Doing Peace Work with Kids

Peace Work

Image by Annie Spratt via UnSplash

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

                                 — Prayer for Peace, author unknown

During the holiday season, we often hear the word “peace” being tossed around. Most of us could agree that we want peace and even that we’re willing to work for it. But it’s not always clear how to do that. It gets even murkier when we want to include our children.

Many kids have a strong sense of justice. Some are outraged about racism or distressed about cruelty to animals. A group of youth is currently suing the federal government in the U.S. over its failure to provide them with a clean and healthy environment. Involving children early on in social justice work can pave the way to lifelong habits of citizenship, of participation, of leadership.

Joining peace rallies, writing letters to elected representatives, playing cooperative games, and volunteering to help refugees are all concrete ways families can do peace work with children. Even the little ones can make scribbles on notes to legislators and bring cheer to people who have been through difficult times.

But deeper peacemaking work actually happens within the family, since this is the first place we learn about relationships. Because “peace” has to do with how we move through conflict, relationships in the family are a great place to start. If you have children, a partner, or a family of any kind, you’ve experienced conflict with those people. And, if you’re like most of us, chances are good that conflict could have been enacted differently, more positively, with less collateral damage.

One of the first questions to ask yourself is, “What type of conflict resolution am I modeling for my children?” A fabulous resource is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. The Center for Nonviolent Communication describes the practice this way:

“Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is based on the principles of nonviolence– the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart.

NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture. NVC also assumes that we all share the same basic human needs and that each of our actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs.

People who practice NVC have found greater authenticity in their communication, increased understanding, deepening connection and conflict resolution.”

The center offers books, videos, and trainings on the method.

Learning new behaviors takes time. Set aside half an hour every week with the other adult(s) in your family to talk about things that were difficult during the week. You can also use that time to practice new ways of expressing difficult feelings and resolving problems. Oftentimes, simply having a regular time and place to do this makes people more inclined to communicate and bring up issues that can be hard to talk about.

But expressing feelings and solving problems are two steps, something most of us don’t learn in school. Just think about that mother you saw in the grocery store, grabbing the Frosted Flakes out of her toddler’s hand and “explaining” that sugar is bad for him. Is the toddler nodding and jotting down notes so he’ll know the next time?

If parents yell at children when they’re emotionally distressed, their response escalates their children’s mood. This is the opposite of what we want as peacemakers.

When children are upset, angry, exhausted, or sad, they simply aren’t able to problem-solve because their reptilian brains, or brain stems, are in control. This is in fact true of all humans when we’re distressed. Conflict escalates when one person meets that distress with harshness, a lack of empathy, or defensiveness. What kids need, and what we all need, to move us from the brain stem back to our neocortex, the center for learning and problem-solving, is connection, empathy, and soothing.

Nobody explains this better than Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, who co-wrote the book No Drama Discipline with Dr. Daniel J. Siegel. She goes a step further and provides a more accurate definition of discipline: teaching. Watch her five minute video in which she explains in more detail what’s happening and why traditional methods of conflict resolution, or discipline, don’t work.

When we understand that conflict escalates when one person is in emotional distress and another reacts with anger or harshness, we can begin taking concrete steps to change. Emotion-coaching, soothing children while mirroring their feelings with words, is a great skill to bring to the table. And, as with all of our behaviors, kids pick this up from both receiving it from us and watching us use it with others in our lives (including other adults).

Finally, modeling ways to manage our anger can help build peacemaking skills in children. How many adults do you know who can express anger in a healthy way? Thinking outside the box is key. Take a time out in your room and make a few signs, like “Dealing with difficult feelings and need to be alone,” or “Sad and didn’t want to ruin the party. Knock if you want to hang out.” It’s even helpful just to share with kids that it’s a tough road and show them you’re a work-in-progress.

Doing peace work with kids is hard but the results can be amazing. Diane from New Hampshire sent me this inspiring story about her son:

When Jack was eight, his friend was consistently really mean to him in the name of “playing” – like, shot him with a BB gun at close range mean, for example. After a few weeks of avoiding him and making excuses when his friend called to see if he could play, he asked me to tell the friend’s mom why he didn’t want to play. I was tempted to, but I told Jack that he had to handle that himself. After another week or so, he came to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready. Dial his number.” I gave him the phone and listened to my second grader tell this kid, “I still want to be friends with you, but if we’re going to play together, I need you to respect me more. I don’t like it when you say mean things or do things that hurt me.” *Pause* “No, you’re a GOOD kid, I just don’t like the way you treat me sometimes.” *Pause* “Okay. Want to come over tomorrow?”

After two more play dates, Jack called him back and said that he didn’t feel like his behavior had really changed, and he didn’t think they should be friends anymore. The kid’s mom called me two seconds later and said, “What did Jack say to him? He hung up and ran to his room crying.” I told her exactly what Jack had said. She was quiet for a minute, then said, “Well, that’s a tough lesson, but it’s one he needed. Maybe he’ll get it.”

This season, take steps to bring more peace into your family’s life. Your time and effort will change your children’s lives…and maybe even the world.


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By Gail Marlene Schwartz

Gail Marlene Schwartz is a mother, a runner, and a writer. As Content Curator for JogAlong Stroller, she writes blog articles, video scripts, and ad copy.