A Higher Education:
The Practice of Peacemaking in Early Childhood-Brief Reflections.
By Stephanie Van Hook
A friend or spouse turns to you and says something unkind. How do you respond? Do you lash out with hurt and anger? Resentment? Or do you take a breath; perhaps even walk away for a moment, and return later to talk it out, all while trying to understand yourself and the other person better? Do you recommit yourself to the bond you and your friend have formed in the spirit of the higher goals toward which you are working?
Now ask yourself, how would you like your child to respond in a similar situation?
Peacemaking is a life skill. Some of us are lucky to receive such training in our early adulthood, but I know of a classroom where children as young as three years old practice resolving their conflicts nonviolently. Doing so, they grow daily in empathy and compassion.
These children attest to the reality that living among others has its difficulties. Unkindness and disrespect hurt us all. These forms of violence hurt children more deeply because they are still learning to get their bearings on this new world into which they have entered.
Children in early childhood are forming their vision of humanity, asking in their hearts whether the world is a friendly or unfriendly place. They answer this question by listening and observing: how do the people I love treat one another? how do they treat me? how do they treat others who are not a part of our family or community? And like good scientists, they experiment: what will happen if I respond by doing this? Will I lose love and affection if I do this?
Unkindness and disrespect, however, are even more problematic because they are compulsions–unconscious habits we have been forming in response to having situations go the way that we would prefer. In other words, they are manifestations of our own relationship to power.
Power is not negative, except when it is used to dominate others. This dynamic is referred to as exercising “power over.” We exercise this kind of power when we Insist that someone does something “our way” or else (fill in the threat here). Adults do not respond well to this kind of a relationship, neither do children. Or even animals! Even if you get “what you want,” the relationship suffers.
Another form of power over is referred to as “exchange power.” Give me what I want, and I’ll give you something you want. As for any disenfranchised group such as children–a group whose voices are only heard because of adult allies–exchange power already begins on an unequal footing: you cannot fully engage in an exchange when ultimately the person with whom you are exchanging is dependent on you. If you only would do things the way I want, I will give you this thing (that reinforces your desire)… It’s a vicious cycle.
The third form of power breaks the dynamic of the threat and exchange, and transforms the negativity of the situation into an opportunity to deepen the relationship in question. This is called “integrative power.” Instead of it working as a power over model, it functions as a form of “power with.” I am going to stay true to myself, and in doing so, it will bring us closer together, even if I have to resist negative behavior–from myself or others– in the process. This is the heart of nonviolence.
The space of integrative power is a world in and of itself. In this place, one has to discover who one is, or at least, have a working sense of what that means. This does not come naturally–it requires practice. How can I know that I am really kind if I have no practice of being kind in the face of unkindness? What happens to my kindness and confidence when someone challenges me? Can I learn as a child how to draw from these reservoirs? Or have all of my attempts at resolving conflicts been intervened in, mediated and judged by a grown-up, or simply controlled by someone other than myself?
It’s not easy taking a step back and observing when the child is working through a conflict. However, it is entirely worth it. For instance, when you hear in the middle of a conversation around a conflict that seems to be going nowhere, one child realizes that the person with whom she is speaking may need a tissue. Can I get you one? The child is growing in her confidence around empathy and the situation enabled her to reveal it on her own. It’s an amazing discovery.
“These very children reveal to us the most vital need of their development, saying : ‘Help me to do it alone!'”
The role of the grown-up is simple: help the child to do it alone. Offer the tools of peacebuilding–the words when needed, the personal examples and even the worldview through storytelling and other media choices.
When a child hurts another with her words or even deeds, ask them how it felt, whether it resolved their problem, and what they can do. Help them to widen their vision to see that violence creates only more problems and let them take the lead in imagining nonviolent solutions–i.e. What do you think would work to resolve this? Let’s make a list of ideas and talk about them. (It is important to emphasize here that the adult’s perceptions will influence those of the child–such as labeling other children as “bad,” “mean” or as “bullies.” You can critique a behavior without mis-labeling the child who is learning who they are…) But most importantly, give them–and everyone to the greatest extent possible– the gift of an environment of practice. Create in your homes and in your lives a space where we have opportunities to review mistakes and offer suggestions around trying again in a new way that upholds the dignity of all. Explain that we do this in an effort to make our greatest contribution to the well-being of everyone. This is the highest form of education.
Listen to this interview with Montessori educator Andrée Young on Peace Paradigm Radio.