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Parenting for Peace

What resources and skills do we need, as a society, to sustain peace? How can parents contribute to society's transition to nonviolence? What can we teach our children that will really make the world different for their generation?

Several months ago my son, now four years old, asked me to read a book about castles that he had picked up at the library. He picked the book because he loves the Eyewitness series and was methodically going through as many of those books as we could find, irrespective of their subject matter. I didn't like this one. It depicted not only castles but also knights, armor and weapons of all kinds used in battles in centuries past.

I am not ready for weapons. One of the things I enjoy about my son not going to preschool and not watching TV is that his exposure to violence has been extremely limited. He has never said the word "gun" or played pretend violent games - yet. He doesn't know about war and people purposely hurting one another - yet. But here was the castle book, and he wanted to read it.

I am not trying to shield my son from the reality of violence and suffering in the world - but I am in a (privileged) position to choose, often, how and when these realities enter our lives. I read him some of the book, with numerous editorials. But when he asked to read the book again a few days later, I found myself saying that I'd rather not. When he asked why, I told him that I feel a lot of sadness about people being violent with one another because I believe human beings can find peaceful ways to solve their conflicts.

Questions, of course, ensued. In response to one of my son's questions, I shared with him that my sadness was related not only to the past, when there were knights and castles, but to the present as well: people in the area where I grew up, Israelis and Palestinians, are also fighting. "Why are they fighting?" my son asked. "Because they both want the same piece of land and they haven't figured out how to talk about it," I replied. "I'll teach them!" he volunteered. "What will you teach them?" I asked. "I'll teach them that they can each have some of the land, they can share," he replied easily. "The only problem," he continued," is that I don't know how to find them."

I felt a mixture of joy and grief at his words. How wondrous to hear from my son - and from so many children - a desire to contribute to the world and a trust in the possibility of solving conflicts peacefully. Yet how apt his words were - "I don't know where to find them." How do we find the hearts of "enemies" so we can reach them with a message of peace? How do we find our own hearts and open them to those whose actions we object to profoundly?

This search for our own and others' hearts is at the core of my hope for peace. It has been the greatest influence on my parenting, including the decision to practice attachment parenting when my son was a baby. It has also led me to teach a process called Nonviolent Communication, developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and taught around the world. I lead workshops for parents, couples, teachers, social change activists, and others who want to connect more deeply with themselves and with others and who want to contribute more effectively to mutual understanding, safety and peace in families, schools, organizations, and in the wider world.

My experience convinces me that what happens in our families both mirrors and contributes to what happens in our societies. Just as "enemies" fail to see each other's humanity, so we, too, at times fail to relate with others, even loved ones, with compassion. Probably the primary challenge most parents tell me about is that though they yearn for peace and harmony in their families, they find themselves getting angry with their children more often and more quickly than they would like. Because the problem-solving model we follow so often relies on the threat of consequences or promises of reward, it's almost guaranteed that anger will crop up regularly. For what children learn from this model is not cooperation, harmony and mutual respect; it's more often the hard lesson of domination: that whoever has more power gets to have his or her way, and that those who have less power can only submit or rebel. And so we continue the cycle of domination that is leading human beings close to self-destruction.

What alternative do we have? As parents, we have a remarkable opportunity to empower our children with life skills for connecting with others, resolving conflicts, and contributing to peace. The key to learning these skills is our conception of what human beings are like. Nonviolent Communication teaches that all human beings have the same deep needs, and that people can connect with one another when they understand and empathize with each other's needs. Our conflicts arise not because we have different needs but because we have different strategies for how to meet our needs. It is on the strategy level that we argue, fight, or go to war, especially when we deem someone else's strategy a block to our own ability to meet our needs. Yet Nonviolent Communication suggests that behind every strategy, however ineffective, tragic, violent or abhorrent to us, is an attempt to meet a need. This notion turns on its head the dichotomy of "good guys" and "bad guys" and focuses our attention on the human being behind every action. When we understand the needs that motivate our own and others' behavior, we have no enemies. With our tremendous resources and creativity, we can and - I hope - we will find new strategies for meeting all our needs.

We can teach our children about making peace by understanding, reflecting, and nurturing their ability to meet their needs while we also understand, express and attend to our own. One of the needs human beings have is for autonomy, for the ability to make decisions about things that affect us. This leads us on a path of self-interest and a search for confidence and power. Yet if we nurture this need in our children to the exclusion of others, it can be difficult for us to get our own needs met. Thankfully, our need for autonomy is balanced by another shared human need, for contribution to others. This need leads us on a path of consideration, care and generosity to others. Nonviolent Communication enables us to look at both of these needs (and many others) and find a way to balance them with each other so that we recognize our need to give, to consider others and contribute to them, as an autonomous choice. When giving is done freely, out of mutual care and respect, it does not conflict with autonomy and choice but rather complements them.

From this perspective, parents may find that we don't need punishments or rewards in parenting our children - we can instead invite our children to contribute to meeting our needs just as we invite ourselves to contribute to meeting theirs: with joy and willingness instead of guilt, shame, fear of punishment or desire for reward. This is not permissive parenting - it is parenting deeply committed to meeting the needs of both parents and children through a focus on connection and mutual respect.

Transforming parenting is hugely challenging in the context of the daily, overwhelming reality of parenting. Yet this transformation enables a profound depth of connection and trust among family members. Perhaps more poignantly for me, choosing to parent this way gives me hope for peace in our world - perhaps for our children's generation, perhaps for future generations, when human beings have learned to speak the language of compassion.

As the world enters our home and my son's exposure to life's realities grows, I hope he will sustain these lessons and carry them into his own life. I hope he will know that the path to peace is most effectively followed not by rewarding the "good" guys and punishing the "bad" ones, but by striving to find strategies that will meet people's needs - not just our own, but everyone's. I hope he will have the confidence and trust in his own peaceful resources and in human beings' capacity for peace. I hope he remembers that we can find other people's hearts by seeing their humanity.

© Inbal Kashtan 2002. Reprinted with permission of the author.

This article appeared in Paths of Learning (spring 2003) and California Homeschooler (October 2002). It is republished with permission.

Portions of this article appear in Inbal's booklet Parenting from Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice.

Inbal's audiobook "Connected Parenting: Nonviolent Communication in Family Life" is available from Bay Area Nonviolent Communication.

For more information on NVC, see Marshall Rosenberg's Articles and the Center for Nonviolent Communication.