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[USA] Conflict and Cooperation during Early Childhood


Young children are spending more time in day care centers and in preschools with exposure to the influence of immature companions. This familiar situation invites consideration of how peers support and interfere with socialization and what day care workers can do to help boys and girls have a beneficial effect on one another. Reasons for limiting the time that children spend in group care should be understood so greater benefits can be experienced. Better training for caretakers is needed so they can accept social limitations of children, respect their privacy, preserve mutual rights, and help solve conflicts in creative ways. These strategies enable children to get along with others.

Keywords:mutual rights, privacy, dominion play, conflict, socialization, early childhood educators


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The importance of getting along with others is confirmed every day throughout life. By helping daughters and sons acquire this essential ability, parents hope to improve their chances for close friendships, productive peer associations in school and at work, a happy marriage, and peaceful coexistence. The methods to achieve these broad goals are not entirely understood but some basic elements that we will examine pertaining to early childhood have proven successful. The goals for this presentation are to explore the dominion type of play that children in daycare and preschool participate in and explain a need for supervising adults to establish mutual rights. Readers will learn how children can make better decisions about conflicts with peers instead of depending only on adults to serve as judges. The need to limit amount of time a child spends in group care is explained so that s/he can gain from interaction without a jeopardizing social skills.


Territoriality and Socialization

More children are being placed in group care at earlier ages than previous generations. One consequence is that they spend more time with peers. In effect, they are age-segregated as never before. Daycare and preschool centers can provide important benefits for children but also present the challenge of teaching civil interaction among immature companions and helping them learn to manage arguments and disputes. This familiar problem urges consideration of how the development of healthy socialization attitudes and skills can be taught in group care settings.

First, let's examine certain features of interaction that occur among young children. Those who supervise 2 to 6 year-olds are often disappointed by the selfishness and possessiveness that they observe. The usual response is to encourage boys and girls to share and cooperate. However, this advice ignores a pertinent phenomenon known as territoriality, the inclination for creatures to declare a certain space as their own. Territorial behavior is observed throughout the animal world. For example, coyotes and wolves mark their territory by leaving a scent that designates the boundaries of their space. Fish will attack larger fish that invade their space. Cats will do the same when other cats come and try to encroach on their yard.

A similar intention to protect territory can be observed among human beings. One of the ways people recognize status is by amount of space that someone commands. As a rule, wealthy people have larger properties surrounded by high fences with signs indicating "No trespassing." Less affluent families establish their territory by erecting lower size fences and often aspire to own a larger home. Whenever we enter a place of business the lower echelon employees often work in cubicles that grant minimal privacy and sense of control. Elsewhere in the same building the executives of the company each have their own offices, the largest of which belongs to the president or manager.


Dominion Play and Peer Relationships

Play is the activity in which young children most often express some desire to control territory. When they assert a claim to a play space or insist on ownership of a toy, this can be thought of as dominion play. This kind of territorial play is normal from two- to six years old. However, dominion play sometimes interferes with functioning of a group. When that happens, the adult and children should have a conversation about 'mutual rights.' Many children face territorial situations every day at their daycare center, preschool, kindergarten, their home or home of another child during a play date arranged by adults.

Consider Carol and Dale. Both of these four year olds attend a preschool. Carol, in tears, approaches the teacher to report that Dale will not let her play with him. After acknowledging that she understands Carol's feelings, the teacher suggests they talk with Dale. When Dale explains that he is making a zoo and does not want helpers, the teacher turns to Carol who says she wants to be his partner anyway. Because Dale is not infringing on anyone else's territory, the teacher defends his right to privacy by telling Carol that she will have to play with someone else or by herself. Forcing Dale to let Carol into the zoo area against his will violates his right to privacy and leads to poor relationships between the two children. In similar circumstances, the teacher would defend Carol's right to privacy. When young children cannot look to adults to defend their privacy, they develop a sense of helplessness instead of self-confidence.

