to give them time to change, to understand the basic tenets of your interactions, your relationship with them are changing. The evolution of the process then, will require commitment and patience. As you commit and see the benefits you will be inspired to continue; perhaps even to intensify your efforts. The process evolves and picks up pace and the rewards become self-evident.

Some may argue there often is not enough time to work through this process: express feelings, discuss and agree to a solution. The concept of time may be relative to what you feel is important. If your child can’t decide on what clothes to wear or refuses to get dressed in the morning, is it more important that you resolve the situation without anger, yelling, blame, crying, resentment, and punishments or that the child gets to school and you get to work on time? Perhaps if you take the time to work out the problem more effectively, it won’t reoccur and intensify; then, getting to school and work on time will no longer be an issue. The quick fix corrects the behavior momentarily, addresses the symptoms, but doesn’t address or solve the problem, ensuring the problem will continue.

Others may argue a form of punishment or verbal admonishment, what I prefer to call loving admonishment, is sometimes unavoidable and necessary. This may be true on rare occasions, particularly if our children’s safety is at issue, i.e., they run into the street without looking. Our wisdom allows us as parents to make an effective choice that encourages the safety of our children while not damaging their spirit.

A final counter argument is that in the area of development, kids up to the age of nine or ten are simply egocentric and want only what they want when they want it. In other words, they are totally unreasonable and unresponsive to others. Like most generalities and absolute or global assertions, we should be careful not to embrace this as definitive.

When we throw our children into generalized categories of behavior, we don’t allow ourselves to see them as individuals. We don’t allow ourselves to see what they are capable of, because we assume they will behave in a certain way. As independent people, we shouldn’t assume anything. We learn, observe, and decide for ourselves. In deciding for ourselves, we decide what is true for us, from our experience.

If we expect our children to behave in a certain way, they will probably live up to our expectations, good or bad. If we expect them to be egocentric, they will be. If we expect them to develop qualities of consideration and respect, they will. However, they may not develop these qualities on our timetable. Again, we need patience to allow the process to develop. We gain patience by having faith in our children, by knowing they will model our behavior and through our encouragement manifest their innate virtues. They may begin this process at three and fully realize it years later. They may require continued coaxing and encouragement because they are focused on themselves and their desires, but we will see them respond positively to us, and begin to become more cooperative and responsive.

I know this to be true, because I have seen it with my own children who are now four and eleven. I have seen it occur naturally as I have personally evolved, sought to encourage certain principles no matter what age my children have been, while not underestimating who they are and what they may be capable of.

Also, people may mistake egocentricity in our children for present moment awareness and involvement. When children are young and not yet self-conscious they have that wonderful ability to lose themselves in the moment. In other words, their energy, concentration and focus are totally directed to what they are doing. As adults we may find this difficult, because of worries, distractions, emotions, and the constant dialogue we are often running with ourselves; it is easy to interrupt us because we are so easily distracted.

Because of their present moment awareness, children are not so easily distracted; they can not pull themselves out of what they are doing so easily. As parents, we may mistake this focus for ignoring us. If our children don’t respond quickly enough, react and then go back to what they were doing, or promise to do something later and then forget, it may be because of this ability to lose themselves in what they are doing. As parents, we can choose to appreciate this quality rather than getting frustrated by it. We have all known moments in our lives – usually all too infrequently as adults – where we have experienced the joy and satisfaction of losing ourselves, becoming totally immersed in something we were doing and completely unaware of time. We should look at this quality in our children as a gift; a quality to be preserved, understanding that they should learn to balance this ability with the desires of others. With this viewpoint, we respect their concentration, don’t personalize their behavior as inconsiderate and egocentric, and realize we may need to take some additional steps to coax them, on occasion, more gently out of their reverie. In respecting them, they respect us. Someone needs to make the first move. Who should go first?