mothering a revolutionary

If I’m honest, raising a son is hard. His constant motion, excited yelling, incessant questions and natural velocity try me. Every day. Keeping up with his curiosity, appetite and homework wear me out. But it’s not what keeps me up at night.

How do I mother my spirited son toward peace in a world bent toward violence? This circles round me like a small but ever-present, ever-determined mosquito. Spending summers in Africa I know something of determined mosquitoes – get one trapped under the bed net and despite its tiny appearance, you’ll be hounded all night and robbed of all sleep. That’s how I feel these days –hounded by violence.

Our world’s over-populated with violence. Everywhere we turn we see images of weapons, combat, hostility toward others. We’re taught that wars produce heroes, only fighters can be declared winners and strength is displayed as fists flying and body blows, leaving enemies bent over groaning while the victor emerges full of pride, full of swagger. My culture says this is what the mighty look like – and my son believes them.

But my culture is wrong. Strength doesn’t belong to the one who brandishes a gun or throws the first punch. Strength isn’t about breaking the other person. Our Gospel reveals true strength as the power to heal, mend, restore. According to the Jesus it’s the peacemakers who inherit the earth, not the warmongers. The strength to forge a sustainable peace is the real deal. And how do I mother my son toward that reality?

Not too long ago, my son launched into tantrums almost weekly. These loud, ugly, door-slamming episodes pushed me to the brink of my sanity. When I sought counsel I learned how to better manage the tantrums. I also discovered that tantrum prone children, if well parented through the season, grow into deeply compassionate adults. When all that angry energy can be addressed and harnessed, the result actually is a person capable of understanding and empathy toward others. And so that became my long-term hope as a mother, to get my son from tantrum to compassion.

When Isaiah and Micah sing that ancient song about people who lay down weapons, who dismantle guns and reshape them into gardening tools, it’s a picture of deep hope. The song imagines a world where metal has better uses, instead of fighting – feeding. We’re given the picture of a world where animosity and angst get extinguished, melted by welders with calloused hands and repurposed by artisans. Skill, creativity, hard work all combined to defuse violence and turn human energy and ingenuity toward peace.

This image, of swords into plowshares, helped me articulate my hope for the world but also my son within it. I want to see him move from violent tantrums toward true empathy, a deep transformation into a man of character and compassion. I’ve done my share of character welding, to be sure, and it’s hard, sweaty work. Now I take another turn. How can I help my son move from the blood lust of my culture to a man who hungers and thirsts for peace?

One night we spoke swords and plowshares together. We began a list, spears into pruning hooks is like… fighting to feeding, bread not bombs, guns to garden tools, guns to grain, machetes into shovels, military school to agriculture training, etc. His imagination took over and he kept thinking about transforming weapons into farm tools or food to feed people. If he can think it now, can he dream it later? If his imagination can whirl with peaceful possibilities now, will he be a man to implement innovative ideas toward a sustainable peace in the future?

I know the tide is against me. People say, even studies say, ‘boys will be boys.’ But the prophets say we must stretch our imaginations and not settle for the rhetoric of any empire. We must summon our creativity, courage and energy toward a big, wild kind of peace. So I’m determined to mother my son in that direction. I will be, to quote Walter Brueggemann, a testimony to the otherwise, showing my son a better way.

This week I’ve been thinking hard, scribbling in my journal – how do I create a peace curriculum for my kids? It’s dawned on me that the world’s violence is everywhere and it will be the default message and the only message if I don’t get serious and intentional about cultivating his imagination for peace. So I’m making a list of my own.

We’re going to talk about better stories of peace. We’re going to dream big and often about what peace might look like. We’re going to look for evidence in the Jesus stories about the world He’s shaping, what He’s creating and what He’s dismantling. We’re going to talk often about the move from fighting to farming, from hurting to healing, from war to peace. While his imagination is pliable and porous we’ll soak in the prophets big dreams about ample food for everyone, homes for everyone, liberation and protection that comes from dismantled weapon systems. We will celebrate the truth that God is in the deliverance business, and so are we.

We’re going to develop a strong vocabulary. Words like justice, equality, restoration, building, fixing, hope and healing will be discussed and practiced. We’ll find better definitions for strength, victory and winning. We will investigate the connotations of war, gun violence and beating people. We’ll widen the context and disarm some of these cultural metaphors and myths.

