We need not debate here whether we as a society manage to protect our children from physical harm and conflict, we can simply read our GBV statistics, our violent crime statistics and other parameters and we should be able to draw our own conclusions. Those of us fortunate enough can provide further protection in that sphere by way of gated communities, private schools and other measures that briefly console us that we are protecting them. But what about the other, more personal conflicts that they will inevitably have to endure and navigate as they grow up? The bullying, the potential class and race conflicts, the social media battlegrounds, the old and the new personal conflicts that they will need to experience? Can parents, guardians, educators, politicians, religious bodies and others bring the specialized skill of practical and age-appropriate conflict management skills to our children? If we prepare our children to be adept and socially skilled in a variety of academic and related skills, do we not have a moral duty to also teach them the essential skill of being conflict competent? What would our future society look like if we break the chains of cyclical and generational conflict by transferring sufficient conflict skills to a first generation that knows how to transcend conflict, to use it as an energy to address and constructively resolve personal and community conflicts? In my view the questions really answer themselves – we have work to do, our children deserve better than muddling along, making the mistakes we made, ending up as conflict averse, unskilled participants in what often feels like an inevitable slide into chaos.
In this article I want to briefly look at only two issues arising from those questions, that is what resources are available to parents and others in order to transfer these skills, and then also to look at a few examples of conflict skills for children to showcase what is possible. A future article will deal with these skills in a step-by-step manner. As we start this assessment we should briefly note that we as the adults responsible for starting this journey for them, the ones that will need to build and implement the system, are generally not very good with conflict. Our repetitive and destructive conflicts, on a national, community and often personal level reflect graphically how we grew up without any semblance of an understanding, much less application, of conflict principles. But let that irony then be the motivation for us to break the cycle, and to ensure that we do not allow our children to repeat our conflict mistakes.
What resources can parents, organizations and communities then use to acquire and transfer these skills? As complex a field as conflict resolution can be, with its university level research, case studies and development, it can also be engineered into inexpensive, concise and measurable programs for schools and groups, and as coaching for smaller teams and individuals. The academic and philosophical underpinning, the practical skills and techniques are all completely transferable, and a sensible point of departure for a school, community or organization would be to get an individual or small group trained and to then build and run their own programs from there, with no or minimal involvement from the original expert necessary in future skills transfers. Such programs can be run by volunteers and be highly community focused, with several simple frameworks and models that should be successful. Conflict resolution is a complex, multi-disciplinary field, with ongoing developments in best practices locally and internationally. The original qualification of the first individual or team will be crucial, as this will be the basis from which future training is launched, and strengths and defects in such skills transfer will of course simply be perpetuated. Established mediators, conflict specialists and other people working in various conflict fields can be invaluable in this first big step. At the Conflict Resolution Centre we provide both in-person coaching and distance learning programs, usually tailor-made for the specific individual or community.
Once the initial framework is in place that community can expand on their knowledge and personnel as the operational need and resources may dictate. Once a basic operational functionality has been established one would like to see a free exchange of knowledge, experience and ideas between communities and areas. By the very nature of the project this is not a competitive endeavour. Resources can eventually be pooled in this manner, and differences in dynamics such as age and gender, educational levels, different experiences and causes of conflict can be addressed more systematically. In time local conflict practitioners can develop their own unique system for their specific community. Such a project would not need anything new as far as infrastructure is concerned. Individual training can happen in schools and homes, and for bigger groups existing venues such as schools and town halls can be used. Such a program can easily be incorporated into the normal school day or home routine, and can be effectively presented without much written material or textbooks being required. Experimental roll-out programs can be designed for a particular grade at a school, or for a few children in a street. There need be no formal testing and grading of progress, and the challenge to transfer as much knowledge, practical application and confidence would be a challenge that the presenter(s) can work with. Any improvement in the conflict competency of a child is to be valued.
What would a few examples of the skills to be transferred look like? A first challenge would be for conflict to be redefined in the mind of the child as something that can be a positive force in a community. Children should internalize the fact that conflict is an energy to be directed and utilized for the benefit of those involved, not something to be avoided and suppressed. They should hear and see that we need better conflicts, not necessarily less conflicts. They should see conflicts as opportunities to understand and address community interests and values. As part of this important re-calibration of their conflict competency they need to understand the difference between conflict well-handled and conflict mismanaged, and how that directly impacts on the community. They can, even at a young age, be taught to understand to some extent the causes and triggers of conflict, how cyclical conflict gets created, and how it gets ended. Such a program can do critical work in addressing some of the causes and triggers of gender based violence, and equipping children to deal with gender based conflict in a constructive manner. Simple techniques such as empathetic listening, respectful framing of a dispute, the value of dissenting opinions and a long list of others can all be made a part of a child’s life skills from an early age. Such training can be delivered via community figures known to the children, and parents can be drawn in and made a part of such projects, with obvious benefits for all. Methods of training can include role-playing and fun workshops, making use (where appropriate) of actual community events and experiences.
Children can be taught to have confidence in conflicts – that it is acceptable to disagree, that differing voices and opinions can be community strengths if properly channelled and applied, that problem solving is the best way to move a community forward, and most importantly they can see the harm that results from unresolved conflicts and how there are alternatives to such ways of thinking and acting. They can be taught simple and practical how-to conflict techniques, for example how to de-escalate anger in an environment or situation, how to deal with value and identity based disputes, how to play a meaningful role in their own domestic conflict situations and so much more. The benefits of conflict competency from an early age, and the fact that such benefits are measurable and visible for negligible expenditure in time, money and application to the individual and communities make projects such as these urgent practical and moral imperatives.
Seen from the perspective of the individual child, parents, communities, organizations and politicians such projects really have no meaningful counter-arguments. Any doubt or hesitancy can be addressed by way of national pilot projects. Hopefully, as the ease of management and demonstrable cost-benefit analyses will show, government can even become involved in such projects.
History will already judge this period in our country harshly. Our unresolved conflicts and the bitter fruit resulting therefrom that future generations will inherit can be altered, in a relatively short period of time. The simple decisions and actions outlined above will however need to be taken…. by us….now. What will our children see when they look back at the way we dealt with this important and simple challenge?