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Grabbing Our Way to Peace: Responding to Tugs of War and Other Battles of Daily Life

Young children invariably go through periods when it seems that their purpose in life is to take anything that another child within their view is playing with. Witnessing delightful, cooperative, or parallel play turn into a tug-of-war, with both children likely to end up in tears, often reduces the adults to a bundle of nerves right along with the children. Telling me about this type of situation with her four-year-old daughter, a parent recently asked me how an adult might step in and intervene, and how we can make our kids less "grabby."

Before we make sense of how to intervene, let's try to understand our own intense reactions to these situations. Whether our child is grabbing or losing the toy, many of us are familiar with the immediate, visceral reaction of anger, of wanting to "right" the "wrong" we just witnessed. The anger we feel is understandable. We want to protect our children from emotional and physical pain. We worry that if our children cannot manage themselves in ways that are socially acceptable, they will suffer. We have strong values about kindness, sharing, cooperation, and justice, and we want to teach those to our children. We long to contribute to our children's ability to live with others in peace.

When a "grabbing incident" takes place, however, we don't usually stop to think about our values and wishes for our children. While some of us let the children work things out for themselves, most of us intervene - to determine who had the object first and to make sure it is returned to that child; to remind or enforce a general rule about sharing or taking turns; or to administer a consequence such as a "time out." Yet while these interventions may provide momentary relief, I believe they undermine our ability to meet our own and our children's deeper needs.

What can we do if we want to use grabbing as an opportunity for all of us to learn to live in peace, to meet all our needs, and to internalize kindness, cooperation, and compassion? Nonviolent communication (NVC) offers a way to do that. I'd like to illustrate with an experience I recently had.

Stepping In

Eighteen-month old Jacob (a pseudonym) and his dad were visiting three-year-old Ray and his mom. When it came time to leave, Jacob clearly had every intention of leaving with Ray's little car.

Ray is sometimes agreeable to other children borrowing his things, but this happened to be his only little car. When I checked with him if he was willing for Jacob to borrow it, his whole body went into "grabbing mode": his muscles tensed, his eyes focused on Jacob's hand, and he seemed ready to jump on Jacob to repossess the car. Noticing the imminent grab, I asked Ray to hold on so we could try to talk with Jacob about it, and since he is used to resolving conflicts with NVC, he relaxed. If he had not relaxed, I would have begun the dialogue with my attention on him.

I tried to reflect to Jacob my guess about his feelings and needs: "You like this car? You want to be able to keep playing with it?" Jacob looked at me intently and held on tight to the car. I told him: "You know, this is Ray's only little car, and he wants to have it in the house. Would you be willing to give it back to him?" Jacob's body language indicated a clear no.

Ray tensed once again, and Jacob's dad said to me: "It's OK, we'll just take it out of his hand." I asked them both to wait and give our conversation a chance. I stayed focused on Jacob: "You really like things with wheels? You want something with wheels?" I looked around for a strategy that would meet Jacob's need for choice of the kind of toy he plays with, and found one, so I asked: "Would you like this Lego train with wheels?" Jacob happily took the Lego with wheels while continuing to hold on to the little car. Now he had two of Ray's toys!

At that moment, I did not have any evidence that what I was doing was "working." So why would I keep going? Because I believe deeply that all people have an innate desire to contribute to others' well being. Even when children are very young and absorbed in meeting their own needs, one of their needs is to contribute to others. I believe we can tap their generosity by exhibiting trust in their need to contribute, by articulating it and inviting them to act on it without any coercion. The lack of coercion is crucial because generosity does not arise when we are forced into it.

Equally important to me is modeling for children that all people's needs matter and can be met. Using NVC, I do this by actively showing that their needs matter to me. The key here is modeling for children the behavior we want to teach them. If we don't want them to grab, we don't grab. Almost every time I am around a group of children, I see an adult say "No grabbing" while taking a toy from the hands of a resisting child and giving it to another. This action may seem logical in our adult eyes because we are acting to meet our needs for justice, consideration, and supporting our children. However, it is not inherently different from the action of a child who grabs a toy because she wants to meet her needs for play, autonomy, and exploration.

The Shift

When Jacob still did not give the car back after I gave him the train, Jacob's dad and Ray tensed once again, though Jacob seemed quite absorbed in our conversation. Dad repeated his suggestion of taking the car back. I spoke to them while keeping eye contact with Jacob: "I don't want to force Jacob to give back the car. I want him to have choice, so I'd like to see if we can work this out with words." Ray then moved toward Jacob, while Jacob's dad and I watched, and spoke to him directly: "Jacob," he said, "why don't you take the Lego train? You can take it home, and give me back the car." When Jacob did not immediately give back the car, Ray reached his hand to take it from him once again, but I moved closer and expressed again, to both of them, how much I wanted to talk until we figured this out. At that moment, Jacob turned to Ray, fully relaxed, and handed him the little car. It seemed to me that Jacob needed to trust that he was not going to be physically forced to do something he did not want to do in order for him to act on his own will to consider other's wishes. His dad seemed awe-struck by his behavior.

But I was not surprised. An inner shift almost always happens for at least one of the people involved in a conflict when NVC is used, and often for both. When we trust that our own needs really matter to others, we can often relax about the particular strategies we are choosing at that moment. If Jacob had not shifted, I would have turned to Ray to see if he would shift. Sometimes, just the act of checking in with both children meets their need for trust that my request is not a demand, and that both their needs matter. This contributes to their willingness to consider the other.

Focusing on Needs

The difference between needs and strategies is crucial in using NVC. When I talk about needs, I am referring to the broadest set of human aspirations, needs, and values, things like physical safety, food, and shelter, but also understanding, support, community, autonomy, honesty, play, peace, and meaning. These needs are universal. We fight, punish, or go to war when our strategies for meeting our needs conflict, and we are unable to connect with the human being on the other side of the argument.

If I want to use NVC, then I turn my attention to identifying and acknowledging everyone's needs. Both children who wanted the car had a need for autonomy, to choose what to do and when. We all have that need, and it comes up most fiercely when we are told that we "have to" do something. Hearing that the car might be taken from him, Jacob held on to it ever more tightly. To meet his need for autonomy, he had to find a way to experience his choice in giving back the car. Ray, on the other hand, also needed choice about what happens with his things. It would be hard for him to agree to have other children play with his toys as easily as he usually does if he thought that meant he would lose choice about which house those toys ended up in.

I want to nurture in children both autonomy and consideration. If I grab the car from Jacob, I send him and Ray a message about the power of using force, even while I tell them both not to use force. So I hold myself back and take a leap of faith: that we can work this out without force, that at least one child will act out of consideration of the other, and that in this process we will have acted not only to resolve this one conflict peacefully, but also to nurture in both children trust in the possibility of care, understanding, and peace. Herein lies my greatest hope for all children, and for human beings: that we may nurture in ourselves and in our children faith in the possibility of peace and the capacities to make peace happen. We can do this by intervening in ways that model what we want them to learn.

Reprinted with permission of the author. © Inbal Kashtan.

Portions of this article appear in Parenting from the Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice, a booklet about parenting with NVC.

Inbal Kashtan, Parenting Project coordinator for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, teaches and writes about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and lives with her family in Oakland, California.

Inbal's CD, "Connected Parenting: Nonviolent Communication in Family Life" is available from Bay Area Nonviolent Communication.

For more information on NVC, see Marshall Rosenberg's Articles and "What is NVC?" on the CNVC website.