A Recipe for Nonviolent Parenting

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Waging Nonviolence

A Recipe for Nonviolent Parenting

My son has fat little hands — the kind where the knuckles sink in instead of stick out. Seamus Philip is coming up on seven months old and is learning to use his hands to grab and pull and caress and play. He’s not going to be operating machinery or doing intricate bead work any time soon, but every day his adeptness grows and he adds fine motor skills.

I look at his hands sometimes and try to imagine what they will be like years and decades from now. These impossibly small and pudgy fingers: Will they grow up and wear a wedding ring? Play the piano? Fill beakers with bright chemicals and noxious compounds? Tickle a new generation of chubby children?

Will his hands know how to tie knots on the high seas? Pump a heart that has stopped beating? Load, aim and fire a gun? Will those hands point that gun at a target, or a deer, or an enemy? Will his hands learn how to paint beautiful nature scenes like Grandmother Liz? Wield a hammer to build a house or an armoire or a bomb shelter? Will his hands grow vegetables? Prune trees? Harden into fists? Weave tapestries? Click computer keys (or will computers even have keys in the future or will they be inside our brains)?

Some of what I can imagine his hands doing makes me happy and misty-eyed and other possibilities terrify me. How do I ensure one outcome and not the other? Can I do that? As a mother, can I write the script of his life? Is Seamus my very own Choose Your Own Adventure tale come to life? No way, man!

That is the worst possible thing to attempt. The harder I tried, the more I would fail.

Can we make him a nonviolent person? His father and I could take a hard line. We could try and control what he is exposed to, shape what he likes, police his interests and make sure nothing we disapprove of gets through. Modern dance instead of football? Contact improv not kung fu? Sesame Street not Transformers? That would be hard, for lots of reasons, not the least of which would be that we would have to come to some sort of agreement about all those things (a whole other layer of nonviolent parenting).

What do we do? We will encourage him to play with blocks and trains instead of Battletanx: Global Assault (that should not be so hard), and make sure that no GI Joes march into our house. But what about cowboys and Indians and pirates and policemen? They could all be violent too, right?  We’ll shoo him outside and run around in the woods and fields with him as much as possible. We’ll show him how to love nature and living things. But exploring nature could include pulling the legs off daddy-long-legs and throwing rocks at squirrels (I did both of those mean things when I was little). We will expose him to music, instruments, melodies, encouraging him to hear and make and feel beauty with his ears and voice and rhythms. But what if the music he ends up loving or making is loud and endless and bone-shaking and teeth splitting? We’ll feed his imagination with books and stories and make believe. But what if he heads in a dark direction; dreaming up twisted, strange, magical plots and sharing them endlessly? It made J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman and the Brothers Grimm rich and famous. Would we try and nudge him down safer and brighter brain paths?

What if, what if, what if?

As I try and imagine (and fight the urge to shape) my son’s future, a refrain keeps surfacing, a line from a Sweet Honey in the Rock song. “Your children are not your children, they are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself.” It is a line from a poem by Kahlil Gibran and it is heavy duty wisdom for parents like me — controlling, egotistical, quite sure I am right. It is worth quoting at length. As you read, imagine Sweet Honey in the Rock’s rich harmonies and subtle syncopations.

They come through you but they are not from you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you.

You can give them your love but not your thoughts. They have their own thoughts. You can house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You can strive to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you.

Eureka! That is it, right? Strive to be like them! Seamus is warm, loving and expresses what he needs and wants. He is free of artifice, guile and hidden agendas.  He has no ego or baggage or insecurity. If I can work to be like him, wouldn’t I be a better person? Rather than trying to shape him in my image (good grief, Charlie Brown!), why don’t I embrace his boundless wonder and inexhaustible curiosity and hearty appetite for life! That is the answer, or at least part of it. He does have his limitations, though — don’t get me wrong. He’s not perfect. He spits up a lot, poops in his pants and can’t even say please or thank you, yet. So I am not striving for total regression, believe me!

Strive to be like him (in some ways) and try to do what my parents did: provide the tools, impart the wisdom, love and protect the person and let go of the rest. Oh, and never lie.

That is a tall order. But maybe it adds up to a recipe for nonviolent parenting.

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan, a columnist for WagingNonviolence.org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.

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