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How to Raise a Nonviolent Child

As the school year starts, experts brace themselves for another tragedy like the Littleton, CO, shooting. Parents also worry, regardless of whether their kids are old enough for school yet. They're concerned about their children's safety, as well as any aggressive tendencies they might see in their youngsters' behavior, or that of their friends. And many wonder: Is it possible to raise peace-loving kids in such a violent world?

The answer is yes. Starting in toddlerhood, children can be taught to deal with their anger and resolve conflicts with words rather than fists.

Contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D., is a pediatrician and the author of Dr. Mom's Parenting Guide.

Being the Best Role Model

In order for your child to learn how to handle her emotions, you need to be sure you're doing everything you can to get a handle on yours. Yes, you can teach your child specific social skills, but your values and behavior can convey a very strong message. So what you do around the house is important. Some guidelines for setting the best possible example:

Be respectful. From infancy on, children know the difference between a conversation and a hostile exchange, even if the decibel level remains the same. So your first step should be to value everyone in the family  -- and show it. That means you shouldn't tolerate name-calling or physical fights between siblings, or engage in hostile arguments or put-downs with your mate. And above all, try to keep your own short fuse in check.

Be there. As they learn to make good choices, little ones require three things: structure, guidance, and supervision. Routines are the best way to impose structure in a child's life. You also have to keep an eye out in order to intervene at the first sign of aggressive behavior  -- whether it's a biting toddler on a playdate or a preschooler who is bullying others on the playground. Be consistent (and make sure everyone else who cares for your child is, too). If you impose a time-out for biting one day and then ignore the behavior the next two, your child will only get confused.

Get closer. Generally, children whose parents are intimately involved in their lives are less likely to act aggressively toward others. Spending hours with a baby is a given; it's when your child is older that daily life tends to intrude. So it's important to spend some regular one-on-one time with your child  -- talking, listening, playing, reading. Ask about his day, show an interest in his activities, and listen to him without criticizing. Ideally, the time you spend together should be tension-free.

Monitor the TV. Over the past 30 years, numerous studies have confirmed a link between watching violence on television (or more recently, in video games) and acting out aggressively. Violent shows teach kids the wrong lessons  -- that hurting someone has no consequences and that the only way to resolve conflict and anger is with a weapon. But some experts think that the link between media violence and aggressive behavior goes beyond just simple cause and effect: One factor might be that kids who watch a lot of these shows are often the ones without much adult supervision.

Besides limiting the amount of TV your child watches (two hours per day for preschoolers on up is plenty), you should monitor what she's seeing: Whenever possible, watch programs with her and discuss them. Help her distinguish between fantasy and reality by asking questions: "What would happen in real life if someone did that?"

Don't spank. Hitting a child will likely only teach him that it's okay to hit others. And spanking a child for biting or hitting another child  -- using violence to stop violence  -- sends him a mixed message.

How to Promote Peaceful Behavior

Besides being the best possible role models, parents need to teach their children certain emotional and social skills, such as learning to express their feelings and to solve problems. After all, kids will need these traits in order to get along in the world. Here's what you can do to encourage them:

Foster empathy. The first step toward handling powerful emotions is to identify and share them. Being aware of your own feelings is necessary for learning empathy  -- the ability to understand another person's point of view. Empathy helps people connect, and it helps youngsters take responsibility for the effects of their behavior, as well as learn to respect other people's needs, rights, boundaries, and feelings.

Empathy begins at home. Being able to read a child's feelings  -- or at least make the attempt  -- and have a conversation with him about them is the best way a parent can teach the child how to care about others.

You can also start teaching him how to identify other people's emotions during story time or while watching a television show or video together. For instance, you can ask him, "How do you think the little girl is feeling? What would make her feel better?" Just don't expect the "right" answer. Little kids learn about emotions through trial and error.

Allow angry feelings. Anger is normal and healthy, a natural reaction to disappointment, frustration, or being treated unfairly. It's considered a secondary emotion because what sets a child off may not be the issue that is really troubling her  -- she may act angry when she feels afraid, upset, or embarrassed. So, for example, when your toddler throws a tantrum because you didn't let her pop in the video by herself, rather than tell her to stop whining, give her the words to name what she is feeling: "You're mad because you're disappointed (or sad or frustrated). When you've calmed down, we can talk about it."

You should also try to be honest about your own feelings. When you are angry about something, say so: Don't confuse kids by saying you're not mad when you are.

But while children need to know that it's okay to be angry, they also have to learn constructive ways to express their feelings. So when your preschooler bites or hits her playmate, step in immediately and say, "No biting! Biting hurts. I know you're upset that Lily has the ball right now. Tell her you want to play too, and maybe she'll be willing to share it with you."

Teach self-control. Kids need to learn to curb impulsive behavior when they don't get what they want, and that blurting out the first thing that comes to mind can be hurtful. Your own self-control is your child's most influential example, but you can teach him techniques for calming down, such as walking away, counting to ten, taking deep breaths, or talking with someone he trusts.

Show him how to vent his anger in nondestructive ways, such as pounding a peg board, squeezing clay, or banging a drum. And whenever he manages to avoid a meltdown, offer praise. Then help him express his feelings and state his needs in a calm way. You can say, for example, "You're upset because I've said we have to go in. You wish you could stay outside and play longer."

Practice disagreeing respectfully. Conflict and disagreement are part of everyday life, and children need to learn how to handle them successfully. It's important that your child learn that people are entitled to their own opinions and that few issues are black-and-white, since kids who choose violence as a way of settling their problems tend to see things that way. They assume, for instance, that an accidental bump was an intentional assault or that a careless omission was a deliberate affront. Nonviolent kids, on the other hand, are able to consider a variety of possible motives for other people's actions.

The way you resolve differences with your mate  -- even something as simple as where to go out for dinner  -- teaches your children that two people can hold different opinions and still respect each other.

If your children are fighting over a toy, show them that there are various solutions to the problem, such as setting a timer and allowing each one to play with the toy for a specific period, or putting the plaything away for a while. Older kids can learn valuable lessons in family meetings, where everyone can brainstorm and come up with the choice that works best for all.

Encourage teamwork. Children are more apt to resolve issues peacefully when taught to work together for a common goal. Playing on a team or collaborating with a sibling to make a birthday treat for a parent can help a child appreciate the contribution of others. It also helps her practice balancing her own needs and wants with those of other people.

When my children were much younger, my sons would agree to play house with their sisters  -- but only if their sisters would play a game they called Army Man afterward. (Sometimes it worked  -- my daughters wouldn't always hold up their end of the deal.) Whenever you catch your children working or playing cooperatively, be sure to praise them.

Even though it seems that there's an epidemic of children shooting other children, parents shouldn't feel overwhelmed. Instead, you can take heart in knowing that your everyday interactions with your child can go a long way toward helping her manage her anger, control her behavior, develop empathy, and find solutions to the conflicts she'll inevitably have. And once you lay down the foundation for nonviolence, your child will be able to continually build upon it as she grows.