One of the main emphases of our co-op preschool program is positive discipline, and a lot of the training us parent teachers get in the course of our involvement in the school is through conflict resolution in the classroom. This is one of my favourite reasons for joining a co-op, in that twice a week, I am exposed to not just my own kids, but other people’s children as well, and get to ‘practise’ how to resolve a conflict between two kids in a positive manner.

Don’t I have two kids of my own at home who are constantly fighting? Yea, I do so yes, I am clearly insane.

Seriously, resolving conflicts between your child and someone else’s is a different dynamic, and from the experience, I have learnt to see both my children more as individuals than just my own kids and siblings. Rae takes the fact that Sky is her sister for granted sometimes, and hence is more likely to take advantage of her, whereas she knows she can’t take the same liberties with her friends at school. As such, she’s more likely to have a meltdown when she can’t get her way because she is at a loss of how to make her friends do what she wants. At the same time, she is adamant at wanting things the way she wants them, so it’s really interesting to see how she works these situations out now that she’s in kindergarten. It’s the same with Sky, my three-year old who’s at the co-op now, as well.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt at the co-op is How to Accept an Apology.

Back in Malaysia, I didn’t know that there were other ways you can accept an apology graciously, other than saying “it’s okay”. Think about it, my Malaysian friends. How do you respond to an apology? Do you say, “it’s alrightlah, don’t worry about it”?

When you think about it, what does “it’s okay” mean? Does it mean you’ve forgiven the person? Or does it mean that the apology was not necessary? This automatic, seemingly polite (when really, it’s quite thoughtless) response may be appropriate to a grownup because we can figure out what it means. However, to a three-year old child, forgiveness is a foreign and complex concept. And hence, what they will glean from “it’s okay”, is that they had not committed an infraction at all, and the apology was not necessary, when it really was. Aside from being polite, saying sorry means you knew you did something wrong. So if it’s okay, it means I did nothing wrong.

And then I came here and learnt from the fine teachers at the co-op that there were other more meaningful ways to respond to an apology, especially when the wrongdoer and the wronged are children.

“Thank you for saying sorry. It was really hard and I really appreciate it.”

And there it was, so simple and yet effective. You are accepting the apology and thanking the little person for it. And yet, the child is clear that what he did was wrong.

What if sorry is not enough? What if you feel that the apology does little to assuage your anger or frustration or sadness? At the co-op, we’re taught to ask the wronged child, “Did that make you feel better?”. If not, we escalate to “Okay, then what can (the wrongdoer) do to make you feel better?”. Usually, the wronged child is already crying and a hug is then recommended by the grownup, or perhaps a handshake.

Now this is a beautiful process and it usually works – the operative word being ‘usually’. As in real life, things sometimes do not go as planned. For instance, what if the kid who is apologising clearly does not mean it and is saying it in a teasing manner just to get the apology over with?

The recommended response than was that the wronged child must learn to walk away from the situation until a later time when the wrongdoer is ready to apologise correctly, and the wrongdoer is given a talking-to about the importance of being nice to his or her friends.

When my friend Mat and I were discussing this yesterday, I started to wonder. While these techniques work well in a classroom with a one parent mediator, perhaps even at home if one is consistent about it, do they really work in real-world situations, especially when your child enters public school where a grown-up’s assistance may be hard to come by?

Are we, in a way, preparing our children for the less forgiving real life by stepping in all the time to resolve their conflicts, overcompensating by mapping out the resolution so neatly when in real life, they’re rarely so smoothly resolved?

Rae is in kindergarten at a local public elementary school and during recess, she plays with some older children at the school playground with little adult supervision. This has, in the past, caused me some worry. As such, I’ve had to equip her with a ‘bully blocking’ action plan, which I review every week with her because, yes, I’m an over-protective mother.

Of the two times I was around to observe a conflict resolution (without her knowledge) this was what she did: She’d simply stomped away to a corner and sulked. A few moments later, she’d glance over at her friend (who’s probably said sorry a couple of times but of course, with my over-dramatic daughter, it’s never enough), who’s now playing happily by him or herself. Seeing that no hug or satisfactory action will be given, she goes and joins him begrudgingly, dealing with the disappointment by simply not thinking about it, and voila, they are laughing and playing together again as though it’d never happened.

It wasn’t perfect but it was enough. I tell myself that at least, she had not thrown a fit right there on the play structure just because sorry was not enough. It was so hard for me not to step in. I didn’t know of whom I was more proud – Rae or myself.

This is what parenting is, isn’t it? From the moment they’re born, you start to teach your children to be independent, not so much for them to eventually let go, but so that you yourself are able to one day do so (knowing that they won’t embarrass the heck out of you when you’re not there!).