By Donna Stefano, Project Director for CHF International
Conflict is a part of life. Whether it's small, such as an obstinate preschooler at home or a hard-headed co-worker at the office, or more serious, the kind that can result in fighting and divorce or depression, conflict is virtually unavoidable. Perhaps the most serious conflict is life or death: the scary, hateful things that your child may see on TV or, worse yet, with his own eyes.
As a mom, I've learned that the only thing harder than dealing with conflict is explaining conflict to my nine-year-old son. While working in the West Bank with CHF International, I have been challenged to explain very scary things to a very little guy.
Teaching a child about conflict is indeed difficult—whether the rift is between friends or between countries. Most American parents will agree that it's not easy to explain conflict to blissfully unaware kids; it's much easier to just turn off the TV and keep the newspaper out of reach. But shielding your kids from surrounding realities can actually make it harder for them to learn how to handle conflict in their own lives.
Here are some tips to help facilitate a conversation about conflict with your child:
State the facts. In any conflict, there are always two sides to the story, if not more. Help your child see how narratives about actual events are often constructed for a purpose and how feelings or point of view can skew facts. When my son heard his Israeli friends say that all Palestinians are dangerous, he came to ask me why people said this. He has lots of Palestinian friends—how could they be dangerous? So I started with historical facts to show how people made these conclusions over time.
Know that we are all human. Help your child understand where others are coming from in order to give him a greater appreciation for how complex conflict can be. It's important to convey that, because we are human, we sometimes make mistakes and say or do things that make others upset. For instance, instead of believing statements that begin with "All Jews are …" or "All Muslims are … ," we can consider each person we meet as a unique individual who wants things we do—happiness, safety, or, to put it in kid terms: homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Help your child understand that communicating during times of conflict isn't easy, but it's important. When I find myself in conflict with my own son—usually in the midst of a conversation about his household chores—I also take time to let him know that it's normal for these interactions to be difficult. I point out how we want to run and hide and yell at each other, but if we stick it out through those feelings and listen clearly to each other, we'll be better off than we were before.
Big conflict breeds big fear, so help your child feel safe. By explaining how you think about and deal with conflict yourself, you can show your child that fear can be a useful tool in keeping your family safe. When I announced that I was traveling to Gaza in March 2009 following the conflict with Israel, my son's eyes grew wide with fright. He had caught me a few times watching the images on TV of bombs raining down over apartment complexes similar to the one we were living in. He was afraid of losing me. I explained to him that I was choosing to go at a time of no active fighting and that I would follow instructions on where to go and where not to go.
My goal is to help build compassion in my son—not only through caring about others but also through valuing himself. I also want him to feel capable of handling conflict in his daily life. I try to provide explanations for the multitude of ways that people rationalize conflict and encourage my son to be a peacemaker in his own small world. I hope you are compelled to do the same. If our children take these things to heart, they will find more peace than conflict in their own lives.