Comic 1: Sibling Rivalry

Look carefully at this comic.  With whom do you most identify?

Comic Strip sq rev


A. The exasperated mother, of course! Why do kids fight over toys that are exactly the same?

B. The little girl. I hate it when someone constantly watches me or my stuff!

C. The little boy. I’m always keeping my eyes open for my opportunity to take what I want!

D. A bit with all of them.

I’m guessing that, since most of our readers are adults, and those who aren’t parents may have at least had experience babysitting, many of you will identify with the exasperated mother. I know I often do!

And when in the position of the exasperated parent (or caregiver), trying to catch a moment of relaxation (or, worse, in the middle of something very important), kids fighting, especially over something that seems completely irrational, is so incredibly frustrating. We may, like this mother, recite little platitudes trying to pacify one or more of our children. Or we may try to suggest some alternate form of play (or chore) to “redirect.” Or we may “lose it” and shout out something like “Quiet!” or “Why can’t you two [three, four, etc.] get along!” I have done all of these things, and I don’t judge anyone (including myself) for these methods of handling sibling rivalry. But none of these methods really address the issue at hand.

Perhaps some of you identified with one or the other child. Taking a moment to empathize with children is perhaps the most important step in being able to understand and resolve their conflicts (but the path is not always straight and clear!)

I know that when I first saw this comic, while I could understand the mother’s exhausted bewilderment, I was most struck by the poor little girl’s sad face at the end. It made me yearn to understand her. And when it occurred to me that I already understood the mother, and wanted to understand the girl, then I realized I also wanted to understand the little boy. He seems the only one happy at the end of the strip, but ironically, he’s also the only one without a voice at all. And as the mother of a toddler, I often feel like toddlers are the most bewildering people on the planet. I would love to understand them better!

So as I examined this comic more closely, I tried to understand it from each character’s point of view. From a Girardian perspective, the reason for the conflict is natural… and less “childish” than we might like to imagine!

Change Your View:

First, imagine you are the little boy. New to the world, you are learning what you want and what to do by watching others. You watch your big sister, see the things she likes to play with, and those things become desirable to you. More than just toys, your sister also has the pride, love, and (sometimes) attention of your parents. You have those things too, but when you see your sister receive them, you want them even more. This is natural. It is how human beings learn desire. You’re not consciously processing any of this; you just see what others close to you have, and you want those things. As you grow, you will learn to discern and discriminate, but the basics of receiving desire from those around you won’t change, they’ll just become fine-tuned.

Now, imagine that you are the little girl. You see your brother eyeing you and your things constantly. You know he wants your stuff… time and again, he has reached out and grabbed it! When you spy him looking at you, you know he’s only a step away from making his move. You try to tell your parents, but they don’t see anything wrong with his eyes staring in your direction. Then he starts to do what you do, and he’s infringing on your space. You say, “He’s copying me,” and your parents say some strange words that seem to amount to telling you that (1) you shouldn’t worry, and (2) you should be happy that he’s giving you that kind of attention. When he finally tackles you to get what he wants, you feel angry, sad, deflated.. And you’ve seen him take more than just your toys. He has also taken the attention of your parents, which is now (necessarily) more divided than it once was. You often feel misunderstood.

The objects of desire may be different, but the roots of many conflicts are the same for adults as they are for children – mutual desire. We are often in the position of the little boy without realizing it – subconsciously forming desires from what we see others having, whether it’s material goods, wealth, position, power, talent, etc. And while we may not consciously calculate how we may acquire something at someone else’s expense, often the things we seek are competitive. Landing a job, for example, often denies another the opportunity to get the same job. We may be far beyond the days of stealing a toy right out of someone’s hand, but we often acquire at someone’s expense. So when we have what we want, we are often in the position of the little girl, guarding what we have, understandably suspicious of others who eye our things, our positions, our successes.

And we may look upon conflicts from the outside bewildered, wondering why people who seem to have so much in common fight. Yet we are oblivious to the fact that our own conflicts also arise from mutual desires and that we almost always have more in common with our adversaries than we would like to admit.

The children fighting in this comic are, in some ways, kids being kids. But they are also humans being humans, and rather than dismiss their fighting as just “what kids do,” it behooves us to understand the roots of their conflicts – and our own!

Change Your Actions:

When we see our children in rivalry, it is tempting to try to ignore it (if it’s not at a screaming or physically violent stage), to try to quell it right away (through bribery or warning of punishment), or to otherwise handle it without really resolving it. But here are some things we can do when we recognize that there is a logic behind their conflict similar to the logic behind our own.

  1. Acknowledge the feelings and desires of your children. You could ask them to explain the conflict in their own words (if they are old enough) so that they know they are being listened to. If you have younger children who struggle with words, you could say things like [to the little girl] “It’s frustrating when your brother wants your things, isn’t it?” and [to the little boy] “Your sister’s toys do look like fun, but so do these toys over here…” I’ve recently found that naming emotions helps even my toddler feel understood.
  2. Explain beyond platitudes. Tell the older child that the younger child is learning who s/he wants to be by watching and listening to her/his older sibling. Acknowledge that while that can be frustrating, it is also an honor, and a responsibility, to be a model.
  3. Model sharing and cooperation. Conflicts often arise over things that we do not know how to share. Some things cannot be shared, but many things can be. I have noticed that my toddler has learned from seeing children and adults rolling a ball. From running to grab the ball out of its path to another child to (sometimes) sitting and waiting for the ball to be rolled to her, my little one is showing signs of learning how to share. It’s a long process!
  4. Ask for ideas from friends. (Readers, I’m talking to you!)

With some modification, these ideas can be applied to our own conflicts as well. I admit that they are more easily said than done, but if we constantly remind ourselves to see the mutual desire at the heart of a conflict and redirect the resolution of that desire from competition to cooperation, we can more clearly help our children to do the same, and thereby build a more peaceful world.

Image: Special thanks to Susan Drawbaugh, who created this and other comics for the Raven Foundation.

