Current events around the world have made avoiding conflict impossible, which is why children’s book author Julie Penshorn strives to teach children the importance of handling difficult situations and the value of finding peace.
For millions of Ukrainians, their lives have become a tragic sight. Stuffed into subways with the bare minimums and told to craft makeshift explosives, the future is uncertain as world leaders continue to argue and push the Russian invasion further and further. The conflict in Europe could be looked at as an epitome of the last few years, which have seen the raving COVID-19 pandemic, continual political divides, and overall social unrest which looks to have no easy or quick answer.
Perhaps more concerning is the impact these world-changing events will have on the children of tomorrow. Constant images of violence and war is not an ideal setting for youth, though the problems can also occur much more close to home through Adverse Childhood Experiences (“ACEs”), which include divorce, familial fighting, abuse and more that can impact kids for their entire life. However, we know that not all children are equally impacted by these stressful experiences. With an understanding of how to cope with conflict, children can become masters of coping. Julie Penshorn, a children’s book author recognized this and went about the task of providing skills for these kids in a simple, rhyming story with a four-step conflict resolution process that’s easily memorized by a three-year-old.
In her role as Director of Smart Tools for Life, she saw many programs for children in grades four and up, but the little kids, the ones whose minds are willing and ready to embrace skills, were getting no training and very likely their parents’ skills weren’t the greatest either – just look at the divorce rate. So, “The Barnyard Buddies STOP for Peace” came to be.
Penshorn’s five-star reviews showed how hungry parents and teachers were for this type of book, and led to what she says is “the next most essential skill for children (and even adults), and that is the ability to see and experience peace, even when it’s hard.” “I Can See Peace” won the Indie Human Relations Book Awards prize for “Peace Book of the Year” in 2019.
Finally, looking at how difficult a time adults had with embracing those who were perceived as “different” from them and persistent “otherizing”, Penshorn came up with a story of a forlorn, lost dog who could be any “other” and showed how he was a benefit to the group in the barnyard and how much he needed love, and what he was willing to give. “The Barnyard Buddies Meet a Newcomer’ is especially important,” says Penshorn, “since new research shows empathy increases creativity. It’s a good idea to start building this social skill when kids are young so we can gain access to the most creative skills for our complex future.”
“That’s because they just try to copy what we do. What do we absorb from our environment, families, and surroundings? Well, ask yourself the question, who do you know who is good at conflict resolution? Not many of us! And we are the role models for the next generation.”
Penshorn believes that the skills her resources teach children — not just conflict resolution, but finding peace and developing empathy — are keys to their healthy development and form the basis of good social and emotional skills. The books are designed to be read by parents and/or teachers, and even have helpful questions for discussion and activities at the end. Two of the books include music to songs Penshorn wrote to promote the learning. She has two albums of children’s songs: “I Stop for Peace” and “Songs for Peace.”
For Penshorn, whose child was born in 1988, parenting was a challenge. She felt “skill-less” and lost. When her active, oppositional son was three she met her son’s new preschool teacher, and learned so much, she took her Master’s Degree in Business Communications skills and joined with Rebecca Janke, MEd., whose Montessori training and deep experience with teaching young children made her a treasure trove of information. Together, they started a non-profit to help parents and teachers deal with their difficulties in working with little ones. “Growing Communities for Peace developed resources that teachers and parents could use to help make it easier for them to raise and educate young children.”
Penshorn, whose main source of income in her youth was teaching dressage and jumping and training horses, devoted ten years to the non-profit, but eventually went back to horses because she needed to make a living. In 2015, however, she found things were slowing down at the stables, and she had some free time.
“That’s when I began writing children’s books. When my son was young, I always wondered why there weren’t better books for kids. I struggled to find those that weren’t just cutesy, that were educational while being fun and engaging. I think today’s children’s books have gotten better. I like to see children’s books that include the fundamental educational pieces that are essential for children’s development.”
