I’ve been teaching nonviolent communication to parents for 30 years. I would like to share some of the things that have been helpful to both myself and to the parents that I’ve worked with, and to share with you some insights I’ve had into the wonderful and challenging occupation of parenting.
I’d first like to call your attention to the danger of the word ‘child’, if we allow it to apply a different quality of respect than we would give to someone who is not labeled a child. Let me show you what I am referring to.
In parent workshops that I’ve done over the years, I’ve often started by dividing the group into two. I put one group in one room, and the other in a different room, and I give each group the task of writing down on a large paper a dialogue between themselves and another person in a conflict situation. I tell both groups what the conflict is. The only difference is that I tell one group the other person is their child, and to the second group I say the other person is their neighbor.
Then we get back into a large group and we look at these different sheets of paper outlining the dialogue that the groups would have, in the one case thinking that the other person was their child, and in the other case, the neighbor. (And incidentally, I haven’t allowed the groups to discuss with the other group who the person was in their situation, so that both groups think that the situation is the same.)
After they’ve had a chance to scan the written dialogues of both groups, I ask them if they can see a difference in terms of the degree of respect and compassion that was demonstrated. Every time I’ve done this, the group that was working on the situation with the other person being a child was seen as being less respectful and compassionate in their communication than the group that saw the other person as a neighbor. This painfully reveals to the people in these groups how easy it is to dehumanise someone by the process of simply thinking of him or her as ‘our child’.
I had an experience one day that really heightened my awareness of the danger of thinking of people as children. This experience followed a weekend in which I had worked with two groups: a street gang and a police department. I was mediating between the two groups. There had been considerable violence between them, and they had asked that I serve in the role of a mediator. After spending as much time as I did with them, dealing with the violence they had toward each other, I was exhausted. And as I was driving home afterwards, I told myself, I never want to be in the middle of another conflict for the rest of my life.
And of course, when I walked in my back door, my three children were fighting. I expressed my pain to them in a way that we advocate in nonviolent communication. I expressed how I was feeling, what my needs were, and what my requests were. I did it this way. I shouted, ‘When I hear all of this going on right now, I feel extremely tense! I have a real need for some peace and quiet after the weekend I’ve been through! So would you all be willing to give me that time and space?’
My oldest son looked at me and said, ‘Would you like to talk about it?’ Now, at that moment, I dehumanized him in my thinking. Why? Because I said to myself, ‘How cute. Here’s a nine-year-old boy trying to help his father’. But take a closer look at how I was disregarding his offer because of his age, because I had him labeled as a child. Fortunately I saw that was going on in my head, and maybe I was able to see it more clearly because the work I had been doing between the street gang and the police showed me the danger of thinking of people in terms of labels instead of their humanness. So instead of seeing him as a child and thinking to myself, ‘how cute’, I saw a human being who was reaching out to another human being in pain, and I said out loud, ‘Yes, I would like to talk about it’. And the three of them followed me into another room and listened while I opened up my heart to how painful it was to see that people could come to a point of wanting to hurt one another simply because they hadn’t been trained to see the other person’s humanness. After talking about it for 45 minutes I felt wonderful, and as I recall we turned the stereo on and danced like fools for a while.
The label ‘child’ can lead us to behave in a way that’s quite unfortunate
So I’m not suggesting that we don’t use words like ‘child’ as a shorthand way of letting people know that we’re talking about people of a certain age. I’m talking about when we allow labels like this to keep us from seeing the other person as a human being, in a way which leads us to dehumanise the other person because of the things our culture teaches us about ‘children’. Let me show you an extension of what I’m talking about, how the label ‘child’ can lead us to behave in a way that’s quite unfortunate.
Having been educated, as I was, to think about parenting, I thought that it was the job of a parent to make children behave. You see, once you define yourself as an authority, a teacher or parent, in the culture that I was educated in, you then see it as your responsibility to make people that you label a ‘child’ or a ‘student’ behave in a certain way.
I now see what a self-defeating objective this is, because I have learned that any time it’s our objective to get another person to behave in a certain way, people are likely to resist no matter what it is we’re asking for. This seems to be true whether the other person is 2 or 92 years of age.
This objective of getting what we want from other people, or getting them to do what we want them to do, threatens the autonomy of people, their right to choose what they want to do. And whenever people feel that they’re not free to choose what they want to do, they are likely to resist, even if they see the purpose in what we are asking and would ordinarily want to do it. So strong is our need to protect our autonomy, that if we see that someone has this single-mindedness of purpose, if they are acting like they think that they know what’s best for us and are not leaving it to us to make the choice of how we behave, it stimulates our resistance.