At times the dominion play of a child can interfere with the rights of others. In such cases limits must be set, not to deny space to a youngster but to restrict it so that others can also satisfy their needs. Jim, age four, visited a train station and railroad yard over the weekend. On Monday morning, as soon as he arrived at preschool, Jim decided he would build a replica out of blocks. Unfortunately, his train station and railroad yard project was located so close to the block shelves that the other children could not get to their play materials.

After observing the unsuccessful attempts by Jim's classmates to have the roundhouse removed, the teacher said, "Jim, the reason everyone wants you to move your roundhouse is because they can't get to the block shelves." Jim pointed out that they better not touch it or the roundhouse would fall down. The teacher makes another suggestion, "Jim, can you see any place to move your roundhouse so the other children will be able to play too?" Jim was definite about not moving his structure. Then the teacher said, "I know you don't want to move it, but we will have to find another spot somewhere." Undaunted, Jim stated, "It's already built so it can't be moved." A location over by the window was suggested. Again, no compromise. Next, the teacher proposed, "I'll help you move it over there by the window, or you can do it yourself." Jim replied, "No." Without any further comment, the teacher dismantled Jim's roundhouse and moved it near the window so everyone could gain access to the blocks. Jim immediately resumed playing with his roundhouse as if nothing had happened.

Most children will more readily accept suggestions than Jim but even when they do not, providing them with face-saving alternatives is a better method of teaching than punishment, embarrassment, making sarcastic remarks or issuing specific commands. Boys and girls can learn to work alongside the private space of others. This accommodation of mutual rights is essential for social competence. As a rule, when a child's right to privacy is respected, s/he becomes less defensive and may soon welcome play with the same youngsters that were recently rejected.

In time children usually decide that it is ok to play with one companion but no one else is welcome. By excluding all others the players make it known that "Two is company, three is a crowd." Adults sometimes disapprove of this conduct and suggest to children that they should like everyone. Adults themselves rarely meet this unreasonable expectation. A more suitable response by caretakers is to accept the fact that, in most situations, children should be allowed to choose their friends. Because friendship requires a certain amount of privacy to develop, it is appropriate to honor the preferences of youngsters to be together but somewhat distant from currently unwanted peers.


Guidelines for Dominion Play

Parents, babysitters, and group care workers should consider these guidelines to support social development for children under 6 years of age.

(1) You can help by respecting their need for privacy, ownership, and control of space.
(2) Encourage young children to respect the privacy of others. Set limits for mutual rights.
(3) When possible, allow the child's decision about who enters personal play space and who does not. As a child grows older, s/he may welcome another person into their play situation.
(4) Before rushing in to solve a conflict between children, take a few moments to observe the situation and determine what is happening. Allow time for the children to solve some of their own conflicts in an acceptable way. Support the expression of a child's feelings toward others in an acceptable way.
(5) If intervention is needed, provide a range of face-saving alternatives that could restore mutual rights. This task is typically difficult in the beginning because it calls for creativity on the part of adults but, with practice, most can become the kind of model that children need.
(6) Recognize that socialization of children requires first-hand experience in handling some of their own conflicts. Generally, adults choose to approach conflict among children as if they were policemen whose role is to reach decisions regarding guilt or punishment.
(7) Children need opportunities to make some decisions. One aspect of decision-making that should be introduced is to think of possible solutions. The creative ability to generate options is in the long run a great asset for being able to reduce personal stress.


Research on Group Care

There is agreement that preschoolers can benefit from group learning activities in supportive environments. However, ideal settings seldom exist because most day care workers have little preparation, are poorly paid, and have to look after more children than is reasonable. Some organizations have tried to introduce legislation that would make early childhood education a part of the regular school system. In this plan teachers of young children would be able to earn the same level of salary as elementary school teachers but also be required to have a similar education to qualify for the job. These attempts to transform provision of early education have been unsuccessful.

