Peace isn’t a want, it’s a need.
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It’s hard to say my home is peaceful — we have five kids, ages 9, 7, 4, 2, and 2 months. But 2 years ago, we made intentional changes in our parenting that have brought peaceful moments to our daily life — kids working, cooking, and playing together without the screaming, jealousy and sibling rivalry that used to plague all our time together. Changing our parenting was very hard — our unexpected switch to homeschooling really forced my husband and I to get on the same page with our parenting techniques and be very intentional about our parenting choices. But whether you homeschool or not, every family needs peaceful times together. Peace isn’t a want, it’s a need. If your family is going to stay together, love each other, and be a family, you need to teach how to live in peace. Here are the five approaches that have helped our family be more peaceful:
1. Attitude is a choice.
I say it all the time, like a broken record: “Attitude is a choice.” We teach our kids the difference between emotion and attitude. You may not be able to control your emotions or feelings inside, but you can control your attitude. Our four year-old may be consumed with jealousy that his sister got the biggest taco, but he needs to control his attitude and ask nicely to share rather than grabbing it off her plate.
When I was a brand-new physician, I learned to control my attitude the hard way. A baby I had spent several months caring for in the hospital died unexpectedly. I spent two hours with a team of health care providers doing CPR, pushing cardiac drugs, and trying to save his life. And he still died. I sat with his family and cried. By the time it was all over, I had a backlog of patients who had been waiting too long to see me. Tired and stressed, I fought back the tears and saw my next patient. While seeing my next patient I was impersonal and made a comment this family found rude. They complained to my boss about my bad attitude, and I got in trouble. I learned the hard truth — it doesn’t matter if my last patient died; I have to walk into every patient room with a smile on my face and a good attitude. Attitude is a choice, even if emotion is not.
If I don’t teach my kids attitude-control, someone else will, and not very nicely. Sometimes, as a form of discipline, my kids even have to write essays about how to choose a good attitude. It might seem harsh, but learning attitude-control is fundamental for success in any walk of life. Kids with bad attitudes struggle to make and keep friends at school. Grown-ups with bad attitudes are the first to get fired, no matter how smart, attractive, or skilled they are.
Oh, and I have to control my attitude at home, too. When I am not cheerful, my kids throw it right back at me: “Mommy, attitude is a choice!” They love to say this if I get angry, which brings me to #2…
2. Words can hurt more than spanking.
I don’t spank or hit my kids, but it took me too long to realize that I could be just as hurtful with my words. I’ve said things I could never publish in a blog post. I did it because it worked — it actually made my kids change their behavior. But behavior change that comes from hurt, physical or emotional, isn’t long term effective behavior change. As parents, we have to use kind words, even when we are frustrated and angry. Yell less, or hopefully don’t yell at all.
Instead of getting angry, label behavior. I got this from Sesame Street — there’s one scene where Cookie Monster is accused of lying about stealing cookies. Frustrated and upset, Cookie Monster says, “Me glutton, not liar.” If Sesame Street can use words like “gluttony” to label behavior, so can I. So now we use words like “jealousy,” “gluttony,” “patience,” “kindness,” “diligence,” and “charity.” It sounded weird at first, but now I love it when six-year-old tells her teasing brother, “That’s not charity!”
These days we are much better at giving consequences without yelling or anger. If there’s hitting, I just say, “That’s not kindness,” and send the child to time-out, which in our house is in the bathroom (so you can’t say, “I need to go potty!”) Older kids often have to write an essay reflecting on their behavior while they are in time-out. Sometimes we give out extra chores, make kids do chores for someone they have offended, or use natural consequences (ie: if you draw on your clothes, you still have to wear those clothes).
Unkind words are not acceptable between siblings, either. There is no freedom of speech inside our home. I don’t subscribe to, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We give consequences for being a mean sibling, and ask our kids to think about why they wanted to be mean. I do explain to my kids, though, that in the world outside the home we have freedom of speech, and it’s legal to say mean things, and we still can’t hit back, which brings me to #3…
3. Cut out all physical violence — all of it.
I see “rough play” and “sibling rivalry” in the ER all the time, kids whose sibling pushed them off a bunk bed, rode over them with a bike, twisted their arm while wresting, etc. Usually the whole family is in the ER and everyone’s laughing about the incident, but a broken leg just isn’t funny to the victim (or the parents paying the ER co-pay). An angry little slap or push between siblings is still an assault. If a behavior is illegal outside the home, it’s not acceptable inside the home.
Sibling bullying is real and causes both mental and physical illness. A 2013 pediatric research study found that kids who experience sibling aggressive behavior have a higher rate of mental illness.
Have a no-tolerance policy for any physical violence — slapping, kicking, spitting, biting, weggies, pushing pencils into skin, and anything else they can think of. We talk about unacceptable behavior and the consequences thereof each morning at our family meeting, which brings me to #4…
4. Have a family meeting every morning.
Every school classroom, from pre-K through high school, starts with a morning “meeting” or announcements. Why? Because setting expectations prevents debating and misbehavior. When our kids were in school we had our “meeting” in the car on the way to school each day. Now, as homeschoolers, we do it in the living room. We talk over the schedule for the day, set expectations for behavior, and clearly define consequences for misbehavior. I’ll say to my 4-year-old, “Your brother has a piano lesson at 3:30. If you can read books with me without whining through the lesson, we’ll build that Lego dinosaur together when we get home.” We also discuss dinner and ideas for family outings. Once the kids know what they have to look forward to, they are motivated to get through their work for the day. Which brings me to #5…
5. Plan lots of fun stuff.
Fun activities are my currency as a mom — my motivation to get my kids (and me) to work hard. Plan something fun for your family every day — even if it’s just a good dinner, or 20 minutes of family Lego building before bed. I have to intentionally plan this stuff, even dinner. Between soccer, dance, choir, and scouts, it’s hard to actually do anything together as a family if it’s not planned. It’s tempting to skip family dinner due to tightly packed evening practices. About once a week we schedule a family outing together. It’s really true — the family that plays together stays together.
Establishing a framework for peace, even if it isn’t always 100% successful, will give your kids the skills and disposition to gracefully manage their future relationships with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, bosses, and authority figures. And your home will be a much more peaceful – and happy – place.
Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MDis an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children. She is a regular contributor to Aleteia, ChildrensMD, CatholicPediatricsand CatholicMom, as well as multiple TV and radio outlets. Connect with Dr. Berchelmann at KathleenBerchelmannMD.com.