We all know the headlines of fear and worry facing our children: bullies, school shootings, apathy and disagreement. But our current responses—overprotecting our kids by keeping them in a nurturing bubble or overreacting by punishing them in advance with zero-tolerance policies and metal detectors—only worsen the problem. It's time to stop viewing our children as either potential victims or perpetrators and empower them as agents for positive change. In other words, we need to prepare our young people to be peacemakers. Not holding-hands-and-singing-songs peacemaking, but the crucial work of compassion, coming together to solve problems and taking risks to assist others.
For more than 20 years I've been visiting schools to teach children the essential skill of peacemaking. I'm always amazed by how hungry young people are—even children, my own included—to make a difference. Our job as parents is to show them the way. Here's how you can prepare kids for the crucial work of healing a broken world.
- Cultivate empathy. One of the key requirements for peacemaking is being able to envision yourself in someone else's shoes. Ask questions that challenge your children to see other people's perspectives—and also try to understand theirs. During play or reading time ask open-ended questions: "Why do you think she did that?" "What would you do in that situation?" And don't only focus on the "good" guys. There are lessons to be learned from understanding what motivates the "bad" characters too: "Why is the Joker so angry?"
- Make donating a habit. Transform giving—even routine giving like trick-or-treating for UNICEF or church tithing—into a family activity. Discuss it so that your kids understand the meaning behind the actions. "Why are we donating?" "What happens with the money we give away?" Or, even better, do what I've done with my daughter's weekly allowance: She not only develops the habit of giving, but she experiences the power of directing her generosity.
- Inspire your children to serve. While volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen is great, it's even better if kids are doing something for which they have a passion. Help your children choose an issue that really matters to them, and then together come up with creative solutions. They may not be able to change the world—yet—but they may improve their little corner of it.
- Be a role model for peace. Some of my meanest moments—and worst language—occur while driving. I know my children learn from this, and not in a positive way. As they are building their moral compass, children pay attention to everything we say and do. Of course, I'm not saying you need to become an idealized version of yourself who never makes a mistake or loses her temper. It's about admitting when you could have reacted differently and taken the high road. This will show your kids that you are figuring out how to be a peacemaker too.
From dance lessons to SAT prep, we think about everything our kids need in their toolboxes for success. Let's make a similar commitment to instilling and modeling the basic building blocks of peacemaking. There's nothing simpler—and nothing more important.