A Parent's Way to the Heart
Oakland CA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 3, May-June 2003, p. 104
I vividly remember the first time I got really mad at my son. He was about two years old, and I had just asked him not to turn on the computer. At that moment, keeping the computer off seemed very important to me. My son gazed at me with an unfamiliar look in his eyes. I imagined he was thinking to himself that he really wanted to stop, as I had asked, yet he seemed compelled to move forward anyway. While still looking at me, his little body catapulted itself toward the computer, his fingers reaching out to turn it on. To my utter astonishment, my body, too, lunged forward, my arms circled him as I pulled him away from the now buzzing computer, and I heard myself yelling, "No!"
I was grateful to regain my equilibrium in just a moment as I noticed that this was not how I wanted to hold my child or speak to him. Immediately, I expressed my sadness at having grabbed him and my desire to touch him only gently. What began as a "power struggle" and had threatened to turn into a full-fledged, mutual "tantrum," turned instead into a moment of sweet connection as we snuggled on the floor, talking about what led him to turn on the computer, and what led me to try to hold him back.
I have certainly gotten angry in the years since that incident, but I am grateful to know a process I can almost always rely on either to prevent me from venting my anger at my child or to help us reconnect if we have acted in ways that we didn't like. This process, nonviolent communication, focuses on understanding and meeting people's core human needs.
Two of the toughest challenges most parents talk with me about have to do with anger-their own and their children's-and with lack of cooperation. In using and teaching nonviolent communication (NVC), I have found that there is no greater antidote to anger, nor a quicker resolution to power struggles, than connecting with both my child's and my own deeper needs and trying to meet them.
In the moment after my son turned on the computer, my NVC training jump-started my heart and helped refocus my attention: the intense attachment I had felt to keeping the computer shut off paled in comparison to how much I want to treat my son gently! This is what matters to me: I want to nurture trust between my son and me. I want to show him how I'd like human beings to act toward one another. I want to show him that people can deal with their anger without expressing it in violence. I also want to live according to the values I espouse. How can I ask him to refrain from hitting, biting, pinching, pushing, or pulling when he is angry if what I demonstrate for him is the adult version of those behaviors when I am angry? My desire to contribute to my son in these ways is a powerful motivation to recognize my anger for what it is-an intense emotion that arises in me when my needs are not met. Yet, acting from anger is rarely an effective way to get those needs met. With NVC, instead of succumbing to anger, I can communicate with myself and my son about the heart of the matter at hand: our feelings and needs. Both of us are usually satisfied with the outcome and leave the dialogue with more trust and connection.
Developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and influenced by principles of nonviolence as taught by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, NVC is a path of compassion in action. Key principles of NVC include the idea that everyone's core needs are the same, and everyone's needs matter; that there is no conflict between human needs, just between the strategies we employ to meet our needs; that finding solutions that truly work for everyone usually comes after building connection and understanding; and that human beings contribute to one another more consistently and joyfully when they experience heart connection and choice rather than coercion.
On a practical level, NVC offers a set of communication tools that enhance self-connection and connection with others-specific language that helps us understand and empathize with others' pain and to express our own. We express observations instead of judgments; feelings instead of interpretations; needs instead of strategies; and concrete requests instead of vague wishes or demands. People around the world have been using these principles and tools to deepen connection and trust in personal relationships and to resolve disputes and conflicts between groups.
Focusing on feelings and needs and on making requests instead of demands can seem daunting at first. Yet NVC, like any new language, can be learned and incorporated into everyday life. Connecting deeply with our own and our babies' feelings and needs gives us a wonderful head start, but NVC can be introduced any time, and family dynamics can be transformed-sometimes slowly, other times very quickly.
During one of my recent parenting workshops, a mother expressed deep anguish over the state of her relationship with her teenage son. A key point of contention between them was her need for support in taking care of the household chores. After spending an evening and a morning in the training, she went home for lunch completely confident that her son would still be in bed, having not done his chores. When she found him in bed, however, in place of her usual reproach and demand she expressed her feelings, needs, and a request. Her son did the chores she requested without any argument. After a few exchanges, her son asked, "Mom, why are you talking to me this way?" She replied that she was in a communication workshop and had just learned new skills. He replied, "Well, keep it up, it's working!"
Practicing NVC as a parent has helped me create a family life that is emotionally honest and closely connected. My son and I are each other's teachers, learning together to navigate the complex world of relationships. I'm hopeful that the peace we're working on creating in our home is part of the path to making peace more broadly-in our wider families, schools, work places, and in the world.