Change is coming! Be sure to enter the random drawing to win a $50 gift card at the online store Ten Thousand Villages. For 65 years, Ten Thousand Villages has been a leader in the fair trade movement, connecting artisans in developing countries with markets in North America. Every dollar spent on their site helps a family in poverty build a sustainable future. Visit Raven on April 15 to see what’s new on our site and to find out the winner of the drawing.


Valentine’s Day Tip for Parents: Become Your Toddler’s Secret Admirer

This video is my way of saying Happy Valentine’s Day to the parents and grandparents of young children. You know, at the Raven Foundation we often talk about how we can lose touch with our best selves when we get caught up in rivalry. And parents know that the worst form rivalry can take is the dreaded power struggle with our children. How is it that we can become so adversarial with the very ones we love with all our hearts?

Maria Montessori had an explanation for this dynamic and a way to get the love back. She observed, “Yes, of course, we all love children, we love them a great deal, but… we do not understand them. We do not do what we should for them, because we have no idea what it is we should do.” Too often, she cautioned, when we are caught up in power struggles, we act like a dictator who “wants others to obey his will and refuses to take their personalities into account. The principal [parenting] problem as the adult sees it is: How can the child be made to obey? Should he be dealt with tenderly or severely?”

When our chief parenting concern is obedience or good behavior, we have quite unintentionally become our child’s rival! We have accidentally stumbled into a battle of wills with each side going to extremes to come out on top. We see inconsolable temper tantrums on the one side and the desperate use of more and more extreme punishments on the other. Caught in this spiral, we wonder: Where did the love go? In this video, I explain Montessori’s solution: Learn that your toddler has a secret he cannot help but keep from you. Learning to understand and admire that secret is the key to avoiding power struggles because we begin to see our children’s behavior in a new light. Rather than acts of disobedience, we realize that they are following an inner drive that is too powerful to resist. When you become your child’s secret admirer, you will feel the love flow again – I promise! Happy Valentine’s Day!

Subscribe to Raven Foundation email updates now through Valentine’s Day and receive Suzanne Ross’s e-book, The Wicked Truth About Love, a $9.99 value, as our free gift.

suzanne and kathy1

Helping Children Help Themselves: Insights from Attachment Theory, Mimetic Theory and Dr. Montessori

In the video below, Kathy Frost and I make connections between Attachment Theory in psychology (her thing), the Montessori method (my thing), and mimetic theory (our shared thing!). We talk about the openness of children to the influences of their environment, an awareness that all three paradigms share. “Environment” includes everything, but material things first of all. Sights, smells, tastes, sounds and textures all shape the child through their physical interaction with them.

Of course, adults are part of the environment, too, and how we engage with children has a profound effect on their development. Mirror neurons are active as children learn by observing how adults are acting in the environment. Children observe us and then they try it themselves, practicing until they become perfect. We offer two concrete examples of this: riding bikes and blowing noses!

We discuss how important it is to realize that the help we offer our children can actually hinder their pursuit of new skills and stifle independence. Kathy explains the Circle of Security, a great video that explains the need children have for both security and freedom. This synchs well with Montessori’s insight that the aim of any help we offer “should be to help the child help himself.” She cautions that “the adult becomes an obstacle when he tries to do himself what should be done by the child, to do what in fact can only be done by the child.”

Kathy and I hope our discussion helps you relax more as a parent. As Kathy wrote to me in an email, “We’ll have millions of interactions with our kids, and with many of these interactions we’ll not be at our best (and even far from it).  But as respected psychoanalyst Donald Winnecott said, we just need to be ‘good enough.’” What a relief! We’d love to hear your stories of life with your children. Join the conversation here or on The Montessori Project Facebook page.

Kathy Frost is a social psychologist teaching at St. Joseph’s College, New York. Kathy and Suzanne currently serve on the board of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, dedicated to the exploration of René Girard’s mimetic theory.


Parenting On The Brink: Wrestling With Fears Too Big to Name

Editor’s Note: This article, by guest author and peace activist Frida Berrigan, was first published on

Madeline is in the swing, her face the picture of delight. “Mo, mo,” she cries and kicks her legs to show me that she wants me to push her higher and faster. I push, and push, and push with both hands. There is no thought in my head except for her joy. I’m completely present in this moment. It’s perfection. Madeline embodies the eternal now and she carries me with her, pulling me out of my worries and fears and plans.

But not forever: after a few minutes, my mind and eyes wander. I take in the whole busy playground, crowded with toddlers plunging headlong into adventure and their attendant adults shouting exhortations to be careful, offering snacks, or lost in the tiny offices they carry in their hands. It’s a gorgeous day. Sunny and blue and not too hot, a hint of fall in the breeze. And then my eye is caught by a much younger mom across the playground trying to convince her toddler that it’s time to go.

When Madeline graduates from high school, I will be 57. Jeez, I think, that mom will still be younger than I am now when her kid walks across that stage. If I live to be 85, Madeline will be 46 and maybe by then I’ll have some grandkids.  In fact, I’m suddenly convinced of it.  Between Madeline and her three-year-old brother Seamus and their eight-year-old sister Rosena, I will definitely live to see grandkids.  I reassure myself for the millionth time that having kids in my late thirties was totally fine.

And then another thought comes to mind, the sort of thought that haunts the parents of this moment: When I’m 85, it will be 2059, and what will that look like? When my grandkids are my age now, it could be almost a new century. And what will our planet look like then? And I feel that little chill that must be increasingly commonplace among other parents of 2015.

And then I’m gone. You wouldn’t know it to look at me.  After all, I’m still pushing the swing, still cooing and chatting with my buoyant 18-month-old daughter, but my mind is racing, my heart is pounding. This playground will not be here. This tranquil, stable, forever place wasn’t built to last 100 years, not on a planet like this one at this moment anyway.

