I thought this article about what’s termed “relational aggression,” “Little Children and Already Acting Mean” in the Wall Street Journal, would be about how preschool and younger elementary school students had gotten meaner, so I was pleasantly surprised to read:
Relational aggression is a relatively new term in psychology, devised to distinguish it from physical aggression. There is no research showing that relational aggression is increasing or manifesting itself earlier, experts say. An increasing awareness of it, however, may be what’s fueling educators’ perception that it is starting earlier and becoming more common.
I highly recommend reading the article in its entirely–it’s well-done and comes at the topic from many angles. As a parent of elementary-school aged children and as someone who taught preschool-aged children for a few years, I have many thoughts on the matter.
First of all, I love having a specific and fitting term for this. I wish I had had it a long time ago. And, while I don’t think children or girls in particular have gotten any meaner, I am glad to see more focus on relational aggression in early childhood education circles. Certainly, laying the foundation for fine and gross motor skills, for literacy, for independence, for academics or subject matter, for self-care is vital but socialization is a major part of all of the above, though, really, none of those groups of skills and knowledge exist in isolation.
While physical aggression has been expected to be addressed right away, relational aggression seemed somehow to be considered largely beyond the educator’s scope; the de-facto approach in many early childhood education settings has seemed to be: let the kids sort it out. I can certainly understand why addressing physical aggression would be paramount, though if you’re talking pre-schoolers, they need to be instructed in this matter not just told it’s wrong “no!” or “stop!” When my boys were in preschool, I worked for a year for a private non-profit social service agency in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a “push-in” teacher in area Head Start classrooms, teaching a curriculum called Al’s Pals. This curriculum informed my teaching while part of that program, of course, but the approach also influenced my parenting and future teaching as a lead preschool classroom teacher: It’s okay to have strong feelings but it’s not okay to hurt or damage because of them. What can you do instead when you are having those feelings? If there’s a problem that needs solving, hurting won’t solve it. Let’s identify the problem and see if we can come up with a solution. It’s part of teaching younger children to manage strong feelings and to curb the instinct or reflex to lash out physically. It’s normal to have such instincts and feelings–we all do–what matters is how we handle them.
From the article:
Generally thought of as a middle-school phenomenon, relational aggression is less explored among young children. Experts say it often goes under the radar because it is harder to detect than physical aggression. The behavior is similar to verbal aggression but revolves around threatening the removal of a friendship. Examples include coercing other children not to play with someone else or threatening not to invite them to your birthday party if they don’t do what you want them to do.
A few years after Charlottesville, my daughter went to a wonderful little Montessori-based preschool in our current hometown of Ashland, Virginia. It was a co-op and so parents worked one to two times per month assisting the teacher, so it gave me some further experience at the preschool level and it also allowed me to see first-hand what was happening in my daughter’s classroom. My daughter is very social and positive and plays with pretty much everyone–she is not a cliquey or one-friend-at-a-time kind of person(which is not to say that she or my other children are angels, mind you) but she still experienced exclusion. While my daughter’s overall preschool experience was great, relational aggression did for the most part “go under the radar.” The reluctance to address or even acknowledge relational aggression was disappointing. As with physical aggression, my attitude was to assume the best of her classmates but to assume that they needed to be taught. I found, however, that the approach in this area of the teacher and other parents was to emphasize that “we’re all friends at school”–which is a great thing to emphasize–but otherwise to let the kids work it out.
Certainly navigating exclusion, teasing, and painful social situations is part of growing up and I have had many conversations with my daughter and sons about this. I tell them:
- to assume the best of their friends and classmates and to understand that everyone has their hard days.
- just because something hurts their feelings doesn’t mean it’s a slight. For example, it may hurt their feelings that Friend A has chosen Friend B as a partner instead of them, but it doesn’t mean such a choice is personal rebuke.
- they can’t control others’ behavior, they can only control their own behavior and how they respond to others’ behavior.
- if someone is saying or doing something that feels hurtful, assume the person doesn’t realize that and explain to them that what they are doing or saying hurts your feelings.
- if explaining your feelings doesn’t work, to seek out playmates and friends who do treat them kindly, find someone to play with who is being kind and who is acting like a good friend. That doesn’t mean that that child who is being unkind isn’t their friend, but it means that at that point, they aren’t acting like a good friend.
My daughter’s preschool experience definitely influenced how I approached relational aggression after. When I became a preschool teacher, I decided to acknowledge and address acts of unkindness and relational aggression, as part of the socialization curriculum. While some children have the tools already, many don’t and not providing them with them is a dis-service. I do admit that I have a much more hands-on approach both as a parent and as a teacher, perhaps too hands-on, but I feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry and I’ve learned it’s easier to ease off after a while than to ease on. While dealing with painful social situations is part of the learning process, I didn’t want any child or parent to feel that their child was left to sink or swim, that they were just left on their own with the problem. I wanted the children I taught, and their parents, to feel like they were safe and secure. My goal was was to start off with heavy guidance and to gradually ease off and observe as the children attempted to work things out, only intervening when they were having trouble making progress and making sure to praise when a problem was successfully solved. But first, I wanted to instruct them, to give them the tools.
One of my rules was “Use kind and soft voices” (the soft voices did not apply to outside :), meaning you could disagree or dissent but you had to do so respectfully. I don’t think that children should be made to feel they can’t disagree or dissent or speak up when something seems wrong; they just need to do so respectfully (this has been my approach with my middle and high schoolers, too)– I see respectful disagreement as a sign of engagement and critical thinking. I also stole the “we’re all friends at school” mantra, telling children they were welcome to play alone if they wanted to but they couldn’t exclude others while playing in a group. Because the preschool was Montessori-inspired, there were rules inside about which materials could be worked with alone and which with a friend, but issues could still arise.
We focused on empathy, asking, how would you feel if someone said that to you? as the article states,
Mark Barnett, a developmental psychologist at Kansas State University, says affective empathy, or vicariously experiencing the emotions of someone else, is what needs to be encouraged to reduce relational-aggressive behavior. If a child does something negative to someone, the parent should say, “Imagine how it would feel if someone did that to you?” Dr. Barnett also recommends parents and teachers talk about feelings of characters during story time. They also need to model empathetic behavior.
I also worked with the aggrieved, using much of the language and points as I do (see above) with my own children. But I also tried to let the aggressor know that relational aggression was bad for them, too, and might have negative consequences for them down the road. As related in the article, often the children would lash out and go straight to, as the article mentions, you’re not my friend anymore! Are you really not their friend, I would ask? Do you really mean that? I don’t believe that you do. Let’s address the problem that is making you feel upset. I would also address un-kindness in general: What kind of a friend do you want to be? I’d ask. When you speak unkindly, it might give people the impression that you’re not a nice person and maybe someone will decide they don’t want to play with you or be your friend. When you’re kind to others, it makes them feel good about being around you, and it also makes you feel good about yourself. Again, I tried to always make clear that disagreeing or pointing out that something bothered them didn’t make it unkind.
If you’re still here, thanks for sticking with me through this long post. I have spent a lot of time during my parenting and teaching career grappling with all of this and while I have discussed it, I hadn’t as of yet put the thoughts down in writing and it was so nice to read an affirming article. And, it’s not just children who can learn from this; there are adults, too, including me, who can always use help with socialization.