Dealing with sibling conflict? Ready to pull your hair out or hide in the bathroom? I’ve heard so many parents in this stay at home season who are fed up with playing referee to their kids. They want to walk away and let the kids fight it out. Unfortunately, a free-for-all is not helpful in creating family unity or safety. It is so hard to navigate conflict 24/7. 

Do You Want Peace in Your Home?

While learning or implementing a new skill under stress is not ideal, how about trying The Talking Table to bring some peace to your home? I first learned about it teaching preschool. Fresh out of college, I was excited to begin my first full-time job as a lead preschool teacher and childcare provider. Having worked in childcare in high school and college part-time, I had some experience with what I would be doing day in and day out. One of the biggest challenges for myself and other teachers was managing conflict between students. Tattling was a rampant social skill and just as parents tire of hearing their names called to resolve a dispute of siblings, I started to dread the “Miss Kristal, she/he did…” especially managing twenty 4 and 5-year olds. Looking online, I found a strategy I thought I could try: I call it The Talking Table. 

The Talking Table

I placed a small table with two chairs opposite each other in a quiet corner of the room. I explained the rules to the class: when they had a conflict, they would go to The Talking Table and had to stay there until the conflict was resolved. When both parties agreed on a resolution, they needed to find me (or parent) and let them know what they had agreed upon. The teacher or parent then became the enforcer of the agreement just in case one of the children later changed his/her mind. (This is important because if one of the children didn’t hold up his/her end of the bargain, the teacher/parent then insists on compliance rather then sending them back to the table. This teaches the importance of following through with what you agreed upon and lets the children know you are keeping their world trustworthy).

The Talking Table had only 3 rules:

  1. Be respectful (no yelling, hitting, name-calling)
  2. No stonewalling (when one party is trying to resolve the dispute and the other party refuses to engage-I’d give it 5 or so minutes)
  3. Both children must agree on a resolution to leave the table

If any of these rules were broken, the rule-following child would get to make the call. This was highly incentivizing. 

Here is an example:

Marissa: Sydney has been playing with the magnets for awhile now and I want a turn.

Sydney: Marissa got to play with it yesterday and I haven’t had it for very long.

Miss Kristal: So Marissa you want a turn and Sydney you want more time with it? I will hold on to it while you two go to The Talking Table and figure out what you want to do (Expect the children to look at you like you are crazy. They are very used to adults solving their problems for them.). 

Marissa and Sydney come back and let me know they agreed to play with it together. I nod and hand it back and they go play with it together. They could have resolved it a myriad of ways: Marissa gets it for 5 minutes and Sydney gets it for 5 minutes or Sydney gets it today and Marissa gets it tomorrow. It doesn’t really matter as long as they agree to the resolution. It was very rare for children to go back to The Talking Table more than once for the same issue. Initially, it would take a longer period of time for the children to work out a problem, but as they became more skilled in problem solving, the time spent at The Talking Table became less and less.

Children Can Learn to Problem Solve

Whatever resolution the two children came up with and agreed upon was implemented. This strategy took me completely out of the problem-solving role and allowed for their creativity to be channeled in a prosocial way. Their resolutions were imaginative. Occasionally, there were students who were savvier in their negotiations, but overall, if each party was satisfied, I let it go. The Talking Table initially needed monitoring to make sure the rules were followed but as the year progressed, needed oversight dwindled to almost nothing. The Talking Table rules discourage passivity or aggression and encouraged assertiveness and empathy.

While other teachers were still dealing with tattling children day in and day out, I got to enjoy my interactions so much more confident they could negotiate conflict with positive outcomes. By the end of the year, there was no tattling and most of the children learned to resolve conflict without having to go to the Talking Table at all.  I used this method for the four years I taught preschool and consistently saw it work wonders. If my class of twenty 4 and 5-year olds could have this much success, I would encourage you to try in with your children. 

Note: This did not apply if another child is hit or a safety issue but for fighting over objects or bickering. Violence must be immediately interrupted and addressed by the caregiver in order to give all children a sense of safety.

For more resources on managing sibling conflict, I really like Sibling Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Its an oldie but goodie.

Next Steps:

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