One morning in late 1996, the phrase "Child Honouring" woke me up from a sound sleep. In that pivotal moment, I realized that all my years of singing and talking with young children, learning all I could about child development -- and then of watching, with growing alarm, the disintegration of communities and the deterioration of our planet -- had been a preparation of sorts, a way of showing me the link between the state of the world and the health of its children.
I knew I had to speak out in a new way on behalf of the world's young. This sparked a dialogue with people in a wide range of disciplines.
Across all cultures, we find an essential humanity that is most visible in early childhood -- a playful, intelligent, and creative way of being. Early experience lasts a lifetime. It shapes our sense of self and how we see others; it also shapes our sense of what's possible, our emerging view of the world.
The impressionable early years are the most vulnerable to family dynamics, cultural values, and planetary conditions. At this critical point in the history of humankind, the irreducible needs of all children can offer a unifying ethic by which the cultures of our interdependent world might reorder their priorities.
Child Honouring is a vision, an organizing principle, and a way of life -- a revolution in values that calls for a profound redesign of every sphere of society.
It starts with three givens: first, the primacy of the early years -- early childhood is the gateway to humane being. Second, we face planetary degradation unprecedented in scope and scale, a state of emergency that requires a remedy of equal scale, and that most endangers the very young.
And third, the crisis calls for a systemic response in detoxifying the environments that make up the ecology of the child. This is a "children first" approach to healing communities and restoring ecosystems; it views how we regard and treat our young as the key to building a humane and sustainable world. (It's not about a child-centered society where children rule, nor a facile notion of children being all things nice, and it has nothing to do with permissive parenting; none of these is desirable.) Child Honouring is a global credo for maximizing joy and reducing suffering by respecting the goodness of every human being at the beginning of life, with benefits rippling in all directions.
It's a novel idea -- organizing society around the needs of its youngest members. Just as startling is the finding of neuroscience that a lifetime of behaviours is significantly shaped by the age of four, and that, developmentally speaking, the preschool years are more important than the school years. (Although people can and do change throughout their lives, it's much harder to alter the core emotional patterns of one's earliest years. What's more, a strong positive foundation at the start of life can help mitigate the wounding of later trauma.) In the words of Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker, founders of the Council of Human Development, "Early childhood is the most important time in a human being's development."
What does it mean to honour children? It means seeing them for the creatively intelligent people they are, respecting their personhood as their own, recognizing them as essential members of the community, and providing the fundamental nurturance they need in order to flourish. As formative growth is simultaneously affected by the personal, cultural, and planetary domains, sustainability strategies must take all three into account.
Children are not a partisan concern, and Child Honouring is not pitted against person or ideology. Its allegiance is to the children and their families. It speaks emphatically for the birthright of the young of every culture to love, dignity, and security. At the same time, it encompasses the whole of life; first years' benefits trickle upward and enrich later years. It takes people of all ages to co-create humane societies. The focus on early life simply underscores a key developmental tenet. In fully honouring children, we would honour the lifelong web of relations that brings them forth and sustains them.
Child Honouring involves honouring all life, and ultimately means living in reverence with the mystery of creation. In our quantum universe where everything is interrelated, the child is a "holon," something that is both "whole," and a part of something bigger. Just as in quantum physics observation affects outcome, so too in human relations; with respect to the very young, regard shapes development. How we regard a child is the vital mirror with which that child's innate potential comes alive.
Children who feel seen, loved, and honoured are far more able to become loving parents and productive citizens. Children who do not feel valued are disproportionately represented on welfare rolls and police records. Much of the criminal justice system deals with the results of childhood wounding (the vast majority of sexual off enders, for example, were themselves violated as children), and much of the social service sector represents an attempt to rectify or moderate this damage, which comes at an enormous cost to society.
Most of the correctional work is too little, too late.
Child Honouring as lens
Child Honouring is a corrective lens that, once we look through it, allows us to question everything from the way we measure economic progress to our stewardship of the planet; from our physical treatment of children to the corporate impact on their minds and bodies; from rampant consumerism to factory schooling. It offers a proactive developmental approach to creating sustainable societies. As a creed that crosses all faiths and cultures, Child Honouring can become a potent remedy for the most challenging issues of our time.
At stake for our species is nothing less than the right to be human, the right to remain human in the magical world that gives us life -- before it's too late.
Babies today carry toxic chemicals barely known 50 years ago, born into a degraded biosphere. That's the extent to which business-as-usual has failed children, both worldwide and here at home. It has endangered their well-being and undermined family life, as Sharna Olfman's book Childhood Lost dramatically reveals. The moral imperative is to undo the damage wherever possible, to take action to restore children's diminished futures.
Urgently we need to create a culture of deep compassion, one in which the primacy of the early years guides public policy, the admired life blends material sufficiency with more noble aims, and our children learn to become responsible global citizens. A culture in which corporate ingenuity is redirected to profit all shareholders of the planet, and in which our economy (as a subset of nature) becomes a means to this end, not an end in itself. A culture in which "the good life" speaks not to purchasing power but to the quality of our existence -- our relationships with one another, between cultures, and with Nature. A culture that puts self-confidence ahead of consumer confidence, and affirms developmental health as the true wealth of nations.
But how do we get there? Effective strategic planning must embrace -- as a priority -- the universal needs of the very young. Their well-being will comprise the true test of all our efforts.