I look around and I know. None of this — the municipal complex, the school across the street, the supermarket up the road — is built for 100 years, especially not this hundred years. It won’t last. And I can’t imagine a better future version of this either. What comes to mind instead are apocalyptic images, cheesy ones cribbed from The Walking Dead, that zombie series on AMC; The Day After, a 1980s made-for-TV dramatization of a nuclear attack on the United States; Cormac McCarthy’s haunting novel The Road; Brad Pitt’s grim but ultimately hopeful World War Z; and The Water Knife, a novel set in the western United States in an almost waterless near future.

They all rush into my head and bump up against the grainy black-and-white documentary footage of Hiroshima in 1945 that I saw way too young and will never forget. This place, this playground, empty, rusted, submerged in water, burned beyond recognition, covered in vines, overrun by trees. Empty. Gone.

Then, of course, Madeline brings me back to our glorious present. She wants to get out of the swing and hit the slides. She’s fearless, emphatic, and purposeful. She deserves a future.  Her small body goes up those steps and down the slide over and over and over again. And the rush of that slide is new every time. She shouts and laughs at the bottom and races to do it again. Now. Again. Now. This is reality. But my fears are real, too. The future is terrifying. To have a child is to plant a flag in the future and that is no small responsibility.

We Have Nothing to Fear but…

We mothers hear a lot these days about how to protect our children. We hear dos and don’ts from mommy magazines, from our own mothers, our pediatricians, each other, from lactation experts and the baby formula industry, from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, from Doctor Bob Sears, from sociologists and psychiatrists and child development specialists. We are afraid for our kids who need to be protected from a world of dangers, including strangers, bumblebees, and electrical outlets.

Such threats are discussed, dissected, and deconstructed constantly in the media and ever-newer ones are raised, fears you never even thought about until the nightly news or some other media outlet brought them up. But hanging over all these humdrum, everyday worries is a far bigger fear that we never talk about and that you won’t read about in that mommy magazine or see in any advice column.  And yet, it’s right there, staring us in the face every single day, constant, existential, too big to name.

We can’t say it, but we are increasingly afraid of the future, of tomorrow, afraid for our children in ways that, in themselves, are frightening to bring up. It’s as diffuse as “anything can happen” and as specific as we are running out of ______ [fill in the blank: clean water, fossil fuels, space for people, arable land, cheap food stuffs, you name it]. Even if the supply of whatever you chose to think about isn’t yet dwindling in our world, you know that it will one of these days. Whatever it is, that necessity of everyday life will be gone (or too expensive for ordinary people) by ______ [2020, 2057, 2106].

It’s paralyzing to look at Madeline and think such thoughts, to imagine an ever-hotter planet, ever-less comfortable as a home not just for that vague construct “humanity,” but for my three very specific children, not to speak of those grandchildren of my dreams and fantasies.

It’s something that’s so natural to push away. Who wouldn’t prefer not to think about it?  And at least here, in our world, on some level we can still do that.

For those of us who are white and western and relatively financially stable, it’s still possible to believe we’re insulated from disaster — or almost possible anyway. We can hold on to the comfort that our children are unlikely to be gunned down or beaten to death by police, for example. We can watch the news and feel sadness for the mass exodus out of Syria and all those who are dying along the way, but those feelings are tinged with relief in knowing that we will not be refugees ourselves.

But for how long? What if?

They say: enjoy your kids while they’re young; pretty soon they’ll be teenagers. Haha, right? Actually, I’m excited about each stage of my kids’ lives, but Madeline won’t be a teenager until 2027. According to climate scientists and environmentalists, that may already be “past the point of no return.” If warming continues without a major shift, there will be no refreezing those melting ice shelves, no holding back the rising seas, no scrubbing smog-clogged air, no button we can press to bring water back to parched landscapes.

These are things I know. This is a future I, unfortunately, can imagine. These are the reasons I try to do all the right things: walk, eat mostly vegetarian, grow some of our own food, conserve, reuse, reduce, recycle. We had solar panels installed on our roof. We only have one car. We’re trying, but I know just as well that such lifestyle choices can’t turn this around.

It will take everyone doing such things — and far more than that. It will require governments to come to their senses and oil companies to restrain the urge to get every last drop of fossil fuel out of the ground.  It will take what Naomi Klein calls a “Marshall Plan for the Earth.” In her groundbreaking and hopeful book, This Changes Everything, she writes:

I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity on an even greater scale [than the New Deal]. As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.

Which brings me to fear and how it paralyzes. I don’t want to be paralyzed in the face of catastrophic climate change or any other looming calamity. I want to be motivated and spurred to action not by an apocalyptic vision of our local playground engulfed in flames or submerged under several feet of water, but by the potential for the brighter future than is surely within our grasp — within my grasp today and Madeline’s in some future that she truly deserves.

Preparing for the Unthinkable 

Growing up, I heard this a lot: “Don’t be so First World, Frida.”

That’s what Phil Berrigan — former priest, brazenly nonviolent activist, tireless organizer for peace and justice — would tell me, his eldest daughter. If I was flippant or tweenish, that’s what he would always say, “Don’t be so First World.” It was his rejoinder when I asked for spending money or permission to go to the movies. What he meant was: regulate your wants, consider others, be comfortable being alone, put yourself second, listen, be in solidarity, choose the harder path.

My father’s admonishment sounds a discordant note amid today’s morass of parenting messages with their emphasis on success and ease and happiness. But it prepared me for much of what I encountered along the road to adulthood and it resonates deeply as I parent three children whose futures I cannot imagine. Not really. Will they have clean water, a home, a democracy, a playground for their children? Will they be able to buy food — or even grow it? Will they be able to afford transportation? I don’t know.

What I can do is prepare them to distinguish needs from wants, to share generously and build community, to stand up for what they believe and not stand by while others are abused. When, as with Madeline at that playground, the unspoken overwhelms me, I wonder whether I shouldn’t sooner or later start teaching them how the world works and basic skills that will serve them well in an uncertain future: what electricity is and how to start a fire, how to navigate by the stars, how to feed themselves by hunting and gathering, how to build a shelter or find and purify water, or construct a bicycle out of parts they come across on the road to perdition.

