How can you actively teach your children peace, acceptance, and global thinking while war, death, and destruction rule our culture?
Children are born innocent, curious, exuberant, and loving. A child must be taught to hate, blame, and condemn people who do not look or think like their family. Parents are on the front line of saving the world, their children directly behind them as reinforcements who hope to preserve their future.
Our public spaces have become battlefields, where skirmishes spill into schools, and the conflicts we see on the news show up in our children’s lives. As a therapist for many decades, I believe there is hope for the future.
Admitting our failure to create a safe world for children is a first step — but merely accepting our failure is insufficient for building a new vision of the world. But it is a vision we must make a reality. Our children deserve a world they want to live in, a world without active shooter drills, threats of invasion, or deadly drone strikes.
A few ways parents can help children grow into peaceful, humanitarian adults
1. Empower children to create a better future.
We persistently tell our children the future of the planet and our country is theirs. We have admitted failure here, passing it on to them. Our failure cannot be the end of the story.
While we feel powerless to affect their future, we can empower them to make a difference for themselves and their yet-to-be-conceived children to create a new future.
I doubt many parents intend to sit down with their children and teach hate and violence. Children learn to hate the atmosphere in which they live. That atmosphere starts in the family home with direct expressions to the children, in parents’ off-the-cuff reactions and pontifications, and how they respond to their children’s questions, peer problems, and the media they consume.
Social media affects children, but parents are not powerless in limiting what and how much is allowed.
2. Know how the choices we make shape our kids.
The state, city, and neighborhood parents choose (or are stuck in) also have an effect. Your children’s peers also influence their values and attitudes, but it’s also true your children can influence their peers. That skill has to be actively taught because children who grow up in a hateful family are harmed, angry, and reactive with their peers, which begins at an early age. So, we have to provide alternative views.
Children, especially before the ages of 7-10, are sponges. They hear and know everything that goes on in their homes. We must create a healthy, loving, tolerant atmosphere. We can’t be perfect, but we can catch ourselves reacting poorly to kids and others. When we do, we can make amends and use our errors as a teaching opportunity.
3. Utilize active listening to lead by example.
The first two jobs of all parents are to provide a safe and nurturing atmosphere and to know that we must actively teach values, attitudes, and a willingness to listen to others. Listening is not the same as hearing. Pausing our speaking when a child says something conveys interest and clarity that we are interacting as two humans.
Parents often chastise a child for not listening when we mean they are not obeying. Likewise, children get upset when we don’t give them what they want, like a gift, a privilege, or a choice. That’s their version of a parent not obeying.
Children are not fluent in their language for many years after birth and don’t have the language skills to convey their thoughts coherently. We must help them by modeling active listening. When my son was about 8 or 9, he was upset with me for not agreeing to something. As his emotions rose, his speech became more confusing to me. Instead of raising my voice or continuing to talk over him, I stopped, stayed face-to-face with him, and focused on listening.
That focus without any nonverbal contradictions to listening resulted in him calming down. As he became calmer and with me not interrupting, he pulled his speech together to make his expression of need more coherent. When I understood what he was saying, I said, “Oh. I get it.” Now, more than twenty years later, neither of us remembers the subject, but we both remember the “Oh” moment. And neither of us remembers if he got what he wanted.
4. Become active and intentional about guiding children.
We can be active and intentional in teaching and encouraging our children’s natural loving, curious, and playful ways of being.
First, pay attention to what’s happening with the kids when they are not directly in front of you. Catch them being themselves. You’ll learn a lot.
Second, ask questions with interest and curiosity. Children don’t know the word “rhetorical,” but they know when a question is not a question and is a criticism or reaction. Kids are sensitive to “Why” questions. When a parent asks, “Why did you track mud all over the floor?” They know the parent is not asking for information or even an explanation; they know the sentence means “Don’t…” or “That was bad” or “I’m mad.”
The Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates taught not by lecture or direction but by questions designed to open a student’s mind to possibilities, wonder, and curiosity. Socratic questions have no obvious answer and are not aimed at leading or shaping. Therefore, they are not close-ended nor insincere. They often start with “how,” “what,” or “when” but can even start with “why” when the intent is seeking information or knowledge.
5. Teach acceptance and love in this culture of pervasive violence
Many of us are distressed about the killing and blame that is pervasive in our culture, and we continue to comply even though we know how terrible it feels. Even if your children are not watching intently, violence and hate are getting through to them. We may feel at a loss for how to protect them. We can’t protect them from the pervasive violence, but here’s what we can do. We can talk and ask our children questions.
“What do you think when you see those videos of bombing or starvation?” “How did you feel when that girl said that? What do you think she was feeling or thinking?” Even “Why do you think people get angry and hurt other people?” “What could we do differently?” These questions help teach children you care about what they think and feel.
6. Help children develop non-violent and empowering habits
If you are not in the habit of talking to your kids like this, be aware they may feel uncertain or suspicious. It may seem strange for a parent not to have an agenda, and you may need to persist with the question to demonstrate interest.
Pre-teens and teens often think their parents are highly manipulative. So, you might begin a massive change in your family dynamic. Be patient, persistent, and intentional, and be prepared for your children’s questions of you. Parents are often impatient with a 5-year-old’s repetitive “whys”. If you’ve heard enough or sensed the child intends to be annoying, turn it back on them. “Hmmm, that’s a good question. Why do you think it is so?” Or “How do you think it is?”
Can this way of being be brought into everyday interaction in the family, and can it be used as a foundation for love, acceptance, and children’s empowerment to make a better world for themselves? I believe it can if enough parents practice it.
Blame and retribution are pervasive. Many games and sports are founded on violence and destruction. Therefore, parents must offer their kids an alternative. Restrictions and consequences play vital roles in child rearing, while firmness and the judicious use of “No” are necessary, particularly for younger children.
A child’s developing brain is so explosive and formative (the psychological term is “plastic”) that virtually anything is possible for their development. That’s why a 6-year-old can pick up a new language in a matter of weeks. That’s why children will develop new alternatives to war, hate, and the climate of fear if we only empower them and model acceptance and non-violence for them.
William “Bill” Meleney is a Washington state-licensed mental health counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist, and life coach. He has 30 years of experience and expertise in helping clients deal with relationships, parenting, and mental health.