"Don't hit!", "Keep your hands to yourself!", "Don't be mean!".
What is the best way to teach children to defend themselves, their property, their opinions? How can we make sure they will not grow up feeling helpless, but will stand up to those who seek to hurt them? Is it best to tell them not to respond? Is not retaliating always the better, safer option?
More globally, how do you teach your children that sometimes using strength and responding is not only acceptable but a preferred choice. How do you preserve their delicate belief in a just world, in a world that is anything but fair?
I often struggle with my children’s simple questions, all colored in black in white, juxtaposing good versus evil, struggling to incorporate the subtle shades of the gray reality. There will be those who will say that children should be shielded from the cruel reality as much as possible. Yet, as a developmental psychologist and a mom who is learning from her children every day, I would suggest being as honest with them as they are capable of understanding. Violence is prevalent and is unfortunately rampant not only among adults but also among children. That is precisely why these conversations are crucial to prepare our children and equip them with the knowledge and tools they will need to thrive. Provide and share information about current events without judgement, instead allowing them think out loud. You will be able to ask for their opinion, share yours and honestly admit that sometimes even adults do not know what the solution is.
My goal always has been to raise compassionate human beings who are capable of empathy yet are thinking critically. They should not be feeling guilt for someone else’s wrongdoings or lack of audacity to stand up to evil. Instead, I would like them to be open minded, to learn from the past. Enriched with this precious knowledge, they will be able to find their own path, their unique way of contributing towards a better future.
When children learn history early on, when they explore the current events, when they talk about the past experiences of others and their own, they will be capable of drawing parallels, of identifying patterns, and sensing danger when it is lurking nearby. They can think critically and draw their own conclusions. However, more importantly, knowledge is not only the best tool for keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe; knowledge is the bridge for finding the most appropriate solutions for difficult situations we encounter. If the child's past experiences proved that showing strength, fighting back and being able to tolerate temporary negative consequences resulted in positive long-term resolutions, they won’t be afraid of defending themselves later on. Many times, when aggressors see and feel strength, they will show respect, will be willing to discourse and resolve conflicts by compromise.