Covenant and principles
On New Year's Eve, 1998, on the University of Virginia campus, an important part of the Child Honouring vision emerged. I'd been visiting with Bill McDonough, then dean of architecture, who began his sustainable-design course each year with the question, "How do we love all the children?" Bill spoke of the importance of not imposing "remote tyranny" on children to come, of society's current activities not compromising their future lives. (This was the same message I'd heard 12-year-old Severn Cullis-Suzuki deliver in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.) Later that night, I pulled a copy of the Declaration of Independence from a bookcase and began reading. In those pages, there was no mention of children. I wondered what a similar emancipatory proclamation about them might say, and began writing what became "A Covenant for Honouring Children" -- a declaration of duty to this and future generations.
An early supporter of the covenant was Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment, who invited me to speak at the New York Academy of Medicine. After a day of scientific and medical presentations, my talk "Child Honouring: The Loving Challenge" was greeted with a rousing ovation. Encouraged, I accepted invitations to speak at Parliament Hill in Ottawa and at a number of conferences, including the World Bank's "Investing in Our Children's Future." At Harvard, I spoke of Child Honouring as the next ecological paradigm, stressing its integrated nature as expressed in the following piece I began writing in Virginia:
A Covenant for Honouring Children
We find these joys to be self-evident:
That all children are created whole, endowed with innate intelligence, with dignity and wonder, worthy of respect.
The embodiment of life, liberty and happiness, children are original blessings, here to learn their own song. Every girl and boy is entitled to love, to dream, and to belong to a loving "village." And to pursue a life of purpose.
We affirm our duty to nourish and nurture the young, to honour their caring ideals as the heart of being human.
To recognize the early years as the foundation of life, and to cherish the contribution of young children to human evolution.
We commit ourselves to peaceful ways and vow to keep from harm or neglect these, our most vulnerable citizens.
As guardians of their prosperity we honour the bountiful Earth whose diversity sustains us.
Thus we pledge our love for generations to come.
The following Child Honouring principles elaborate the essential themes of the covenant, and suggest a way to embrace the young of every culture as treasure and inspiration. Taken together, they offer a holistic way of reversing the deterioration of natural and human communities, and thus brightening the outlook for our children and the world we share. They also form a basis for a multi-faith consensus for societal renewal based on the universal and irreducible needs of the very young.
Respectful love is key. It speaks to the need to respect children as whole people and to encourage them to know their own voices. Children need the kind of love that sees them as legitimate beings, persons in their own right. Respectful love fosters self-worth -- it's the prime nutrient in human development. Children need this not only from parents and caregivers, but also from the whole community.
Diversity is about abundance: of human dreams, intelligences, cultures, and cosmologies; of earthly splendors and ecosystems. Introducing children to biodiversity and human diversity at an early age builds on their innate curiosity. Not only is there a world of natural wonders to discover, but also a wealth of cultures, of ways to be human. Comforted by how much we share, we're able to delight in our differences.
Caring community refers to the "village" it takes to raise a child. The community can positively affect the lives of its children. Child-friendly shopkeepers, family resource centres, green schoolyards, bicycle lanes, and pesticide-free parks are some of the ways a community can support its young.
Conscious parenting can be taught from an early age; it begins with empathy for newborns. Elementary and secondary school curricula could teach nurturant parenting (neither permissive nor oppressive) and provide students with insight into the child-rearing process. Such knowledge helps to deter teen pregnancies and unwanted children. Emotionally aware parents are much less likely to perpetuate abuse or neglect.
Emotional intelligence sums up what early life is about: a time for exploring emotions in a safe setting, learning about feelings and how to express them. Those who feel loved are most able to learn and most likely to show compassion for others. Emotional intelligence builds character and is more important to later success than IQ. Cooperation, play, and creativity all foster the "EQ" needed for a joyful life.
Nonviolence is central to emotional maturity, to family relations, to community values, and to the character of societies that aspire to live in peace. It means more than the absence of aggression; it means living with compassion. Regarding children, it means no corporal punishment, no humiliation, no coercion. "First do no harm," the physicians' oath, can apply to all our relations -- it can become a mantra for our times. A culture of peace begins in a nonviolent heart and a loving home.
Safe environments foster a child's feeling of security and belonging. The very young need protection from the toxic influences that permeate modern life -- from domestic neglect and maltreatment to the corporate manipulations of their minds and the poisonous chemicals gaining access to their bodies. The first years are when children are most impressionable and vulnerable; they need safeguarding.
Sustainability means living in a way that does not compromise the lives of future generations. It refers not merely to conservation of resources, renewable energy development, and antipollution laws. To be sustainable, societies need to build social capacity by tapping the productive power of a contented heart. The loving potential of every young child is a potent source for good.
Ethical commerce is fundamental to a humane world. It requires a revolution in the design, manufacture and sale of goods, supported by corporate reforms, "triple bottom line" business, full-cost accounting, tax and subsidy shifts, and political and economic cycles that reward long-term thinking. A child-honouring protocol for commerce would enable a restorative economy devoted to the well-being of the very young.
Our current unsustainable state on a globe with failing life support adds up to a colossal theft, a theft of futures -- the futures of our children.
Child Honouring is a vision of hope and renewal in response to a time of unprecedented social and ecological breakdown worldwide. It is a meta-framework for addressing the major issues of our time, and for redesigning society towards the greatest good by meeting the priority needs of the very young.
Let us work together to understand how the universal human symbol and reality -- the child -- can inspire a peacemaking culture for our world.
Photo: Choo Yut Shing/Flickr