In the present circumstance, what happens when the surrogates who take care of children do not recognize the benefit of dominion play, overlook the need for mutual rights, deny privacy, force sharing, and resolve conflicts with coercive methods? A generation of evidence suggests that socialization is adversely affected. In a highly publicized study children who began day care before their first birthday and continued until age five were compared with a similar group cared for mainly in their own home. When measured for aggression, the children who began day care during infancy were found to be fifteen times as aggressive as the children cared for at home. The difference was not a matter of assertiveness, standing up for one's rights but instead an inclination to verbally and physically attack others. Those who had been in day care since infancy were more easily frustrated, less cooperative, more egocentric, less task-oriented and much more distractible. These children did not appear to have developed self-control and were ready to fight to resolve difficulties. These findings accord with other studies suggesting that extensive child care in early life is related to more behavior problems (Belsky, 2008).

The proportion of American children enrolled in childcare before they attend school has risen from 25 percent in 1980 to over 80 percent now, with many receiving such care in the first two years of life. The United States National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Childhood Research Network (2006) sought to determine the effects of non-maternal care. A sample of 1,300 mothers and their babies were recruited when the infants were one month of age. These families represented varied ethnic groups of the national population. About 10 percent of the parents had not graduated from high school and 14 percent were single mothers. Follow-ups were carried out at 6 months, 15 months, 24 months, and 54 months. Assessments included videotaping of parenting practices, measurement of child outcomes, family characteristics, and provision of childcare in quality and quantity.

Findings showed that those children given exclusive maternal care, defined as less than 5 hours a week of non-maternal care, had mothers with less education, more depressive symptoms, less sensitive styles of parenting, and were most often from low income. In contrast, children from higher income families received higher quality care, on average, and they spent fewer hours each week in group care. According to the observational reports of childcare providers, taken at 36 months and 54 months, more hours of non-maternal childcare predicted greater negative behavior, more misconduct, and conflicts during interaction with friends. In general, the results suggest that extensive childcare for young children do not support healthy socialization (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Childhood Research Net, 2006).

Failing to learn 'mutual rights' during group care seems to be an international problem. Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes (2003) summarized eight major studies regarding the impact of day care on social development of children from the United States, England and Sweden. All the studies concluded that young children spending many hours a week in day care demonstrate less competence in socialization skills than peers attending fewer hours. Later, in elementary and secondary school, the consequences of social incompetence include invading the space of other students, going up and down the aisles bothering classmates, distracting peers, taking things from others, and preventing the learning conditions necessary for group environments (Strom & Strom, 2007).

Wong (2005) reported a national survey involving 350 preschool teachers. Memorizing the alphabet and numbers were not considered the most important ways to prepare for preschool. This exclusive focus by many parents ignores social skills that are necessary to get along with others in a group environment. Most of the preschool teachers, 80 percent, felt that parents need to know that their usual practice is to overemphasize academic skills while not giving enough attention to social development. Mothers and fathers who support a child's verbal communication, emphasize the ability to follow directions, and participate successfully in group activities help daughters and sons gain the most benefit from preschool and reduce misbehavior problems in class and at home (Weigel, Martin & Bennett, 2005).

The teachers responding to Wong's (2005) survey demonstrated unity in recommending that a good way to teach social skills is exposing children to situations where they interact with age mates like play dates, playgrounds, and parent-child classes. In the teachers' opinion, societal forces have misguided parent priorities for child development. In a competitive environment, parents feel pressured to push children to get an early start on academic skills. Wong's (2005) study illustrates that parents can have a more beneficial impact on their child's eventual school success by giving more attention to social and character development and providing opportunities to play and learn in cooperative ways with others.


Evaluating Group Care

The number of young children in group care is bound to increase but the experience must become better than it is now. This conclusion reflects the viewpoint of parents and specialists in child development. Part of the solution involves making quality group care available at a reasonable cost. The national recommendation ratios of children per caregiver are seldom met. There is also a need to provide reasonable wages for child caregivers. They typically receive the minimum wage that contributes to a high rate of turnover. In Florida teachers in 150 childcare classes were identified. Four years later researchers returned to find out how many were still at the same school. Only 3 out of 150 teachers or 2 percent had remained (Jinks, Knopf, & Kemple, 2006). A ten-year study found that annual turnover rates in child care are about 31 percent (Muenchow, Baker, Eldridge, & Benham, 1998). This rate is four times greater than the 8 percent turnover among elementary teachers (Whitebook & Sakai, 2003).

