I heard an elementary school principal on the radio a few months ago. She was very concerned about her students. She pointed out how often children are exposed to violence (a child can watch one violent incident on television every six minutes; the average child is likely to watch 8,000 screen murders by the end of elementary school). She explained that her school was big on conflict resolution and nonviolence. They had made it clear that violence was not an acceptable part of the school's culture. They had taught students various conflict resolution skills and techniques to deal with disagreements. But since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this principal had noticed an increase in students playing war games during recess. In some cases, it had gotten out of hand
-- children were punched or kicked. There had also been an increase in bullying and other violent incidences in the school. The principal was feeling frustrated. While she and the teachers in her school were trying to teach children about resolving conflicts in a constructive, nonviolent manner, children saw the President of the United States on the evening news talking about catching terrorists "dead or alive." They saw constant bloody images of war in Iraq with justifications of force as the "only option." She wondered how we can expect children to respond to two conflicting messages. Which message carries more weight -- the one from the teachers or the one from the President?
Conflict, security, violence, war, and peace are issues both young and old struggle with. They are complicated issues. They are also critical to the legacy we pass on to future generations. We can start building peace in the world by building peace within ourselves, our families, and our communities. We all have a responsibility to actively participate in making choices about how we resolve conflicts. The view of the world as shaped in childhood and adolescence to a large part determines adult perspectives. Do we have the courage to pass on to children a legacy of a worldview that encourages peace building?
A peace builder is someone who acts in small ways every day to make the world a more peaceful place. As human beings, we have incredible potential. Peace building is based on the hope that we can tap into that potential. It doesn't offer an easy or quick solution. It is an ongoing process of learning for young and old.
We are born with an urge to play and create, to be curious and inventive, to experiment and explore. Our education either affirms these tendencies or smothers them. Education -- in the broadest sense of the term -- is central to peace building. Said Maria Montessori, "Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education." Education means listening, asking questions, and seeking to understand the nature of a problem. It means looking at the problem from your own perspective as well as the perspectives of others. It means learning skills and using them creatively, balancing a concern for yourself with a concern for the larger community. It means building on the past while finding new ways for people to live together peacefully in an increasingly shrinking world.
Peace building may take many forms: conflict resolution programs (training to resolve interpersonal conflicts constructively); violence/bullying prevention programs (reducing violent behaviors); development education (values, human rights); nonviolence education (emphasizing positive images of peace); and global peace education (international studies).
Peace building also requires confrontation with our assumptions about conflict. In confronting conflict, we can choose to take a violent or nonviolent approach. Like violence, nonviolence is a learned behavior. What do you really feel about violence? How do you handle your own anger? And how does that translate to the family and home you create?
There's a critical tie between our own families and the greater family of humanity. By turning our back on the one, we turn our back on the other. Wrote Anwar Sadat:
I could never turn against or show the least lack of loyalty to my family, since this is in sharp contradiction with the family values I was brought up on -- the values that continue to sustain my lifeblood and determine my mental life more effectively than anything else. Indeed, the faith I have in these values deepens day after day, so much that I have come to believe that only adherence to such values can save society
-- that there can be hope only for a society which acts as one big family and not as many separate ones.
Understanding is key to peace building, and understanding is taught at home. We seldom lose our temper when we're focused on trying to understand a situation or another person's perspective. Children who are taught to try to understand why things happen and why people act the way they do will become calmer and more in control. Children need calmness. It gives them a kind of security. Peace and the control of temper is a powerful and important value that is largely a product of love and of the atmosphere created in a home.
In families, we know how to break up. But who teaches us to make up? Part of the reason we don't teach people how to make up is that there's a feeling out there that "good families don't fight." Of course they do! It's essential to have conflict for good health in a family. It gets things out into the open. It allows for the surfacing of occasional discord, unhappy feelings, anger, sadness, disappointment, and frustration. The important thing is to do it constructively and to know how to put things right at the end. Healthy families recognize negotiation as a fundamental human activity. No one ever wants to do things the way we do, and so we go through life on a daily basis negotiating -- who gets the bathroom first in the morning, who gets which section of the newspaper, who gets to watch which TV program. Healthy families also develop certain rituals over time that signal the right time and right way to resolve conflicts. The right time is one in which there is enough time to discuss the issue passionately, rationally, and completely -- and enough time to reconcile.
It is in families and through intergenerational interaction that we can be motivated toward peace. A parent or grandparent looks at their first child or grandchild and realizes that they have a responsibility to create a safe world for this tiny being. The young can also loosen the entrenched perspectives that may develop with age. When you're a teenager, you're willing to question everything and anything, to challenge the beliefs you were brought up with, and to entertain even the most radical points of view. But that changes as you get settled into a position. Then, if you're not careful, the intractability can set in. Most of us tend to hold on to our moral positions because we're afraid (they play a major role in who we are) and we don't see or understand the bigger picture. This bigger picture is important because we forget that our moral positions go beyond our own experience, and they significantly affect the lives of those around us and those who follow us.
Choose to be a peace builder -- and to encourage your children and grandchildren to follow the same path.