Attachment Parenting and Nonviolent Communication
by Inbal Kashtan
|How do we deal with a
two-year-old when he grabs every toy his friend plays with? What
do we say to a four-year-old who screams in rage when her baby
brother cries? How do we talk with a ten-year-old about the chores
he has left undone, again? What strategies will keep our teenager
open with us - and safe?
Nonviolent Communication (NVC), sometimes
referred to as Compassionate Communication, offers a powerful
approach for extending the values of attachment parenting beyond
infancy. A process for connecting deeply with ourselves and
others, and for creating social change, NVC has been used
worldwide in intimate family settings as well as in organizations,
schools, prisons, and war-torn countries.
|NVC shares two key premises with attachment
parenting: Human actions are motivated by attempts to meet needs,
and trusting relationships are built through attentiveness to
those needs. Both premises contrast with prevailing child rearing
practices and with the assumptions about human beings that
underlie these practices. Instead of focusing on authority and
discipline, attachment parenting and NVC provide theoretical and
practical grounds for nurturing compassionate, powerful, and
creative children who will have resources to contribute to a
|Human Needs And Human Actions
Unlike conventional views of babies as
manipulative and in danger of being spoiled, attachment parenting
suggests that our babies' cries are always attempts to get their
needs met. NVC, too, shifts attention away from judgments about
our own and others' actions (as manipulative, wrong, bad,
inappropriate - or even good), focusing instead on our own and
others' feelings and needs.
Consider the following common situation. A
child, Anna, leaves her clothes and toys strewn about the house.
Dad may reprimand, remind, offer incentives, or punish. These
tactics may or may not lead to the immediate outcome he intends.
They will, however, likely result in unwanted long-term outcomes,
such as hindering Anna's intrinsic desire to keep her home orderly
and impairing the sense of connection and trust in the family.
Anna's mom may choose to say nothing out of
confusion about what might work. Not getting her needs met, and
lacking trust that her needs even matter to Anna, Mom might feel
resentful and frustrated. The relationship is again impaired, and
Anna loses the opportunity to practice finding solutions that will
work for everybody - a powerful skill she needs in order to live
in harmony with others.
NVC offers parents two key options that
foster connection: empathy for others' feelings and needs and
expression of one's own. In this situation, Dad can guess - and
thus connect with - Anna's deeper feelings and needs. He can ask,
"Are you excited because you want to play?" Or,
"Are you annoyed because you want to choose what to do with
your space?" Often, simply shifting to an empathic guess of
the child's feelings and needs eases the parent's reaction. Dad no
longer sees Anna as an obstacle to getting his needs met; rather,
he is ready to connect with this other human being. For Anna,
having the experience of being understood may nurture her
willingness to listen to Dad's feelings and needs and to
contribute to their fulfillment.
Mom may choose to express her own emotions.
She may start with an observation: "I see clothes, books,
markers, and toys on the living room floor." The observation,
instead of an interpretation or judgment ("The house is a
mess"), can make a tremendous difference in Anna's readiness
to hear Mom's perspective. Then, when Mom follows with her
feelings and needs instead of going immediately to a solution, she
humanizes herself to Anna: "I feel frustrated because I enjoy
order in the house." Mom clearly expresses that her feelings
are caused by her own unmet needs, not by Anna's actions, thereby
taking full responsibility for her feelings and for meeting her
needs. She continues with a doable request: "Would you be
willing to pick up your things and put them in their places?"
Or if she wants to explore the broader pattern: "Would you be
willing to talk with me about how we can meet your needs for play
and choice and my need for order?"
||Even if Anna were
not willing to talk at that moment, her parents could continue to
use empathy and expression until mutually satisfying strategies
were found - in that moment or over time. In fact, one of the most
profoundly connecting moments in relationships can occur when one
person says, "No" and the other empathizes with what
that person is implicitly saying "Yes" to: "When
you say you don't want to talk about this, is it because you want
more confidence that I care about your needs?"
|Every interaction we have with
our children contains messages about who they are, who we are, and
what life is like. The parent who takes a toy away from a toddler
who just took it from another child while saying: "No
grabbing," teaches her child that grabbing is okay - for
those with more power. The parent who unilaterally imposes a
curfew implies that his teenager can't be trusted to make
thoughtful decisions about his life. Instead, in both words and
actions, a parent could convey three key things: I want to
understand the needs that led to your actions, I want to express
to you the feelings and needs that led to mine, and I want to find
strategies that will meet both of our needs.
By hearing the feelings and needs beneath
our children's words and behaviors, we offer them precious gifts.
We help them understand, express, and find ways to meet their
needs; we model for them the capacity to empathize with others; we
give them a vision of a world where everyone's needs matter; and
we help them see that many of the desires that human beings cling
to - having the room clean "right now", watching
television, making money - are really strategies for meeting
Allowing ourselves to be affected by our
children's feelings and needs, we offer ourselves the blessing of
finding strategies to meet our needs that are not at a cost to our
children. Conversely, by sharing our inner world of feelings and
needs with our children, we give them opportunities all too rare
in our society: to know their parents well, to discover the
effects of their actions without being blamed for them, and to
experience the power of contributing to meeting others' needs.