‘I’ll be forever grateful to my children for educating me about the limitations of the objective of getting other people to do what you want. They taught me that, first of all, I couldn’t make them do what I want. I couldn’t make them do anything. I couldn’t make them put a toy back in the toy box. I couldn’t make them make their bed. I couldn’t make them eat. Now, that was quite a humbling lesson for me as a parent, to learn about my powerless-ness, because somewhere I had gotten it into my mind that it was the job of a parent to make a child behave. And here were these young children teaching me this humbling lesson, that I couldn’t make them do anything. All I could do is make them wish they had.
And whenever I would be foolish enough to do that, that is, to make them wish they had, they taught me a second lesson about parenting and power that has proven very valuable to me over the years. And that lesson was that anytime I would make them wish they had, they would make me wish I hadn’t made them wish they had. Violence begets violence.
They taught me that any use of coercion on my part would invariably create resistance on their part, which could lead to an adversarial quality in the connection between us. I don’t want to have that quality of connection with any human being, but especially not with my children, those human beings that I’m closest to and taking responsibility for. So my children are the last people that I want to get into these coercive games of which punishment is a part.
Now this concept of punishment is strongly advocated by most parents. Studies indicate that about 80% of American parents firmly believe in corporal punishment of children. This is about the same percentage of the population who believes in capital punishment of criminals. So with such a high percentage of the population believing that punishment is justified and necessary in the education of children, I’ve had plenty of opportunity over the years to discuss this issue with parents, and I’m pleased with how people can be helped to see the limitations of any kind of punishment, if they’ll simply ask themselves two questions.
Question number one: What do you want the child to do differently? If we ask only that question, it can certainly seem that punishment sometimes works, because certainly through the threat of punishment or application of punishment, we can at times influence a child to do what we would like the child to do.
However, when we add a second question, it has been my experience that parents see that punishment never works. The second question is: What do we want the child’s reasons to be for acting as we would like them to act? It’s that question that helps us to see that punishment not only doesn’t work, but it gets in the way of our children doing things for reasons that we would like them to do them.
‘I’d like to suggest that reward is just as coercive as punishment’
Since punishment is so frequently used and justified, parents can only imagine that the opposite of punishment is a kind of permissiveness in which we do nothing when children behave in ways that are not in harmony with our values. So therefore parents can think only, ‘If I don’t punish, then I give up my own values and just allow the child to do whatever he or she wants’. As I’ll be discussing below, there are other approaches besides permissiveness, that is, just letting people do whatever they want to do, or coercive tactics such as punishment. And while I’m at it, I’d like to suggest that reward is just as coercive as punishment. In both cases we are using power over people, controlling the environment in a way that tries to force people to behave in ways that we like. In that respect reward comes out of the same mode of thinking as punishment.
There is another approach besides doing nothing or using coercive tactics. It requires an awareness of the subtle but important difference between our objective being to get people to do what we want, which I’m not advocating, and instead being clear that our objective is to create the quality of connection necessary for everyone’s needs to get met.
It has been my experience, whether we are communicating with children or adults, that when we see the difference between these two objectives, and we are consciously not trying to get a person to do what we want, but trying to create a quality of mutual concern, a quality of mutual respect, a quality where both parties think that their needs matter and they are conscious that their needs and the other person’s well-being are interdependent – it is amazing how conflicts which otherwise seem unresolvable, are easily resolved.
Now, this kind of communication that is involved in creating the quality of connection necessary for everybody’s needs to get met is quite different from that communication used if we are using coercive forms of resolving differences with children. It requires a shift away from evaluating children in moralistic terms such as right/wrong, good/bad, to a language based on needs. We need to be able to tell children whether what they’re doing is in harmony with our needs, or in conflict with our needs, but to do it in a way that doesn’t stimulate guilt or shame on the child’s part. So it might require our saying to the child, ‘I’m scared when I see you hitting your brother, because I have a need for people in the family to be safe’, instead of, ‘It’s wrong to hit your brother’. Or it might require a shift away from saying, ‘You are lazy for not cleaning up your room’, to saying, ‘I feel frustrated when I see that the bed isn’t made, because I have a real need for support in keeping order in the house’.
This shift in language away from classifying children’s behavior in terms of right and wrong, and good and bad, to a language based on needs, is not easy for those of us who were educated by teachers and parents to think in moralistic judgements. It also requires an ability to be present to our children, and listen to them with empathy when they are in distress. This is not easy when we have been trained as parents to want to jump in and give advice, or to try to fix things.
All human beings, when they’re in pain, need presence and empathy
So when I’m working with parents, we look at situations that are likely to arise where a child might say something like, ‘Nobody likes me’. When a child says something like that, I believe the child is needing an empathic kind of connection. And by that I mean a respectful understanding where the child feels that we are there and really hear what he or she is feeling and needing. Sometimes we can do this silently, just showing in our eyes that we are with their feelings of sadness, and their need for a different quality of connection with their friends. Or it could involve our saying out loud something like, ‘So it sounds like you’re really feeling sad, because you aren’t having very much fun with your friends’.
