Mennonite Parenting Violence

Parenting in the Way of Jesus

My wife and I recently wrote the following article on parenting for Shalom Connections, the newsletter for Shalom Mission Communities.

We didn’t major in parenting in college. Our parents passed on their knowledge to us, but nothing quite prepares you for parenting. It is also something that all parents feel a mix of guilt, regret, and shame about. It’s hard. It can bring out the worst in us. To make matters worse we still have some pretty strong taboos about discussing it with other people for fear of being judged or judging others. Parents can often feel alone in their struggles.

I, Lucas, learned hard lessons about myself and parenting when we accepted a position in Bolivia working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in 2010. We had two young kids, and we were moving to a new country, culture, language, and work. The process of orientation went through almost 5 months of transitions, language school, and homestays. When we finally settled into our house in Charagua, Bolivia, our oldest child was often very emotional. He would have outbursts of anger that I had no idea how to handle. I often responded with my own anger and frustration at not being able to control his behavior. Then I would feel terrible guilt after yelling or using fear or intimidation to try and get him to do what I wanted.

I believed in nonviolence. I had graduated from seminary and could argue theologically about nonviolence as the way of Jesus. I belonged to a Mennonite faith community. I had signed up to serve with MCC in Bolivia. Yet, in many ways, I had not really begun to confront the violence within myself.

Thank God we worked with MCC which has a library of resources on nonviolence, including the book Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg on nonviolent communication. It was very uncomfortable in that book to be confronted with my own unhealthy patterns in relating to my kids, but I was able to see the truth in it and some hope for how things could be different. I see this as the beginning of a long process of unpacking and understanding what nonviolent parenting means and what it looks like. After 8 years of this work, I can say that it has been about understanding myself and my own unhealthy patterns more than it has finding tips and tricks for getting my kids to behave or do what I want.

I, Sarah, thought that parenting was about trying to control and manage the kids. If I tried hard enough, I could mold and shape them into who I thought they should be. How could I prepare them for the “real” world? “Say you’re sorry!” “Say thank you!” My first reaction to the title Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids was “Hey! Those kids need to respect me first!” I remember hearing about how manipulative kids could be, trying to get their way or get what they want. As I peeled back the layers of these ideas, I realized how little these ideas respect children.

They weren’t trying to manipulate me. They were trying to communicate their needs as best they could, and it was my job to try to listen to them… to really listen. I also began to see myself as a steward of God’s love for my children. How did my parenting model and demonstrate the unconditional, abundant, and generous love that I knew and experienced in Jesus? Sometimes this has been a difficult and exhausting task. (Thankfully God’s love is not so easily taxed or exhausted for us!)

Our youngest child often expressed her needs and emotions in the form of screaming. We decided a better approach this third time around would be to try and model the behavior we wanted in how we treated and responded to her. So instead of yelling at her to stop yelling (OK, that does still happen occasionally), we tried to validate her emotions and hear her needs. “Those Legos don’t fit together? That does sound really frustrating! Can I help?” or “Do you need a hug?” Sometimes she screams, “Leave me alone!” at the top of her lungs. So we try to give her space and then come back later to talk about it. After a while (months and years really), she now communicates better, apologizes without prompting, and expresses gratitude and love for her family (as well as anger, frustration, and sadness). She does this not because we forced her to say sorry and thank you but because we, as a family, showed her our gratitude and love.

Isn’t this the way of God in our lives? “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us…Dear friends since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Parenting is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and it has taken time to realize that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. We are so glad that we are on a journey of discipleship in the nonviolent way of Jesus that includes not just theory, but the practical application in our home with those we love the most. May we continue to grow in the awareness of the violence in ourselves and in the love, grace, and mercy of our God and our Lord Jesus Christ!

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