Connecting with Young Children by Stephen Spitalny

During the first seven years or so of life the child’s main tasks are to come to terms with physical reality, to develop the organs of his or her physical body, and to learn to relate socially. The main learning paradigm for young children is imitation, so how the adults around them manage conflict is particularly influential – the work of developing communication skills and resolving conflicts in a healthy way is a life-long learning. Because young children are so imitative, it is so important for them to experience our working on ourselves in these areas and how we guide the children toward resolving their own conflicts. Here is an example from life:

Jack was playing with a wooden boat. Jill approached him and took the boat and went to another part of the room to play. Jack cried. There are many possible approaches for an adult to take to help resolve the situation. “Jill! Give that back to Jack and say you are sorry.” Or, “Jill! How do you think Jack feels? What would you feel like if he did that to you?” Or, to Jill, “It is Jack’s turn now and you may have a turn next.” Or, to Jill, “Jack is sad. Can you do something that will help him?”

However, it is not realistic to expect the young child to be able to understand how someone else is feeling, when she is just beginning to be able to label her own feelings. Also, to simply require an apology does not allow Jill to help resolve the situation herself, through actively engaging in the solution. I think it is important not to blame one of the children or to make them “wrong.” I wouldn’t say, “You hurt him,” or “You should feel ashamed of yourself.” Rather, “He is hurt.” Words like “right,” “wrong,” “good,” “bad,” “appropriate,” and “inappropriate” have no place in leading the children toward compassion and an active life of will. They are value judgments that are merely the opinion of the speaker.

Through actively modeling compassion for the one hurt, and for providing the children spoken examples of what you would be happy to hear them say, then out of imitation the children can develop tools for their communication–and conflicts are resolved more easily.

It is a long process to guide children into habits of communication and conflict resolving, and it requires patience, consistency and perseverance from the adults. These same qualities can be developed in us and will serve to guide the children into their bright future.

Steve’s book Connecting with Young Children is available through his website: He lives in the Santa Cruz area and is available for lectures, workshops and family coaching sessions.