Kris Kolff (with Cella in the background)
The below article describes the role Nonviolent Communication can have in parenting. It also shares Kris Kolff’s experience about living with my family.
Kris has lived and thrived together with us at WantooWantoo since 2005.
Longing for a more Humane Society? Let’s Start with our Children!
Two years ago I published an article on Luka, our ‘pioneer child’ (now a 22 year-old man) here at WantooWantoo. I used Luka to tell the story of Irma and Jan Albert’s parenting of their three children, including Luka’s sisters Yiba (18) and Cella (16). It described how they parented, supported by our little community, and firmly based on The Continuum Concept (by Jean Liedloff) and Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
What follows focuses specifically on the role of NVC in all that.
“The human brain and heart that are met are met primarily with empathy in the critical early years, cannot and will not grow to choose a violent or selfish life.” This is how Robin Grille opened his book, Parenting for a Peaceful World.
The word empathy is used more and more commonly in many different contexts. But true empathy in NVC, being totally present with another, in total equality, without any judgement, is quite a radical concept.
“The objective of Nonviolent Communication is not to change people and their behaviour in order to get our way: it is to establish relationships based on honesty and empathy, which will eventually fulfil everyone’s needs.”
— Marshall B. Rosenberg
One area that illustrates well how different parenting can be when it includes NVC is when children are in conflict. Let’s look at a common scenario.
Two or more children are in conflict. For most parents this is a problem that needs to be solved and I as a parent should solve it. Probably, one child is “more right” than the other. It is my responsibility to act now, be the authority, the judge. Who was more violent? Who behaved incorrectly? Who was not nice to the other? Our whole culture is saying “Of course you have to intervene. You know what is right and wrong and you have to teach your children this”. The language of judgement and blame – good/bad, right/wrong, normal/abnormal – came into our culture about 8,000 years ago and has become an integral part of how we communicate with each other.
Intervention -Yoram Mosenzon
In his course Connecting with Children, Yoram Mosenzon (a certified NVC trainer living in The Netherlands) explores an NVC approach to intervening in children’s conflict. Much of the following section is taken from that course.
Yoram remembers from his childhood: ‘Judging was the job of my father. When my brother and I were fighting, the weaker one (me) would go to my father and say “My brother hit me”. Then my father would tell me “Call your brother to come here”. I would go to my brother and say “Dad asks you to come”. My brother would say “I don’t want to come”. Then my father, “Tell him that if he will not come to me I will come to him”. Which meant he would be punished.
This is what I learned about how to resolve conflict.
It is so easy to fall into this trap of being the judge. And once this pattern is established children expect it – “He started it.” “Tell him to stop”- in effect absolving themselves from responsibility for the situation. “Our father should sort it out”.
So how do we break this authoritarian approach to parenting, our common automatic reactions in the heat of the moment, acting out of frustration and stress? How instead can we act out of choice, in alignment with our deeper values?
‘Breathing deeply brings me back to myself, to what belongs to me, to what I am responsible for (responsibility – my ability to respond). It helps me to put the focus on what is alive in me and it helps me move from automatic pilot to choice.
Connecting to myself, what is actually going on for me. I might notice stress, “I should solve it”, I might notice that I carry judgements about one of the children. I might be judging myself that I am incapable, that I am not a good parent…
I want to honour these feelings, take note of them and check what I am needing. Probably, I long for peace and harmony and wanting to care for everyone. Sit with that.
Then, what is actually going on for the children? I see the beauty in both of them, fall in love with them again and with their deep intentions. Underneath the apparent violence they are expressing their beautiful needs. My job is not to solve the conflict. My job is to see them deeply, to connect myself with their humanity. To be totally present with them, in true empathy. I guess the needs that are alive in them behind their (annoying) behaviour.
I can guess it out loud, by throwing a question like “Yes, is it that you want to play by yourself? Or that you want to be asked and to be able to choose who plays with your toys?” Or I can guess their needs silently inside of me, remembering that children drink/absorb me, they take in my being, much more than the words I may use, what I tell them. My only job is to see them for their deep intention. All the rest will unfold in yet unknown ways.
If I shout out “Stop! In this house we don’t hit.”, the person I shout “Stop!” to is not being cared for, not being acknowledged in the pain he holds.
Or when a parent takes a toy their child took from another, and says “We don’t take toys from other children” – what are we teaching the child?
