It's going to be a long hot summer. Kids can, and will, get cranky. Tempers may flare, and parents will get the urge to scream. What can you do to make this summer a more peaceful one? Naomi Drew, author and parenting expert, presents a workshop,
"Creating a Peaceful Summer With Your Kids: Practical Ways to Make It Happen," Tuesday, June 21, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton. Sponsored by the Coalition for Peace Action, the workshop will teach parents how to maintain their sanity by providing practical, hands-on solutions for conflicts, anger, fighting, whining, and other negative behaviors that inevitably crop up in the family setting.
While Drew will offer a variety of activities to help parents use the summer to build a better relationship with their children, the real goal is to meet the needs of those parents who are looking at the summer calendar, sometimes with dread. "This workshop will provide very practical strategies to work out conflicts parents may have with their children, as well as help your children work out conflict among themselves," says Drew. "I'll cover anger management skills for parents - techniques to lower the level of their own reactivity, allowing them to handle disagreements constructively, so they don't blow up into something really difficult."
Drew stresses different methods that empower parents to communicate in assertive ways, strategies that don't feed into conflict but instead defuse it. And, she says, you're never too old to learn new ways to communicate.
A Lawrenceville resident of 13 years, Drew works regularly with groups of at-risk youngsters in Trenton, Princeton, and other communities on conflict resolution, anti-bullying, gang resistance, and anti-violence. She taught elementary education for 24 years, most recently in South Brunswick, and holds a B.A. in education from the College of New Jersey. She obtained a masters in writing from Northeastern University in 1997.
Drew has written six books including "Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World," "Learning the Skills of Peacemaking," and the award-winning "Kids' Guide to Working Out Conflicts: How to Keep Cool, Stay Safe, and Get Along." Two more books are in the works: "Conflict Resolution for Women," and an easy-to-read version of the "Kids' Guide" for elementary-school-age children.
'A lot of the strategies in the 'Kids' Guide' for dealing with conflict comes right from the kids," Drew says. "I've taken their actual words from a survey conducted with more than 1,000 children. I'm in schools all the time, so I talk to kids about what kind of problems they're having."
According to Drew, parents everywhere have the same problem with their children: getting them to listen. "That's the top one. Years ago it was, 'I'm the parent, you have to listen and that's it.' And we can't feel guilty about that because that is the way we were raised and socialized. Things are hazier today. We are living in a gray area in terms of parenting, and people are confused about their role. Sometimes they think they have to be friends with their kids. The truth is you don't have to be friends, you have to have a bond and trust, communication, and respect. But you also have to honor your role as parent and expect your children to honor that, too."
A challenge parents face, especially those who have been raising their children to speak out for themselves, is what to do when they start speaking back. How, exactly, does one stop the shouting and move on to a peaceful family existence? For starters, Drew says, schedule regularly-held family meetings that take place during a quiet, neutral time. As every parent knows, it's hard to talk rationally when you are fuming.
"I advise parents to sit down at a family meeting to enable children to have a voice and to take part in the problem-solving that comes with being a part of the family. Start off by acknowledging your child and telling them how much you love them, and then acknowledge that a problem exists."
Drew says parents need to be clear with their children. While certain things are negotiable, and we have to make compromises, not everything needs to be negotiable - that's not a good thing. She suggests language like, "There are certain things I'll let you make decisions about and certain things I won't. You may not like those things but that's just the way it is."
"Parents need to hear the child out but the child also needs to hear the parent out. That needs to be established at the very first meeting. A parent can say, 'I'm going to let you have your say, and I will entertain your suggestions. But by the same token, in order to be a caring and respectful person, you need to honor my right to be heard.'"
Drew stresses the use of "I" messages, rather than "you" messages, as in "I understand that you have opinions about things, but sometimes that creates problems, and we have to find a better way to work together," rather than, "You have gotten really difficult."