The only problem is that, like most of my peers and friends, I actually don’t know how to do any of that (except maybe for the bicycle building), so I better get started. I should also be planting nut trees in our backyard and working for global nuclear disarmament. I can help New London (a water’s edge community) be prepared and more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and be active in our local Green Party.

I know that there’s no simple solution, no easy or individual fix to what’s coming down the road. I know as well that there is no future except the one we are making right now, this second, again and again and again. And in our world, I call that hope, not despair. Perhaps you could just as easily call it folly.  Call it what you will.  I don’t have a label for my parenting style. I’m not a helicopter mom or a tiger mom. But like a lot of other people right now, whether they know it or not, realize it or not, I am parenting on the brink of catastrophe. I’m terrified for my children, but I am not paralyzed and I know I am not alone, which makes me, despite everything, hopeful, not for myself, but for Madeline.


Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, and lives in New London, Connecticut.

Copyright 2015 Frida Berrigan

Image:  Via Pixabay

Nostalgia at Two – Who Knew!

I certainly did not know that a two year old could look back fondly on her babyhood. But my daughter and I think that’s what’s happening with her daughter, Grace. Here’s what Grace has been doing:

  • Grace has been potty trained for almost six months (it was her idea, really, and my daughter just followed Grace’s lead – but that’s another story!). Lately she has asked to wear diapers during the day and she’ll say things like, “Pooping in the diaper” even though she isn’t actually pooping in it.
  • And she will go in the closet to find the changing pad my daughter used when they weren’t home. Grace will unfold it and lay down and insist that my daughter “change her diaper,” but this go-round Grace helps with the changing routine, which she remembers precisely.
  • She will get down on all fours and say, “Crawl like a baby”.
  • She talks about things that happened when she wasn’t verbal, like pooping in the diaper. Here are two other examples: She points to the fireplace in my new house and says, “Fireplace. Don.” Don is her uncle who last Christmas was in charge of building fires in the fireplace in our vacation home in Utah. Grace was 19 months old then. And last summer, when she was 15 months old, her dad twisted his ankle in the park with Grace in his arms. They both fell to the ground and her dad managed to land Grace safely while he writhed in pain. She now points to her dad’s ankle and says things like, “Ankle. Owie,” and gives her dad a hug.
  • When it’s nap or bedtime, Grace enjoys being cradled like a baby. When I hold her in my arms and sing to her the way I did when she was an infant, she stares intently at my face with an expression I find hard to describe. But it’s the same look her mother wore when I held her in my arms in the hours after she was born. My newborn daughter stared intently at my face as I cooed and sang softly to her and I remember wondering at the time if she was thinking, “So that’s where that sound was coming from!”

So what’s going on here? If it’s what it appears, then Grace has distinct memories of being an infant. And these are fond memories for her. She enjoys remembering the time when she was a helpless baby who was loved and cared for by her family. Now that she has language, she seems to be sharing her memories with us.

I’m a bit blown away to think that an infant could be conscious of what is happening to her, conscious enough to form memories about it. Even stranger, was my newborn daughter remembering the sound of my voice reaching her ears in the womb? As I listen to Grace remembering, I wonder if we lose something marvelous as we move from womb to infancy to our toddler years. Perhaps as our abilities to move, speak, and act for ourselves improve with experience, we need to be able to draw on our memories of being loved and cared for in a safer, less ambiguous time.

Grace is reminding us that children are capable of as rich an inner life as any adult. She’s allowing us to glimpse that her growing independence rides on an undercurrent of nostalgia for a simpler time. Hey, it’s not all wine and roses when you’re a toddler. Figuring out how to behave properly, how not to mess up or disappoint or annoy or aggravate the jumpy cadre of unpredictable adults that surround you is a high risk game of trial and error. Grace has learned to say “Sorry” when she suspects she may have done something wrong. When I respond, “It’s okay, Grace,” maybe she believes me because she can remember a time when it was.

Image from

The Role of Martial Arts In Raising A Peacemaker

“Kee-yah!” she yells, propelling her arm upward with strength and precision. The soft blue “noodle” (one of those foam pool toys) strikes her arm but fails to reach her head, thanks to her successful block. She is happy and confident, and my heart swells with pride.

My daughter has the friendliest disposition I think I have ever seen in another human being. She is soft-hearted like her mother and charming like her daddy, and somehow she missed either of our genes for introversion. With open arms she greets the world, and it’s beautiful. It is also frightening to send her out, so wide-eyed and innocent and vulnerable, and know that others could easily take advantage of her. My husband and I do all we can to protect her and teach her how to protect herself, and within the last month, that has included enrolling her in martial arts. Thus far, the class has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, for her and her parents. But as a pacifist, I recognize an irony to the situation. I want to teach my children the art of peacemaking, and yet here I am, happily enrolling my firstborn in martial arts?

Do martial arts have a place in raising a peaceful child? I believe they can, but only if the family approaches it intentionally. As I muse on this issue, I have to take a hard look at multiple aspects of my parenting, as well as how my husband and I parent together, and ask some challenging questions.

Her Benefit, Our Benefit

Since enrolling her in martial arts, my husband and I have seen improvement in our daughter’s confidence, focus, discipline, and resilience, and that has pleased both of us immensely. The particular facility we attend puts as much stress on character development as it does on physical training, and I especially appreciate the “village” approach to raising children embedded in their philosophy.

An integral part of the program is weekly character development charts listing jobs for children to perform at home and school. Children are acknowledged for consistently completing their work, but not reprimanded when they fall short. I know this is good for the children, but it is a tremendous benefit to parents as well, providing support and reinforcement for the character traits we strive to teach. In our own house, we have tried chore calendars and charts, but they have inevitably gone unfilled after a short period of time. I know that the martial arts charts, which come partially filled with lists of activities every child should be doing (putting items away, clearing one’s place at the table, taking pride in lessons, treating others with respect) help me develop as a parent by giving me a way to consistently monitor and support my daughter in these essential life skills.

