How can we deal with our two-year-old when she grabs her friend's toys? What might
we say to a four-year-old who refuses to let other children slide on the playground?
How can we talk with a teenager about the chores he has left undone - again? How do we
protect our children when their choices endanger their safety? What resources will
help us work with our own anger, frustration, or pain when communication with our
children seems strained or non-existent?
As parents, we are constantly faced with situations like these. Multiply the
children and the challenges mount. Add the pressures of work (or unemployment), money
(or lack thereof), time, relationships, and other commitments, and the pot threatens
to boil over. Then, for some, there are the stresses of raising children alone,
without a partner, extended family, or community. And there are myriad additional
challenges many parents face. It is no wonder parents yearn for support, guidance, and
relief. Yet when we turn to parenting books or experts, the advice we find is often
contradictory and may not align with our own values and hopes for our children and
families. Even when we do find an idea we want to try, changing habits and patterns in
relationships can be enormously challenging in itself.
In this booklet, I present to parents and others who are connected with children a
brief introduction to how Nonviolent Communication
(NVC) may support their parenting in practical, immediate ways. I particularly hope to
address parents' yearning for deeper connection with themselves, their partners, and
their children, and their desire to contribute, through parenting, to fostering peace
in the world. The approach I describe, as you will see, goes beyond immediate
solutions and into the realm of personal and social transformation.
This booklet explores a variety of topics and situations and offers ten exercises
to help you put into practice what you are learning as you shift or adapt your
parenting approaches. However, it is by no means a comprehensive exploration of NVC
and parenting. I have not touched upon many topics that have come up in my workshops
and classes, on the NVC-parenting email list, and in my own life. I hope, nonetheless,
that what I have covered here will be practical enough to offer you some concrete
tools for deepening connection with your children, and exciting enough to encourage
you to consider learning even more. If you choose to put these ideas into practice and
they make a difference in your family life, I would love to hear from you.
For a review of the basic steps of NVC and additional information on NVC, see the
back of the booklet.
"Power-over" versus "Power-with"
When parents want children to do something their children don't want to do, it's
often tempting to force the children's compliance by using the enormous physical,
emotional, and practical power adults have over them (by practical, I mean that adults
have much greater access to society's resources and control over the course of their
own - and their children's - lives). Yet I am convinced that attempting to coerce a
child to do something she or he doesn't want to do neither works effectively in the
short term nor supports families' long-term needs. (The only exception comes when
there is threat to health or safety, in which case NVC suggests that we use
non-punitive, protective force.) In NVC, we refer to using power to enforce what we
want as "power-over," in contrast with using power to meet everyone needs,
which we refer to as "power-with."
Maria, a parent who had read some of my articles, asked me a question that points
directly to the temptation to use the control we have over resources to influence a
child's behavior (note that all people's names have been changed):
I've been "bargaining" with my two-year-old son Noel using rewards and
consequences, and sometimes it seems to me that it's quite effective. At least, it
gets him to do what I want, such as eat the food on his plate. Yet I'm somehow
uncomfortable with this. Is there a problem with rewards and consequences if they
I do think that there is a problem with rewards and consequences, because in the
long run, they rarely work in the ways we hope. In fact, I think that they are likely
to backfire. Marshall Rosenberg explores this point by asking parents two questions:
"What do you want your child to do?" and "What do you want your child's
reasons to be for doing so?" Parents rarely want their children to do something
out of fear of consequences, guilt, shame, obligation, or even a desire for reward.
In this context, when I hear parents - or parenting experts - say that consequences
are effective, I often wonder what they mean. I believe "effective" usually
means that parents get compliance from children - that children do what parents tell
them to do - at least for a while. Both the goal (compliance) and the means (rewards
and consequences) come at a price. They not only involve fear, guilt, shame,
obligation, or desire for reward, they are also often accompanied by anger or
resentment. And because rewards and consequences are extrinsic motivations,
children become dependent on them and lose touch with their intrinsic motivation
to meet their own and others' needs.
I believe that the most powerful and joyful intrinsic motivation human
beings have for taking any action is the desire to meet our own and others' needs.
Both children and adults act out of this intrinsic motivation when they feel genuinely
connected to themselves and each other, when they trust that their needs matter to the
other, and when they experience the freedom to choose to contribute to the
If we want our children to experience intrinsic motivation for doing what we ask
them to do, we can shift our focus away from authority and imposed discipline and
toward paying as much attention as possible to everyone's long-term needs. This may
take more time in the moment because it means going beyond the present problem and
remembering what matters most in the big picture. Yet the time is worth the
investment. In the long run, families can experience deeper connection, trust, and
harmony, and children can learn powerful life skills. I believe that most parents find
these goals much more appealing and exciting than mere compliance.
Instead of rewards and consequences, NVC offers three starting places for
connecting with others: offering empathy, expressing one's own observations, feelings,
needs and requests, and connecting with oneself through self-empathy. In the next
three sections, I will explore each of these options in relation to the question Maria