Raising Non-Violent Children

by Barbara Unell and Jerry L. Wyckoff

You can discipline without shouting or spanking, pass on lessons of virtue and character, and teach preschoolers to do what you ask!

Today, more than ever, with so much focus on war, violence, school metal detectors, and terrorism, building children’s capacity for empathy and compassion is essential in what has become a battle to preserve humankind.

To help children develop their empathy when faced with the stress of war news, violent TV, and bullying in school, monitor their TV viewing and discuss with them what they are seeing, with an emphasis on empathy. There is an established connection between post-traumatic stress disorder and TV viewing, especially when images, such as the destruction of the World Trade Center and the bombing of Iraq, are being watched. Therefore, parents need to limit their children’s TV viewing as the best way to manage their children’s TV-induced stress.

A recent study from The Journal of Developmental Psychology found that watching TV violence has a long-lasting impact on children. An increase in aggressive adult behavior, including spousal abuse and criminal offenses was found, regardless of how the adults behaved as children.

We recommend that preschool and elementary school-age children avoid war coverage. Because children process information visually, and visual images have a much greater emotional impact than words, children may be profoundly impacted by what they see. Views of buildings exploding and people running in the streets can frighten children because they don’t know where it’s happening. For them, it could be next door.

Children can develop fears that are out of proportion with reality, so limiting what they see on TV is imperative, and discussions of war and politics should be curtailed while children are around. Bottom line: Don’t let children of any age watch alone. Be prepared to ask questions about what they’re seeing to give you a better understanding of what their perceptions are of the news stories. Children need to understand that there are options that they have other than violence to resolve issues, so this is a good opportunity to walk them through more peaceful strategies.

Ultimately, teaching children empathy and compassion for others is the best way to keep them from being overly stressed by violence. They will see that non-violent ways can win and help others learn to get along. This avoids the sense of helplessness that often accompanies witnessing acts of violence.

Some positive points to remember:

  • Keep your own anxiety under control when around your children. Seek professional help if you find that you cannot cope alone.
  • Keep your discussion about world events appropriate for children’s different developmental levels. For example, your teen may want to discuss biological weapons, but your elementary-age child my only need to know that the war is far away, and his family is protected and safe.
  • Spend your time listening to your children and asking questions, so you know their level of anxiety and concern, and can help them cope.

The Importance of Empathy In Understanding World Events

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives. All children are born with the capacity to have and use empathy, although research indicates that this ability varies from child to child as he grows, and that girls have a greater capacity than boys to read emotions. Nevertheless by 2 years of age, both boys and girls are able to understand others’ feelings. By age 4, children have the ability to comprehend the reasons for others’ feelings. However, if empathy is to grow and flourish, parents must nurture its development.

The most important factor in building and maintaining empathy in children is respecting their individuality by modeling empathy, understanding and caring—regardless of how difficult a child’s behavior may be to manage. Using shouting or spanking to manage children’s behavior erodes their ability to be empathic. When we react with anger, we teach them to act without considering another person’s feelings—a consequence we need to avoid.

Studies by JoAnn Robinson, Ph.D. of the University of Colorado, support this truth. She reported that greater maternal warmth is associated with increases in children’s empathy during the second year of life, but children whose mothers control them with anger showed decreases in empathy. Without empathy, it’s nearly impossible for children to learn to share toys, play well with others, to avoid angry and violent reactions to adversity, and take personal responsibility for their actions. With empathy, children increase their ability to become loving, caring adults who raise their children with respect and compassion. And so it can go, generation to generation.

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