Beyond duties, the weekly job charts and the gently-expressed high standards of the instructors are fostering a sense of responsibility and helping to develop a positive attitude not only for my daughter, but for myself as well. For her, I see positive character development and increasing maturity in her decisions. As conscientious habits become ingrained within her, she is increasingly able to take care of herself without being told. And as her focus improves, she is also more in tune to the needs of others, jumping to help anyone she sees in need. My stress has naturally waned in the wake of her waxing maturity; my frustration level is generally lower and I am somewhat more relaxed. But just as I know that my daughter has made a conscious effort to take on more responsibility, I must make a conscious effort to keep my mind calm and my tone even. My efforts to discipline consistently are an exercise for me in focus, patience, and compassion. And as these traits within me grow stronger, my relationships improve, not only with my daughter, but with everyone I know. As I immerse my daughter into a more disciplined environment that her martial arts class is helping to foster, I am internalizing that gentle discipline in the best of ways, building a mental strength that helps me take control of my ever-increasing responsibilities. Martial arts has helped reinforce the values of respect for self and others that my husband and I have always strived to teach, and even as I strive to be a model for our daughter, her enthusiasm for taking on adult responsibilities and her positive attitude have served as a model for me.


Yet, when it comes down to it, martial arts teach her how to fight, and I cannot completely reconcile this fact with pacifism. When it comes to the physical, martial aspect of martial arts, I am aware of the risk that she may learn that violence can solve problems. I must be intentional about countering that message, about steering her martial arts education in a direction that will allow her to use the confidence, focus, and perseverance without becoming aggressive or adopting a mentality of being “against an enemy.” I also want to nurture a sense of respect within her without helping to foster an unquestioning acceptance of authority. It is a matter of balance, a balance I must be careful to model and maintain.

The truth is, I do want my daughters to be able to protect themselves. I am happy to give them the opportunity to learn how to block attacks and escape from holds. And although I can’t imagine a situation in which they would need to do more than block and escape, I would want them to be able to do whatever is necessary to stop an aggressor humanely to alleviate danger for themselves and others. I don’t want to limit their toolboxes. But I also do not want to blind them to the other tools in the box.

I tell myself that, should my daughter experience violence, unless she has confidence in herself to escape or stop it, she will internalize and perpetuate it – against herself and possibly against others. That is the nature of violence, to trigger a self-perpetuating cycle. The terrifying truth is that girls are particularly (but by no means exclusively) vulnerable to violence within relationships, which can lead to violent patterns, hurting others, including children later born to them. I tell myself that by enrolling our daughter in martial arts, my husband and I are helping her develop confidence in her own body, mental focus, and the self-esteem necessary to walk away from unhealthy relationships, as well as the strength to escape from physical violence should the need ever arise. And this is true. At the same time, we must be careful that as we prepare our daughters to deal with potential violence, we do not teach them to expect violence and develop an attitude of self-protection against a world onto which they project a motive of hostility.

I am hoping that the self-confidence that my daughter learns from martial arts will give her the strength and courage to use her imagination to diffuse hostility with tools of compassion, humor, logic, or surprise. My hope is that a knowledge of her physical strength will reinforce the mental strength I know she has and keep her from reacting in fear that diminishes self-control. But I am also aware that, should she meet aggression with counter-aggression, even as I want her to be able to use physical force as a last resort if she is ever in real trouble, violence has the potential to escalate. I do not want her to be hurt, and I do not want her to hurt others. Defensive violence feeds into a cycle of violence in which offense and defense cannot be distinguished. I have studied mimetic theory long enough to know this. I know there is a risk to providing her with tools I never want her to have to use, in that simply having them at her disposal could hinder her creativity in finding nonviolent ways to deal with hostility.


So how do my husband and I minimize the risks of providing our daughters with tools that could be used for violence, and more importantly, how do we teach them to value nonviolence and peacemaking while immersing them in an environment that may in some ways contradict such a message? In searching my heart and mind, I have come up with a few ideas.

  1. The most important thing we can do to raise peacemakers is show our daughters that they are loved and provide them with a healthy environment. Martial arts help us foster this environment by reinforcing values of respect and providing support as we discipline. My growing confidence in my parenting skills is reflected in a deepening ability to show the compassion I have always felt but have sometimes fallen short of expressing. As my daughter matures, takes on responsibility and develops self-control, I am also maturing, learning the limits of my patience and controlling my actions and reactions so that I can allow those limits to be gently stretched but never broken. I am yelling less, listening more, and managing time better. Comfortable with consistently enforcing limits, I can relax and allow my daughters freedom within boundaries. I can let them set the pace, (as my colleague Suzanne advocates) allow them to be loud or silly or giggly and play along with them, knowing that I can reign them in when necessary. Giving our daughters this kind of security, freedom, and love will reinforce their sense of self-worth and model for them the peaceful and peace-building values that we want them to embody as they make their ways in the world.
  1. We can teach them that there is no such thing as a “bad guy.” One of the most important things we can do to ensure our daughters never develop an overreliance on violence is reinforce, time and again, there are no bad people, only bad actions. When my firstborn was younger, she once claimed to be a superhero with the power to “make bad guys die!” I quickly told her that it would be better to make bad guys nice instead, and ever since, she has used “the power of love” to turn imaginary villains into imaginary friends. As she grows and begins to see the world in deepening shades of gray rather than black and white, I want continually to help her to understand that all people are capable of extraordinary good and terrible harm. Even as she guards herself from the harm of which people are capable, she must remember that even someone who attacks is a person first, also capable of good. Further, I want her to recognize her own mistakes and bad choices, secure in the knowledge that she is loved and that she is much more than her mistakes. Knowing this, she can have sympathy for someone who might lash out in violence even as she does what may be necessary to protect herself. I want to teach her that violence is a destructive way of dealing with a problem, but people who express problems through violence need love and help.
  1. Finally, I want us to teach creative problem-solving skills so that our daughters recognize the tools in their toolboxes beyond fight or flight. Here I am open to any suggestions, resources or ideas readers may have. I know there are stories of conflict resolutions that have come about through friendliness, humor, logic, or the element of surprise. I would like to find these stories at age-appropriate levels and read them to my daughters. Beyond reading about nonviolent conflict resolution, I also want to model it to my daughters. It is easy enough to help them think up creative solutions to made-up problems as I play with them. But I also want to model respectful arguing to show that caring for someone is more important than proving one’s self right. That takes the kind of self-control that is ever-developing, in adults as well as children! I also know that a potentially hostile situation can be instantly diffused if provocation is met with understanding and empathy rather than offense. I am hoping that the focus and self-control my daughter is learning can be put to use to deflect insults not with physical force, but with a self-esteem and confidence that render such force unnecessary. Ultimately, I want our children never to feel the need to fight by giving them the ability to diffuse a conflict before it escalates. Should they ever be in need of physical self-defense, I am hoping they will limit the force they use to just what it takes to get away safely.