Power With Versus Power Over
When we want our children to do something
they don't want to do, it is almost impossible to resist the
temptation to use the enormous physical and emotional power we
have over them. Yet attempting to coerce a child to do something
she doesn't want to do neither works effectively in the short term
nor supports our long-term needs. (The only exception comes when
there is a threat to health or safety, in which case NVC suggests
that we use non-punitive, protective force.)
Marshall Rosenberg, founder and Education
Director of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, asks parents
two questions to point out the severe limitations of using
power-over tactics such as reward and punishment: "What do
you want the child to do?" and "What do you want the
child's reasons to be for doing so?"1
Do we really want our child to do something out of fear? Guilt?
Shame? Obligation? Desire for reward? Most of us have experienced
the deadening effect - and the ensuing anger and resentment - of
doing things out of these motivations. Human beings do not respond
with joy to force or demands. It follows that if people get their
needs met at a cost to others there is an attendant cost to
themselves. Our needs are met most fully and consistently when we
find strategies that also meet others' needs.
While helping us meet our needs without
coercion, NVC also helps us resist giving in to our children's
every wish by teaching us to express our feelings, needs, and
requests clearly, and to expect our needs to be considered. When
we consistently express our commitment to attending to everyone's
needs - not just theirs, not just our own - we model a way of life
to our children and create power with them: the power of choosing
to contribute to making life more wonderful for everyone.
Neither coercive nor permissive, NVC focuses
on human needs and helps us realize that we, our children, and all
human beings share these needs. I draw profound hope from the
knowledge that by living this way, I can foster harmony in my
family - and contribute to peace in our troubled world.
|Growing Up With NVC
People often ask me how old children have to
be before parents can start using NVC or when it is too late. I
reply that we can always use NVC. With babies, NVC may look
essentially like attachment parenting, with verbal expression of
our own and our babies' feelings and needs. The younger the baby,
the more primary her needs; as she grows, so does the possibility
of including everyone's needs. Starting NVC with older children
raises the challenge of altering existing patterns, but NVC's
simplicity and transformative power make the process more
accessible. As everyone's skills grow, so does the joy of deeper
connection and the relief of parenting in ways more aligned with
one's core values and hopes for the world.
|NVC doesn't make the challenges
of parenting go away. Our child, like most three-year-olds,
demands, refuses, hits, and ignores. And like most parents, we
sometimes raise our voice, get frustrated, feel helpless, and
forget how we want to parent. However, in these challenging
moments NVC gives everyone in our family skills that restore
communication and connection. In the midst of the daily wrestling
with how to meet everyone's needs and how to share our power, our
son often expresses his feelings, makes requests, and comes up
with creative strategies to meet all our needs. Having grown up
with NVC, he seems to have internalized a new paradigm for
One evening several months ago I was very
frustrated and expressed myself quite strongly. My son responded,
"I am not enjoying the way that you're telling me your
feelings about what's happened," and demonstrated for me the
tone of voice I had used. He continued, "I'd like you to say
it this way," and demonstrated the tone he would enjoy.
Without judgment, my son stated his observations, feelings, and
request, with the implied need for respect. I immediately and
gladly altered my tone, and two sentences later we snuggled,
My son also assumes that parents and
children share power. Recently we played that I was his child,
scared to go to the doctor. Instead of saying, "You must
go," he asked, "Are you willing to go?" "No, I
am scared that it will hurt," I answered. Then he said,
"The doctor won't hurt you. Now are you willing to go?"
Playing a parent, he understood that we were two autonomous human
beings, making our own decisions, using the power of words to move
toward mutually satisfying outcomes.
In addition, my son is beginning to
understand the difference between needs and the strategies we use
to meet them. To my: "I'd like to talk with you; would you
put down your book while I'm talking?" he replied, "I
don't want to." I could have empathized with that
"No," seeking to understand the needs he was trying to
meet, but I chose to express myself more fully: "I don't feel
comfortable talking with you while you're looking at the book, so
would you be willing to put it down?" He answered,
"Okay, I'll put it down in a minute. But first I want to
understand why you don't feel comfortable talking while I'm
looking at the book." Realizing that I had not made my need
clear, I said, "Because when I talk I like to know that I am
being listened to." My son then understood my need and saw
that we were not in any conflict. He said, "I am listening to
you, so you can go ahead and talk." Once we recognized my
need, we could both see that my strategy was not the only way to
meet that need.
NVC teaches that all violence is a tragic
expression of unmet needs. With the ongoing cycles of violence
that devastate our world, it takes great vision and faith to
believe that we can find ways to see each other as fully human and
to create a world that meets all our needs. Bringing up our
children to speak and live the language of compassion, we embrace
that vision and participate in creating that world.
|1 See "The
Protective Use of Force".
A slightly different version of this
article was first published in the January/February 2002 issue of Mothering
magazine. It is reprinted here with permission from the author and the
editors. Portions of this article appear in Parenting
from the Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice.
Inbal's new CD, "Connected Parenting: Nonviolent
Communication in Family Life" is available from Bay
Area Nonviolent Communication .