We’re going to celebrate true heroes. My kids need better heroes – and so do I. We need to celebrate the strength of Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood firm for civil rights because He was energized by the example of Jesus. We should learn about men like Gandhi who brought down an empire without weapons, or Desmond Tutu battling injustice unarmed. We must read of women like Wangari Maathai who confronted the full force of the government to protect the land, the trees, the future of Kenya. These men and women had courage to face empires, strength without weapons, creativity set into motion to diffuse injustice and confidence beyond what most could see. This is what bravery looks like. We need to study modern peace activists and even explore the holy moxy of the martyrs. People who are unafraid of death possess a courage and conviction we must applaud. Heroes work for deliverance in the face of danger, staring down death to forge a lasting peace.

We’re going to learn new skills. We’re going to try activities that will unleash new competencies, new challenges and greater creativity. What about welding to be ready to dismantle? What about farming to feel the joy of growing food and feeding people? What about making bricks and building homes? What about kneading and baking bread – since God is in the bread business, after all. And maybe living in impoverished neighborhoods in the summer months cultivates compassion and allows true friendship with the poor to sprout. Maybe time in Burundian schools ensures multiple languages for a boy who one day can broker a peace. And walking the rural landscapes alongside his father, a community development practitioner, allows him to see what shalom can look like and how to be an advocate, agriculture engineer, a repairer of the places people live.

Mothering my son toward peace will require me to stay steeped in the prophets and the gospels, the wild ways of Jesus and technicolor visions of Isaiah and even the deliverance stride of Moses. But this kind of mothering will require me to risk my comfort zones to equip my son to get into the family business… the deliverance business that breaks the back in injustice and ushers in the peaceable kingdom. Mothering is more than raising a son for a good life, its raising a revolutionary to will join with Jesus to turn some tables and turn the world right side up.

Saddle up, son, we’re about to learn about the wild ways of Jesus who makes a peace you’re gonna want to get in on! This is the adventure you’ve been hungering for all along…


{ Contributing to Emily Wierenga’s Imperfect Prose Thursday on the theme of MOTHER }

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26 thoughts on “mothering a revolutionary”

  1. Diana Trautwein
     ·  Reply

    Yes, MA’AM. Love how this entire piece slowly shifts from one worldview to another. I had a tantrum-prone child (a girl) and indeed, she has grown into a most compassionate, insightful, empathetic adult. She teaches blind students every day (as does her sister and her husband) and she looks out for people on the edges of the cultures within which she moves – at work, in her neighborhood, at church. All that emotion can be channelled, by grace and patience and lots and lots of talking. Just exactly what you’re doing.

    • kelleynikondeha
       ·  Reply

      Diana, so encouraging to hear that tantrums give way to compassion in your own experience! Love how you describe your daughter… hope I’ll be saying the same of my children some day! Although last night my son prayed for everyone to have enough food, that Jesus would win over the Jezebel’s of the world. So I think he’s beginning to get equity!

  2. Amy
     ·  Reply

    Um, maybe this curriculum could be the next book you publish?

  3. Catriona
     ·  Reply

    My son (now almost 13) has never been interested in guns or violence. He is the only one of his friends who does not play war games on his X Box. I hope and pray that his disinterest in violence will last his whole life.

  4. Christiana
     ·  Reply

    Thank you, Kelley! I am just in the beginning stages of wondering how to parent a boy into a man of character and peace…the passionate not passive kind of peace. I hear Christians talk about how our culture is making our boys wimpy…that they should be allowed to play war and gun-fighting and such. As if that’s what makes a man a man. And I think, why? Isn’t our natural inclination toward violence something we ought to fight against with equal passion? What does it mean to be a man? What makes a man great? I’m longing for that curriculum too. Please write it!

  5. Brenna D (@chicagomama)
     ·  Reply

    “Mothering is more than raising a son for a good life, its raising a revolutionary to will join with Jesus to turn some tables and turn the world right side up.

    Saddle up, son, we’re about to learn about the wild ways of Jesus who makes a peace you’re gonna want to get in on! This is the adventure you’ve been hungering for all along…”

    Thank you for this. It is so encouraging to me, and not just because my sweet middle girl is very tantrum proned (and the reminder that there is sweetness and compassion tucked in always helps me gain perspective), but because I sometimes feel alone in how I am attempting to raise my children. I was raised very traditionally within the church, with rules and regulations. I am trying to raise my girls to lean into and grow into God’s character, and I am praying that the rest will fall into place.

    As always, thank you for sharing your beautiful words!

  6. Caris Adel
     ·  Reply

    love, love, love, love this. I had a major tantrumer too…omw. Those were some awful years. I finally came to see that his determination and persistence are going to be excellent leader qualities someday.

