First, let me assure you that the answer to this question is NOT 'we don't hit our friends.' That response to preschool fisticuffs makes me crazy!
I need you to come on a short mental road trip with me. This is the only way you'll see this one through the child's eyes. Ready? Put down your preconceptions, fasten your seat belt and off we go.
You're driving along the road minding your own business and thinking happily about the day in front of you. Suddenly a car in the next lane veers towards you, almost causing a crash.
As you veer sideways yourself, the happy mood totally shattered, you direct a rude gesture and several swear words at the other driver. 'Bloody ******* idiot! Get a brain! Learn to drive, you *******!'
At this point your passenger- let's say it's your mother- leans over, pats your arm and says 'Darling, we don't swear at our friends.'
HOW DO YOU FEEL?
Preschoolers whose first response to a problem is violence encounter similar scenarios to this every single day in their childcare settings. Something happens that wrecks their mood or causes inner conflict, they respond from the gut on the spur of the moment, and the teacher comes out with rote psychobabble as though it's a solution.
There is something deeply wrong with that response, 'we don't hit our friends'. It worries me so much, and so often, that I feel a need to challenge it.
Let's go back to our road trip. You were last seen looking at your well-meaning mum as though she had two heads. Analyse that look. It was probably loaded with absolute disbelief. 'We don't swear at our friends'? Say what? Number one, what a patronising thing to say! Who's 'we', paleface? And number two, that idiot who just nearly put you in hospital was most certainly not your friend. That person was just another human being who happened to be using the same road as you and veered into your personal space.
End result: instead of calming down and apologising for swearing in your mother's earshot, you're now bristling at her for talking down to you and spouting feel-good rubbish that fails to recognise what just happened to you.
Now let's look at the journey a preschooler takes from relatively peaceful play to whacking a peer, and beyond. Like you in your car, they might be having a lovely time in their own little 'bubble' of play, when something unexpected happens to mess with their game- let's say a peer knocks over their block tower (intentionally or not- it doesn't matter). This particular child's go-to response is to whack said peer as hard as they can- it just pops out like our swear words.
The carer comes over, comforts the whacked one and says to the hitter, 'We don't hit our friends.' The child bristles, refuses to look at the carer (or maybe gives her a whack too) and tries to get away from her as fast as possible. THAT is not a solution.
'Young children in the Preoperational stage often identify friends at the park or at daycare; however, "friendship" is still a very concrete, basic relationship. At this stage of social development, friendship usually means sharing toys and having fun playing together. Friendship at this age does not have the associated qualities of empathy and support that older children, adolescents, and adults develop. '
And yet carers continue to use the word 'friend' to describe all of a child's young associates in the playground. How confusing is that? Right there, you've distracted the violent child from the behaviour rule you wanted him or her to remember.
And 'we' don't hit? Who's 'we'? The child might well think, 'Well, I do!' Having your play suddenly interrupted by another child is hardly a quality 'belonging' experience. In that moment, no child wants to be part of the group that wrecked his fun. And if fisticuffs are his first resort at home, or what he has modelled to him by parents or siblings, you've just made him feel he really doesn't belong.
Several times when I've seen this happen, I've gone up to the child and quietly said, 'I know. He's not your friend.' And I've found that from the moment I acknowledge that 'he's not your friend', I have the average 4- or 5-year old's full attention. His 'friend' is the person he's playing with, until the moment they have a disagreement. His friend isn't that other kid who knocked his blocks down. That's just another kid travelling on the same road, just like the driver that veered into your path.
So what do we say instead? How can we put ourselves inside that kid's head instead of alienating him?
I usually start with 'Billy (or whoever), take three deep breaths!' (See my post on anger management for young kids). When he's doing that, I comfort the other party- let's call him 'Dan'- and reassure him that Billy did the wrong thing by hitting. This puts Dan onside, as well as being obviously fair- the most injured kid gets the first comforting. (NB: If Billy is really out of control, I might need to get another carer to comfort Dan!)
I then go on to say to Billy, 'I know you're angry that Dan knocked over your tower'- this almost always puts Billy onside, as you've verbalised and acknowledged his 'injury'- 'but hitting him is a bad idea.' Then I explain why, in simple child-friendly terms. (NB: This only works if you already have built a positive relationship with Billy!)
'It was an accident, he didn't mean it- and now YOU'RE the one who's in trouble. When there's an accident, you need to take three big breaths and calm down.'
Or if it was on purpose- 'Dan was wrong to knock your blocks down, and you need to use your angry words to say that to him. If you use your hands to talk, YOU get in trouble, not Dan.'
Then you need to deal with the flack. 'Let's go and tell Dan you're angry, okay? But you need to say sorry for hitting first, or he won't listen. First SORRY, then I'M ANGRY.'
I haven't yet met a child who won't pick up on this opportunity to continue to vent his feelings with carer support. I usually have to remind 'Billy' to say the other child's name first, to make sure he's listening, and wait for eye contact. Sometimes I help Dan to listen- 'Dan, Billy has something to say to you'. Sometimes I use cue questions- 'Billy, how do you feel?' 'Tell Dan why you feel like that.'
I would then cue Dan as well to use his words to express his feelings about being hit and to say sorry for knocking the blocks down, if he hadn't already done so.
Yes, all this is a lot more time-consuming than rattling off the usual 'we don't hit our friends'. But in a child's view, it's a lot more meaningful.
I had a very similar situation a few days ago with a little 3-year-old who is a ball of compressed violence- heaven only knows what happens in his home! His preferred method of getting a turn on the trampoline was to king-hit whoever was on it. I probably spent half an hour standing at that trampoline getting him to use words instead of fists to say what he wanted and making sure that other kids treated him with respect and used their words too.
His response was wonderful- the poor kid simply hasn't been taught any other way of getting what he wants. As soon as he realised that saying 'please (name), can I have a turn' worked AND meant he wasn't in trouble with the teacher, AND as soon as he realised that I intended to protect his rights as well as protecting the other kids from his fists- same rules for everyone!- he lined up and waited like a lamb.
And this is a child who usually punches a teacher who intervenes in fights and says to him 'we don't hit our friends'.
(Postscript: I've just found a really good post about conflict resolution on another blog- this includes a script for those I-want-it-he-wants-it-BIFF! moments. conflict resolution mommy fun fact)