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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 32 SEPTEMBER 2001 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

conflict resolution

More is "caught" than taught

Jane Foraker-Thompson and Moira Edmunds highlight a crucial responsibility of child and youth care workers — and all adults

Why are conflict resolution skills important? These skills are necessary for any so-called "civilized" society. They are fundamental to the democratic process. In any country, issues of excessive, generalised levels of violence in all ethnic and socio-economic levels need to be addressed. The issue of racism and practices of discrimination need to be met head on and put to rest. Politicians, leaders of political movements, religious and other societal leaders at the national and regional level may deal with these issues on a theoretical basis, but these problems cannot be ordered to cease to exist, legislated away, banned or solved by executive decree. They can only be truly impacted from grassroots level up. There must be a change of heart within the people, a change of attitude and practice within individuals at local level and, above all, in how children are raised and trained. Only in that way can society be changed. And societies can change direction; they can improve. Human change is not always for the better. Change is not always positive, but it can be! With dedication and will, society can change for the better for everyone. It depends on the vision and the commitment of the people.

It is you, child and youth care workers, social workers, directors, community developers, parents and all who deal with children and youth on a daily and ongoing basis, who will actually shape the direction of the nation’s development in the next decade and in the decades to follow. Every trend must have a beginning. Now is the time to start building for the future. You cannot undo what has been done in the past but you can influence new directions. You have the future in your hands. Treat this opportunity as a sacred trust. How children are raised determines where the nation will go. Before you protest that this is too big an assignment, stop and think about it. It is not a matter of whether it will get done. Children grow up one way or another, for better or worse. So it is rather a matter of how they will grow up. What values will influence them? What vision will they have for their own lives, for their society? Will it be a vision of hope, individual and mutual responsibility; of having a legitimate place in society; of open-mindedness; a determination for peace, democracy and social justice? Or will it be a vision of despair, anger, alienation, bitterness, fear, racism, intimidation and oppression?

Societies can change. They can unlearn bad habits and relearn new ones. It is people such as those at whom this article is aimed that may be regarded as local leaders. They actually have more influence on the direction in which society develops than pronouncements by so-called national leaders. Such leaders actually often watch to see what the people want, or are doing, and then run to catch up and appear to be in front of them. This is even truer in a democracy where social and political trends actually start at grassroots level and percolate upwards, rather than from the top downwards (as in the authoritarian model). In short, the readers of this publication are actually in a very powerful position to be contributors to positive developments in their countries.

Democracy grows best in the soil of social justice, equal opportunity, human dignity and relative calm. A peaceful, non-violent method of conflict resolution is a necessary bottom rung of the ladder leading to democracy. First of all, democracy implies tolerance of different traditions, values and perceptions. This means that there must be room for discussion, critical thinking, friendly conflict resolution and a means of arriving at solutions that hold something positive and reasonable for all parties involved. There is no room in a democratic state for the enforcement of a given exclusive pattern or interpretation — that is authoritarianism. An open society allows for the exchange of ideas through a process of open search for "truth", for practical solutions, for fair and reasonable compromises. It means that no single party will get everything they want at the cost of exclusion of others, but that all parties will gain some points that are important to them. These are called WIN/WIN solutions as opposed to the old dictatorial ways of win/lose solutions where winner takes all and loser loses all. That sort of "solution", as in war, may leave one party temporarily "victorious" but leaves the losing parties bitter and planning for revenge. There never is peace under these conditions. It is time in human history for people to realise this basic fact. This may require that the adults of any society learn to exchange some of their old attitudes and practices for new ways. If not, how can they teach future generations to be good citizens in a democracy?

I have been given to understand from a wide variety of people who work with children and youth, including teachers and parents, that schools are often authoritarian and that many still practise corporal punishment. I suggest that one cannot teach children a peaceful, non-violent way of living unless one models it oneself. This is throwing out a fundamental challenge for change at a most basic level to the system. Again, I ask you to spend time thinking about cause and effect on a small and large, short — and long-term level. Don’t say "yes" or "no" to yourselves right away. Think about it and then discuss it with others. Be open, not defensive. Educational research has shown that children learn less from what adults say to them and overwhelmingly by what is modelled to them.