In addition to providing the necessary tools for education, there’s also a sense of urgency involved in order to capitalize on a children’s ability to learn. “Nothing is more important than teaching children when they’re at a sensitive age,” Penshorn explained, citing Maria Montessori’s “Absorbent Mind” theory that childrens’ minds are sponge-like and effortlessly absorb and assimilate to the environment and impressions around them up until the age of six.
“Find it in your daily life. When you look at your table before you eat, think of where the food came from. How somebody had to go out in the field and plant that, and maybe somebody else had to harvest and somebody else had to wash it and ship it. Look at the miracle of that grape on your table. That is a fabulous thing to celebrate, and just looking at that grape makes me see peace.”
In “The Barnyard Buddies STOP for Peace,” Penshorn shows a situation that is a frequent source of conflict for children and adults – even countries. “It’s kind of constant throughout our entire lives. There’s a lack of resources and somebody perceives the other is getting more, and unless we can come to a solution we all agree on, there will be fighting.”
In addition to its encouraging message, the book also provides a method for dealing with conflict resolution that anyone from a child to an adult can use: “STOP.” “First, they stop and breathe because there’s no point in trying to work out anything when you’re hot under the collar,” Penshorn explained.
“That’s the first step of conflict resolution. The next step is T, tell how you feel. The next is O, and that’s open your mind so that you can get ideas for how you might be able to resolve this where everybody could win. Then P, plan a deal.”
For her next book, “I Can See Peace,” Penshorn wanted to focus on finding comfort and calmness even though stressful situations constantly plague us, such as parents fighting or a bully making life difficult. “It’s such a valuable skill for people to be able to find peace in their daily life so that those stressors that blow us into poor decisions, have a chance to be diffused. They say what you focus on expands. If you focus on seeing peace in the world, just in your daily life, then low and behold you can find more of it,” Penshorn said.
“How are you going to treat that person? What might that person have to offer your life? What do you offer? You will feel better being kind to that person. That’s what that story’s about”
Penshorn’s latest book, “The Barnyard Buddies Meet a Newcomer,” focuses on a homeless, starving dog that wanders onto the Barnyard Buddies’ farm. While the previous Barnyard Buddies took a look at a specific skills for conflict, this one goes deeper and is applicable for national issues, like the United States’ stances and actions in regard to immigration and refugees, and conflicts over race and sexual choices.
In this story, the animals are reluctant to let in the hungry dog. “They say, ‘We can’t just let you in here, there’s not enough resources. We know Farmer Jim (the owner of the farm) doesn’t have any more money and doesn’t like strangers, we can’t possibly have another mouth to feed.’ So the animals struggle through what people struggle through as they look at, ‘How are we going to deal with this.’ Eventually, the animals do welcome the dog onto the farm, teaching children a valuable lesson of acceptance and appreciation of others.”
“Whether it’s an immigrant or just somebody that’s different from you in some way, there’s a million reasons that you can find that you don’t like another person. They’re different from you.”
Penshorn’s stories also include a parent and educator’s guide, which includes questions and topics revolving around the book’s characters, activities for children and parents to participate in — such as roleplaying or drawing pictures to show emotions — and clarifications for definitions that may be unknown to children.
“If you look at the questions at the end of the book, you’ll see a lot of those connections being made, and I know teachers that use them in the classrooms are coming up with a lot of their own questions for the children as well to make the learning deeper. These stories are easily applied to daily life.”
Penshorn thinks that another children’s book does lie in her future. “I don’t know that I’ll have a parent’s guide at the end of the book. I think I will make them freestanding stories that provoke learning and prompt kindness.” Regardless of what direction Penshorn takes the next story in, the original purpose remains: providing solid foundational blocks for children to learn, grow, and become more proactive creative citizens and peacemakers.
To learn more about Penshorn’s books and Smart Tools For Life, you can visit their website by clicking here.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at email@example.com.