To complicate the situation, staff turnover occurs at the age when young children need continuity most. It is important that 2 to 4 year olds have a predictable routine of eating, sleeping, and persons they can rely on. At this stage of development children want everything to remain the same. Stability is essential as far as they are concerned. Even the family vacation can present problems when there is some departure from the familiar. For example, children like Disneyland but express a desire to sleep that same night in their own bed back home rather than at a motel. This need for continuity partially explains why young children on a trip appreciate McDonald's because the restaurant menu is predictable and stays the same as the one back home.


Peer Influence on Socialization

The potential influence of peers on socialization is illustrated by the lessons students learn mainly from others of their age. The relevance of these lessons is that some enable or interfere with personal adjustment across a wide range of situations. Peers provide the first substantial experiences with equality. Everyone appreciates companionship and enjoys the attention that is given them by others. The peer group is in the best position to satisfy these needs. When members behave in approved ways, the group tends to rewards them with attention, acceptance, and emotional support.

The peer group usually presents a separate set of standards from the expectations imposed by parents and caretakers. The peer standards are likely to be more attainable and often provide reasons for conduct that is opposed to adult directives. The greater resources of grownups make it difficult to declare autonomy from them. Still, peers show a consistent willingness to listen to reports of friends about their common dilemmas, and encourage each other to express differences in the presence of grownups.

The positive influence of peers is often overlooked and undervalued by adults. Peers provide experiences that support social and emotional development. For example, children need someone their own age as a basis for self-comparison, chances to express themselves without fear of punishment, and opportunity to share leadership. They encourage peers to strive for some independence and convey a sense of belonging to another important group besides the family or the class.

Peers learn about friendship mainly from one other, how to get along with someone of the same status. Becoming a group member frequently requires gaining particular skills that are motivated by peers. These skills include cooperation, sharing, questing for independence, venting anger, and making up--all lessons that are more easily learned from peers than parents. They discover what friends will tolerate and behaviors that will not be condoned. Most boys and girls are able to gain a sense of belonging in a peer group and feel accepted. Students become aware that they must learn from one another how to peacefully handle arguments even though, like adults, aggression is sometimes prominent (Strom & Strom, 2009).


Peer Pressure Protectors

The cost of a sense of belonging to a peer group is usually conformity. This is fine so long as norms a person is expected to adopt are healthy. When this is not so, individuals must be capable of withstanding pressure from peers since caving in could compromise health, integrity, and personal goals. Parents can prepare children for reacting to pressures calling on them to adopt dysfunctional behavior or suffer rejection by peers. All children need peer pressure protectors.

(1) The best way to minimize peer pressure is encourage individuality.
Parents do this by avoiding comparisons of ability, achievement or limitation among their children. Whenever one child is used as a standard for the behavior of a brother or sister, the likely outcome is sustained rivalry and jealousy instead of lifelong reciprocal support and pride in one another (Conley, 2004).

(2) Encourage children to value solitude, time to reflect, self-evaluate, and look at things anew.
Solitude supports the individuality and creativity children need so that being around age mates for long periods does not result in peer dependence.

(3) Parents should make themselves available to listen, especially about difficulties of building friendships.
This task requires high priority, takes time, and may be inconvenient. Do it anyway. Problems with peers are likely to be continuous and, depending on how parents respond, they may be asked for advice often or not at all. Help children learn how to get along without threatening withdrawal to force concession. Share your mistakes--this requires self-disclosure.

(4) Allow privacy.
Let children confide in you when they will, without insisting that you be told everything happening in their lives. Trust is essential to build intimate relationships and parents play the most prominent role in helping children acquire this attribute.

