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Handling Disputes Between Children at Meetings

by Linda Cammaroto, New Jersey
LEAVEN, Vol. 24, No. 6, November-December 1988, p. 85.

At a recent Evaluation Meeting, an incident occurred which led me to think about child abuse and how La Leche League, by the example its mothers set, helps mothers who are at risk for being abusive parents.

A two-and-a-half-year-old and a five-year-old were playing quietly in the kitchen while their mothers were involved in an Evaluation Meeting in another room. A one-year-old wandered toward the playing children and suddenly screamed. The two-and-a-half-year-old, not wanting the baby to get his toys, had pulled the kitchen door shut on her arm. It was not an unusual happening given the ages of the children, and the little one had not been hurt. However, the baby's mother, not used to older children, rushed to her child's side, shouting at the two-and-a-half-year-old, "I can't believe you were so mean!" The five-year-old, fearing that the baby was hurt, yelled, "The baby's hurt. Billy hurt the baby." The upset mother then turned to the five-year-old and said, "You were just as bad. I can't believe you didn't stop him. You're both so mean." The five-year-old was horrified and her mother was angry, as she felt her daughter had been unfairly attacked by another mother. The mother of the two-and-a-half-year-old was also upset. Her youngster was at the stage where sharing was difficult for him, but she did not believe in hitting or being verbally abusive.

Tempers were high. But I found myself feeling proud of these mothers as they struggled to deal with their angry feelings and to learn from the experience. We stopped the Evaluation Meeting and used the time to discuss why the incident happened, what to expect of children at different ages, and how to handle disputes in the future. The following suggestions came out of that meeting.

1. Children can't fight if they are not together. If space allows, keeping the little ones with their mothers and letting the older children play in the kitchen or family room unthreatened by toddlers is a big help in avoiding conflicts.

2. Supervision is most important at the younger ages. Certain preschoolers may need either constant supervision or at least occasional intervention to keep things on an even keel. Children act out and get into difficulty when no one is paying attention to them. They also tend to quarrel if there is nothing to do. How often do we get involved in our meeting and talking to each other and completely ignore the children? Take time to see that adequate toys are out (bring some from home if necessary) and that the children are provided with ideas and things to do. Have one mother play some games or sing some songs if you see that the children are bored. Take breaks to care for your children. A timely snack or cuddle is a big help. Your example will teach more than your words.

3. Suggest to the hostess that she remove toys she knows her child has difficulty sharing. It is unrealistic to expect a child to share all his toys, especially the favorites. Two- and three-year-olds have an especially hard time sharing. They are sure that if any other child plays with a toy they will never get it back. By showing your child you respect him and his possessions, you ease the stress associated with sharing and actually may help your child be a better "sharer" later on.

4. Remove any fought-over toys for a realistic period of time.

5. If your child is going through a particularly trying stage where he/she resorts to biting or hitting, watch him/her carefully, step in before it happens, and separate him/her from the others temporarily with a snack or a toy or removal to another area.

6. Praise and praise whenever you possibly can. Instead of saying to the children at the beginning of a meeting, "We do not want to see any fighting today like last time," say, "I know we are all going to have a good time today." Set the stage positively, not negatively.

7. Try to eliminate physical punishment. It merely teaches that if you are bigger you can hit.

8. Some children fight more than others. Instead of thinking of this as attention getting and negative, give more attention. One mother said that when her child fought with his older brother (the younger one was usually the aggressor), she took him aside, sat him on her lap, held him, and said, "You seem very angry now. Let's have a time out." Some days she needed to do this twenty times or more but felt it was a better alternative than spanking, as it taught him an acceptable way to deal with his angry, aggressive feelings.

If you are not at home, a time-out or temporary removal to the sidelines may not be practical; sometimes it is simply better to go home. I have learned that if my children are out of control they are usually overtired or hungry. By going home, I avoid pushing them past their limits and keep from losing my temper. There might even come a time when a Leader would need to stay home because the meeting situation presents too many conflicts for her child at a certain stage.

9. One mother expressed regret over a mother who felt she had to leave because her child was misbehaving, as it seemed to penalize the mother. Sometimes a mother may feel demoralized and unwelcome at meetings because her child occasionally misbehaves. We need to support the mother who is struggling to handle her feelings and deal with her child's aggressive behavior in a loving way by being accepting of her and her child. Noting the child's good points and perhaps helping her by anticipating problems encourages mothers to continue to attend meetings.

10. Sometimes we expect our children to behave in a mature fashion beyond their developmental capabilities. While we all would like to have perfectly behaved children all the time, we know it is unrealistic. Expect regressions and be prepared to baby the baby in your child from time to time.

After the Evaluation Meeting, I discovered that the mother of the one-year-old had been abused as a child. She had read every book in our Group Library on child development and discipline and was trying very hard to change the patterns of behavior she had learned from her parents. The insights she was gaining from the League and from her involvement with other mothers in the Group are of great help to her. The mothers' understanding of her outburst and the consideration they extended her was the same type of loving guidance we talk about providing for our children. We all grew as mothers by reevaluating our own feelings and beliefs. We agreed to continue to talk about loving guidance at our Evaluation Meetings. But more importantly, we agreed to pay more attention to our little ones at our meetings.

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