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Valuing Children

After the divorce, my mom worked at a daycare center for a while. She was a full time student patching together jobs to support her two daughters while trying to get an education that would allow her to give us a better life. She would tell us about the kids at the center sometimes, and you could tell that she cared about those children. It was during one of my mother’s daycare stories that my sister said, “Yes, but WE are your children.” She was only six or seven at the time and still keenly feeling the loss of dad, so she was understandably concerned that she not lose mom too. Mom gave her a hug and said, “The kids at the center are my kids too.” “No,” my sister replied. “We are your kids.” “Yes, you are my children. And you are my daughters, and that will be forever. And the kids at the center are my kids too.” She kissed my sister’s forehead to reassure her. She smiled at both of us. “All children are my children,” she said. “And when you grow up, all children will be your children too. It’s part of being an adult.” I have never forgotten this. I am older now and I do not have children “of my own.” However, I still believe, as my mom did, that all children are my children. All children are our children. This is one of the guiding principles in my life. It is not an easy one to live by in this society. We are divided up into small, insular families, with childless outsiders viewed as somewhere between vaguely suspicious and downright dangerous. Despite this, I have successfully cultivated some friendships with parents and children. But I still have not figured out how to bridge that gap between the larger community of parents and the community of people without children. Look at community events — they almost always fall into one of two categories: events for parents and children or events for people without children. Parents have a hard time showing up to the “singles” events since they are often late at night and involve alcohol. Waking up at 5 am with a hangover and only three hours of sleep, and facing the prospect of caring for an energetic toddler is not attractive. Similarly, childfree folk have a hard time going to “family” events. If you show up to such an event without a child in tow, there just isn’t much for you to do. The parents either don’t want to talk to you, or don’t know what to talk about. If you try to talk about kids without actually having any kids, you run the risk of being viewed as judgmental, pretentious, or even creepy. All of this is compounded both by our culture’s views on children and the media focus on the few people who prey on children. In our culture, children are something that parents own. This is not just an opinion: if you look at laws regarding children, you will see that they grew out of this notion of children as property. This ownership paradigm nurtures a variety of attitudes that contribute not only to the parent/single divide, but also to the low value we place on children. These attitudes include:

  • It’s not my kid, so I have no responsibility to act, to help provide for, or to intervene on behalf of;
  • It’s not your kid, so butt out and let me parent however I see fit; and
  • “Our” children means my legal progeny and, perhaps, the kids in my immediate community or class, and I will only support children and programs that fit that definition of “our children”.
  • All of this translates into programs for children that are chronically underfunded, sometimes poorly designed, rarely focused on root problems, and most likely to be cut in favor of other issues like the military or tax reduction. In this country, we say that we value children. However, our actions do not support this assertion. It is like the violent spouse who, after beating the crap out of his or her partner, proclaims love for that person. Perhaps there is love there, but when the result is mental anguish and broken bones, behavior is more important than intention. We proclaim to love our children, but actions speak louder than words. Actions such as creating the “No Child Left Behind Act” that focuses on making sure children memorize test answers as the cornerstone of reviving our failing public schools — a questionable premise at best — and then don’t even fully fund the damn thing. Actions like encouraging middle class and rich moms to stay home because it is best for the baby’s health, while simultaneously requiring poor mothers to put their six-week-old infants into daycare for forty-plus hours a week. We see it in the unrelieved expanse of asphalt that passes as a school yard for elementary school children in poor neighborhoods while richer neighborhood schools have grass and bark in their play yards. One of the results of our culture’s low value of children is that people without children are not encouraged to take an interest until they have children of their own. If you never have children, it is expected that you won’t have anything to do with them. The weirdness that grows out of this is that if someone without children shows an interest in children, that person’s motives are suspect. It is a fact that there are people out there who prey on children. It is assumed that child molesters don’t have children of their own and, conversely, that people without children who like children must be molesters. So, childfree people are encouraged in general to ignore children, and sometimes are even given specific encouragement to ignore children. Parents, busy with all the myriad demands of parenthood, often find themselves doing more with their friends who are also parents and less with their childfree friends, until the two groups are polarized. A few years ago my mom called me to tell me about an article she had read about a group of people in Africa that had children as their central value. This value was epitomized in their traditional greeting. Instead of saying, “How are you?” and “I’m fine,” as we do when meeting each other, they would say, “How are the children?” and, “The children are well.” They would say this whether or not they were parents themselves, because children were the cornerstone concern of all of the people. What would our world look like if we greeted each other this way? If our first and foremost thought was for the welfare of the children, all the children? What would our neighborhoods look like? How would our school yards and school programs be different? What would our world look like if every child was taught that, when they grew up, all children would be their children? I can see a world very different from the one we have now. We would have neighborhoods where children could play outside without fear because all adults would keep an eye on them and give gentle guidance. Neighbors with and without children would be happy to keep an eye on the kids as mom or dad ran to the store. Children, unafraid to talk to others, would bring the whole community closer together by introducing neighbors and inviting all sorts of people to join in at events. A tighter-knit community would mean more sharing of snow blowers, lawn mowers, big ladders and other occasional-use items. People would check in on their elderly neighbors, sick neighbors, or neighbors in a crisis. There would still be problems, but each individual would be better able to deal with those problems because they would know they would not have to face them alone. All schools would have safe and engaging play areas, with room for sports, room for play, and room for exploring the natural world. Teachers would be supported in their programming and educational efforts not just by parents of school-age children, but also by people with older children, and people without children at all. There would be plenty of adults to keep an eye on kids at after-school programs, which would offer an amazing array of interesting topics and opportunities for learning. The school programming itself would focus on the art of teaching through instilling a love of learning and nurturing curiosity by providing an integration of science, reading, art, math, music, drama, and community service. Learning would be considered a life-long process with classes offered on parenting, problem-solving skills, stress-reduction tools, and other classes for all ages to help all people make the most of their lives and be able to contribute fully to their community. A generation of children raised with all the resources needed to support them, their parents, and their community, who had their curiosity nurtured instead of squashed, who felt loved and valued, would be able to tackle the world’s knottiest problems — domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty, environmental degradation, crime, war. Each generation would be able to spread this children-valuing culture further, wider, deeper, until all children were valued and loved and wanted. If we put our minds and our resources into creating this transformation, truly committed ourselves to it, we could have world peace in a matter of two or three generations. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The larger society does not support the primacy I place on valuing children. This means I am regularly frustrated and sometimes lonely. I am also often hopeful; I believe that our culture can transform into a truly child-valuing culture. Slow though the process might be, I can see the transformation already seeping in and branching out. Our children are the hope of humanity. Together, we must raise them well.