With every decade that passes, new legal and civil rights have been fought for and won for every group of adults in Westernized cultures. The fight continues around the globe in order to share those legal protections with oppressed populations in other cultures. With each passing decade, there have been landmark victories won that validate the journey for adults to assert their basic human rights- In the 00’s, gay marriage was the fight that finally found victory in the United States.
However, children seem to exist in a surreal incubator; a sterile laboratory in which they are viewed and treated as if they are human beings-in-the-making, like objects waiting to be assembled, or feelingless, spiritless bodies waiting for someone to bestow humanity onto them. Decade after decade passes, and yet an industrialized child’s world always looks the same, with little more than trite hope of obtaining any real victories beyond the superficial “right” to be intoxicated consumers and technology automatons.
In 1989, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations and later ratified by all of the UN countries except for Somalia and…Guess who? The Land of the Free, USA. However, as with most well-meaning agencies, organizations, programs, task forces, experts and documents relating to “helping” children, the UN Convention is written by adults who assume they know what is best for children. While they are accurate on many accounts, they defer to stereotype and tradition in other areas, such as their gender-biased focus on only female victims and their freedom-violating article stating that education shall be forced (“compulsory”).
In most cases in history, oppressed groups themselves decide what it is they need, what is best for them and what rights would allow them to live with liberty, happiness and freedom. However, ironically, in the case of children, their oppressors are the ones who write up the documents, form the agencies, determine the “protections”, divvy out the rights and choose the laws! Children are often offered only petty, insulting protections by “experts”, agencies and spokespeople who can only see through adult-colored glasses; the “rights” children are given by adults often double as the “right” to be oppressed, abused or exploited by adults (For example, in all 50 USA states there are child abuse protection statutes in the books. However, in all 50 states parents are allowed by law to hit, smack, belt and physically hurt children as long as no physical injury results. In half of all public schools, school staff can legally assault children with wooden boards and actually leave injuries, with criminal immunity).
Children form a large cohort of human beings- Children are people of all nationalities, colors, cultures, abilities, economic classes and of both sexes from the ages of birth to age 18. And some of us child advocates would argue that the fetus constitutes a child in need of consideration as well. Children constitute such an enormous group of people, yet this significant segment of the population lives every day in virtual slavery to adults and adult agendas, with no political power and virtually no voice for their needs, wishes, preferences and dreams beyond consumerism.
It is easy to conclude that youth are too immature, uninformed, uneducated, self-centered, confused, lazy and consumeristic to be able to articulate their needs. This is not only ignorant and stereotypical, it is disrespectful and bigoted. If we listen to children, observe children, empathize with children, show compassion to children, play with children and decode the clues and messages underneath their stereotyped behavior, children will let true advocates know their needs. If we watch the span of children’s years from birth to young adulthood and we allow ourselves to see how children react in the moment and over time to the seemingly “normal” everyday ways adults treat them, we will learn about children’s true needs. We must stop assuming that when children cry, protest, resist, oppose, withdraw, conform, fear or form symptoms of “mental illness” or “disabilities” that they need more of what made them cry, protest, resist, oppose, withdraw, conform, fear or form symptoms.
When we think of all of the major human rights movements in history, protest, resistance and outrage were some of the most common elements. Children are natural protesters and know better than anyone what they do and don’t like and what they do need and don’t need. Children, from newborns to teens, cry out, protest and attempt to fight for their basic human rights everyday, yet their protests fall on deaf, clueless ears. Parents, guardians, school teachers, school administrators, programs, professionals, psychologists, counselors, social workers, “experts”, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers, lawmakers and governments (many well-meaning) exert crushing forces of effort to quiet, oppress, ignore, muffle and stomp out the cries and protests of unhappy children every single day in our society. This is accomplished through ignorance, apathy, laws, tradition, rules, control, coercion, punishment, threat, bribe, confinement, diagnosing, medicating, “servicing”, “therapeutic” manipulation, thought and behavioral control, fear, intimidation, humiliation, shame, emotional and physical neglect, physical assault (Yes, that includes “spanking”) and in extreme cases, severe physical abuse, sexual exploitation, physical and psychological torture or even murder.
So What Should Child Advocates Do?
The most basic and critical need of all mammal children, including human children, is for a secure, deep, permanent attachment to at least one parent, either by birth or adoption. Secure attachment is the result of a parent immediatly responding to and meeting the needs of their child, in a manner that is warm, loving and compassionate. The result of secure attachment is a parent-child relationship which is loving, warm, cooperative, respectful, healthy, and which grows stronger and more reciprocal as the child grows older. The youth who is angry, depressed, anxious, acting-out, disrespectful, withdrawn, materialistic or is showing symptoms of “mental illness” is not securely attached. The youth who is more interested in buying objects than spending time with parents is not securely attached. The youth who pushes away his or her parents and usually puts peers before family is not securely attached. The youth who bullies or lacks empathy for others is not securely attached. Parents who are cold, rigid, critical, authoritarian, permissive, disrespectful, indifferent, emotionally neglectful, punitive, abusive or who in any way fail to comprehend and respond to their children’s needs cannot produce securely attached children.
