One cannot talk about reducing violence in America without a discussion on kindness and children. Kindness begins at home, with those you love and live with. As a psychologist I find it heartbreaking when patients disclose a home-life filled with screaming and where family members yell, blame, attack, criticize, or demonize one another. How is this love? What are you teaching your children when you do this? Such behavior raises dysfunctional, unhappy children who are ill prepared to function emotionally in society. Part of our job as adults is to model for children the appropriate and healthy ways of dealing with frustration. Part of our job as adults is to model healthy boundaries of what is acceptable behaviors and what is not – and how to assert oneself when a boundary is being transgressed. Yelling at family members, blaming, and being overly (or wrongly) critical of children and other family members will not teach children love, compassion, or kindness. It teaches children fear and anger and emotionally cripples them. Love begins in the home. It is for this reason that Mother Theresa’s reply to “How can we promote peace?” was “Go home and love your families.” Psychologically healthy and loving families are the secret key to a kind and nonviolent society. When dysfunction happens in the home it is continued in society with even worse consequences.
Do family members yell and scream at one another in your home? Do they belittle and criticize one another? Or do they provide love, support, and encouragement to one another on a daily basis? Just as parents are responsible for ensuring that the physical environment of a home is healthy and safe, (clean water, no lead, poisons and guns are secured), parents are also responsible for ensuring that the psychological environment of the home is healthy and safe. When we engage in healthy interactions with our children, it teaches them how to have healthy interactions in society. We are responsible for what we teach our children – who learn not from what we tell them – but from what we do. Children learn how to handle anger and frustration from observing how their parents handle it. Children learn how to be appropriately assertive (not aggressive though) if we ourselves practice such behaviors. If we are aggressive, scream, curse, and blame or demean others – then our children will grow up to be this way. We owe it to our children to be self-disciplined and assertive with our needs, without becoming aggressive or behaving in a passive manner. If we consistently demonstrate kindness, compassion, and grace with others, then our children will learn that this is the appropriate way to act. It really is up to you. This also means that you have to get your act together by meditating daily on kindness and compassion, and by practicing regular acts of kindness. This is the only way to rid ourselves of our natural self-centered focus. This also means we must teach our children by extending to them the same grace and forgiveness we ourselves seek from others.
Children are not born hating other humans; they must first be taught that hate and violence are acceptable. They must be taught that some humans are less than their equal or are deserving of death before they will kill. Then they must be taught that it is ok for them to kill others and that killing others is justified.
But we can raise our children better. We have a moral responsibility to our children to raise them in such a way that our grandchildren are likely to live in a more peaceful and stable society. Children are our best hope to change the America of the next generation. Research shows that empathy and kindness can be taught in elementary school – and that doing so both increases the amount of kind acts children perform, while simultaneously reducing violence. Given the level of violence in our country compared to other “civilized” nations like England, Canada, and Australia; why are we not teaching empathy and nonviolence in our schools? We had 80,000 SWAT raids in this country in 2013. Too many of our children know a peer who has been murdered. Too many of our children will grow up to become victims of violent crimes. We can act to change this – but haven’t.
If we believe in the principles of Martin Luther King, then why have we failed to promote them consistently and regularly in every grade, in our sermons, in our political speeches, and in our entertainment? Remember how we changed the message on smoking? At one time large numbers of Americans smoked, yet today it is virtually unacceptable to smoke, and few would even consider dating a smoker. This change occurred only through a concerted effort over a long period of time to rebrand smoking from an acceptable activity to one that is looked down on. We can rebrand violence, we can teach empathy and kindness, and we can instill the principles of nonviolence in our youth and thereby change society over a period of years. It takes work at school districts across the nation but it is doable. This is what we did with smoking, and we can do it again with violence. The alternative is continued violence. This also requires our politicians to regularly resist hateful and divisive rhetoric that promotes an ‘us vs. them’ zero-sum enemy mentality that pits one group of Americans against another group of Americans, and it requires voters to reject any politician who engages in such rhetoric.
The wonderful Fred Rogers, known to millions of fans simply as ‘Mr. Rogers’ of the PBS Series “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”, had some insightful thoughts on children, kindness, and nonviolence. Here are a few of his choice quotes:
“Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children.”
“When I was a boy I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, great physical power; but the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”
“I have always called talking about feelings ‘important talk’. Knowing that our feelings are natural and normal for all of us can make it easier for us to share them with one another.”
Mr. Rogers understood that all of us have feelings, and the importance of teaching children how to handle strong or unpleasant feelings in a way that helps us get what we want without intruding on the rights of others.
Sometimes I am in a restaurant where there is a screaming toddler upset over not getting his way and I think to myself how glad I am that adults don’t act like that screaming toddler just because they did not get their way. Then I realize that many adults do act like toddlers. They scream and throw a tantrum just like a baby if they don’t get what they want. Some people have never learned appropriate ways of dealing with frustration.
More wisdom from Mr. Rogers seems fitting here: “I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings – ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else – we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place.” The minister also said “As different as we are from one another, as unique as each of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults.”
And you thought he was simply a children’s TV show host?
If one thinks about it, violence is self-centeredness acted out while nonviolence is compassion acted out. Violence says ‘I will take what I want’, or ‘I will harm others to avenge my own emotional pain.’ Violence is all about the self, it is self-will run riot. Violence is ultimately caused by focusing too much on the self and on our own selfish desires. This is a spiritual problem. The cure to violence is to focus on the feelings and needs of others. If we really want to end violence in America we must teach empathy and compassion, and we must begin in kindergarten and grade school, preach them in houses of worship, and then reinforce them in entertainment and in political speeches.
We teach non-violence when we teach our children to look at situations from all points of view – including another persons. Empathy & kindness must be taught in school to undergird Gandhi and King’s teachings on peace and nonviolence. The Dalai Lama himself even said “It is vital that when we educate our children’s brains we do not neglect to educate their hearts by nurturing their compassionate nature”. We do this by teaching and practicing the principles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.