General, Montessori, Peace

Teaching Peace

Originally, the post I had planned for today was how to celebrate feasts and festivals without appropriating culture. That still may come. But I woke up this morning to the news of (yet another) mass shooting and, as a good friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, for the fifth time in my life saw headlines declaring it the deadliest mass shooting in modern history. And I wept.

There are many, many issues surrounding this shooting, and I am sure, as has become sadly usual when this happens, those issues will go unaddressed. Gun control. Conspiracy theorists. The refusal to label it domestic terrorism. The tendency to armchair-diagnose mental illness when the shooter is a white man. How to stop it from happening again. Those are big issues, and important ones, but for the purpose of this post, I will stay close to the topic of the small souls that entrusted to us, and how we can teach and promote and keep peace in their lives.


My three youngest attend a public Montessori magnet school this year, and peace is a big part of their curriculum. It’s beautiful really, and I see the emphasis on peace bearing fruit in their daily interactions. The display above was made by Molly a few weeks ago.

One of the basic tenets of Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education was to replace an authoritarian-style of teaching with a curriculum that allowed children to make choices, in the hopes that they would grow into world citizens who were able to make critical judgments and not blindly follow leaders into war. Part of this curriculum were daily lessons, both planned and impromptu,  in grace and courtesy, and a huge part of this was learning conflict resolution and peaceful living. “Averting war is the work of politicians,” said Maria Montessori, “establishing peace is the work of educators.”

In these terrible tumultuous times, there is much we can learn from Maria Montessori and her classrooms. I cannot possibly share them all in one post, but given the terrible state of current events, I will choose a few that might help you and your family navigate your way peacefully through current events.

  • Hold space. I have written about this topic before. If we wish our children to live in peace, it is up to us to protect our children’s environments. We can do this in very concrete ways, such as giving them work spaces and places to save their work and reinforcing a culture of respect, but we can also do it by serving as “gatekeepers.” When 9/11 happened, I was so caught up that I forgot to protect my toddler from the news and the sadness, and he let me know. While it may be impossible to shelter them from everything, we can certainly do our best to protect their hearts and minds from the worst of it.
  • Be deliberate. Children are not born with grace and courtesy skills. They must be taught. We can do this in several ways. Sometimes, we have an exaggerated practice session where we pass things to one another using our fanciest manners. Sometimes this extends to full out dramatic play, dressing up and taking on characters as we practice the proper way of doing things. And sometimes the lessons are almost hidden. I model; they imitate. Kindness, politeness, grace, and courtesy become a very deliberate part of our family culture.
  • Find teachable moments. I had a very sad moment several weeks ago when I realized that my perfect little angels (LOL!) were actually being unkind to another child. Part of it was a sort of pack mentality. The downside of a large family is that sometimes when the children band together they do not use their forces for good. But I tried my best to use this as a teachable moment. There was a lot of “how would you feel if…” talk, some storytelling, and a catchy phrase– “Include, don’t exclude!”– along with a talk about what it meant. And I hope it stuck. When your children fall short of the ideal– and they will, just as you will– there is a temptation to feel embarrassed and angry. But if you can hold the space and use it as a teachable moment, you sow seeds that will bear fruit hopefully for their whole lives. As Gandhi said, “If we are to teach real peace in this world… we shall have to begin with the children.”
  • Create a “calm down” space. Sometimes, we all need a moment to breathe and regroup. Make space in your home for this to happen. We have a “calm down” basket, complete with a small rolled up rug. The rule is that anyone who needs a little space can unroll the rug and use any of the items in the basket any time they want for as long as they want.  There are some stuffies to cuddle, some books about peace, a calm-down bottle, some coloring sheets and crayons… I’m sure there’s more, but I am too tired to go down and sift through it all right now. Counting Coconuts has a lovely post on her peace corner here, and I have some ideas on this Pinterest board. For us, this is a space to go when you need to be alone and calm down. Calming yourself is a first step to making peace.
  • Teach peacemaking and conflict resolution. All things being what they are, I believe strongly that we must be deliberate in our efforts to teach peacemaking. Talk about what peace means. Role play making peace. In our family, apologies have a sort of formula about them. “I am sorry for XYZ. Please forgive me.” Then the offended party either says “I forgive you” or asks for further explanation and clarification until they can come to peace. This extends to the mama as well! Just tonight I had to hold a little man in my lap and say “I am sorry I said those things to you in a way that made you sad. I was worried and want you to do your best, but I should have found a kinder way to tell you that. Please forgive me.” He needed a little more clarification, but in the end, he did forgive me, and we had a bit more of a snuggle and went on with our day. Beyond apologies, we talk a lot about compromising, active listening, taking turns, and showing love.
  • Embrace a culture of peace. We have books about peace. We tell stories about peace. We sing songs about peace. I will share two of our favorites below.

And finally, the question of the day, how to talk to your child about today’s tragedy, or the next one that comes along? Oh my friends, I wish I knew. I can only share my imperfect strategies. This evening in the car, Matthew asked me what happened. First, I tried to determine what he knew. He said he had just heard that a man shot a lot of people. Yes, I said. A man with a gun shot a lot of people in Las Vegas, which is in a different state. Then he asked the big question– why? I wanted to be very careful not to blame mental illness. I wanted to model not jumping to conclusions. So I said one of the most difficult things for parents to say. “We just don’t know. The police are trying to figure that out.” He didn’t seem worried or concerned that it could happen to him, but if he had, I would have reassured him. He actually seemed rather satisfied with the answers he had been given, so I did another thing that is very difficult for me– I let the conversation go.

I suppose if I had to give advice on how to talk to your children about mass shootings or other violent events, it would be

  • Protect them from the news as much as you can.
  • Do not try to avoid their questions.
  • Answer only what they are asking. Do not burden them with extra information.
  • Don’t make guesses on what you don’t know. Saying “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
  • Don’t stigmatize mental illness or a particular race or religion.
  • Reassure, reassure, reassure.
  • When they are finished asking questions, let it rest.

Peace to you, my friends.

Peace to all of us.