Conflict resolution training teaches those who work with children to consciously and conscientiously practise positive conflict resolution in schools, homes and other groups which deal with children. They, in turn, teach the children to handle their own conflicts after teaching them the principles. This training is geared to help people understand the importance of peaceful conflict resolution methods. The main skills learned and reinforced through the training are "active listening" and "validation/affirmation". These constitute good communication skills and good psychology as well as simple common sense. Unfortunately, in our westernised, industialised, urbanised societies where individualisation and "getting ahead at any cost" have taken precedence over community building and a focus on raising children in a healthy way, we have forgotten these skills. Family and community life suffer as a result. Teaching conflict resolution skills is a way of deliberately working to make our communities and society a healthier place for human beings. In some ways, it is a return to ancient knowledge that has been distorted by some of the excesses of modernisation. We can still challenge ourselves to develop intellectually and seek new knowledge, to formulate a fair and equitable and expanding economic base, to develop better societal structures, but have these rest on a foundation of healthy human values and practices.

In short, the teaching of positive conflict resolution practices is nothing short of revolutionary! Peaceful conflict resolution, mediation and negotiation practices are based on the assumptions that disputants are honest and responsible people, that they want reasonable and fair resolutions of different positions, that they need and want to maintain an ongoing relationship (such as within the family, school, workplace, church and in other organisations) and that they are willing to work with other disputants to find a WIN/WIN solution.

Adults who learn these processes usually find themselves incorporating them into their own personal and work lives. Often their own relationships improve over time as they learn to put these skills and attitudes to work in their personal lives. Those who bring this training to the children are teaching them a more positive way of behaving that, if taught and reinforced, will change the lives of the young people with whom they work. Like any project dealing with human beings, there will be greater and lesser degrees of success. Part of the success, or lack of it, depends on how thoroughly committed the entire staff of the school or other institution are to learning and implementing this way of dealing with problems. In part, success depends on how capable each child is of receiving and incorporating these attitudes and practices into their own lives. If the children have been seriously damaged by abuse, neglect or discrimination they may not yet be receptive. They may not yet be able to trust, or to reach out. But then again, some children will find such an approach to problem solving a great comfort, even soothing and encouraging. It may help them to build trust in others as well as building up their self-esteem and confidence.

Teaching children the skills of conflict resolution empowers them to handle their own conflicts. This is an important life skill for all of us as conflicts between human beings are normal even when we know, love and respect others. People need to realise that there is no such thing as living life without conflict, but we can choose to deal either negatively or positively with conflicts. A negative approach can destroy relationships and organisations, cause social disruption and violence and, ultimately, lead to war. Positive conflict resolution can help strengthen relationships, create safer and more supportive communities and institutions, provide a way of correcting social injustices and help to establish democratic processes at the level of local government. Having to deal with conflicts should be seen as an opportunity for personal growth and for relationship, organisational and community building.

The benefits to teachers and administrators of teaching conflict resolution skills in schools and institutions are that it significantly cuts down on time and effort lost in trying to maintain order, resolving disputes and disciplining children; more time is available for personal interaction with the children; there is an improved atmosphere for everyone — child and youth care workers feel more rewarded in their position and children are more inspired because they experience more positive adult role models in their lives and are given more personal responsibility.

The benefits to children of learning positive conflict resolution skills are that they learn new communication skills, they become more conscious of the signals they send to others, they learn to express their anger and frustration in constructive ways by learning to handle their own conflicts, they develop an improved self-image and sense of accomplishment and they help to build the habit of peer co-operation and a stronger sense of community. Children also have more time, interest and energy in learning and are more apt to start thinking more positively about their future, especially in the case of deprived children who have traditionally lacked opportunity.

The benefits to all adults who learn positive conflict resolution skills are the opportunity for personal growth and increased interpersonal skills, increased sensitivity to situations and the needs of others, greater confidence in dealing with difficult issues, improved assertiveness skills which lead to increased self-esteem, the ability to reach satisfactory results for everyone involved (i.e. a WIN/WIN solution) and the achievement of greater positive control of their own environment and destiny. This is one of those "each one teach one" skills. When people are trained thoroughly enough, they become trainers themselves as well as implementors. In this way the attitudes and methods of conflict resolution skills spread and grow in a grassroots fashion.

Many societies are at extremely important crossroads. God’s speed in your endeavours. The children are the future in any society. Love them, nurture them, train them well and all of society will benefit. Remember that children "catch" more from what is modelled for them than what they are taught verbally. More is caught than taught.

At the time of writing Jane Foraker-Thompson, Ph.D. from Boise University Idaho, was Visiting Professor at the Centre for Intergroup Studies at the University of Cape Town and affiliated with the Quaker Peace Project; Moira Edmunds was on the staff of the Centre for Intergroup Studies, University of Cape Town.