Ending children’s suffering is a theme that emerges again and again in Solutions for Peace. We may as well consider it Solution No. 1. The suffering of children is not solely a humanitarian issue, which it clearly is, but it is also necessary for creating the peaceful world of tomorrow. Adults who act out violently and viciously are often those who were deeply injured physically and emotionally as children. If a child’s needs are not attended to, that child is suffering from a form of abuse. The most obvious needs are clothing, food, and shelter. Yet, beyond that children also need emotional support, compassion, and love. In wealthier communities children may be well-fed and well-clothed, but they often are starving emotionally from distant parents who are hard-working, but not necessarily present for their children’s needs for physical warmth and emotional closeness.
So many people count among the “walking wounded,” individuals who bear no visible scars, but still carry the deep impressions of childhood. It is the lightning flash of the obvious for some of us, that ending children’s suffering as much as possible will pay enormous dividends in the future, because in failing to respond to children’s needs, we diminish the hope for a positive future.
It needs to be stated here and as many times possible that children’s suffering today creates society’s suffering tomorrow. No child wakes up and decides to be delinquent, a bully, or a violent offender. Yet children model what they see and experience. A child who receives little or no compassion, kindness, patience and understanding will often exhibit traits of callousness and cruelty as they grow older. We may think that real abuse is limited to outright violence but children who endure constant nagging, slapping, poking, pinching, screaming, berating, belittling, and ridiculing by parents and other care-givers cannot help but internalize these abuses and either feel they are “bad” and “deserve” it, or feel they are growing up in an unsafe, threatening world and their feelings are completely shut off. They may act out these abuses later in life by treating others callously or even violently.
Unfortunately, children are at the mercy of their parents and guardians, and the kind of child-rearing practices they use. Many parents simply revert back to how they were raised, without questioning whether those methods were particularly beneficial. And parents may also pass on other unresolved issues to their children, reenacting conflicts, dysfunctions, and addictions learned from their own families, often quite unconsciously. In the late 1980’s and early ’90s, American family therapist and psychologist John Bradshaw gave lectures on dysfunctional family systems and what he describes as the “poisonous pedagogy”, which is how abusive and dysfunctional family dynamics get passed on from one generation to the next.
Passing on dysfunction is one of the most serious issues of modern society; it impacts all aspects of our culture and every income-level but it gets little attention in our news cycles. We may hear about families that go down the deep end where a child is abused to the point of severe injury or even death, but short of that the silent suffering of children goes largely unnoticed. Onlookers may observe the suffering of children, but we have a code of silence around how parents raise their children; it’s their children, so outsiders have no place to criticize or comment.
Yet, the point of this discussion is not to label people as bad parents, as everyone does the best they can, but to give people more tools for raising children. Ironically, society expects that if young people are to be sexually active then any child resulting from a pregnancy, whether intended or unintended, is the sole responsibility of that parent. Young people in their twenties and thirties are physically the most capable of childbirth. Yet, they are probably have the least amount of life-experience necessary for raising kids. Young people are still learning about life’s lessons, developing their own abilities, and discovering who they are. They are in a stage of their life where they are the least able to demonstrate and model functional ways of living and acting. Society has blended child-bearing with the responsibility of child-rearing, such that the two roles are occupied by the same people, and increasingly only one.
Here’s the other irony of modern society: the people who are most capable of raising children and passing on positive values and traits are older people, many of whom we simply do not know what to do with. Many older people have gone through the struggles of life and found their way. The wisdom of men and women sixty years or older places them in a much better position to be child-rearers than younger people half their age. In ancient societies and even more traditional cultures, extended families helped raise the young, such that younger people could still enjoy the benefits of parenthood without all the pressures of being children’s only source of modeling.
Therefore, two generations of people on opposite ends of life’s timeline may help heal each other. The people who understand the values of life perhaps the best are older generations. Children need guidance, particularly from people who know how to live and respect life. Young parents may value their own lives, but it is often difficult for them to give to their children the kind of time, compassion, and teaching they need. Older adults, assuming they are positive and life-affirming people, often have more time than they know what to do with, and want to contribute more to society. Joining children with the elders may solve many social problems as we will examine below, and is a core solution for peace.
The issue for children isn’t solely a question of physical and emotional abuse. Children in middle to upper class families may suffer from neglect. Neglect occurs, not because parents don’t try their hardest to meet children’s needs, but because society has failed to acknowledge that children need more than just their biological parents in order to grow, learn, and understand life. In ancient societies, children were part of the tribe, not solely responsible by the biological parents, but were the responsibility of the community to raise and educate.
In modern communities, children are raised by at most two parents, and more frequently by just one. The idea that a parent is solely responsible for the child needs to be reexamined, especially when the parent is a very young person. It makes sense that young people, who are physically healthy, are the ones who give birth to a child. It does not follow, however, that those same young people are capable of raising that child and addressing all of the child’s needs. Indeed, most young people feel completely inadequate for the job of raising children. Yet, for some reason, we have believed that bringing a child into the world means that you are responsible for that child. This belief puts too much pressure on young people, and makes them fear pregnancy and parenthood because of the role society demands they play.
Older people, however, who are often no longer biological capable of producing offspring, are in a much better position to care for and raise the young. Older people have often gone through much of the difficulty of growing up and learned important lessons on how to live. These lessons may not occur until a person is past their twenties, thirties, and even forties. Yet, a person who is sixty years or older, often has enough life lessons and are mature enough to provide some true beneficial guidance to children. Some people may believe this raising of children by the elders is the equivalent of turning over their children to the “state”. Of course, in a true loving community the elders are not agents of the government, but simply people who choose to help raise and educate children, and find it a joy to offer their time and experience to helping young ones. Human children need far more social interaction by many more individuals than two parents can provide.
Some parents may object to a community of elders raising their children if the parents feel their own “values” are not shared by that group and if they fear dangerous information may be conveyed to their children. This would only be a concern if parents believed they owned their children, which is often how society sees the relationship between biological parents and their offspring. Yet, if parents realized that elders would likely help their child become more successful in life, passing on the time-honored values that parents and the elders would agree upon and share, then the objections would likely go away. And there would never be a “taking away” of the children from parents, but inviting the parents to participate in these loving, guiding circles as much as they choose.
The kind of values the elders would pass on would likely include “respect”, “honesty”, “responsibility,” “self-reliance,” etc. But instead of creating a punitive environment in which children are force-fed these values, the children are given scenarios in which they see these principles in action and can practice them as well. Children who receive guidance from caring and nurturing adults, which is the role of the elders, will much less likely be pulled into the negative forces of dropping out, doing harmful drugs, or other destructive behaviors. Within these circles, children will also be taught their value as a person and that they have an important voice that should be expressed.
Children who feel “part of” rather than “apart from” and also who are seen and heard are less likely to be pulled into the kind of mindless violence that some children fantasize about in today’s world and a few even act out. They act out, not because they are evil, but because they have felt so isolated and neglected. At the core of respecting children’s development, the community respects children’s emotional needs and their emotional responses. All emotions, including anger, fear, excitement, joy are respected. Even negative emotions such as anger and fear are given space for expression. The repression of anger and other emotions causes children, and eventually adults, to act out in destructive ways. In a truly peaceful community, all emotions are embraced, because all emotions are part of the human experience. And when children learn that their humanity is embraced, they will embrace others. And a generation of peace will be born.