The human attachment cycle is the basic mammalian blueprint for a world-wide children’s rights movement. The agenda of children’s rights advocacy should be based upon the basic physical, emotional and developmental needs of children viewed from an organic, nature-based perspective, untainted by industrialized, religious, political or financial interpretation. Any other agenda is superficial and superfluous at best. At worst any other agenda is a front to protect adult power and control over children and financial and political agendas.
Natural study of peaceful nonviolent tribal cultures as well as study of nonhuman mammals indicates clearly what our children need. This natural study may not show us what we as industrialized, busy, working, materialistic, politically motivated people wish to hear, but it will show us what true child advocacy is needed and why our children have been showing such distress for centuries. When infants cry, when children resist and when adolescents act out, they are telling their parents that they have a need that nature intended that the parents meet. In most cases, when children cry, resist and act out at all ages, they are crying out for physical and emotional connection to their parents, in whatever form is developmentally appropriate. They are letting us know they need something, that their bodies or emotions are uncomfortable. They are crying out for parents to understand that what we are doing to them or allowing someone to do to them is hurtful, painful or running against the grain of who they are (Yes, keeping children in oppressive school environments is hurting them).
The multitude of blind traditions and expectations our culture has imposed upon children have caused our children intense distress. Their behavior and actions both as children and later as adults show us the severity of this distress. These blind traditions and expectations include, but aren’t limited to: Infant-mother separation, bottle feeding, circumcision, crib sleeping, separation from a parent or extended family, punishment, coercion, control, physical punishment, “time-out”, day care, school, sitting at desks, being forced to do busywork, lack of physical activity and play time, homework, toxic peer groups, segregated age groups, TV and media addiction, junk food, materialism, diagnoses, psychiatric drugs, programs/therapies to manipulate behavior and low levels of parental affection and connection.
Infants need to be held day and night on the skin, breastfed for at least 2 and 1/2 years and allowed to share the family bed. Children of all ages need to be caressed, held, rocked, hugged, kissed and treated with empathy, warmth and tenderness. They need to be taken seriously, heard, cherished, understood and played with. They need your undivided time. They need to learn naturally from mistakes. They need strong, morally rich, compassionate modeling. They need to be protected from harmful people, harmful media and harmful influences. They need physical, intellectual and creative freedom. They need unschooling and community learning. They need free time to run, jump, play, explore, dream and invent. They need to learn in freedom, based on their own interests, dreams, passions. They need to learn in their own way, at their own pace, with their own learning style and using the resources, classes and mentors of their choosing. Children need to spend most of their time in play and increasingly as they grow older, in the community doing meaningful service. They need a diverse group of friends of multiple ages, young, old, child and adult. Above all, they need security, connection, love and compassion from their parents, families and mentors.
Children also need adult advocates who empower children to stand up for their rights. They need adult advocates who will step in to protect abused, neglected or exploited children and their best interests fiercely when children are limited by the law or by adult control to do so for themselves. Children need adult advocates who do not taint their advocacy with adult agendas and motivations; who will not twist the words “best interests” to mean what the adult wants it to mean.
We as a society need true child advocates and politicians to push for laws that truly protect children and their interests, heal the damage already done to children, and mentor and guide young adults to prevent them from passing on toxic patterns to their children. The child’s needs are society’s needs. When the child’s needs are met, when the child’s rights are established, fought for, respected and upheld, society begins to heal and becomes mentally, emotionally and socially healthy. When societies are healthy, the environment, the world and the planet begin to heal and become healthy and sustainable.
The new year, 2010, is the gateway to a critical decade. What new rights will adult groups fight for and win? Will we leave children behind for another decade, in cribs, in daycare, in joyless 1800’s-influenced school environments, with sedentary, tedious busywork? Will we leave children behind in front of TV and computer screens, engorged with sugar and fast food, overwhelmed and dulled down with fashions, gadgets and brand-names? Will we leave children behind segregated into cliques, riddled with diagnoses, drugged up with psychiatric chemicals? Will we leave children angry, sullen, depressed and disconnected from family and community? Will we continue to ignore and push aside children as if they have subhuman status while we rant and rave about our superficial political ideologies? Will we push our financial, political and ageist agendas for children under the guise of “child advocacy”? Or will we radically change the way we view and treat children, their rights and their needs?