Before I began my training as a parent coach, I started to read Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille. It was an “optional” reading for the program, and I had no idea what I was getting into. It was so challenging I had to set it aside for several months. Now that I’ve experienced the transformative power of peaceful parenting in my own family, I can embrace the tension between the harsh history of parenting and the hopeful future today’s parents have the opportunity to create. Reading this book does not make me an expert on these topics; I am a parent who wants my children to live fulfilled, happy, meaningful lives. I want this for all families, both for their own joy and because I see it as humanity’s path to living in peace and evolving in love.
Though I’m relatively new to these concepts, I’m already using them to influence my parenting choices. As you explore different parenting philosophies and practices, I invite you to remember: you are not responsible for things you did not yet know. Every piece of new knowledge is something you can choose to integrate into your parenting going forward. Read on with curiosity and a lens of hopeful change.
In the first section, “From Violence to Harmony: Childrearing and Social Evolution,” the author takes us back in time and describes several stages of social evolution and the parenting modes that were most prevalent at the time. The first was the infanticidal mode - yes, the killing of babies and children through outright murder, or abandonment resulting in death. Essentially, children were viewed as useless, except for serving the needs of adults, so to ease any burden, excess children were simply killed. This was quite common in much of Western civilization until the 4th century AD.
The next mode was abandoning, which was widespread from the 4th to the 14th century, again mostly as a means to lessen the economic toll in poor families or to decrease the division of inheritance in wealthy families. The abandonment was usually at an institution designated for unwanted children, who then suffered and often died, but out of sight from the parents. Then came the ambivalent mode, which had some overlap with abandoning and then continued into the 18th century. Children were finally allowed to stay alive and remain with their families, but any concern for their welfare was through a lens of control, as children were seen as “little devils who needed to be whipped into human form.” This era was marked by intense physical punishments, child labor, torturous swaddling, and sexual abuse.
Eventually the idea of a loving family started to develop around the 18th century and children were occasionally seen (but not heard) and permitted some affection. The biggest change into the intrusive mode came with the romantic movement and Rousseau’s The Social Contract in which he proposed that each individual is born free, rather than subject to parental authority. But the practices of the previous mode were still common and children had little protection from physical abuse, sexual mutilation and exploitation, and forced labor.
At last we enter the modern age of the socializing mode, characterized by the parents’ priority to train children by promoting good behavior and limiting bad behavior. Also notable is the entry of the father as having an active parenting role. This coincided with Freud’s work and the birth of psychology. More governments began to create laws protecting children, their health, and their rights. The goal of this mode is to shape the child’s character for conformity, actively diminishing any self-expression, free thinking, or individuality. This is done through punishments, shame, bribes, and praise.
The next phase of social evolution, the one that we are in, is marked by what Grille calls the helping mode, known also as conscious, peaceful, positive, wholehearted, or natural parenting. These progressive practices came out of research into emotional development, so the focus is on children as individuals who deserve encouragement, stimulation, support, and empathy. Grille summarizes that this mode of parenting "embraces the parent’s leadership role, while recognizing the essential liberty and dignity of the child.”
This evolution gives great hope for future generations as scientific research shifts cultural norms from abuse to acceptance. But it is not simply individual families that take on the onus of change. Grille proposes that harsh or neglectful parenting on a large scale has moved entire nations toward war or dictatorship - violent and oppressive means of social “discipline.” He refers to several examples of cultures that raised their children with abuse and shame resulting in devastation, like the 1992-1995 war in the former Yugoslavia, massacres in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and countless forms of religious extremism.
Grille also hypothesizes that patriarchal systems generate more violence, while reforms in child rearing bring more democracy. He concludes, “a steady evolution towards more empathetic child rearing has generated the unprecedented growth of democratic processes, the promulgation of human rights, and the modern environmental movement."
Nazi Germany led by Adolf Hitler is a recent example of notorious oppression and genocide during war . Many factors led to his rise, including the context of cultural norms in which it took place. Hitler came from a home of chronic abuse and neglect and grew to become a man with deep loathing of his father. Germany at the time embraced very harsh and violent treatment of children in families; the level of violence and torture committed by his officers, and witnessed by his followers, was only possible because the society had normalized it on a broad scale.
It is clear that there are serious, negative side effects when an entire society condones violence against children. There is also evidence that shows positive changes toward democracy, human rights, and environmental protection are possible with families that teach empathy and acceptance. Grille cites examples from the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and Sweden’s long-standing policies that consistently support families and children from all angles.
So what is the link between societal parenting norms and the choices parents make within their own families? Humans are social beings, creating an expansive relational network with every single interaction. Creating an emotionally responsive environment in your home has a ripple effect as your children go out in the world: relationships with friends, partners, and colleagues all are enhanced by the foundation of respect and compassion you gave to your child. As Grille concludes: “Once we fully comprehend the far-reaching implications of our collective parenting choices, the idea that a mother or father in the home are of lesser status than an executive in the boardroom, will be dumped in the deepest corner of the trash bin of history.”
Parents have the most influential jobs in our society. If this seems too daunting a responsibility, let’s put it into a manageable perspective: this is all about connecting past, present, and future. Our Past, going back many, many generations is unchangeable. The Future, going beyond our children’s time at home and even their lifespans, is beyond our control. That leaves the Present. It is our only opportunity to make a difference, to transform our history of trauma and violence into a future of peace and acceptance.
My interpretation of Grille’s research is that the family unit is a mechanism for normalizing behaviors, meaning children internalize what they experience and have a higher tendency to repeat it. The goal of a peaceful parent is to normalize behaviors surrounding acceptance, unconditional love, empathy, and nonviolence. This happens in everyday interactions, especially through the inevitable mistakes and repairs.
Most of the choices relate to a position of power: you can choose to operate in a power-over dynamic with a win-lose scenario, or you can choose a power-with dynamic with a win-win outcome. The power-over dynamic is very familiar: threats and coercions, punishments and bribes. When children grow up always figuring out who is the winner and who is the loser, they remain in that paradigm as adults. “If I win, then someone else has to lose.” Or, “Uh-oh, that guy is winning and that must mean I’m losing out.” It’s a very defensive and reactive mindset.
Children raised in a power-with dynamic learn to create solutions that work for everyone. Parents build this dynamic with empathy, getting into the child’s perspective, and by setting boundaries based on values rather than authority. It includes unconditional love (the complete opposite of shame) and even play! Playfulness and joyful connection are how we refill our child’s “cup” with confidence, self-worth, and the ability to give and receive love.
Peaceful parents who raise children with empathy, respect, and acceptance create a new generation of confident and emotionally intelligent adults. This generation will look beyond their own struggles, respond to those in greater need, and offer compassion to their fellow citizens and the earth they inhabit. If you’re still uncertain whether your parenting choices matter that much, I will leave you with a final quote from Robin Grille: “Our commitment to children’s emotional health will ensure our rapid evolution toward a peaceful, just, sustainable and enjoyable existence for all of humanity.”
Source: Grille, Robin. Parenting for a Peaceful World. 2nd ed., Vox Cordis Press, 2013. Digital.