Right now, martial arts are helping me to become a more peaceful parent. I believe they can also play a role in helping my daughter to become a more peaceful child and grow into a peacemaking adult, but only if my husband and I commit to balancing her defensive skills with the environment, values, and tools that nurture her in peacemaking. We are making that commitment, but I am asking for your help, gentle readers. If you have ideas for peaceful parenting, please comment! It takes a village, afterall!



Unless We Change: Children Lead the Way to Peace

“Unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom heaven.” (Matt 18:3)

Jesus spoke these words as a response to a question from his disciples. Which of us, they demanded to know, was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus must have been struck by the contrast between his rivalrous disciples, so-called friends bickering and vying for attention, and the children who were playing nearby. He could have said, “I am, you silly gooses! Don’t compete with me – follow me!” But he had tried words before to no avail. So he summoned the children to show that greatness in the kingdom means playing joyfully in the moment with a humility that is heedless of rank or position. Only such as these, he explained, are able to know me and follow me.

Unless you change, he said. Unless you become like children.

When my son, Don, was about three and half I enrolled him in a weekly toddler gym class that met once a week. He seemed to enjoy the bouncing and running and playing games. One week I was running late, why I can’t remember. Probably some combination of having dropped off his older sister at pre-school and then tried to squeeze laundry or some shopping errand and still get to his gym class on time. I remember racing through the house and stuffing things in his diaper bag hoping he would help me by putting on his shoes. “Where are your shoes, Donny? Can you put them on for me?” I asked him probably three or six or twenty times.

But Donny didn’t seem to be gripped by the same urgency. He stood quietly in the kitchen, a toddler eye in my adult storm until finally I nearly shouted in exasperation, “Don! Don’t you want to go to your gym class?” His answer shocked me into stillness. “Not if I have to rush,” he said. I instantly knew he was right so I dropped the diaper bag and the search for his shoes and followed him to the front porch where we sat on the glider and watched a thunder storm roll in from the west. I have rarely spent such a peaceful, joyful hour.

Unless you change, he said. Unless you become like children.

We think that it is children who bicker and demand attention, but maybe it’s us. We think that we are the ones with wisdom to pass on to our children, but maybe they are the wise ones. Perhaps it’s time to learn to follow Jesus by being led by children.

In an address in 1937, in the pregnant pause between the great wars of the twentieth century, Dr. Maria Montessori said this:

If the era in the history of human evolution that is characterized by the constant outbreak of war can be called the ‘adult period’, then the period in which we begin to build peace will be the ‘age of the child’.

Unless we change, he said. Montessori believed with Jesus that the children would lead us into a new age, a time for healing when nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Are we humble enough to be led by children into the kingdom of heaven? Today is a good day to begin to practice being led by the wisest among us. Slow down. Play. If you are lucky enough to have children in your life, try to see yourself through their eyes. You will be surprised to discover just how much you are loved, just as you are, and that the new age may have already begun, set in motion by the gaze of a child

Mother’s Day Book Feature Friday: It Runs In The Family by Frida Berrigan

Berrigan book 2I am a stay-at-home mom, and I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker. It often feels like a strange, paradoxical life. At any given moment, when my mind is filled with the major challenges of the 21st-century world – a constant “war on terror,” environmental degradation, racism, sexism, and homophobia in all of their violent manifestations – my hands are filled with a squirming toddler demanding, and deserving, my undivided attention. Or I’ll find myself writing an article on forgiveness and empathy, only to see the latest “experiment” of my six-year-old leave a mess of flower petals and water strewn across the bathroom sink, feel tempted to lash out, and struggle to live up to my own rhetoric. How do I strive to make some small difference in a desperate and vulnerable world, and remember that the most important difference I can make is in the lives of two small, vulnerable human beings? How do I strike the best balance for the world, my children and myself?

My answers will differ from those of Frida Berrigan, but her witness as an activist, a peacemaker, and a mother of three children, makes her a powerful role model for me. Her autobiography It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood is filled with deep wisdom of dedicated, faithful activists and humbling, humorous lessons learned through trial and error to which any parent can relate. With the blood of renowned peacemakers Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister running through her veins, Frida’s own life is a credit to the inspiring activism of her parents. She and her sister and brother are living proof that one of the most important tasks of a peacemaker is helping to inspire the next generation, those who must continue the work of healing this bruised and battered world.

But the task of raising conscientious, dedicated persons – aware of but undeterred by the many troubles of the day – is difficult and complicated. The urgency of the world’s needs often clash with the need to stop everything and nurse or change a diaper. The mimetic pressure to throw our children the perfect birthday party to fit in with other kids (and for us to fit in with their parents) clashes with a desire to teach them not to be materialistic and to live with an awareness of others in true need. And knowledge of the importance of modeling peaceful behavior does not stop the occasional outburst when they push all our buttons in the ways that only our own offspring can. Seeing Frida Berrigan – whose last name is synonymous with the peace movement – struggle with all of these matters is deeply comforting. Within the pages of her autobiography, I have found someone that I can relate to in addition to a model I would like to try to emulate.

