THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
SUNDAY • MARCH 18, 2018
M E D I AT E T H I S !
THE PLAYGROUND BULLY AND THE HEEDLESS MOTHER BY STEVEN P. DINKIN Dear Mediator: My friends and I take our preschoolers to the neighborhood playground every morning. We enjoy one another’s company, but two new arrivals are ruining our fun. A boy who is big and aggressive has been taunting our kids. His mom spends all her time on her cellphone. Today, we asked the boy to please play nice, and the mom stopped talking long enough to berate us for picking on her kid. Should we complain to the Park and Rec Department or to the police? Alarmed in Peñasquitos Dear Alarmed: The surest fix would be to find another play area with less drama. And it might come to that if the little boy starts posing a real threat to his playmates. Right now, his verbal badgering is hurtful but not harmful, so seeking formal intervention would be an overreach. But your group doesn’t have to quietly fume. A few basic conflict resolution tools could transform
this playground dynamic. It’s important to remember that we can’t perpetually shield our kids from bad behavior. This could be your opening to teach your children skills for managing conflict at every stage of life. You also have an opportunity to reach out to a family that may be in distress. The boy may be crying out for attention, struggling to fit in, or imitating adult behavior. The mom may be using her cellphone (as many people do) to wall herself off from strangers. Both might open up if they are welcomed into a social circle that offers warmth and respect. Let’s start with the skill set for interacting with a troublesome playmate. Empathy is coin of the realm in conflict management. Explain to your children that sometimes a person who acts out is feeling alone or afraid. Because this boy is the new kid on the block, the others should take the lead in becoming better acquainted with him. The best strategy for dealing with aggression of any kind is to remain calm and confident. Practice this
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sed from one child to the next. The child holding the piece speaks, and the others listen and wait their turns. Ask each child to answer a question like “What is something that makes you happy?” or “Who is your favorite cartoon character?” The topic doesn’t matter, because the goal is for the kids to connect on a personal level, which is how we begin building trust. Reaching out to strangers in tense situations always involves risk. But ingrained hostility has no upside. At this moment in time, when society seems to be fraying at the edges, extending a hand in friendship is definitely worth the gamble.
The playground can be a place to introduce children to conflict resolution. drill with your kids: Take a deep breath. Maintain eye contact with the boy. Don’t react to his taunts. Instead, strike up a friendly conversation: “So what do you like best, the swings or the sliding board?” The parents could use the same approach with the mom. It isn’t clear if you even know her name or her son’s name. The next time they
enter the playground area, greet them with waves and smiles. If you haven’t introduced yourselves yet, find a way to do that. Once you have broken the ice, consider introducing the kids to a new game based on the “talking circle” or circle dialogue, an indigenous rite in which tribal members gathered together to work through challenging situa-
tions. Maine Sen. Susan Collins made news in January when she held a circle to help avert a government shutdown. If it worked on Capitol Hill, it should work on a playground. At an agreed-upon time, schedule a snack break from play, and arrange the kids in a circle. A “talking piece” (a twig or a little toy) gets pas-
Steven P. Dinkin is a professional mediator who has served as president of the San-Diego based National Conflict Resolution Center since 2003.
Do you have a conflict tha