  7. Mia
     ·  Reply

    Dear Kelly
    What a wonderful way of raising your children! I know what you are talking about, since I live in Africa and know that violence lurks at every corner! Desmond Tutu is truly a remarkable man.
    Much love and peace to you and yours!

  8. amy danielle
     ·  Reply

    Thank you for this.
    I have 7 boys {and 2 girls!} and it is so encouraging to know that some of my Jesus-sisters are in on the same vision. I’ve been writing about some of the same themes over at my place- and getting a good bit of backlash about it.

    Particularly appreciated the Brueggemann quote. 🙂

    • kelleynikondeha
       ·  Reply

      Amy, I figured there would be a backlash at some point because we’re pushing against culture here. But I just can’t relent any longer. And a Brueggemann quote always seems to be in order! Keep up the revolutionary work – you’re not alone.

  9. Ashley N
     ·  Reply

    I love and appreciate this so much, and it’s speaking to me right where I’m at this week. I’ve been reading an MLK JR biography (for kids) each night with my six year old daughter. While she is very tender hearted, her reaction to some of the stories of injustice and inequality in the book has been to cry out “if I were there, I would’ve punched that guy!”. Or “dr king should’ve slapped those people for arresting him”. It’s been a slow read b/c we’ve had to talk through a lot of it, and explain about Dr King’s commitment to non-violence and peaceful protest. And it’s had me realizing how intentional I must be in parenting her towards peace b/c the world wants her with her fists up. Thank you again for the read.

    • kelleynikondeha
       ·  Reply

      Ashley, it’s so hard, right? My son does the same thing – fists up ready to fight for justice and defeat bad guys. So my challenge is to take that heart for justice and setting things right and energize it without the need to strike someone! Takes daily creativity. I find questions work well with 8 year olds… what else could you do? what if your fists were tied behind your back – what other way could you respond? How could you help MLK without hurting anyone… Questions get that imagination fired up and become on-ramps to some great conversations! We just keep trying. And let’s keep sharing what we learn so we can equip one another as we journey!

  10. Kristen
     ·  Reply

    Beautiful. Wow. My son is four, and I see tantrums A LOT. Partly because he is four, and partly because…well, I don’t entirely know! I would love to know some of the resources you have regarding tantrum-y kids and compassionate adults. I think it would greatly encourage me.

  11. d.l. mayfield
     ·  Reply

    somehow i missed this post in all my travels . . . well, it hit me hard. i am smack dab of realizing what it means to commit myself for life to living in places where violence happens–and what that means for kids (both present and future). this was lovely, encouraging, and also challanging for me as an adult.

    we were all talking about support raising (i know, everyone’s favorite subject) and somebody said: “people are just desperate to hear stories of how God is at work”. i thought of that while reading your post. all of us, kids included, are desperate for signs of the kingdom. let’s be intentional about talking about them!

    (oh, and this would be the most amazing children’s curriculum ever).

  12. suzannah | the smitten word
     ·  Reply

    this spoke to me, and i drank it in. i’d love to pick your brain about discipline sometime. so much of it, to me, feels like it stems from ways of violence and domination, which we’ve shunned. and yet so often i feel without those farming tools of fruitful cultivation, and it still feels like old battle i do not want–and am losing.

    • Kim Waggoner
       ·  Reply

      If you two do talk about discipline and figure it out, promise to share with the rest of us? 🙂

  13. Alice
     ·  Reply

    I am reading this piece and these comments, so touched, as my spirit relates. My active go-getter of a boy is a mere 10 months old. He’s already a spitfire. I confess: I am also feeling a touch disheartened. My husband is a police officer with a view of justice that I’ve spent 10 years lovingly seeking to understand- and I often truly feel that I do. He bears weapons, he always will. He has to live each day knowing he is confident in his ability to choose to end the life of another person, and would feel justified in doing so. It is not something he believes blindly, he has spent much time processing the “why” of what he believes, in his own heart and mind, in prayer, and with others. I do not disagree with much of what he thinks, but on some things we are in stark contrast- as his wife I’ve intentionally had to delve into his heart and mind and come to my own place of rest with how we differ in our views on justice, on violence, and evil and good and war as peace.

    And now there is our precious boy. I respect his father, immensely. Great husband, loves the Lord, so loving and involved with our son. But how do I mother toward peace when my partner in this world and father to our boy would flat out disagree with much of what you write here, simply because his reality dictates otherwise? He lives in a world where not only does he see violence nightly, but is in a commissioned place to deal with that violence by his employment of his own person- with his hands, and with the tools on his belt, be it pepper spray, a baton, or possibly even a firearm.

