Lessons from the sandpit
I am on the playground with my two-year-old son and the three-year-old son of a neighbor. It is a crisp morning, and the sun is just about to rise over the large willows at the edge of the playground. The two boys have only known each other briefly and are wandering about, uncertain what to do with themselves.
I am tired from an interrupted night's sleep and am feeling glad that the two children have each other to play with. I also feel some fear, the uncertainty of how this will go, the responsibility of taking care of another child, wanting to create a safe space for them to explore in.
In their roaming around they both come across a shovel lying in the sand, and one nanosecond later they are both clinging to one side of it yelling “I want it” “No, me! I want it!”. They are full on: faces red with wrath, their bodies completely engaged in their wanting, feet stemmed deep in the sand, fists clenched around the object of desire. They are YELLING at each other. Again and again, the same words and sheer screams of Anger.
I notice my fear rising, I am starting to sweat. There is a part of me, I would call my Child Ego State, that wants to run away from conflict and loud, strong feelings. The grown up part of me is afraid that they will hurt themselves and instantly takes hold of the shovel, softly keeping it in the middle between them, just making sure neither of them starts lashing out at the other’s face with it.
My inner Evolutionary is alert, celebrating the undisturbed space and time that is unfolding around us. There is a knowing that I need to DO NOTHING.
Since I became a mother I have often missed protecting this delicate moment. Before I got my senses together to hold this space open, either I (my inner Child I or my unconscious Underworld I) or other well meaning fellow parents (or more precisely THEIR Inner Children or Underworld) would intervene on the playground , DOING what modern culture has taught us to do when there is a quarrel. Usually, what we do falls in line with one of these strategies:
“Don’t be a bully!” “Oh Love, did he hurt you?”
The strategy here is to make one of the children into the victim and the other into the persecutor, entering into the well-known dynamic of Low Drama. The essential assumption behind it is that the children are not OK and I have to rescue them because I know better. You can see how disempowering this is.
“Now then, you can take it in turns, first he can have it for five Minutes and then you,”.
Dictate how it goes, thereby crushing what is actually going on for the children. What if “having that thing” isn't really what they want? What if forcing a time-ruled scheme of possession on them kills the magical flow of a game that is inventing itself in every single moment?
“If you can´t play nicely I am taking the shovel away! Then no one has it.”
This strategy also undermines what is actually going on and has high potential to destroy co-creation and makes “winning happening” games (where everybody is winning) impossible.
“Hey everybody, how about having a picnic right now?”
This tactic is a straightforward way of teaching children to substitute their real needs (do I know yet what their needs are?) with something else that will numb their strong feelings (like food). Because the real need cannot be fulfilled by the substitute this can result in the urge to consume more and more of the substitute. This is how addiction works. Do I want to teach this to my child?
5. Solving the Problem
“Look, here is another shovel, so each one can have one!”
Come on, what can be wrong with that? Isn't this just being a kind human being, supporting kids? Well, I think there is nothing wrong with a second shovel-if THEY want it and if THEY find it. The thing is: if I am the one who rescues them and I am the one who provides the solution to their dilemma, where are they going to look the next time? Whose problem is it? Who needs the chance to practice and strengthen their competence muscles in finding conflict solutions in a safe space? If I solve it this time, what happens the next time when I might not be available?
“Oh, I just can't be bothered with this fighting anymore. They can handle that themselves!”
This one may be easily confused with what I mean with doing nothing-holding space, because in both cases I do not interfere. But I think the children can feel the difference because the space is different. If I am not present with my attention and love when conflict is arising, then the space for the children can get unsafe. I assume, many parents are quick to deliver one of the other strategies because they don't want to neglect their children and feel the responsibility to take action.
“Now just STOP quarreling! Both of you! Be nice again!”.
Yes, there are parts in me that just want it to stop. And this strategy can work on a symptom level. But what does suppressing conflict create? What good does it do to pretend the feelings of rage, fear or sadness were not there? Does it lead to more connection, peace or flow? I have not had that experience.
I am still holding the shovel. And in the last minute I was also holding the parts in myself that are pushing me to use one of these 7 strategies just to get out of here. This time, the Evolutionary in me is strong enough to stay present and because there are no other parents on the playground at this time, we are still here together. With ONE shovel. I am starting to complete the communication that I hear from them. “You want the shovel” “”Yes I want it”. “And you want the shovel.” “Yes!” Another seemingly unbearable minute passes. Voices in my head are roaring at me: “You are completely incompetent” ”Are you a parrot or what?” ”Just DO something!!”.
I notice them and I stay here, with the two boys.
Suddenly one of the two asks the other one
“What do you want to do with it?”
“Build a castle!”
The mouth of the younger one drops open at the same time as the shovel drops to the ground at the side where his hand was clenching it before. His eyes become as big as I have ever seen them. Gazing at the other boy in awe he gasps: “How?”
We spent another two hours on that playground. The ice had broken, the boys were in flow, inventing one game after the other. Open, cooperative, making eye contact and thoroughly enjoying themselves. The SHOVEL was soon forgotten as the magic of their game washed them to another shore.
After this experience I am asking myself WHY do children quarrel? And asking myself down several layers of “why” I come to this startling conclusion:
Because they want to experience connection.
I feel grief for all the times when my unconscious parts took over and I was not present as an adult holding the space for this transformation to take place. The power of the old patterns, ingrained into my thoughtware, dragging me to choose one of the 7 behaviors above, is massive. Especially in times of crisis and overwhelm (not being able to sleep at nights because of child care can be very overwhelming), it takes strength to listen to the Evolutionary in me, to step out of the old story I have learned about conflict, and choose to be present and hold a safe space for the children to make their next steps.
Now I am taking a stand to create spaces where parents and other allies of young human beings can come together to support each other's learning, healing and evolution. To shed light on what is actually going on in us and in the children when raw, authentic, direct connection and life force want to spill into the space. I am taking a stand to figure out what else is possible and how we can as adults stop passing on low drama patterns, stop passing on the automatism of numbing life force away and become allies to our children’s beings.
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