Dr. King, Nonviolent Revolutionary
Persistent and Advanced Models for Parents and Caregivers
At the heart of every revolutionary is a person who sees from a different perspective, often a larger perspective and instead of following rules and other people’s expectations, they actively set out to change the rules and expectations. I’ve written about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the visionary, the peacemaker, and the courageous. This year, I am reflecting on Dr. King, the nonviolent revolutionary and what insights we can learn today from him in our roles as parents, caregivers and changemakers.
There was much talk of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s nonviolent protests in India and their ability to change the treatment of the poorest citizens named “untouchables” in America’s South in the early to mid 1950s. With many years already spent in laying the seeds of change and small scale efforts, Dr. King’s leadership of the civil rights movement was beginning to take its first large scale steps. And according to Harris Wofford’s “Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties,” Dr. King credits a quiet seamstress as the catalyst for the large scale civil disobedience that followed.1 Rosa Parks claims she got on the bus with the same intention she had every other day of her life – to go home from work to be with her family. But that fateful day when she was told to go the back of the bus, a flame grew within her of courage and conviction. “It’s a sudden spark like that that starts great conflagrations — when the tinder is ready,” reflected Dr. King later (p. 114). What followed – led by Dr. King and the Women’s Political Council – was the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott planned originally as a one-day event. This daylong protest expanded into a twelve-month protest involving 50,000 souls.2
Before the bus boycotts began, they agreed to nonviolent principles and also, to three basic demands for change including 1. courteous treatment by bus operators, 2. seating on a first come, first serve basis, and 3. Black American bus operators were employed for predominantly Black-populated routes.
Dr. King led the civil rights movement in part through his wise, charismatic oration and stirred crowds to visionary, aligned action. Here’s what he told the packed Church the day after Rosa was arrested for her civil disobedience and the evening before the bus boycott began:
…Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you. If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history. If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people — a black people — who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization (p. 115).“– Harris Wofford, “Of Kennedys and Kings; Making Sense of the Sixties”
Nonviolent protest was to be the differentiator, the powerful lever of change. And it worked. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Why did it work? We know their opposition would use violent force. Yet with enough people to unite and show a healthier way society can live, that force overpowers old, outdated beliefs and practices. Evolution continues to advance.
As a changemaker, we can learn, model and teach our children the discipline of nonviolent communication. These skills can prepare them for uncertainty, injustice and hardship like no other set of practices. These tools ensure that they can navigate relationships in healthy, generative ways and when they meet destructive forces can, with confidence, move out of harm’s way or refuse to move or participate in a way that changes the dynamic but does not harm individuals.
Can you imagine the resistance to Dr. King’s radical idea? If you followed him, you might be tear-gassed, you may be shot, dragged to prison, beaten in any number of ways. How might you be convinced that the means of nonviolent protests is worth the suffering for the opportunity of a sea change? This applies to family life too – I promise! Let’s look at power versus force from a book by the same name…3
If we analyze the nature of force, it becomes readily apparent why it must always succumb to power; this is in accordance with the basic laws of physics. Because force automatically creates counter-force, its effect limited by definition. Power, on the other hand, is still. It’s like a standing field that doesn’t move…Power gives life and energy — force takes these away. (p. 132).David Hawkins, MD, PhD, “Power Versus Force; The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior”
Force creates a winner and loser. Power retains agency – your own and in others. Perhaps now you see the many implications for your parenting and indeed for any relationship you value in your life. Here are a few reflections Dr. King might whisper for you to consider:
– When do you empower your children or teens to make choices, to learn how to do tasks for themselves, to co-create rules and routines together? When do you teach, model and practice healthy ways to resolve conflicts building skills?
– When do you use force? Do you punish? Do you act in ways that intend to hurt? How does it make you feel? How does your child feel? Do you experience counter-force? What does your child learn from those interactions? Are there alternative ways of teaching, modeling, practicing and coaching the positive behaviors you want to see you might consider?
There’s a reason the book “Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg is in its third edition.4 It lays out in simple terms the ways in which we can communicate assertively, kindly, and firmly to keep our relationships healthy and generative. Often, these ways of communicating are not only not intuitive but they require focused practice and discipline. That’s because we have largely been raised in a “force” paradigm so that aggression – passive or active – is a regular part of the language we are accustomed to. Yet, these changes can make a significant impact in our relationships. Here are a few of the key principles Rosenberg lays out with my own adaptations for parents and caregivers.
