Raising Children of Peace

Edited by Farley and Betsy Jones

Children of Peace

Peacemaking and Schooling
Kristina Seher

I believe that we human beings are subject to sin and therefore must work hard to make peace within and among ourselves. Peace to me is more than just the absence of fighting. I define it as the active valuing, caring and investing in positive and constructive relationships with God, with myself, and with others that contribute to individual spiritual growth and simultaneously, to the betterment of the community. For me, peacemaking is a proactive process that occurs in a cycle. It must first be envisioned, then specifically planned, carried out, the result evaluated, the plan modified, etc., in an active feedback loop. It can happen only with active desire and participation on our parts.

As a parent, you have an active role to play in your child's developing peacemaking skills. Many of the stimuli pushing our children to change themselves will come through their experiences with schooling no matter where your child is being schooled: at home, or in a public, private, or parochial school. Peacemaking is a cooperative activity involving parents, students, teachers, the entire school staff, and the larger community.

The Role of the School in Peacemaking

Every school is organized with both a formal and an informal curriculum. The formal curriculum is the one you pay for with your tuition or tax dollars: the textbooks purchased, the course syllabi devised by the instructional staff, etc. The informal curriculum may be even more influential: the sum total of the social, emotional and intellectual interactions, those consciously fostered as well as those simply permitted in the school setting, which affect your child. This informal curriculum exerts a tremendous influence on how your child views relationships, conflict, moral behavior, and personal responsibility.

In the course of my work as principal of the Sunshine School in Hayward, California, I have visited many public and private schools to learn from the best of what other educators are doing. Individual schools vary along many dimensions, even if they are part of a common educational system (for example, the Waldorf or Montessori schools, or a public unified school district) and I have found it is necessary to physically visit a site to get the flavor of it. I recommend that before enrolling your child in a school, you search actively for one which is committed to peacemaking as a positive goal.

At the Sunshine School, for example, we profess that we are dedicated to character education, academic excellence, and partnership of home, school and community. The board, staff, and parents are self-consciously committed to developing a school whose formal and informal curricula support childrens development as peacemakers. The following are some elements of school life which are emphasized at the Sunshine School and which, at any school, can enhance a child's peacemaking abilities:

a formal written statement of the school's philosophy making a commitment to peacemaking as a goal of education;
formal acknowledgment that parents are a child's first teachers and that the school exists to help the parents raise children who develop their individual gifts and contribute to the well being of the community;
a formal character education program (examples are the Child Development Project, Oakland, California; Heartwood: Ethics through Multicultural Literature, Wexford, Pennsylvania; Let's Talk Sportsmanship, Sports Learning Systems, Inc., Carmichael, California; Vitamin L Songs that teach values, Lovable Creatures Music, Ithaca, New York; Kindness Is Contagious, Stop Violence Coalition, Merriam, Kansas; No Putdowns Project, Contact, Syracuse, New York, etc.);
a school-wide conflict resolution curriculum to teach staff and students how to handle conflict non-violently (examples are the Conflict Resolution manuals for adults and for training Student Conflict Managers published by Community Boards, San Francisco, California; the TRIBES community-building curriculum, regular morning service or chapel;
daily prayer in school, including the use of prayer as a potent problem-solving tool;
literature which stimulates the child's moral imagination; abstinence-based sex education/health curricula;
assignment of jobs to students or some regular way of students' serving the larger classroom or school community;
cross-age projects or mentoring of younger students by older ones; and
regular community service beyond the school itself.

While individual elements listed above may occur at any good school, the entire configuration is more likely to occur at a religious school or one dedicated specifically to character education. Each of these elements, and there may be others, must be consciously selected and implemented by the administration, staff, and/or parents because of its positive effect on children's characters.

The informal curriculum, on the other hand, is often not consciously selected or implemented. It stems chiefly from the world views of the principal, is imparted to the staff both verbally and non-verbally, and affects the way staff see the parents and children.

Of crucial importance is the staff's view of the end or goal of education. If children are considered "blank slates" or "empty vessels" into which "knowledge" is to be "imparted" by teachers, then a fairly authoritative, product-oriented educational system results. This type generally supports the status quo and not much honest, penetrating give and take is sought among students, staff, and parents. In this type of system, children follow rules to avoid punishment and if authorities are absent, children may feel free to misbehave.

If, on the other hand, children are considered active learners who construct knowledge as they explore materials and ideas, guided by a teacher to their own realizations of lawful relationships, a fairly democratic, process-oriented educational system can result. This type is more able to support students' taking responsibility for their own learning, divergent thinking, risk-taking and the development of an internalized self discipline.

Some specific interactions which help to define a school's informal curriculum which you might want to investigate are:

Parent-teacher relationships: are parents viewed as genuine partners, the child's first teachers, or as adversaries?
Student-teacher relationships: are students taught throughout the school culture to be respectful of adults and their experience, or are adults just "equal" to the students?
Administration-staff: does the school recognize and value the inherent unique, eternal, and cosmic value of every member of the staff, or are certain people considered "lower on the totem pole" in terms of value?
School-community: does the school seek to involve its students and staff in celebrating community holidays and working to improve the larger community, or does the school feel the community "owes it"?

