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Home » Conflict Resolution On The Playground: Eileen Kennedy-Moore (Transcript)

Conflict Resolution On The Playground: Eileen Kennedy-Moore (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore’s talk titled “Conflict Resolution On The Playground” at TEDxAsburyPark 2024 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Impact of Bullying

Anyone who spent time with children knows they can be very mean. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve heard so many cases of terrible bullying. I worked with an 11-year-old who faced daily ridicule from half a dozen kids who were calling him gay. I’ve worked with a girl, her name was Marla, well, we’ll call her Marla, and her friends made a “We Hate Marla” website listing everything they disliked about her.

I saw a client in her late 30s brought to tears by the memory of her high school classmates trashing her car 20 years earlier. Bullying is not something we just forget about when we become adults. Schools around the world have tried to stamp out bullying by encouraging kids to be upstanders who call out cruelty rather than bystanders who tolerate it. These programs are important. But an unintended consequence of anti-bullying efforts is that the word “bullying” is often thrown around too casually.

Distinguishing Bullying from Ordinary Meanness

What I’ve seen far more often than bullying is ordinary meanness. For example, I worked with a 10-year-old who was very upset because her friend was sitting with someone else on the school bus. So she wrote a letter accusing the friend of bullying by excluding her and listing every mean thing the friend had ever done. Then she gave the letter to her friend, who promptly accused her of bullying.

This wasn’t bullying on either side. It was just a clumsy effort to deal with a conflict. So what is bullying? Well, researchers have a very specific definition. It involves deliberate, aggressive acts targeting one specific person, usually repeatedly over time, although sometimes one especially horrible action can count. And this is the most important part, there is a power difference between the kid doing the bullying and the kid getting targeted.

So the kid doing the bullying is bigger, stronger, tougher, or more socially powerful than the kid getting targeted, or it’s a group of kids taking on one kid. This power difference is what makes it difficult or impossible for kids who are being bullied to protect or defend themselves. But if there’s no power difference, it’s not bullying. It’s just ordinary meanness.

Now I want to be very clear about something. I am not defending or excusing bullying or any form of cruelty.

The Importance of Recognizing Ordinary Meanness

But when we fail to see the difference between ordinary meanness and bullying, we trivialize those very serious cases of peer abuse. As parents, when we hear that someone’s being mean to our kid, our instinct is often to leap in to protect. If it’s a case of genuine bullying and the child is truly powerless, adult intervention could be helpful. But if there’s no power difference, we don’t want to say to our kids, “You’ve been bullied.”

Because that’s the same as telling them you’re a victim, you’re fragile, you can’t handle it if anyone is even slightly mean to you. In a game of kickball, hearing the other kids say, “You’re out, yes you are,” might be very upsetting to a child who doesn’t believe he’s out. But it’s probably not bullying. And no, I don’t think we need to teach the other kids to soften how they say, “You’re out.”

“He’s out!” It’s disappointing, but it’s not personal. And it’s definitely not the end of the world. Stephen Asher and his colleagues did a study of 7 to 12-year-olds and they found a cringeworthy list of 32 different ways that kids reject each other.

Common Forms of Meanness Among Children

The list included hitting, kicking, shoving, saying, “You’re not in the club,” or “I don’t like you anymore,” or “You pick your nose and eat it.” All of this is mean. But unless there’s a power difference, it’s not bullying. Even kids who consider themselves best friends sometimes behave in unkind ways.

Preschool and young elementary school friends average just under 3 conflicts an hour. Debra Pepler and her colleagues at York University did a study where they had teachers identify students who were either especially aggressive or especially non-aggressive. Then they secretly recorded the kids on the playground. What they found is that those especially aggressive kids did some form of mean behavior on average every two minutes.

But those carefully selected non-aggressive kids, they averaged the mean behavior every three minutes. So wait, the aggressive kids are mean every two minutes and the non-aggressive kids are mean every three minutes? It just doesn’t make sense to focus on protecting the good kids from the bad bullies. Almost every kid acts mean at some point and conflict is unavoidable for children and adults.

Helping Children Navigate Ordinary Meanness

When our children encounter ordinary meanness, we might need to help them learn to speak up for themselves. They could say, “Cut it out” or “This isn’t fun for me” and walk away if the meanness continues. Or we might need to help them gain perspective on what happened. In my practice, I sometimes have kids play the “maybe game.”

