A Primer for Parents and Educators on Social Justice and Children
Those children who experience themselves as socially valuable throughout their childhood have the greatest likelihood of facilitating the transition to a socially just world. It will not be those who are seen only for the contribution they might make as adults or for their ability to learn cultural customs and skills. Such chauvinism sees the child as an adult-in-the-making, not a child-as-she-is. That opportunity belongs to children whose social importance is acknowledged in each moment of their lives.
Oppression towards children inevitably arises with neglect of their consciousness, and attendant developmental needs. We shall take up the question of the consequent injustices to children later. It is better to appreciate the gifts children bring to social justice first. When the gift of the child is appreciated, the psychological immune system develops in health. Recognition of the child’s gifts brings relationship and learning. Recognition of the gift of the child obviates the injustices. Appreciation of the child’s gifts heals wounds. Unfortunately, the gifts of the child are too often ignored. Neglect of children’s contribution to social justice reeks of chauvinism and is a reaction generated by the adult’s unresolved childhood issues and conditioning.
BodyBeing children (0-8) accept the elders in their lives. This simple acceptance has far-reaching consequences. It bonds children to parents and grandparents. For most families the bond happens effortlessly, as it naturally should. That bond of attachment is healthy and appropriate and will affect the formation of future relationships through the child’s life. That bond bonds society. It is that critical first step in which there is complete acceptance that one’s well-being is connected to the well-being of others. Crucial for rightful place, the bond develops throughout the BodyBeing years and continues throughout life. It provides the basis for trust and is a sterling example of interconnectedness in every stage of life.
Parents bond to the children as well. In perfect tandem, parents feel fulfilled when they unconditionally accept the child. They have accepted a responsibility that includes the eternal freedom to love. For many parents, this moment serves as the actualization of substantive values crucial for optimal well-being in Reasonable development. Socially, it is a commitment to co-create a world where the child can live in well-being.
Extended family, school, and home communities comprise the social environment of FeelingBeing children. They explore interpersonal dynamics as they learn how to decipher their own feelings and the feelings of others. They embody the values, norms, and ethics of society. Their most extraordinary gift is that they are co-creating the social context as they live. Adults have only to observe them carefully to see how social relationships form.
As they embody the creation of social relationships, so FeelingBeing children (9-13) reflect the society in which they live. They empathically feel the feelings of others and focus on the mentorship of the trusted elders in their life. Therefore, careful observation of FeelingBeing children yields direct information on the current social moment. Adults can use this information to restructure their own relationships toward a more just society.
Ethics is defined as the “science of morals,” and mores are those social customs that call forth quality of character. FeelingBeing children living in optimal well-being are nourished, not needy. They live in abundance, in being, and not in deficit. Through reciprocal cooperation, they continually bring attention to responsible ethics in the community and society through their questioning. They cooperate in the spirit of trust, and trust is the cornerstone of character.
FeelingBeing children’s innate capacity for relationship and ethics manifests as environmental sensitivity. They do not have to be taught the importance of ecology; they must learn by living it. Pollution makes no sense. Neither does prejudice, which is pollution in interpersonal relationships.
FeelingBeing is the leverage point for creating a just society. This is at once a cause for optimism and heartbreak. So little awareness and resources are devoted to the developmental stage of FeelingBeing; so many resources in every sphere of human endeavor are wasted because of this neglect. Can our society at least begin to appreciate the social contribution of FeelingBeing children? Can we allow this age child the moment to engage the feelings attendant to fairness, justice, and ethics? Are we ready to abandon the imposition of morality? Can we accept their trust as a sacred gift and cherish it through the wisdom of trustworthy relationships?
Typical of the black-and-white nature of the teen years, IdealBeing teenagers (13-17) are either richly rewarded for their societal contribution or vilified for the challenges they bring. If the contribution matches social norms and mores, there is reward; if it highlights the shadow, there is vilification. The shadow represents all the unresolved issues in the adult that have been disowned (e.g., wildness, greatness, and/or negative aspects). This confusion, which adds to the misperception of teenagers, stems from adult’s evaluating the teen’s contribution based on performance or results rather than understanding the contribution of the teenager herself.
The first right of an autonomous person is the right to choose. Few people cling to this right more stubbornly and more capriciously than the IdealBeing teen. The right to choose is defended against every assault, reasonable and otherwise. Every parent with a teen in this stage of development knows this. How often have we stood by with a seemingly better way to do something, hearts hurting as we watch the teen struggle yet unwilling to take our advice? Many parents find this difficult to bear, as we did until we realized that stepping into the right to choose is the first step on a long, perilous journey and absolutely necessary for human society and evolution. We can think of no way to ease into it. You either take responsibility for choosing or you don’t. Once you do, then the learning is in the playing and struggling with it. Underneath the choices themselves, the right to choose is affirmed time and again by IdealBeing teenagers.
The right to choose is the basis of a democratic society. It is the definition of liberty itself. The right to choose translates easily into the right to vote. The question can only be asked, not answered: How would society change if teenagers had adequate time to learn how to choose before they were praised or ridiculed for those choices?
Loyalty is a matter of honor and dignity is a commitment simultaneous to trust and to meaning. IdealBeing teenagers defend each person’s right to be loyal to their own ideals. Loyalty is a more complex expression of the bonding of BodyBeing and of the just and fair community of FeelingBeing.
The emergence of ReasonableBeing (18-23) brings compassion, insight, and meaning to social justice. Humans are interconnected with one another and the environment. Obviously, pollution and prejudice have no purchase. Desiring substantive values ReasonableBeing individuals question social systems. Is the allocation of resources fair? Do we recognize that damaging a part damages the whole? Can self centered activities lead to social justice?
Due to their appreciation of the past, ReasonableBeing individuals have the ability to reflect on their own lives and remedy wounds. This means that they can enter adulthood optimally and contribute to social justice. It also means that reasonable acts are only those which do not violate any of the organizing principles. If an action damages Rightful Place, Trust, Autonomy or Interconnectedness, then the act is unreasonable and socially unjust.
Natural Learning Relationships suggests a new approach to social justice: Include children in the social justice discourse. Celebrate their gifts to society. Parent and educate them with dignity so that their natural capacities for social justice have the right environment in which to flourish. Natural Learning Relationships asks the question, what kind of society would emerge if the adults were able to enjoy optimal well-being during their childhood?
The age of BodyBeing begins the social process with bonding, play, and innocence. The emergence of FeelingBeing moves to a new awareness with growing knowledge of ethics, justice, and fairness. Together, they establish the foundation of belongingness and interpersonal relationship, so necessary for social membership. IdealBeing emerges from this foundation by urging the teen toward the right to choose and the importance of loyalty. This establishes individual liberty, a powerful addition to social membership. A citizen belongs and therefore enjoys the right of freedom of choice. These are the qualities—bonding, play, innocence, ethics, fairness, justice, right to choose, and loyalty—that ReasonableBeing children get to play with. As ReasonableBeing emerges, new qualities of the human also emerge—interconnectedness, tolerance, meaning, and the realization dawns that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must include all people.