Student-student: Do teachers recognize that an emphasis on boy-girl relationships is not healthy for preteens or do they close their eyes and refuse to take any responsibility? Do teachers actively teach older children to be responsible and care for younger ones, and younger ones to respect and help older ones, or are children left to fend for themselves on the playground?

The school also plays an enormous role in the development of your child's self-discipline. Many recent publications argue that a discipline system in which adults monitor children's behavior, meting out rewards and punishments, retards the development of the children's own internal self-discipline. Without the presence of an adult, children may feel there are no inherent consequences to their actions and that it doesn't matter if they behave well or badly. A sound discipline system permits children to experience the natural consequences of their behavior, within common sense limits of health and safety, and stresses that children always have choices.

Some classroom practices foster the development of skills supporting the development of self-discipline. When evaluating a school, look for:

cooperative learning projects, where children on a team have different responsibilities (e.g., leader, recorder, timer, etc.);
independent learning centers where children make choices about which projects (all related to the same theme) to do first, and where children have the responsibility to ask for help and to complete a project; and
a commitment to a positive discipline system which does not penalize trying and failing, one which encourages adults to ask children, "Are you making a good choice?" so they can learn to think through the logical consequences of their actions.

You are completely within your rights to request a written philosophy and policies from any school in which you are considering enrolling your child. If a school has not thought through nor developed written "position papers" on its philosophy of the goal of education, the role of parents, the theory of how children learn, and discipline practices, it may not be the best environment for your impressionable and precious children. Your children are absorbing spiritual elements from everyone around them with every experience they have. You are responsible for making sure these elements are as positive and as nurturing as possible.

What Parents Can Do

First, shop for a good school which matches your family's educational and spiritual goals for your children. Read promotional literature and write down your questions. Visit the school. Use your eyes, ears and heart to find out what the spiritual atmosphere will be like for your child should you enroll him or her. Make an appointment with the principal and ask your questions. Jot down the answers. Talk with teachers, support staff, and especially other parents. Some things you will want to look for:

The school's goal of education is a good person, not just a smart person. What formal and informal curriculum elements does the school include directed toward the education of good character?
Parents are welcomed and respected as partners in the educational process. Is there a parent center, a systematic effort to incorporate parents and their input in the school? Will you be welcome in the classroom? When? Just when you have an appointment, but whenever you can drop by?
Children seem secure, happy and peaceful in their classrooms, in the halls, and on the playground. The classroom environment is supportive of learning.
Adults, both staff and parents, seem secure, happy, peaceful, and purposeful at the school.
Adults believe in children and give them the responsibility for their own learning, including the freedom to take risks and to make mistakes without being belittled.
The school has endorsed principles of positive discipline. Teachers are committed to helping students make wise choices and to become self-disciplined.
The school recognizes its organic relationship with the larger community and expresses this through regular community service and participation in community events.
The school is a celebrative place with inclusive shared rituals of its own.

My experience is very dramatic: if these more spiritual aspects of education are addressed as primary concerns, and if they are all fulfilled, the children's academic success is virtually assured. At the Sunshine School we are primarily concerned with the development of our students' heart and character. We felt the students were doing well academically. We did not know just how well until we administered standardized California Achievement Tests, Edition 5, in May 1993. Every student was performing at or above grade level. The results in May 1995 were even more outstanding, with whole classes averaging four to six years above grade level.

Once you have selected a school, you must select individual teachers for each of your children. The teacher is a moral exemplar, for good or for evil. You must be much more discriminating in selecting a teacher than you would in selecting a babysitter. The teacher has hundreds of opportunities each week to influence your child's values. Interview each prospective teacher, asking them about all the issues you asked the principal and others. Sit in the prospective teacher's classroom for an entire morning and/or afternoon. This is the only real way you can determine what that teacher values. Listen to what s/he says and pay attention to the informal curriculum that s/he has set up in the classroom which also communicates values to the students.

Once your child is settled in a school and classroom, support the school but don't be afraid to be a squeaky wheel in terms of character education and sex education. Be respectful and keep a sense of humor, but speak out on issues of spiritual importance to you. Teachers and principals will respect your concerns. If they are smart, they will involve you on a character education committee, school climate committee, etc.

Finally, pray continuously. Pray for the school staff and your child's classmates every day. When you request something of them, give them your prayer support to help them make the necessary adjustments. If you feel your child is not growing speak to the principal and teacher. If nothing changes, begin the process of school and classroom shopping again. Your greatest legacy to the future is your child. As God's visible representative, you are entrusted with raising that child to be a peacemaker who can be a source of joy to God, the human community, and to him or herself. Exercise your authority.

 Download entire page and pages related to it in ZIP format
Table of Contents
Tparents Home