Our children are now living in a country at war. At this holiday season, many parents and teachers are asking: How can we also teach children to understand and practice peace?
A growing number of educators, international mediators, and child-development experts say the answer lies in a new national commitment to peace education. The methods they suggest can touch the lives of children at every level—in the home and at school, in both local and global communities.
“We must educate children for a life of peace, not just a life of war,” says Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood. “In war, we draw lines and barricade ourselves against the enemy. Educating for peace means building bridges between people—across every divide, including ethnic, racial, religious, and national lines.”
Education for peace emphasizes communication and collaborative problem-solving, as well as care and compassion for others. In introducing children to the needs of others, the challenge is finding the right balance—to awaken compassion without overwhelming children with the troubles of the world. What we do needs to match the child’s age and ability to understand. Children, for example, should be spared scenes of brutality and war damage on television.
We can start with small things, nurturing those qualities in the child and in the family that will lay a foundation for a lifetime of compassion. This can be as simple as making sure each child has a quiet, peaceful place to retreat to, suggests Elizabeth Goodenough of the University of Michigan, editor of Secret Spaces of Childhood and editor of an upcoming book on children and war.
Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, points out that it is important to think about what children really need in these times. She is concerned that the sale of war toys is up this holiday season. “Such toys may fulfill a need for adults to feel patriotic or support U.S. troops,” says Levin, “but they often channel children into narrowly scripted play, and convey a message that violent play is okay and exciting. Children need more open-ended play materials that enable them to be creative and imaginative and to work out their own needs.”
Research has shown that well-designed violence-prevention and conflict-resolution programs, taught by motivated teachers, can have a significant positive impact on students. For example, independent evaluations of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, an initiative of Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) in Cambridge, Mass., found that it successfully teaches young people the skills of negotiation, mediation, and peacemaking.
ESR currently works in 400 schools around the country. In those schools, educators were better prepared for the events of September 11, says Linda Lantieri, founding director of the program, which includes lesson plans at all grade levels for discussing war, peace, conflict, and prejudice in the context of recent events. ESR also offers guides for talking to children about violence and for responding to violent events through community action by students and schools.
“The children in our programs have learned the healing power of love and respect and understanding,” says Lantieri. “They see the connection between the way they treat one another and the way they will treat the world when they are in charge. We can’t just wait for the next disaster. We have to be ready, with a sense of purpose and vision. That vision is based on the importance of three things: civic engagement, social and emotional learning, and the need to respect and celebrate diversity.”
Other organizations are demonstrating innovative new ways to open peace-building dialogues between students from ethnic and religious groups with long histories of conflict to overcome. The Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Leverett, Mass., for example, is helping to lead older Albanian and Serbian students in Kosovo in inter-ethnic seminars to build tolerance and collaborative problem-solving skills. These students will then be trained to lead such seminars themselves in that painfully divided land. Paula Green, Karuna’s director, says her center is now seeking to set up similar dialogues between American students and students from Islamic countries who are studying in the United States.
As many have noted, peace is not just the absence of war. It is an active state, requiring continual renewal. At this time of war, in a season when so many religions observe holy days, the Alliance for Childhood offers the following ideas to help children create peace:
Eight Steps for Peace Education from the Alliance for Childhood
1. Make Room for Peace at Home.
Outer peace begins with inner peace. Children and adults need special places that give them a sense of privacy and peace, and that can serve as a quiet refuge for times when hurt or angry feelings might lead to violent words or actions. It could be a room or just a corner, decorated simply and lovingly, where any family member can go for quiet reflection, prayer, or to work through turbulent feelings.
2. Find Peace in Nature.
Turn off the television and the computer and go outside. Take children for a walk or let them explore nature in their own way. The beauty of nature is a great balm to the soul. Children often seek out their own secret outdoor spaces, even if it’s only a corner of the backyard.
3. Make Time for Creative Play.
Young children need plenty of time for unstructured, creative play. Research indicates that make-believe social play in particular helps counteract fear and sadness, and also reduces aggression in children. Choose children’s toys carefully, avoiding those than encourage or glorify violence. Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (www.truceteachers.org) prepares an annual guide to help parents choose good toys. The Lion and Lamb Project (www.lionandlamb.org) focuses on how to avoid toys of violence.
4. Engage Children’s Hands and Hearts.
Young children need a direct, hands-on experience of giving. They love to make things, small and large -- their own cards, tree ornaments, cookies, or bread -- for neighbors, family, or friends. They can learn to enjoy sorting through their own things and giving away even some treasured possessions to others in need, if it is part of a family tradition.
5. Establish a “Family Foundation.
”Create a homemade bank for donations -- a miniature family foundation. Parents, children, visitors, and friends can put money in the bank. Children can be introduced to tithing when they receive gifts, earnings, or allowance. Choose a charity together -- one that has personal meaning for the children especially -- to give to. When there is a flood, fire, or other disaster, the family can gather to decide on making a special donation from the family bank. As the children mature, talk to them more about the needs of the world and ways to help.
6. Support Peace Education at School.
Urge your early-childhood center or school to establish or strengthen peace-education and conflict resolution programs. ContactEducators for Social Responsibility (www.esrnational.org) for ideas, like how to create “peace places” in schools, where students can go to negotiate and mediate conflicts and resolve disputes nonviolently.Encourage older students to study a conflict-ridden area of the world, looking at it from two or more perspectives. When students read books and talk to people from each side, they learn that every conflict has many layers and that to build peace one must work respectfully with all sides. Resources for studying the worldwide history of prejudice, conflict, and violence can be found through Facing History and Ourselves (www.facinghistory.org) and the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding (www.karunacenter.org).
7. Face Local Needs.
Help children become comfortable with the people in your community who need help -- the elderly, the disabled, the poor. Starting in middle school, students benefit enormously from working in hospitals, soup kitchens, animal shelters, and the like. Make sure there is someone there to mentor the young person when the work becomes too painful or difficult.
8. Make a Difference in the World.
Help young people find active ways of working for peace, the preservation of the natural world, the relief of human suffering, or other concerns, through organizations like Jane Goodall’s “Roots and Shoots” (www.janegoodall.org), Larry and Jane Levine’s “Kids Can Make a Difference” (www.kids.maine.org), Craig Kielburger’s “Free the Children” (www.freethechildren.org), or Peace Jam, in which students work directly with Nobel Peace Laureates (www.peacejam.org).