By Wendy Bauers Northup (currently grandparenting for peace and justice)
“I had a vampire at my school today and I cut his head off. Pow!!”
“I don’t like being mean to people. Isn’t there something else you could have done?”
“But he was a bad guy. I only kill bad guys.”
This is a conversation I had with my 3½ year-old grandson the other evening. I can’t pretend that I was very successful in steering the conversation to what might have been a better alternative to “cutting his head off”; but it’s something that I know I’m not alone in addressing. There is so much violence around us and our children inevitably pick up on it. Some of the talk is probably just a child being a child and playing make believe. I don’t think different killing a vampire is much different from playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers, as we did as children. But in a world where violence is the knee-jerk response to almost every situation, we, as parents, need to try our best to address it and create some small culture change.
One way we can do this is to address it in context. I always say I don’t like killing, whenever the topic comes up. And my grandson knows he isn’t allowed to play “shoot guns” at pre-school (this I assume means not making them out of fingers, Legos, bread, or anything else!).
Another way we can counteract violence in the wider culture is to begin early to have family meetings. It’s a simple and direct way to solve family problems and to help children solve problems with each other. Here are some simple ideas to make them work.
- Family meetings should be something regular. I always found mealtimes worked best, because we would be at the table together anyway and no one had to leave another activity for the family meeting. (Besides, I always found my children—and grandchildren—more reasonable on a full stomach.)
- Meetings should not be “called” only when there is a problem. Family meeting should be regarded as a way to deal with family issues, and some of them need to be fun times.
- It helps to set an “agenda,” one everyone can add to as the week goes along. I used to keep it on the refrigerator on a piece of paper. Those who can write can add things as they come up. The younger children can ask someone to write for them. That way, when it’s time for the meeting, there are items to cover. And sometimes just putting an issue on the agenda helps the child get it off his or her chest. They may or may not even remember the event by the time to meeting comes around. If the children don’t add positive items, you should: What shall we do on family game night? Any ideas for Saturday morning? What kind of pizza do we have this weekend?
- Meetings should have a regular format, if possible. I recently heard someone on the radio describing three things he and his wife discussed on a weekly basis with his family: What went well this week? What didn’t go so well? What shall we work on next week? This isn’t a format we used, but it struck me as a good idea. “What went well” is a positive way to begin. While it might be difficult at first to get your children to think positively, they will learn to do it. They should say something positive and it can’t immediately be followed with “but. . .” For example, it’s OK to say: “I really liked the lunches you made me this week.” But not “I really liked the lunches you made me this week, but I hate carrots.” The second part has to wait. And if they have to wait, they just might forget that they aren’t crazy about carrots and continue to eat them anyway.
- Set a check-in time for problems that have come up and been solved. For example, if one child is complaining about how his sister is using his things inappropriately, you may have reached a solution. Tell the children that next week you will check and see how the solution is working. Put it on the agenda. This makes sure the solution really works for everyone. If the solution isn’t working for both parties, then when we check in as a family, it feels OK to renegotiate the settlement.
- Facilitate the meeting yourself until everyone gets the idea. Once children get the pattern, it’s fine to rotate the leadership. However, you always need to keep some control of it. The children should use this venue to practice giving I-messages instead of accusations. It’s a good way to get the children to express their feelings in a meaningful way. (If the feelings are very strong, you probably want to just let them get their feelings out. But it’s important not to let the family meeting turn into a blaming session.)
- Make sure the meeting seems to be working for everyone. You will have to pick your battles. If the children get the idea that this is just a new way to make them do what you want, it won’t work. There has to be give on both sides. Be sure each child walks away from the meeting feeling like something worked in their favor.
- Finally, stick with it for a while, even when the going gets a little rough. It takes a while for the format to catch on with children—and with adults as well. In our family several things happened eventually. First, our kids realized that we were much more likely to be reasonable and really listen to them in a family meeting format. (Coming to me when I was busy making dinner and helping with homework was more likely to end in a “no”.) Second, over the years, when something difficult needed to be discussed– like curfews, allowances, car use — the kids figured out that a family meeting was the best way to bring it up
And what does all this have to do with killing bad guys? Well it’s one model for dealing with conflict that doesn’t involve violence. Then when there are events in the world that you need to discuss with your children—something as horrific as a school shooting or war in the news—you can remind them that there are different ways to deal with disagreements. And they have had some practice at it. Yes, my grandson continues to use Ninjas to kill bad guys. . . but he does also have some other models too.
Wendy Northup is a former director of the Richmond Peace Education Center, and a nationally recognized expert in violence prevention and conflict resolution.