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How do we create children that are tolerant and respectful of their peers?

So how is that some preschoolers are happy to let Ben 10 rescue Barbie and others absolutely freak out that there is a superhero hanging with the mums and babies in the game?  And that is a real life example! My middle child was absolutely Ben 10 mad and that was the only character he wanted to be for quite a few years!  So when he played with his younger sister and cousins, who happened to be all girls, invariable after about ten minutes I would hear voices getting louder and a lot of objections to Ben 10 being allowed to join the game.  There were offers that he could be the Daddy or a brother, but unfortunately they didn't cut it!

I remember listening to this for the umpteenth time and deciding that if playtime with all the cuzzies was going to be a regular thing that we needed to settle the rules of play once and for all!  Before the mother got driven mad! 

This is a fairly standard scenario; most children get to an age where they start to muddle creative play with the need to create rules of how the game needs to be played.  Not sure where it comes from but it seems to be a distinct developmental phase that dampens the creativity of imaginary play and seems to cause more heated debates than fun playing! 

When kids learn to roll with their friends ideas and are open to the twists and turns that are introduced, the game can turn from a very controlled game to something that is far more exciting and fun. 

So how do you do this?  Well it is not an overnight fix but what I started doing when I heard the rule makers start up was to put in my two cents!  And it is a good age to start doing this as you can always out manoeuvre a four year old; not so easy if you start when they are older and they get their debating skills down pat! I would ask the girls why they objected to Ben 10?  And I remember it was mostly to do with his being a superhero, and that he can change into a monster and he looked weird! So I asked them 'was Ben 10 a good monster"? Do you think he could protect the babies? And mummies? Maybe he might even make a good husband in the game?

Anyway long story short, they had a think and we discussed a few more scenarios and they came to the conclusion that it would not be so terrible if Ben 10 joined in! And the rest of the day the played beautifully and had heaps of fun (as it turns out Ben 10 can make 'mummies and daddies' quite exciting!)

I had high hopes for the next time when they all played together but the same thing happened and that was when I made a rule for all those that played at my house!

As long as everyone was being respectful, inclusive and kind, that the rule was, that 'there were no rules in imaginary games'.  It took a few months to catch on but as soon as I heard the debates start I would go in and gently remind them of the 'no rules' policy, and reassure them with some reasons of why a particular scenario might not be so terrible. And after a few months they actually started to police themselves.  It was funny, I would hear my youngest telling them 'no rules' as it will spoil the game! And someone else would be me, adding in the reasons why the new scenario would work!

The 'no rule' idea saved my sanity but more importantly it introduced skills into the group play of listening, and being open to different ways of doing things. If you make a rule 'of no rules' that children have to abide by, they actually learn new skills to accommodate it.  Skills that start fostering tolerance and respect towards their peers and a more flexible approach to play.  Also as a parent it is way more interesting eavesdropping on 'mummies and babies' when anything goes! 

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

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