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Conflict and opportunity

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

“There is no community without vulnerability, and there is no vulnerability without risk.”

“Hey I want that helmet!” “No, me want the helmet!” “No, me!” “Me!” I hear these words as I stand on the playground on a brisk winter morning. Turning towards the commotion, I see that two children are both vying for a blue bicycle helmet, the only blue bicycle helmet that happens to be on the playground today. I start moving towards them, careful not to rush in too soon, but also aware of how quickly the situation might escalate.

This is my second day as one of the teachers of the Preschool House after visiting and observing the children three days previously. On all five of these days, this has been a common occurrence: these two children having a conflict over the same object or toy. But as common as this occurrence is, what is even more common is these two playing together! Every day during outside time these two find one another in the yard and quickly commence their time together. In fact, the situation described above is the direct result of their attempt to ride bikes with one another.

As humans, as well as animals, conflict is a phenomenon that occurs all around us. It occurs as a result of desire, of love, of hardship, of need, and a host of other reasons. In spite of the rate of this occurrence, we find a myriad of ways to avoid it. These ways are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but present nonetheless. This is understandable as we have witnessed some of the damaging results of conflict; one only has to tune in to the national news these days to glimpse this reality, which makes the ability to navigate conflict all the more urgent and necessary.

When I was in Reggio Emilia, Italy (home of the Reggio Emilia Approach) a pedagogista there, Annalisa Rabotti, was asked by another educator from the United States how to avoid conflict between children. Annalisa responded that conflict is certainly not something to be avoided, but rather, “conflict is the pretext for learning how to be together.” I thought her words were poignant and spoke to the heart of the opportunity created by conflict. Whenever I see these two children entering into the space of conflct, what I see is opportunity - opportunity for growth, opportunity for connection, opportunity for relationship.

I kneel down beside them. I say, “It sounds like you both want the same blue helmet, but there’s only one blue helmet. What ideas do you have to solve this problem?” They pause for a moment to think. “He could use the black helmet,” One child says, as he points to the one hanging nearby. “No! I want the blue helmet,” the other child responds. I say, “So, your idea was that he could use the black helmet, but he said no, he still wants the blue helmet." To the second child, I asked: "Do you have any ideas?” He says, “We could take turns!” I say, “His idea is that you could take turns. What do you think about that?” “No, me don’t want to take turns,” the first child responds. Then something curious happens. The first child pauses once again and then says, “He can use the blue helmet, and me make dinner. Then me use the blue helmet.” I reflect his words to the other child, “Oh, he says you could use the blue helmet while he makes dinner, and then he could use the blue helmet. What do you think about that idea?” “Yeah!”, the second child responds, and they rush off to begin their newly negotiated ideas.

In the midst of this conflict, the two friends learn something about one another. They move closer in, they encounter one another anew, and depart having existed in the presence of one another’s vulnerability, and thus, have moved deeper into relationship. This is a monumental gesture, one that has the opportunity to change not only them and their bond together, but also the fabric of the society of which they are a part. The psychoanalyst Scott Peck says in his book, A Different Drum, “There is no community without vulnerability, and there is no vulnerability without risk.” This young friendship is instructive in this way and offers us further insight into the relational opportunity posed by conflict.

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