Empathy and Social Skills

The way that parents talk to their young children about understanding the feelings of others, referred to as empathy, can have a lasting effect on social skills. Social understanding develops by thinking about how others might look at things, taking into account the way situations could be interpreted from someone else's point of view. Researchers from the University of Sussex, in England, examined the ability of children to recognize and to appreciate perspectives other than their own (Ruffman, Slade, Devitt & Crowe, 2006). This longitudinal study tracked 57 children from age 3 to 12. At the outset, half of the mothers were provided with guidelines for use while talking with children about feelings, beliefs, wants, and intentions of others; the remainder half of the mothers (control group) were not given any recommendations to shape conversations.

Researchers visited the homes to observe how each mother talked to her children while looking at a series of pictures together. For example, successive pictures of a young girl showed that her favorite toy was broken, she visited swings and slides at a playground, and the high tower she has built out of blocks was deliberately pushed over by a boy. The children whose mothers talked with them about the 'mental state' of characters in these and other pictures performed better on tasks of social understanding administered every year. The relationship between conversations that dealt with 'mental states' and social understanding was strongest in early childhood and independent of mother IQ or level of social understanding. Mother influence waned between ages 8 to 12 when children were less dependent on them and spent more time with peers, teachers, and other adults (Yuill & Ruffman, 2009).

One measure of social understanding applied with the children age 8 and older involved watching video clips from 'The Office,' a popular comedy on television. The main character, David Brent, typifies socially insensitive people who incorrectly interpret social situations. Adult viewers realized that the reason David so often embarrassed co-workers was his lack of social understanding. The children also detected David's social skill deficits in explaining why he seemed oblivious to how he continually made others uncomfortable. Every parent should take advantage of television viewing to talk with children about how characters on programs might be feeling as a result of actions or events as they unfold. Labeling the way that other people might feel, identifying their 'mental state', is an important step toward achievement of social maturity. You can learn more about this context by reading our article on Parents and Children Watching Television Together (CRN research paper, 2006).

There are also daily opportunities to reinforce this lesson based on how children interact with companions. For example, when a child grabs a toy from a playmate, the observing parent could use this incident to point out that 'when you took the airplane away from Terry, it made him feel sad.' This interpretation provides the child with insight and offers greater benefit than saying "give it back now or you are going to be punished." Parents should convey to their children a vocabulary of feelings so boys and girls are able to express their emotions, can use words to explain how they suppose other people are feeling, and establish empathy as a consistent personality pattern.


Guidelines for Parent Teaching

(1) Learning to respect mutual rights is the basis for developing social competence.
When children recognize that they can look to adults to defend their privacy, they develop a sense of self-confidence instead of feelings of helplessness. A frequently overlooked but vital aspect of making decisions is being able to generate alternative solutions for arguments rather than hitting, taking things from others or reacting in verbally vindictive ways. The ability to think of face-saving alternatives can be modeled by creative adults whenever they encounter the frequent conflicts that occur among children.

(2) Peer support is essential for motivation of social and emotional development.
Children need someone their own age for self-comparison, opportunities to assert themselves, and chances to assume leadership. As children get older, they encourage one another to strive for independence from parents and offer a feeling of belonging to a group other than the family. Finding out what friends will tolerate, learning to cooperate, sharing secrets, expressing anger, and reconciling differences--these lessons can be more easily taught by peers than adults.

(3) Describe for your child the way that situations and events might be seen by other people.
By talking together about the 'mental state' of characters seem on television programs, in books and stories, during Web site visits, and in daily interactions children have with their companions, you can support social understanding that is needed to also respond in a socially beneficial way.



Some observers believe that increasing the amount of government subsidies represents the key to providing better early childhood education. In our view an effective solution requires more comprehensive changes. Parents and caregivers of young children should know the psychological and physical aspects of development. With proper training, caregivers are more inclined to accept the social limitations of children, respect the need for privacy of dominion play, preserve mutual rights, and show them how to solve conflicts in creative ways. This combination of strategies is vital to help children acquire the basic socialization skills they need for getting along with others. Parents should also offer peer pressure protectors that support individuality and cohesion among siblings and talk with children about the mental states of others to encourage perspective taking, empathy, and social skills.



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