What makes a person violent?
Abuse? Extreme poverty? Neglect? Violence in the home? Brain Injury? Genetics? Violent video games? Access to guns or weapons? Too much TV? Lack of empathy or self-regulation?
Certainly, all of these factors can and do play a big part in the development of violence. And since violence and bad people really do exist, it’s good to teach our children how to react in many different situations.
Since one of the first things we teach them is what to do when approached by a stranger, I listened very closely to a podcast by former FBI profiler and psychiatric nurse Candice DeLong.
I used what she said to develop this poster based on the way she taught stranger safety to her own young son. It involves only 3 words. No!, Go! Tell!
You can print the poster I made up here or make your own!
No doubt there are bad people out there. But what about the good ones? They exist, too! We need to point them out. We need to consciously develop more like them. If we wait until they become violent and then punish them, we're just perpetuating the cycle.
I teach children daily that:
Good people come in all shapes and sizes.
Good people come in many different colors.
Good people can be of different ages and genders.
Good people have differing abilities.
Good people may look, sound or smell slightly different than you, and that’s OK. -N J Bradley-
To be honest, kids, or adults for that matter, can’t judge whether a person has good or bad intentions by looking at them. So we err on the side of caution when teaching kids how to react to someone they don’t know.
Now for one of the toughest questions on the planet and one that I’ve taken personal responsibility for.
How do we raise people to be good? And resilient? And ethical?
How do we teach the kind of empathy that empowers people to work together to solve problems?
After 43 years of experience teaching and 7 or so years of higher education resulting in a couple of degrees, I know that the answer to the question is to start early. Here’s why:
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-
Every human brain is unique but choices and habits are developed through modeling, repetition, trial, and error. Non-violent communication can be taught. (Rosenberg 2003) Early childhood professionals are trained in it from day one. (Bailey 2011)
Why shouldn’t everyone who has access to young children have that information too?
In Ghosts From The Nursery (1997 p. 146), Karr-Morse and Wiley suggest we focus on the period from 10-18 months to prevent violence since that's when the connections are made between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic systems.
During this time, the child's brain learns to modulate stress. As an educator with 43+ years of experience, I agree. I deal with the early roots of violence on a daily basis.
Most everyone knows that children of a very young age can't yet control their impulses. They'll often hit, kick, bite and snatch things away as quickly as possible in order to get what they want. It's up to the adults in their lives to teach them communication, patience, and negotiation skills. Here’s an article I wrote about what to do when a toddler hits.
We need to work with the brains of very young children, not against them to develop the patterns of behavior that lead to the ability to create a peaceful and empowering environment. (Markova 1996) One in which children learn to cope with stress and adversity through persistence, friendship, and loyalty.
Here are my top 5 strategies for creating children who communicate well and know when and how to take appropriate, non-violent action.
Teach problem-solving intentionally and by example.
I’ll help you with the puzzle as soon as I finish this sinkful of dishes. It should take me about 3 minutes.
I heard you arguing. Is there a problem? Oh. (listen to each child) What can I do to help you solve it? (no blame)
Oh, she pushed you away? You didn’t like that? I understand. Have you already learned not to push people? OK, good. How can we work together to teach Bernie that? She does need to learn that.
I’m really frustrated about a problem at work so I’m going to spend some alone time trying to sort it out. I’ll love to spend time hanging out with you in about an hour though.
Practice active listening and non-violent communication.
According to prison psychiatrist and author of PreventingViolence, James Gilligan,
“Violent offenders rarely feel heard. They treat other people as objects. They're emotionally dead to their own feelings. They haven't learned to communicate in a non-violent way so they use violence to become significant in a scary and unjust world.-James Gilligan
Show young children that they are significant to you by taking the time to hear what they say without jumping in to judge or teach a moral lesson. Just be there to listen.
Remember this... All feelings are OK, all actions are not.
Faber and Mazlisch wrote the best book on communicating with children ever. It’s funny, insightful, and easy to read. (lots of pictures!)
Encourage real learning by taking the time to teach children skills they need when they are developmentally ready to learn them. Smiling, laughing, playing peek a boo, helping, using manners, riding a trike or a bike, being gentle to pets and people, tying shoes, being a good sport, growing plants, taking care of money, cooking, showing self-respect, and appreciation for others are just a few examples.
All of these things still matter in the world. Whether you're a parent, teacher, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend you can take time to help with the very young. I don't care how busy you are, it matters too much.
Strategy # 4
Teach young children about their feelings and help them find words to use to describe them.
Use lap time to talk with young children about their feelings and the feelings of others. Help them find alternatives to violence and show them other ways to get what they want in life.