Violence and hate crimes have been rising among increasingly younger age groups. Like any other epidemic, we need to define risk factors and strategies for prevention. We also need to recognize that violence cannot be "treated" by punishment after the fact: we have to learn how to prevent it.
Our youth are growing up in a world where they face more stress and mental health challenges, caused in part by a high divorce rate and family conflict. In addition, they must deal with an increased level of violence in their communities, including attacks motivated by biases towards culture, religion, economic status, sexual orientation and other perceived differences.
But violence and aggression can be prevented, particularly as they relate to prejudice. And as parents and educators have recognized over the years, prevention is the best "cure" for bad decision-making.
The past few decades have seen growing support for conflict resolution techniques, which are proven to reduce violence and aggression as well as improve mental health and learning outcomes. They should be taught in all schools and among all ages, from religious academy to secular institution, inner city to suburb.
I've seen the effectiveness firsthand as a counselor in one of the most diverse New York City public schools. After working with members of gangs to create a student task force to reduce violence, I can attest to the benefits of a prevention- vs. punishment-based approach.
Often adults don't recognize that such values and skills should be taught in schools and at home. Teachers often say, "I barely have time (or resources) to get through the required curriculum... they’re supposed to learn this at home...” On the other hand, parents often expect children to learn everything they need to learn in school to prepare them for the world. Thus conflict resolution skills (which help build "emotional intelligence"-- a greater factor in success than IQ) often remain on the back burner.
Learning Conflict Resolution is enlightened self-interest. It shows us that there does not have to be a loser for every winner. It's not contrary to human nature, nor is it a Utopian ideal. Whether in a sandbox or in the global arena, conflicts get resolved when participants see that they can gain more through cooperation than through aggressive confrontation, especially in the long term.
Parents have reported that these skills carry over from school into the home. On the flip side, parents and partners who practice skills of emotional intelligence (evalidating feelings, listening with empathy, communicating needs without harsh criticism or attack) discover their children are more likely to succeed in their school and, later, work environments, whether or not they were raised by two biological parents. These children have learned to navigate the ups and downs of their emotions, and of relating to others.
Teaching conflict resolution starts early by creating an atmosphere of cooperation, and acceptance of differences based on a child's physical or academic abilities, sexual orientation, cultural or other characteristics. Using put-downs and humiliation to gain the upper hand (or as a form of 'discipline' and control) is a strategy that should be avoided and discouraged, as it tends to result in aggression and lose-lose outcomes.
Children have been shown to be more cooperative, value others, and seek positive solutions to conflict when they are part of an environment in which acceptance and mutual respect are the norm. And research shows that students learn better in a caring, supportive classroom in which conflicts are minimized and respect for differences is upheld. My experience and that of a growing number of educators across the country attest to the value of teaching caring as well as content in the classroom.
While intending to help children succeed, parents and educators can unintentionally send mixed messages on how to treat others. An emphasis on performance alone does nothing to foster the caring environment which builds compassion, cooperation or emotional intelligence. It is only natural for parents in our society to want to give their children a competitive edge, but beware of too great an emphasis on competitive academic (or athletic) performance at the expense of "emotional intelligence."
Research demonstrates that kids learn best what we teach them by our example, by the extent to which we affirm and exemplify positive, peaceful alternatives. The central premise of conflict resolution is one most of us would agree with: whatever our conflicts and differences, it would be better to resolve them peacefully than through verbal or physical threats or aggression.
We may never live in a world where unfair aggression is always recognized, let alone swiftly addressed. But the key is to prevent conflict from escalating in the first place. We have to bring compassion, along with our desire for justice, to the bargaining table. In so doing, we may change the way people relate to each other. This is a slow process, but a necessary one.
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Want to prevent violence in your own family or classroom? Some good books to get started are The Friendly Classroom for a Small Planet, A Manual on Nonviolence and Children, Raising Nonviolent Children in a Violent World, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, and Nonviolent Communication. You can also visit www.http://crc-global.org, the website of Creative Response to Conflict, an international non-profit based in Nyack, NY.