Instead, I want to connect with what I want to teach them and to live it myself with them. Even if it is not solving the conflict, in the long term, through absorption, they are learning how to deal with conflicts in a caring way for everyone.
Both shouting “Stop!”, and taking the toy away, are violent in their own way. Violence is a strategy to get my needs (peace, harmony) to be expressed and taken into consideration. But violence brings more violence. So it is not meeting the very needs it is trying to meet, rather it tends to bring more pain to all involved.
When children use violence, they try to stand for their own needs and they try to exercise their power. Generally speaking (unless there is physical danger to anyone) I do not want to tell them to “Stop!”, or “This is not allowed.” As this may then lead them to drop their standing for their own needs and standing for themselves, exploring and playing with life.
I want to remember that children need to exercise their power, to learn to take responsibility for themselves. I want them to learn non-violent ways to stand up for their needs, ways that will be more sustainable for themselves and for others in the long term.
When there is a safety issue (or any other needs that become urgent) I will use force protectively. I use this as a last resort, as I know that whenever I use my power, when I use the fact that I am bigger and stronger, I am taking choice away which might result in a break in connection between me and the child. If I do intervene like that, I want to make it clear that I am standing for immediate needs, and that I hold no wrongness towards the person.
So instead of saying “This is not allowed here. How many times have I already told you? Stop hitting your brother!”. I might say, while standing between them in a way I ensure that the one is not getting hurt physically, sometimes with a certain hugging of the person who has been hitting “I really want you both to be safe here, you and him.”
I know that if I use force there is some damage to our connection so I want as fast as possible to catch that with empathy. “I imagine that you might be angry with me that I stood between you two, as you really wanted to let him know how not okay you are with him playing with your toy without asking you.”
Empathy means total presence, with yourself or another, and total respect for the other, seeing them as absolutely equal. It means listening to the other without any judgement, with no attempt to try to fix, diagnose or give advice.
It can be helpful to consider whether you would speak to an adult the way you would speak to a child. Would you say “if you don’t eat your vegetables you don’t get dessert” to your partner? So why would you speak to your child like that?
In her Respectful Parenting course Irma is often asked the question, What’s wrong with my child, how can I fix him? Invariably, she turns the question around back to the parent: where does the unwanted behaviour come from, what is the behaviour telling you about the child’s feelings and needs? It can be challenging to accept that underneath every behaviour is a met or unmet need, because often we only see the behaviour and the pain that comes from it. It is easy to get hooked into that behaviour, and see the child as ‘difficult’ or ‘bad’. Often these thoughts come from our own frustration and annoyance, our longing for support, peace, co-operation, ease and harmony.
A friend told me the story of her sister’s teenage daughter who was very upset about something, then refused to come to her own birthday party. The girl’s mother didn’t know what to do, told her she was being silly, what’s this tantrum about? Then my friend went to the girl, gently started guessing what her feelings might be, what she might be needing, allowing time for connection, empathy. Only then did the girl calm down and eventually agree to come to her party.
Often all our children ever want is to be heard. The more they feel heard, the more likely they are going to keep on sharing with us what is going on for them without fear of judgement.
Trusting our children to come to their own conclusions is also vital. When Cella had an opportunity to drive recently, she took a bend too wide and almost went off the road. Her mother sitting beside her made no comment or warning, totally trusting that the experience was more than sufficient learning. Not surprisingly, at the next bend Cella drove slower and more carefully.
We have looked at how to intervene in conflict in a compassionate way. But the most effective and valuable education in the long term is not to intervene in conflict at all, unless it is absolutely necessary. In this way children learn about the consequences of their actions and experience taking responsibility for themselves and each other; to work out their own strategies for resolving or avoiding conflict, problem solving – from a very young age.
In Jan Albert and Irma’s family there was almost no intervention. Irma remembers how relieved she felt when she realised she no longer needed to be the judge.
Instead of power over our children we want power with them, through understanding and a sense of equality with them – where growing and learning are motivated by a reverence for life, rather than fear, guilt, shame, or anger. We want our children to be their unique selves, authentic, real. We want them to live according to their own moral conscience.
This does not exclude clear and firm guidance, particularly when the children are young. When they see and sense this clarity in their parents, and see them living that in their lives, we can trust that they will become their own expression of that in their own time.