But many parents, defining their role as requiring them to make their children happy all the time, jump in when a child says something like that, and say things like, ‘Well, have you looked at what you’ve been doing that might have been driving your friends away?’ Or they disagree with the child, saying, ‘Well, that’s not true. You’ve had friends in the past. I’m sure you’ll get more friends’. Or they give advice: ‘Maybe if you’d talk differently to your friends, your friends would like you more’.
What they don’t realise is that all human beings, when they’re in pain, need presence and empathy. They may want advice, but they want that after they’ve received the empathic connection. My own children have taught me the hard way that, ‘Dad, please withhold all advice unless you receive a request in writing from us signed by a notary’.
Many people believe that it’s more humane to use reward than punishment. But both of them I see as power over others, and nonviolent communication is based on power with people. And in power with people, we try to have influence not by how we can make people suffer if they don’t do what we want, or how we can reward them if they do. It’s a power based on mutual trust and respect, which makes people open to hearing each other and learning from each other, and to giving to one another willingly out of a desire to contribute to one another’s well being, rather than out of a fear of punishment or hope for a reward.
We get this kind of power, power with people, by being able to openly communicate our feelings and needs without in any way criticizing the other person. We do that by offering them what we would like from them in a way that is not heard as demanding or threatening. And as I have said, it also requires really hearing what other people are trying to communicate, showing an accurate understanding rather than quickly jumping in and giving advice, or trying to fix things.
For many parents, the way I’m talking about communicating is so different that they say, ‘Well, it just doesn’t seem natural to communicate that way’. At just the right time, I read something that Gandhi had written in which he said, ‘Don’t mix up that which is habitual with that which is natural’. Gandhi said that very often we’ve been trained to communicate and act in ways that are quite unnatural, but they are habitual in the sense that we have been trained for various reasons to do it that way in our culture. And that certainly rang true to me in the way that I was trained to communicate with children. The way I was trained to communicate by judging rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness, and the use of punishment was widely used and very easily became habitual for me as a parent. But I wouldn’t say that because something is habitual that it is natural.
I learned that it is much more natural for people to connect in a loving, respectful way, and to do things out of joy for each other, rather than using punishment and reward or blame and guilt as means of coercion. But such a transformation does require a good deal of consciousness and effort.
I can recall one time when I was transforming myself from a habitually judgmental way of communicating with my children to the way that I am now advocating. On the day I’m thinking of, my oldest son and I were having a conflict, and it was taking me quite awhile to communicate it in the way that I was choosing to, rather than the way that had become habitual. Almost everything that came into my mind originally was some coercive statement in the form of a judgement of him for saying what he did. So I had to stop and take a deep breath, and think of how to get more in touch with my needs, and how to get more in touch with his needs. And this was taking me awhile. And he was getting frustrated because he had a friend waiting for him outside, and he said, ‘Daddy, it’s taking you so long to talk’. And I said, ‘Let me tell you what I can say quickly: Do it my way or I’ll kick your butt’. He said, ‘Take your time, Dad. Take your time’.
People can often mistake what I’m talking about as permissiveness
So yes, I would rather take my time and come from an energy that I choose in communicating with my children, rather than habitually responding in a way that I have been trained to do, when it’s not really in harmony with my own values. Sadly, we will often get much more reinforcement from those around us for behaving in a punitive, judgmental way, than in a way that is respectful to our children.
I can recall one Thanksgiving dinner when I was doing my best to communicate with my youngest son in the way that I am advocating, and it was not easy, because he was testing me to the limits. But I was taking my time, taking deep breaths, trying to understand what his needs were, trying to understand my own needs so I could express them in a respectful way. Another member of the family, observing my conversation with my son, but who had been trained in a different way of communicating, reached over at one point and whispered in my ear, ‘If that was my child, he’d be sorry for what he was saying’.
I’ve talked to a lot of other parents who have had similar experiences who, when they are trying to relate in more human ways with their own children, instead of getting support, often get criticised. People can often mistake what I’m talking about as permissiveness or not giving children the direction they need, instead of understanding that it’s a different quality of direction. It’s a direction that comes from two parties trusting each other, rather than one party forcing his or her authority on another.
One of the most unfortunate results of making our objective to get our children to do what we want, rather than having our objective be for all of us to get what we want, is that eventually our children will be hearing a demand in whatever we are asking. And whenever people hear a demand, it’s hard for them to keep focus on the value of whatever is being requested, because, as I said earlier, it threatens their autonomy, and that’s a strong need that all people have. They want to be able to do something when they choose to do it, and not because they are forced to do it. As soon as a person hears a demand, it’s going to make any resolution that will get everybody’s needs met much harder to come by.