Conflict is not only inevitable in relationships -- even the best ones -- but crucial, as well, to child development. To get along with peers, children must learn to negotiate compromises, articulate their viewpoint, understand another person's perspective, use logical persuasion, and master their emotions.
Parents can help, of course -- first, by setting the example that a disagreement (with a spouse, a shopkeeper, a friend) can be conducted civilly and respectfully, and secondly, through hands-on coaching.
AGES 5 to 7
At age 5, children are still learning basic social skills, so conflicts with peers are common. At the root of many of these disputes are simple things -- a toy, a turn on the swing. Suli Fassler Magaliff reports that her 5-year-old daughter's quarrels "have to do with what she's willing to share at any particular moment." Fortunately, these conflicts aren't difficult to resolve; children can be encouraged to share, take turns, or move on to another activity.
Because children have not yet mastered their emotional upsurges or perfected the use of language to communicate their feelings, they may still occasionally revert to crying, screaming, kicking, or grabbing to make their point. So parents may sometimes need to intervene. Of course, many conflicts at this age are not resolved at all: Children simply go on to the next thing.
By age 7, there have been several important changes. Children can more easily control their emotions, and their ability to express themselves with words allows them to better manage social relations. Equally important, they have developed the cognitive ability to take someone else's perspective. This is key. No longer do they see everything from their own point of view; they can sometimes understand what a friend might be thinking, and take this information into account before acting.
Of course, new concerns emerge. Foremost among them: What is fair and what is not. Everything, it seems, must be doled out equally -- portions, time, and attention.
AGES 7 to 9
Magaliff says of her 7-year-old son and his friends, "They're over the sharing thing -- sort of." Now conflicts focus on "how a game is going to be played, what the rules are, what's the right way to do something."
According to child-development experts, this is a pretty exact accounting of children's preoccupations at these ages. The concept of fairness is still primary. But children have also entered an expanded world that seems constantly defined by rules, by facts, by right and wrong, and by comparisons of themselves to others (their talents, attributes, companions, possessions). Caryn Rudofsky, for instance, has watched her 8-year-old daughter and her friends jockey for who sits next to whom in the car, the movie theater, or at lunch. "And they keep track! 'I didn't get to sit next to Melissa last time! Now it's my turn!' It's about possessiveness -- who's better friends with whom."
Among boys, conflicts are more often sparked by sports. While watching her older son play basketball with his friends, Rudofsky observes, "They'll argue about whether it was a foul or not and get into very technical discussions."
Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., author of Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, once got a group of third-graders to list the most common causes of their disputes. These included: You do not agree with someone and it leads to a big argument. Two people are arguing about what to do and somebody else comes along and takes one side. Somebody tries to take something of yours without asking. Somebody says bad things about you behind your back. The concerns still involve disputes over possessions, but now extend to the sting of social, emotional, and psychological injuries.
"This is an age when children start to gossip about other children," notes Laurie Kramer, Ph.D., associate professor of applied family studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "The gossip can sometimes have an us-against-the-world feel to it. 'We're friends, and so-and-so isn't our friend.' And conflict arises because of that."
Not only the content, but the tenor of disputes changes. There is much less physical fighting, for one thing, as well as less shouting and other emotional theatrics. Children negotiate, reason with each other, even pause to figure out why they are arguing in the first place. They come to realize that the ties of friendship are voluntary. It is quite possible to lose a friend as the result of a nasty argument.
AGES 9 to 12
Children's growing ability to express their own inner thoughts and feelings results in greater intimacy as well as a capacity to talk out their disagreements. More intimacy also means that loyalty, trust, and the exchange of confidences become critical issues. "A lot of conflict centers on betrayal or perceived betrayals," notes Jeffrey Parker, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University. Such conflicts can sever relationships.
"Children get really upset if a friend isn't respectful of them, doesn't keep their secrets, isn't helpful when they feel they should be, or is interfering when they shouldn't be," explains Carolyn Uhlinger Shantz, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Wayne State University, who studies children and conflict.
Shantz notes that children at this age use new tactics in disputes, not all of them pleasant, including sarcasm, put-downs, teasing, or simply ignoring someone. She describes these as "ambiguous responses, more subtle ways of handling opposition. They learn about masking their emotions." When a child feels really angry at somebody but does not want the other person to know, she may shrug it off.
Children have also moved beyond their black-and-white preoccupation with just the facts. They will argue, instead, about ideas and opinions -- concerning other people, music groups, or current events. Yet they realize, says Parker, that "friendship can survive an argument or serious disagreement, that a relationship is held together by something other than having a good time together."