Relatable though she is, however, I confess that, had I not learned about her life through the lens of motherhood, I might have been a little intimidated by Frida Berrigan. I look at her activism – cofounding Witness Against Torture, traveling to Guantanamo, at the forefront of peace and social justice issues long before I found my voice on such matters – and I feel a sense of awe. I cannot help being impressed by someone who was out on picket lines since she was in cloth diapers, raised in a counter-cultural commune by a small village that helped to care for her and her siblings when her parents served jail sentences for witness against war. I admit it is a little hard to read this book and not feel like my own witness is far behind. At the same time, Frida’s wise and compassionate words help me to realize that what I am doing right now – beyond writing, beyond any volunteering or marching or petitioning I may find time to do – this crazy, messy, sometimes unpredictable job called motherhood – is one of the most important and meaningful ways I will ever make a difference for peace, not only for the way I am shaping my children, but for the way I am letting them shape me. So as I read, I strive to keep my model from becoming my obstacle by recognizing all the challenges and opportunities for nonviolent witness that motherhood provides.

Frida herself, of course, provides a wonderful model of resistance to the scandal of model-obstacle relationships! After all, her parents gave her “big shoes to fill.” “I know I can’t match their intensity or their dogged pursuit of peace,” she writes. “So what can I offer my own children?” Exchanging communal life for a single-family home but still participating in co-ops and community gardens, avoiding arrest for civil disobedience but being a legal war tax resister, Frida Berrigan has learned from her own upbringing without replicating it. Grateful to her parents and the many role models who inspired her, she and her family are making their way in the world as peacemakers in their own right, inspired but not burdened by the examples of a generation gone before.

I am not ready to become a war tax resister. I am not even ready to trade in the convenience of disposable diapers for the environmentalism of cloth. But with the help of this book I am inspired to explore nonviolent living and parenting in more holistic, integrated ways than ever before. I am ready to cut back on waste and materialism and consumption, and teach my children to do the same. I am inspired to be more present with my children and fully listen, reducing the distractions of technology. I want to help them become more involved with our communities and more aware of the world around them. I want to teach them how to respond to the troubles of our time with determination and compassion. Frida Berrigan may not have all the answers, but seeing her ask the same questions is encouraging.

But above all, I am encouraged and humbled by the reminder that activism and peacemaking are not “put on hold” for raising children. Rather, it is in raising children that peacemaking and activism take on their most complex, integrated, and authentic forms. In our relationships with the most vulnerable members of our community, we have the opportunity and awesome responsibility to model compassion and humility. My knowledge of mimetic theory makes me even more aware of how much children are influenced by the examples of their surrounding adults. Showing them that they are loved by modeling conscientiousness and compassion to them is perhaps the most important way I can influence peace. It will certainly leave its impact after I am gone in a way that nothing else can. Motherhood is but one manifestation of this responsibility that we all have to children; in whatever capacity we relate to them, we have a duty to model the kindness and compassion that we wish for the world when it is in their hands. And in modeling such kindness, we can begin to create such a world today.

But as Frida and my own children constantly remind me, the peacemakers in the child-parent relationships are not exclusively or even primarily the parents!

Children are little insurrectionists. They turn our lives upside down and they insist we see it through their eyes—and they care more than anything about fairness and friendship. Maybe we have more to learn than to teach.

I consider myself an aspiring peacemaker, but It Runs In The Family reminds me that in truth, as a mother, I am a peacemaker, at least when I am at my best. I add Frida Berrigan to a growing list of role models who bring out the peacemaker in me, including my own parents, my patient and compassionate husband, and my wonderful, world-upending daughters, who have shown me new dimensions of unconditional love.

Editor’s Note: You can read more about rebellious motherhood by following Frida Berrigan’s column “Little Insurrections” at





Maria’s Choice: Dr. Montessori’s Struggle to Balance Career and Motherhood

A woman balancing motherhood and a career. (Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo

A mother balancing motherhood and a career. (Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo)

Dr. Maria Montessori loved children, yet the story of her only child seems to indicate that she loved her career more. In the late 1890s, just as her success at reforming the treatment of prisoners, insanity, mental retardation and child delinquency was garnering her world-wide fame, she became pregnant by a colleague. Maria and her lover, Guiseppe Montesano, were both doctors, both radical reformers, and both dedicated to the liberation of women. Yet the reality in Italy at the turn of the 20th century was that when a woman married she was expected to leave the workforce. A married woman’s place, no matter her skills or level of education, was in the home, not the surgery or hospital, not teaching at university or advising governments on social programs. Though we cannot be certain, it seems that to protect Maria’s career the lovers took a vow not to marry and to raise their child together, but in secret. When Guiseppe betrayed Maria by marrying someone else, all that remained of their vow was the secrecy.

Dr. Montessori concealed her pregnancy and gave birth to her only child, a son, sending him to a wet nurse in the country. It was during this time of personal crisis that her career path took a dramatic turn. Maria shifted her focus from the institutionalized population of criminals and delinquents to the education of normal children. They became her passion and she dedicated her life to improving the health, education and well-being of children. What she could not provide for her own child in his formative years, she longed to guarantee for the children of mothers all over the world.

The choice between work and motherhood, Maria’s choice, is still faced by women today. I imagine that Maria felt what so many of us feel – whether at home or work, we feel guilty, divided, and teetering on the brink of failing at both motherhood and career. I’m in the midst of doing research on Dr. Montessori’s life and work with the hope of producing a novel or bio-pic that does justice to her genius. I recently came across some of Dr. Montessori’s thoughts on the differences between the work-a-day world and life spent in the company of children. Careers are spent in an atmosphere of competition and selfish self-promotion. Becoming a parent requires something quite different. She explains it this way:

The child awakens what adults think of as an ideal; the ideal of renunciation, of unselfishness – virtues almost unreachable outside family life. What businessman, in a position to acquire some property he needs, will ever say to one of his competitors: “You can have it. I am leaving it for you!” But if hungry parents are short of food, they will deny themselves the last crumb of bread rather than have the child go hungry.

