Binoculars. Everything started with binoculars. Raised voices beckoned me from my breakfast-clean-up-duty, and when I arrived on scene, I saw Simone and Addie negotiating the shared use of a set of homemade binoculars made from repurposed cardboard tubes. Let me add that the negotiations were heated, and moving from unproductive to counterproductive in rapid fashion.
In the heat of the moment, I understand de-escalating is critically important and so I sing. The song goes like this:
I see friends who need to solve a problem
need to solve a problem
need to solve a problem
I see friends who need to solve a problem
How can I help?
Song often reaches where voices cannot, and amidst these passionately (and loudly!) voiced opinions about exactly whose turn it is to have the binoculars, the song catches the ear. Its melody is simple and constant – a refrain that interrupts the escalating cycle of strong emotions allowing for space to think critically and problem solve. In the heat of an emotional moment the brain simply cannot access the places necessary for such thinking, so song reaches in and taps the emotional core and whispers, Take a breath. You can solve problems with words. You know how.
Song serves the second and equally important function of keeping me emotionally in check. If the child’s problem becomes my problem or if it touches my emotional triggers, I am less helpful in the solution finding process. Too invested, I become irritable (I was cleaning up after breakfast, and I can’t do that with so many interruptions!), impatient (Didn’t we solve this same problem yesterday???), and commanding (Addie had it first. Simone, give it back!). The power of singing in the moment of heated emotions is that it reminds me that this challenge between Simone and Addie is not about me but about friends navigating their own strong emotions in relationship to shared space and possessions. They need my model, and what I chose to model is key.
At this moment, my hands reach gently for the binoculars and I hold them without taking them. I prevent sole ownership by either child while we negotiate. Removing the small hands that grip the binoculars would be counterproductive; I know that if I force my agenda by taking the binoculars, I have just modeled how to take toys away from a friend which is precisely the issue at hand. Still, a gentle physical presence to neutralize the binoculars while we problem solve gives each child the freedom to speculate and dream about creative solutions, assured that their voices will be heard and their needs respected.
Me: “I see two friends who both want to use the binoculars. What could we do?”
Simone: “We could share.”
Me: “Sharing means two friends using the binoculars at the same time.”
Addie: “We could take turns.”
Me: “One friend takes a turn, then the other friend takes a turn. Any other ideas?”
Simone: “We could take turns.”
Me: “It sounds like both girls want to take turns. Who should go first?”
Addie: “I will go first.”
Me: “Addie will go first, and Simone will go second. Simone, does that work for you?”
Simone: “No, that not work for me. I go first, Addie go second.”
Me: “Simone will go first, and Addie will go second. Addie, does that work for you?”
Me: “It sounds like we have two friends who want to go first. Sometimes I like to have something to do while I wait. Can either of you think of something that your friend might enjoy while she waits for a turn with the binoculars? Simone, what do you think Addie might like to do while she waits?”
Simone looks around the room and finds Addie’s favorite stuffed animal. The key to solving problems is being able to see the situation through the other person’s shoes — empathy and perspective taking — and Simone knows what Addie would enjoy. She knows that Addie will not agree to the plan if the compromise is for an undesirable toy!
Simone: [to Addie] “Umm…you want the pig?”
Me: “Addie, maybe you can find something Simone would like to use while she waits?”
Addie also looks for something that Simone loves. She is keenly aware of the reality that her needs can only be met in the context of everyone’s needs being met. She pulls a dress from the dress up area. Simone loves to dance.
Addie: [to Simone] “You like to wear this dress?”
Simone: “Umm, nope.”
To truly negotiate this problem will take time – and it does. The two go back and forth for a good 5-6 minutes, finding toys that might serve as a back up during the non-binocular period. When this problem is finally solved — all the ins and outs accounted for — the amount of time spent in problem solving will have easily eclipsed the total amount of time the girls actually spend using the binoculars. The impatient side of me wants to step in and offer suggestions or force a choice on these children. But I have seen this process work too many times to give up! With enough practice, this process goes on without me; the crew is learning to work through challenges diplomatically and with skilled negotiation. While it sounds cliche and trite, I am fully convinced that these skills are the foundations of lifelong peace! Furthermore, the beauty of the work of an early childhood educator is that I truly have all day to let this unfold. As long as it takes to let the children work authentically through this problem, my work is to be present and scaffold the negotiations. I feel a surge of giddiness as we near a solution. It is working again!!
Simone: [to Addie] “You can use the peanut butter blocks? And jump on the mattress?”
This is a new favorite past-time. Choosing blocks with rubber balls or metal caps inside provides a truly unique jumping experience that all of the kids enjoy. A smile spreads over Addie’s face. Simone throws the pig into the deal, and it’s settled.
Me: “How long will your turn take, Simone?”
Simone: “Three minutes.”
Me: “Addie, how does that sound? Does that work for you?”
Me: “Okay. I’ll set the timer for three minutes.”
As you can imagine, Simone was finished with her turn before the three minutes was up. We usually agree on a time limit, mostly because it helps me remember to follow through with the evaluation phase of the problem solving process, but we rarely need the timer to prompt an exchange. Usually, friends who disagree, yet persist peacefully and assertively through a problem emerge on the other side full of hopeful optimism. It works! The process of negotiating differences, holding strongly to one’s own wishes and desires while respectfully hearing and accommodating those of a friend builds stronger bonds of relationship. We told the story of this successful problem solving experience over snack time. Remembering successes raises confidence in the process.
You see, it starts with binoculars, but it is really not at all about binoculars. It is about learning the skills to advocate for one’s self while making room for the needs of those in the community. And it really is the way to peace.