    I find myself in what can feel an impossible place. I desperately want to raise a child full of compassion, who seeks strength in peace, who finds manliness in love and selfless living. But I also have a boy growing up with an Officer for a father a profession he very well may end up in. Practically, the talk in our home will not be dismantle your weapons, but rather weapon safety.

    Where does that leave a mom like me, with a boy like mine, in a family like ours, I wonder?

    • Diana Trautwein
       ·  Reply

      Wow. What great questions you raise! It’s a tough place to be and I think maybe the only way to even come close to reconciling things is to admit that we live in a world where firearms-carrying-officers-of-the-law are needed and important. But we’re not all ‘peace officers,’ nor do we need to carry a weapon to be safe. Those who are trained and licensed to carry them are in a different category somehow. But I surely hear the cry of your heart which wants your little one to be a man of peace! May you be blessed with extra wisdom as you work together with your husband to raise him into one.

      • kelleynikondeha
         ·  Reply

        Yes, Diana. I think this is good to frame those who are responsible to keep the peace, such as it is for now.

    • kelleynikondeha
       ·  Reply

      Alice, I hear your heart. You are right in the crux of the reality – the world we live in yet the world we are called to usher in alongside Christ. My parents are gun owners, responsible ones, but I learned recently they’ve already told my kids that they carry, love target practice and have guns in the home for self defense. These are the beloved grandparents to my children… what do I say when my son asks about grandpa’s gun? In that unexpected conversation, I just went to the text where Peter sheared off a solders ear. We read about Jesus’ healing response and his words about His kingdom not coming that way, by the sword. We talked about the soldier who both lost and gained his ear in one night – what must have he told his family when he got home? What was stronger – the sword or the healing hand? My son, even today, is still talking about this story and how Jesus is so wild and strong.

      We took another meal and spoke of Genesis, everyone created in God’s image, having His likeness in them. We talked about bullies, enemies, etc as people who frighten us, and yet still have God’s fingerprints on them. So we have to be careful how we talk about them and interact with them because they are also God’s kids. (My son connected the two on his own – ‘oh, that’s why Jesus didn’t want to hurt the soldier, he had fingerprints on his heart!’)

      None of it is easy, but I’m working in a constant ethic in our home. I want him to see others as people loved by God, maybe that will temper his urge to strike out and hurt. I want to talk about the prophetic dreams, because they are meant to be ours, too. I want to tell about a wild Jesus who went to dangerous places, as we might have to, in order to defend the vulnerable. He will decide what to do – Lord knows there are so many other influences in school, tv, friends. But maybe I am the one place he hears another story / way is possible. And so maybe that is your role… to be the one place he might catch a whiff that there is another way. Maybe its the way you tell the stories of faith that will allow him to see, imagine and connect things as he ages. Feels like a covert op sometimes, right?

      We’ve also talked about pros/cons of guns in the home and he knows why we don’t have them. But my husband and I are on the same page,so that makes it easy to communicate. My husband grew up in Burundi where machetes were used in genocide, and as a child of war and then a journalist reporting on the aftermath, he’s seen the ravages of violence. He knows the urge to have a weapon to protect, yet they danger of having one at all because of the resulting carnage.

      None of this is easy. Everything says it’s impossible, unrealistic, that’s not how the world works. True – at least not yet. Maybe part of what we do is witness to the now/not yetness of the world. Now there is violence – but it won’t be so in the world to come, in the world God is reconciling to Himself. And can we being to live out of a future truth into our present reality? I don’t know you two, but can you agree to have two conversations? He sharing about responsible ownership, etc. And you sharing what we dream/hope for in the future based on our faith. You’re own now, and not-yet?

      I hear you – its hard. I pray God will give you wisdom enough for each day, each conversation, each opportunity to testify to the otherwise… peace is possible. But I also pray for peace in your home, because that is such a deep foundation for your children. I have no answers, just ideas and many prayers. Blessings to you, Alice.

      • Alice
         ·  Reply

        I am encouraged by your words. Working towards a constant ethic of nonviolence while dealing with the realities of my husband’s profession do not have to be mutually exclusive. An opportunity, even, for heartfelt and refining discussions within the home as my son grows, and as we live in the now and not-yet.

        Now how to teach a 10-month-old not to use those chompers he’s grown as weapons! 😉

  14. Stephanie
     ·  Reply


    Have you read “Desmond and the Very Mean Word” by Desmond Tutu, by chance? It’s a GOOD one.

    • kelleynikondeha
       ·  Reply

      Stephanie, thanks for the recommendation. we love his earlier book for kids based on God Has A Dream. Just ordered this one from amazon today, so excited to read it next week with the kids. Thanks again!

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