"Children follow our lead, and we have to model what it is we want to see them do. If we're disrespectful to them in the heat of anger, we are going to hear the same things out of their mouths at some point. We need to be responsible for our behavior. Instead of saying, 'You're a really rotten kid,' try saying, `I'm really annoyed because this or that happened.' State your displeasure in a non-attacking way without the use of negative labels."
Practicing "I" statements helps them come to mind more readily when you actually need them. Another important tactic is reflective listening - repeating back to the child what you just heard them express. "What kids want desperately is to be heard," says Drew. "And that is what we want most from them as well - to hear us. But we tune each other out when we're yelling."
Drew says that when teenagers or pre-teens buck authority, that is exactly what they are supposed to be doing - at least developmentally. That doesn't mean, however, that it is an easy thing for parents to swallow.
Once you've gotten the mutual respect issue down, Drew suggests it's time to put together guidelines. She uses the word guidelines because of a child's natural inclination to abhor "rules." The first guideline might be everyone must act respectfully to each other in the family, or that the child needs to listen to Mom and Dad.
Then come the consequences. At that family meeting, parents need to establish the fact that there will be consequences attached to actions that are deemed disrespectful, or whatever the parents feel are unacceptable. When you tell your child they may not do something and your child retaliates by swearing, then the consequences kick in.
Drew says that children often come up with more stringent consequences for themselves than their parents. It is important to let them know that we will hold them accountable. But, she suggests, first parents need to hold themselves accountable.
"I remember telling my children, no TV for the next six months. But that was only punishing myself. Then I had to go back and retract it because I knew there was no way I would ever stick to it. That is why it is really important to establish consequences ahead of time because in the heat of the moment we say really inane things.
'But if we know what the consequences are ahead of time, and our child knows, then the onus really falls on us. Because, then, if they start mouthing off and the predetermined consequence for disrespecting Mom and Dad is losing the TV for the following 24 hours, we can't cave. Otherwise we reinforce our children's negative behavior by not following through on what we say we're going to do."
The last step, Drew says, is to produce a written agreement. Write down what you agree to and what consequences will ensue if the agreement is dishonored. Then when a guideline gets dishonored, everyone has already agreed to the consequence.
But is it possible for a family already at the brink and angry all the time to actually learn new techniques?
"Without question," says Drew. "Every day presents a new opportunity to change. When we get into these difficult periods, that is where our greatest opportunity lives. That is a very important lesson for children. When we're in a period of difficulty, we have free will and the power to make those times better.
"This summer can be a wonderful opportunity to live moment by moment and choose peaceful behaviors, not disharmony. We have the capacity to make that choice every moment of our lives and to teach our children to do the same. The whole idea is for your children to pass it on to their children."
Drew grew up as the oldest of six children. Her father, Phil Schreiber, now 80, worked in pharmaceutical sales. Her mother Molly, now deceased, was a homemaker and an artist who greatly influenced her daughter. "My mother was very unusual. She always talked about world peace. She believed that we needed to find ways to live peacefully together. She is the only person I ever knew who, when she blew out her birthday candles, always wished for world peace. Isn't that powerful? As a kid, I didn't take those words seriously.
"The whole idea behind my work is if we want to have a more peaceful world, it has to begin with every single one of us in the ways we behave in every single moment - in the actions we take, the words we speak, and the attitudes we hold dear. Picture parents all over the world coming from the same perspective. What is the possibility of that next generation if they are raised in homes that have this perspective and if it is taught in school?"
If Drew had to leave parents with one thought it would be this: perspective. "Remember that this is one finite moment in time, and we have the power to create each moment as a relatively peaceful one with our children."
"Creating a Peaceful Summer with Your Kids: Practical Ways to Make It Happen," a workshop with Naomi Drew, Tuesday, June 21, 7 to 8:30 p.m., Nassau Presbyterian Church, Nassau Street, Princeton. For more information call the Coalition for Peace Action at 609-924-5022. For more information about Naomi Drew visit her web site at www.learningpeace.com.