"We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever; this is our testimony to the whole world."
—Quaker declaration to Charles II of England, 1660.
While I utterly deny all outward wars and strife, the wars and strife within my own household are the ones that I must face on a daily basis. When my children begin pushing and kicking, when I feel stressed out and face their whining, or their refusal to do chores, the Peace Testimony seems unattainable.
Bringing peace into our homes is a challenge to most of us who have children. Despite our earnestly held beliefs and convictions and our moments of gathered peace, peacefulness itself can evaporate on the spot. And in the face of increasingly complex lives and too little time in which to live them, we may find ourselves dealing with our children in an angry fashion.
Parents in our meeting have often grappled with the difficulties of being Quaker parents in a world that does not support peace and reflection as a way of life. We must decide how to deal with war toys, with violent movies and television shows, with a consumer culture that pushes us all, adults and children alike, to want things and things and more things.
Most of the time we seem to muddle along without much guidance. But recently my husband, Dan, and I met Naomi Drew, author of Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids (Kensington Books, 2000). In one of those occasions of divinely inspired serendipity, I joined Naomi’s writers’ group, and my husband designed a website about her book and consulting work. Curious about what she had to offer, Dan and I read the book and found that Naomi’s work is a perfect bridge between our beliefs as Friends and our needs as parents.
Naomi, who also wrote The Peaceful Classroom in Action and Learning the Skills of Peacemaking, has worked for about 20 years in peacemaking education. Initially interested in peacemaking as a teacher who wanted to resolve conflicts in the classroom, Naomi began with a notion of Gandhi’s, that if we want to have real peace, we have to begin with the children. Her book is divided into 12 chapters, each containing one or more practical principles Naomi calls the "keys" to peaceful parenting.
As I delved into Naomi’s book, I was affirmed and delighted. The keys are easy to remember and implement—and just reading the first chapter cut down arguing in my house by about half in a week’s time!
The first chapter is called "Becoming a More Peaceful Parent: Getting Started." It contains the first key, "Peace begins with me," which is the foundation of the book. The key is solidly grounded in our spiritual practice as Friends. Exercises are to center down, use abdominal breathing, and envision a peaceful place where you can go when your stress level begins to rise.
A second exercise for the key "Peace begins with me" is to envision yourself 20 years from now, and then to write about what you want to be able to say about yourself as a parent, what you want your children to be able to say about you, about their childhood, and about themselves. Using this vision, look at the priorities in your life, Naomi suggests, and see if there is room to rearrange them to produce the outcome you want for yourself and your children in 20 years.
What a thought! My kids are 11 and 7, and they love each other deeply, but getting along involves compromises they often seem unwilling to make.
On a recent morning, for example, the kids’ arguing was the first thing I heard after the alarm clock. I had slept badly, and not long enough, so my first thought was, "I can’t handle this today." And it was true: I ended up yelling at both children, which only escalated the arguments.
But I had just finished the first chapter of Naomi’s book the night before. So I took myself into the bathroom for a minute, and repeated the first key: "Peace begins with me." Then I stood barefoot in the bathroom doing abdominal breathing and envisioning my peaceful place—a corner of the front yard where I grew up, a corner of full green shrubs and a stone wall. A few minutes later, I was able to go back and deal calmly with the kids. And the minute I calmed down, they did, too.
Listening Is Powerful
As I worked my way through Naomi’s book, chapter by chapter, I found other tips that worked just as effectively at helping me create the peaceful home we all needed.
I found, for example, that subtle things make a huge difference. Reflexive listening, contained in the 11th key, is both subtle and powerful. It showed me how often I try to fix my children’s issues or conflicts, which, in effect, denied them the chance to be heard or the opportunity to learn how to resolve conflicts on their own. In reflexive listening, however, you listen and repeat back what you heard, without trying to fix, change, or argue with it. This, as I found, encourages the kids to express themselves more fully so that problems can be fully identified, solutions developed, and conflict avoided.
For instance, Dan and I were going out one Sunday night after Rachel had been out with her best friend all day. She came home and said, "You go out too much, you never spend any time with me!" and went up to her room crying. My usual reaction to this sort of statement would be to explain and defend myself. But whenever I try to address her upsets with my explanations, she doesn’t want to talk to me.
Fearing she wouldn’t talk to me, I nevertheless went up to her room. But this time I went with a commitment to listen rather than explain. She was crying; I said, "Do you want to tell me about it?"
She replied, "I’ll never get as much time with you as I want," and I responded, "So you feel like you’ll never get as much time with me as you want." I just reflected it back, without arguing or trying to fix it. Then my mature and independent daughter told me for the first time that she misses me during the day when she’s at school.
I never even guessed. But I calmly reflected that back as well, and then I said, "This week I have to be out three nights, and I know you don’t like it, but that’s what the week looks like. So how can we plan it to be sure we have time together? And what are some things we can do together?"
Then the two of us put our heads together and mapped out the week. This was a breakthrough for us. We didn’t argue, I went out without guilt, she let me go, and we had great times together.
As I reflect on Naomi’s final key, "I remember daily that we have an impact on the world around us and I teach this to my children," I truly understand her vision: Peaceful families have peaceful relationships. We bring our relationships into small groups, larger groups, communities, and nations. And together with our children, we impact the world.