When Cella was 13 her goat was killed by a horse. Annika’s dog Kawa had frightened the horse, which then kicked in panic. The goat happened to be right behind the horse.
Annika felt partly responsible, she had recently come to our community, and there had been some concern amongst us about the young dog. It would not have been surprising if Cella had wanted to blame the dog and Annika. But in fact Cella had compassion for an upset Annika, as well as feeling upset about her dead goat of course.
Demands on our children, like “You should share” (not sharing is bad) are not part of NVC thinking. As with all judgements I am actually saying that I know what is best for you.
All of us, especially children, tend to resist commands like this. We have a profound need for free choice, to follow our own spirit. When a child hears “You should…” he has two options: to rebel – to protect his autonomy- or to submit – to buy love.
When we try to impose our own morality on our children, it will almost certainly backfire sooner or later. Especially by the teen years, if not before.
“You can’t make your kids do anything. All you can do is make them wish they had. And then, they will make you wish you hadn’t made them wish they had.”
― Marshall B. Rosenberg
So there is obviously no room for the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. Reward for performing according to what we want, and punishment for when the child does not.
Even when praise seems harmless and we want to encourage the child, it can have unexpected consequences. Irma still remembers when Yiba was 3 she was playing with a paper dart. At one point Irma commented, ‘Wow, that was a good throw!’ The next throw the dart went Plop! straight to the ground. Immediately Yiba looked to her mother as if to say, ‘So what do you think of that?’
If Irma had not expressed her ‘Well done!’ Yiba may well have enjoyed each dart flight equally and not looked at her mother for a judgment of her throw.
This may seem a trivial example, but for Irma it was a big learning that she still remembers 15 years later.
We want our children to live their life out of their own exploration, their own motivation and choice, not through any praise or punishment.
And creativity! The mother driving the car was becoming highly irritated with her twin boys in the back seat fighting. When she guessed that they were feeling bored and needed movement she let them run behind the car for several miles! What a relief for everyone involved.
The Early Years
Let’s go back now to “those critical early years” Robin Grille writes about. The empathy process can actually begin surprisingly early, in the first weeks after birth.
In the Diaper Free approach (Ingrid Bauer, Diaper Free – The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene) much more is at stake than avoiding nappies in the landfill. Far more important is the process of intimately tuning into the baby. The mother tunes into the baby, with the intention of recognising her elimination needs. When the baby wants to pee or poo the mother helps her to fulfil those functions easily and comfortably, not left to her own devices in nappies ~ in an atmosphere of respect for the baby’s ability to communicate her needs.
Soon mother and baby are developing a multitude of connections, a deep love and care, trust and respect for each other, the beginning of a lifelong relationship. (Not surprisingly, Ingrid Bauer practices NVC as well.)
And no wonder this whole approach we are discussing is sometimes called Partnership Parenting.
How else does NVC apply in that first year or two? Foremost is a total commitment by the parents to a nurturing, loving relationship as a couple. For years I have been observing Irma and Jan Albert living this commitment to the full, almost every day spending at least an hour together, usually just the two of them; sharing their lives, nourishing their relationship, keeping it alive.
Of course this is not easy when you have babies and the children are very young. The transition from being a couple to having that first baby is a huge change. Lack of sleep alone can create deep tensions.
This is where they found the tools provided by NVC to be vital, how to keep communicating compassionately but honestly with each other, and from there with their children.
When I look at this family I daily see the enormous benefits of laying those foundations of compassionate connection right at birth, eliminating the so called “terrible two’s” right through to the “inevitable challenging teens”. It has also meant the absence of sibling rivalry or any real friction between the children.
To Sum Up…
Carol Black in ‘A Thousand Rivers’ sums up the characteristics that would be valued and admired in a child if they lived in any number of traditional societies around the world:
They are physically energetic; they are independent; they are sociable; they are funny.They like to do things with their hands. They crave real play, play that is exuberant, that tests their strength and skill and daring and endurance; they crave real work, work that is important, that is concrete, that makes a valued contribution. They dislike abstraction, they dislike being sedentary; they dislike authoritarian control. They like to focus on the things that interest them, that spark their curiosity, that drive them to tinker and explore…
Jean Liedloff was inspired by observing indigenous tribes in the Amazon.
Nonviolent Communication helps us with tools to put her Continuum Concept learning into practice.
WantooWantoo, Motueka Valley