- Observe instead of evaluate.
It’s been said that observation versus judgement is the highest form of human intelligence. And if you’ve practiced mindfulness in any form, you have practice in non-judgmental observation. Have you ever spied an unsafe or problematic behavior in your child and merely stated that you notice it? Most haven’t. Yet if you have, you’ll note that if your child is aware that what they are doing is unsafe or inappropriate, they are likely to turn around the behavior with your simple observation only.
To turnaround behavior:
“I notice it’s dinnertime and you haven’t started on homework.”
“I notice the garbage is full.”
To reinforce behavior:
“I notice you got your homework done before dinner.”
“I notice you made your bed this morning.”
“I notice you were ready and on time!”
This can work with any family member of course, not just in the parent-child role.
- Express feelings and needs.
Though both of these may sound easy, they tend to offer the greatest challenge. The reason is that each place the owner of the feelings and needs in a place of vulnerability. Yet that is precisely the stance necessary in order to move a conflict forward in a healthy way. If you are arguing with someone including your child, they can become fearful or suspicious if they feel your anger or anxiousness but do not have the full insight from you to explain and understand your inner state. Here’s how you might express yourself:
“I’m feeling intensely frustrated with… myself, the situation. I feel helpless too.”
“I need to gain more of a sense of control.” Or “I need to pause to calm my insides.”
- Take responsibility for our own feelings and role.
This can mean the vital distinction between healthy relationships and enmeshed or co-dependent relationships. In taking responsibility, we avoid the pitfall we are susceptible to of projecting our own feelings on another’s heart when we solely own our inner state and role. We offer our loved ones agency when we approach with curiosity but not assumption about their feelings and needs. And we avoid the blame game (which automatically creates a “force” dynamic) when we own our role in a problem and not any other part of the problem. If taking responsibility for our part (and if we are engaged in a conflict, we always play a part. It takes two after all.), then we open the door to the other to take their own responsibility for their feelings and role. Rosenberg writes about emotional slavery versus emotional liberation in the following ways:
- Emotional slavery. We feel responsible for other people’s feelings.
- Stepping toward liberation – We feel anger to free from being responsible for other’s feelings. If we allow, accept and honor this feeling, we can achieve…
- Emotional liberation – when we take responsibility for only our own intentions and actions.
4. Request honesty and “that which would enrich life.”
Whether in conflict with a child, a partner, a co-worker or a friend, after we’ve owned our feelings and needs, we can ask for honesty from them. How are they feeling? What is their role? What responsibility can they take? Without honesty, it can be leave us stuck swirling in the problem without the heart information to move ahead, to mend, to heal. We have a right to ask our intimate others – how can we proceed in a way that enriches our lives collectively?
Sometimes this honesty can only be brought about when we ensure the other that unconditional love is present. Our children must hear: “I love you no matter what.” Isn’t that what Dr. King was insisting of the congregation before they not only inconvenienced their daily lives but literally put themselves and their families in mortal danger?
This is one of the many lessons essential to understanding how to raise confident kids by acting as confident parents that Dr. King and the civil rights movement continue to teach us. Thank you, Dr. King, Rosa Parks and the many others who courageously demonstrated a better way of living.
- Wofford, H. (1980). Of Kennedys and Kings; Making Sense of the Sixties. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
- History.com. Montgomery Bus Boycott. Retrieved on 1-12-23: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott
- Hawkins, D.R. (2002). Power Versus Force; The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Inc.
- Rosenberg, M.B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.
One of Confident Parents most popular articles of all time… nonviolent ways to deal with misbehavior: 50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention or Punishment by Jennifer Miller, CPCK
From Dr. King’s Sermon “The Mastery of Fear,” What Can We Learn Today? by Jennifer Miller, CPCK
Today We Hear the Call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Jennifer Miller, CPCK
Differences Do Matter — Why Talking About Them Helps Us Raise Compassionate Kids? By Shuana Tominey, CPCK
How Can We, As Parents, Live the Values of Martin Luther King Jr.? by Jennifer Miller, CPCK
I notice that this is a very helpful article.
Really spot on. Thank you for this.
Thanks for positive feedback, Frances! I appreciate it! Happy new year to you! Hope it’s off to a great start!