There’s a lot for kids to fight about—the last dino nugget, who’s taller, who gets to be Juniper’s BFF of the Week. In America, parents tend to respond to these childhood quarrels with exasperation, jumping into referee mode and forcing kids to share or apologize or take a breather on opposite sides of the room. We want peace, and we want it now … please?
But there’s another approach: let kids duke it out. In the Wall Street Journal piece “Parenting the German Way: Let the Children Fight,” Sara Zaske writes that when she lived in Berlin, she found that the parents and teachers there don’t intervene in every argument—instead, they trust that kids can work most things out on their own if given the chance. She explains:
Of course, it’s natural for children to fight. But the way German teachers at our kita [kindergarten] approached these conflicts was very different than in the U.S. They didn’t rush to interfere, unless a child was about to be hurt. They didn’t punish, hand out warnings, write names of naughty kids on the board or clip them down on the rainbow-colored behavior chart of doom.
Instead, German teachers spent time observing the situation. Sometimes they took children aside to talk to them individually; sometimes they spoke to the whole group about fairness and kindness directly, or indirectly, by reading stories that touched on the issue. Sometimes they did nothing at all.
Did the kids all magically live in harmony after that? Well, no. Zaske writes when her daughter was five, she had issues with her two close friends and was “de-friended and uninvited to distant future birthday parties dozens of times.” (My American mom-heart wants to call those kids’ parents right now for a little chat.) But the teachers would never scold children over that sort of thing. Rather, away from the heat of the conflict, they would help them think through their actions, emphasizing the consequences for others, which has been shown to motivate both kids and adults into shifting their behavior. And then they would step back and let the kids figure things out on their own.
The payoff would come later. In Japan, parents and teachers take on a similarly lax approach to fighting, seeing it as a natural rite of passage for children. A study compared American and Japanese fourth- and fifth-graders and their thoughts on fighting, hitting and related acts. When asked why they shouldn’t do these things, 92 percent of American kids talked about not wanting to get in trouble. External forces shaped their actions. The vast majority of Japanese kids, on the other hand, did not mention punishment and explained that they shouldn’t fight or hit because it hurts others. They gained the wisdom and maturity that can only come from lived experiences.
Zaske’s daughter learned some powerful lessons that year in kindergarten. “By the time she made it to elementary school, she was known as a peacemaker,” explains Zaske, who wrote a new book called Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children. “To this day, she rarely has an issue with a ‘mean girl,’ either as a victim or being one herself.”
It can be more difficult to hang back and observe emotional situations than to try to solve problems for your kids on the spot. But what they need is consistent guidance, a place to explore their feelings, a model of kindness. What they probably don’t need is a referee monitoring every single play.