Let’s say Jeffrey took your kid’s pencil. Now maybe Jeffrey did this because he wants your kid to suffer, but probably not. So what are some other maybes that could explain what happened? Maybe Jeffrey picked up the pencil without realizing it. Maybe he was just borrowing it for a moment. Maybe he thought it was his pencil.

When kids can come up with lots of other maybes, it makes the “he’s trying to make you suffer” explanation seem less likely. Kids are quick to accuse other children of bullying, but they may need help seeing their contribution to the problem.

Understanding Children’s Behavior

I had a 13-year-old come into my practice and say, “I was bullied today.” When I asked what happened, he said, “This kid, he told me, ‘Quit making that annoying noise.'” No, this wasn’t bullying. He was bothering people.

School-aged children definitely know the difference between right and wrong. If we ask them questions like, “Is it okay to call someone mean names?” Or “Is it kind to hit someone?” They know the answer is no.

But kids can be impulsive, especially when they’re upset. And sometimes they make poor choices because they’re following the crowd or experimenting with social power. Even kids who know better and are usually kind can sometimes act in casually cruel ways due to what I call empathy blind spots. Empathy blind spots happen when kids decide that certain people’s feelings don’t count.

Addressing Empathy Blind Spots

So they say, “He’s annoying,” or “She’s weird,” or “Nobody likes them,” and they feel justified in being mean to them. As parents and teachers, we need to call out empathy blind spots and insist, “You don’t have to like that kid, but I expect you to be kind to them.” When, not if, our kids do something unkind, we need to guide them toward more caring responses. I believe the best technique I’ve ever invented, because it works, is what I call a “soft criticism.”

It works with kids, it works with spouses, it works with co-workers. So the normal response to criticism is to defend, “Well, it’s not my fault,” and “You do it too,” and “They do it worse.” This is just human nature. So step one is to get around that normal defensiveness by giving an excuse.

The Soft Criticism Technique

The excuse says that we know they’re a good person with good intentions, even when they mess up. So we might say, “I get that you were really mad when she took your place at the lunch table. That felt very unfair, because you always sit there, and when she hogged your seat, there was no room for you to sit with her friends.” When we give an excuse for misbehavior, we put ourselves on the same side rather than against them.

And practically, if we give an excuse, they don’t have to come up with one, and we can just move past that point. Step two is the part we want, which is to describe the problem and its consequences. So here you might say, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt her, and you were just trying to get her to move over. At the same time, when you shoved her, you ended up making her fall.”

Finally, step three is the most important, because we focus on moving forward, asking works better than telling. So we might say, “What could you do to help her feel better?” Or “What could you do if this situation comes up again, besides shoving her?” Or “What could you do, from now on, could you please do this?”

Preparing Children for Challenging Situations

Thinking things through together during a calm moment helps kids to be better prepared for dealing with challenging situations. I worked with a six-year-old boy once, we’ll call him Aiden. And one day, Aiden came in, and he was so sad. He told me, “I lost my best friend today.”

Turns out there’d been a big argument, with name-calling, and threats not to be invited to a birthday party. Rubber mulch was thrown. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But that afternoon with me, Aiden was so sad, because he was convinced that his friendship was over forever.

I told him, “I don’t think you lost your friend. Here’s what I want you to do. Tomorrow, when you go into school, look for your friend, and give him a big smile and say hi. And then, just play with him.”

The Power of Forgiveness and Moving Forward

He said, “Really?” And I said, “Really?” We adults tend to want to talk everything out, but research tells us that negotiation and compromise don’t become the main way that kids resolve conflicts until about age 19. Before that, mostly they just separate for a little bit to let tempers cool, and then come back together and just be kind.

It worked. The boys had a good time playing together the next day. And this episode of ordinary meanness helped them learn about forgiveness and trying again. Ordinary meanness is upsetting, but it’s manageable.

It’s something that kids need to learn to handle with support from caring adults, and they need to learn to avoid doing it themselves. Ultimately, our job as parents is to teach kids how to be in relationships. Getting along with others is difficult. We adults haven’t managed world peace or even perfect marriages, so it’s unrealistic to think that our kids will always be perfectly kind to each other.

But kindness is a worthy goal.

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