The revolution in I-messages
WASHINGTON — Perhaps 200 years from now social historians will look back at our time and see a revolution occurring. I do. I first glimpsed the machinations of change a few years ago, when my son Noah was 6. Angry wails erupted from the family room where he and his friend Georgia had been playing happily.
"No, it's mine."
"You bit me!"
When I looked in, both children were sobbing.
"He took my Nanuk, I was playing with Nanuk," Georgia cried, grabbing the grayish-white mush-dog Beanie Baby out of Noah's hand.
Noah held out his arm for me to see and cried: "Look, she bit me."
Before I could say anything, Georgia commanded: "Cool down!"
On cue, the children backed away from each other to sulk in opposite corners, their bodies tense with anger and hurt. After a long minute, Georgia announced, tears still rolling down her cheek, "I messages!"
I watched in amazement as she explained: "I don't like when you take my toy, it makes me feel angry."
"I don't like it when you bite me," Noah responded. "It hurts when you bite."
They'd obviously done this before, I realized, out of earshot of parents. Each child began to relax. "Are we ready to be friends again?" Noah asked.
Georgia shook her head and came over to sit on my lap. After a few minutes, she rose.
"Let's have a Beanie Baby fight!" she exclaimed.
"Yeah, let's," said Noah with a giant smile.
Voilà. They began throwing Beanie Babies at one another in a fun-filled, healing free-for-all.
I was dumbfounded. When I was growing up, no kids resolved conflict like this. No grownups either. I realized that Noah and Georgia were among those humans who have learned the skill of resolving conflict peacefully. As it turns out, both kids had picked it up at school. At 6, they were more skilled at it than most adults.
They are not unique. During the past 30 years, conflict resolution has been gradually incorporated into school curriculums and extracurricular activities, such as peer mediation, from preschool through high school. They are found in rural, suburban, and urban schools; schools with high rates of violence have extra incentive to equip children with creative problem-solving skills.
New York City has a highly successful conflict- resolution program that reaches nearly 10,000 students a year. Numerous studies show that when properly trained, children of all socioeconomic levels use this skill, preferring problem-solving to win-lose negotiations, be it at school, home, or on the playground.
Children aren't the only ones being transformed. Our world still has too much violence, rudeness, competitiveness, and hatred, but nonetheless, every day I observe ordinary people trying out skills that help resolve conflict and improve communication. For one thing, more people are aware that it is worthwhile to listen with compassion. In many settings people "mirror" what was said, then "validate" or acknowledge the other person's position so that the person they are listening to feels heard. This may not sound like much, but on my childhood playground the kid who was strongest and yelled the loudest usually won. There was little room for other voices.
It's not uncommon for people to struggle to identify their feelings, needs, and perspectives so they can better understand their own position and the positions of others. It has become a value to communicate more lovingly, clearly, and empathetically. Tolerance for the ideas of others and diversity is a popular concept. Some divorcing couples choose mediation instead of court; some adversaries work together to create consensus.
Conflict resolution may not always work, but some of its components and values permeate human relationships of all kind, changing the tone of modern communications, corporate business, and international diplomacy.
Whence did this revolution sneak up on us? The conflict resolution movement itself grew out of the cold-war effort to solve international disputes peaceably, drawing from teachings of pacifist Quakers and Mennonites, Mahatma Gandhi, and well-known social scientists such as Kenneth Boulding.
It is heavily influenced by international relations theorists and diplomats who have tried their hand in the Middle East, the Balkans, and other hot spots. Academia sheltered the movement for decades, bestowing on it elements of psychology, political science, anthropology, and sociology, as well as labor relations, community negotiations, and public planning. It took many decades for its ideas to make their way into schools.
Unfortunately, creative problem-solving skills haven't made much of an impression on national politics. Ten states do have consensus councils that take on thorny issues and often resolve them in a manner satisfying to all parties. But it seems we'll have to wait for the idea to trickle up.
We may have to wait for our elementary school children to come of age. Come to think of it, armed with the skill to negotiate conflict, Noah and Georgia might make good copresidents.
Nadine Epstein, an author and artist, is writing a book on spiritual bathing.