Dr. Montessori witnessed this self-denying love herself. Her medical career and her early work with children was among the poorest of the poor in Rome and so she saw the virtue of selflessness in action. Of course, she was all too familiar with self-serving patriarchal attitudes of women’s inferiority. The male dominated professions of medicine and education often patronized and dismissed her innovations without serious consideration. But she was undaunted and achieved much for which the children of the world owe her a debt of gratitude.

But what of her love for her own child? She seems not to have been able to achieve the ideals of “renunciation” and “unselfishness” that she so admired in others. Her story of motherhood does have a happy ending, though. When her son was about twelve, she took him into her life and under her care, though she did not publically acknowledge him as her son until near the end of her life. They had a warm, loving relationship and Mario worked tirelessly by her side, continuing after her death to work on behalf of the Montessori Method.

Maria’s choice to give up her son for the sake of her career was a difficult one for her and her son, but somehow they found forgiveness and redemption. Perhaps this is the lesson of her life. All moms know that we will make mistakes, especially in difficult situations, but Maria’s choice reminds us that the story of a mother and child isn’t over until love writes the ending.

“So we see,” Dr. Montessori wrote, “there are two kinds of life.” We have our careers and our motherhood, and a woman “is privileged to share in both. [But] the better of the two is that with children, for nearness to them brings out our best side.” Dr. Montessori knew the truth – our children make us better people. As we make the daily trek between our two worlds, let’s be mothers first, even at work. What better tribute to offer our children who love us for better or worse.

On Being a Good Dad: Mimetic Desire, Toys, and How Not to Love Your Neighbor

I consider myself to be a good dad.

And that’s where the problem began.

One of the main reasons that I consider myself to be a good dad is that I buy my children really cool toys…that I get to play with… Well, a few years ago I bought them a toy rocket with a launch pad. When I…err…I mean *they*…stomp on the pad the rocket launches 50 feet in the air! My status as a “good dad” increased last year when I bought my oldest son a set of Loom Bands. He loves making bracelets and necklaces with the little rubber bands. And, last April, when we moved to a new neighborhood halfway across the country, my status flew off the “good dad chart” when I bought him a brand new bike!

So, you see, my children have really cool toys. And that makes me a really good dad.

But then we met our neighbors.

A few days after we moved into our new house, my son took his rocket launcher outside. As he started sending it into the air, a neighbor boy came over to play. “Hey!” the boy said. “I have a rocket launcher that goes even higher!” He ran back to his house and brought his super-duper deluxe rocket launcher that he stomped 75 feet in the air!

My son was very impressed with that rocket launcher. Me? Not so much. I began to feel a sense of inferiority. The thought crossed my mind, “His dad bought him a better rocket launcher! Maybe I’m not such a good dad after all.”

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

Dragon made of Loom Bands.

When we went outside the next day, the neighbor boy came over again. “Hey!” he exclaimed as he looked at my son’s Loom Band bracelet. “You make Loom Bands too! I’ll show you some of the things I’ve made!” He ran home and came back with a frog, turtle, horse, and a freakin’ dragon made of Loom Bands. As my son looked in awe upon our neighbor’s Loom creations, the thought crossed my mind, “His dad not only bought him Loom Bands but also encouraged him to make a freakin’ dragon with them! I’ve only encouraged my son to make these sorry looking bracelets!”

And then it happened. I bought my son a new bicycle. He was riding it with pride when (deep breath) the neighbor boy came out of his garage driving his new Power Wheels!!! My son instantly ditched his bike and ran toward our neighbor’s new car. I stewed there in my resentment as my dad ego deflated and I thought to myself, “You gotta be kidding me! That dad has an answer for every toy I buy. What a jerk!”

I share this with you not just because of my masochistic tendency to share my failures in parenting and in general being a human. I also share it with you as an example of mimetic desire at work in my life. Mimetic theory’s basic claim is that human desire is imitative. We “desire according to the desire of another.”

In other words, we want what others have. We have an innate desire to “keep up with the Jonses.” Do you remember the 10th Commandment? To paraphrase, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s stuff.” The 10th Commandment warns us against desiring our neighbor’s stuff because when we desire this way it leads resentment, envy, and often to violent conflict.

But even more than wanting our neighbor’s stuff, we want our neighbor’s identity. Sounds kind of creepy, right? Well, it happens to us all and you can see how it happened to me. I want to be a good dad and one of the ways that I know I’m a good dad is that my children have cool toys. But what happens when another dad buys his child cooler toys than I buy my children? I start comparing myself with him. I start thinking that I’m not enough. I become resentful. In my own head I compete with my neighbor in a rivalry for the coveted prize, “Dad of the Year.”

Comparing ourselves with others is a fundamental aspect of human mimeticism. We are always comparing ourselves with others. As a blogger, I compare my stats with other bloggers. Businesses are always comparing their bottom line with other businesses. Politicians compare themselves by how many votes they get. Nations compare themselves by their military might. And, yes, dads compare their fatherly prowess by the toys they buy their children.

It sounds silly and ridiculous, I know, but it’s also human. Now that I look back on my silly mimetic behavior that led me to compare myself with my neighbor, I can gently laugh at myself. I can remind myself as I navigate the traps of mimetic desire of what I already know deep down – being a good dad is not about buying cool toys for my children. Being a good dad is about having children who know they are unconditionally loved.

Being a good dad also means modeling not just the refusal to desire our neighbor’s stuff, but also the desire to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

And so I walked over to my new neighbor, shook his hand, and said, “That is such a cool Power Wheel. Thanks for letting my children play with it, too.”

“You’re welcome,” the dad responded. “Our previous neighbor got one for his children. So I thought I’d get one, too.”

It’s silly, isn’t it? But that is mimetic desire at work.