When I was a child, my life was pretty good. I was born into a loving family. I was healthy. I lacked for nothing in the way of toys, friends or opportunities to travel and see new places and meet new and interesting people.
When I was a child my biggest fear was of gorillas. Not the kind you find in the jungle with Jane Goodall. My fear was of circus gorillas. Once, the Big Top Circus came to my area and my parents took me there. I loved the lion tamer and his lions. I loved the trapeze artists so high in the sky. I, especially, loved the funny clowns who kept pouring and pouring out of such a teeny-tiny car. But, the one thing I did not like was the gorilla. When the gorilla came out, it bolted from the ring and made a dash for the audience. I was a small boy at the time and did not realize that this “gorilla” was really a man dressed up in a costume. That may have been evident to the adults in attendance, who laughed and laughed at the gorilla’s antics. But for me, a small child, that gorilla was very real and it was coming far too close to where I was. I remember being terrified that it was going to get me. Even though my parents hugged me close and reassured me that it was all just an act, I took from that night, a fear of circus gorillas that lasted throughout my early childhood.
But, when I was a child, imaginary gorilla attacks, along with a real attack of appendicitis when I was seven years old, were my only issues of note growing up. We weren’t rich but, I was doted upon and protected and cared for in a way that erased worries from my mind. My childhood was fun. I was lucky.
I’m an adult, now. As I navigate through my days, I can’t help but notice story upon story in the news and on social media about children who are not having wonderful childhoods. In fact, these children are being physically and emotionally pummelled by the world in which they find themselves. Through no fault of their own, these children are suffering in ways that beggar belief.
For example, I could never be a U.S. Immigration officer these days. I don’t understand how any human can rip a child from its’ mother’s arms and lock that child away in detention camps. What type of person must they be to not be affected by the tears, the cries and the heartbreak of such a situation? But yet, it is real and it is probably happening in real time as you are reading my words right now.
I could never be a politician these days. Where are the real leaders that put the betterment of society and of real people first? They are nowhere to be found these days, it seems. As they march to the dictates of their autocratic and/or billionaire puppet masters, their policies often contain elements of cruelty aimed at the weakest members of society. In many cases, this includes children. Here in my home province of Ontario, Canada, our newly elected government is attacking our world-class education system. Their first two targets: children in Kindergarten (who are between three and five years old) and autistic students. What does it say about the values inherent in any given society when the youngest and most vulnerable members of that society are the first to be cast aside as being completely inconsequential?
Another troubling story from this past week concerned the death of a young girl named Riya at the hands of her father. Riya’s father and mother were estranged at the time of her death. It was her birthday, the day she was killed. Initially, this was a case of child abduction. Unfortunately, the vast majority of child abduction cases involve people with whom the child is intimately familiar with, such as a parent or grand-parent. That was the case here but, unbelievably enough, Riya’s death at the hands of her father was not what made this story notable. The story of the attempt to rescue her and the backlash that it caused on social media has ended up telling a far greater tale of how far we have strayed, as a society, from the moral path that should always guide us.
When any child is abducted in Canada (I am not sure about how this applies to other countries) police issue what is called an Amber Alert. An Amber Alert is an emergency message that is broadcast across all electronic highway signs, personal mobile drives and so on. This message alerts citizens that a child has been taken and provides a description of the child, the person who did the abducting (if known), the vehicle involved (if known) and the location of the abduction. Time is always of the essence in a kidnapping situation so, having eyes everywhere helps authorities to save the lives of those abducted, more often than not. In Riya’s case, she was abducted at night so, the Amber Alert was issued after many people had gone to bed. The Amber Alert, when issued, caused mobile devices to set off an alarm. In this case, the alarm sounded in homes across Ontario and many people were woken up which, like a smoke alarm in a fire, is the intention. Most of the people who were woken up, checked the Amber Alert message and either went to their window to look outside, some actually got in their cars and did a quick drive around their neighbourhoods and towns and some offered their thoughts and prayers and went back to sleep. But, a small minority of others flooded 911 operators with outraged complaints about being woken up by an emergency that had nothing to do with them. While they vented, Riya’s final breaths were being met with violence from the one person who should have loved and protected her the most. I truly don’t understand how anyone would turn away from a child in danger.
Around the world, some teenagers are tired of being the most distant thoughts of the powers that be in their lives and have decided to take action themselves to better their world. For instance, I applaud those Parkland students in the U.S. who reacted to being victims of a school shooter by waging war against the gun culture of America on social media. Their efforts have resonated across the world. Many consider these kids to be heroes for defending their right to attain a safe education. I agree that they have done mighty things but, I wish they didn’t have to be the heroes they have become. I wish they could be focussing on dating and what they want to do when they grow up and getting their driver’s licenses instead of fighting the mighty N.R.A. and all the 2nd Amendment trolls who wage war online. I wish our society could have let them just be kids.
The same is true of those kids organizing school walkouts because of concerns about our environment, as well as, those battling to create and maintain inclusive environments within their towns or schools for people of differing gender identities, cultures or intellectual abilities. And, of course, we have, arguably, the most famous and impactful young person on the planet, Malala, who remains a tireless advocate for the rights of girls around the world to attend school and gain an education and a measure of control over their own futures. Kids, all. But, just the same, kids forced to fight like adults because the adults in their worlds just don’t seem to be listening.
One person who always listened to children (and someone who I modelled my whole life after) was television personality, Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers created one of the first television shows aimed specifically for children. As a foundational tenet of his show, Mr. Rogers believed that children were human beings, as worthy of respect and dignity, as any adult. As a means of putting this thought into practice, Mr. Rogers actively sought out opportunities to talk with children and, most importantly, to listen to children. I can tell you from my experience as a classroom teacher for thirty years that children ask the very best questions. They ask the big questions! They are well-versed in the concepts of fair and not fair. They have boatloads of empathy and will hug those they trust easily. They want to know that things will be alright in their world and so, they will ask questions. I answered them honestly every time. Mr. Rogers did, too. As a family, we recently watched the tremendously wonderful documentary about the life of Mr. Rogers on Netflix called “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” I encourage you to do so, too. Watching it will fill your soul and renew your spirit. It is a documentary that shows children being respected, being made to feel important and being cared for……not as an after-thought but, as the highest priority possible. Which is, as it should be.
I admit that I teared up at the end of this movie because the world in which we live in these days is so far removed from the world of Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood. Of all the things in the world that consume our thoughts, working to maintain the innocence of childhood for children should be near or at the top of the list. How precious a time in the lives of these little humans! And how easily we, as their guardians, throw it all away in our rush for material gain or our self-absorption in the importance of our own lives. What have we, as a society, become when we place so little tangible value on the lives of children?
I will close by saying that I encourage you to all watch “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” in order to renew your soul and realign your priorities in life. However, as much as I admire Mr. Rogers, we can’t afford to let his legacy do our work for us. We all have a job to do for the sake of our children. We need to take better care of our environment so they don’t have to be organizing school strikes and sit-ins to draw our attention. We need to reign in our penchant for violence so kids can go to school and only worry about doing well in their studies and not worry about active shooters roaming their hallways. We need to talk with our children and listen to them, too. Most importantly, we need to fill the lives of our children with love and hugs and laughter and healthy food and good experiences outside of the home, too.
My “gorillas” were only imaginary but, the “gorillas” today’s kids are facing are all too real. They needn’t be so. We have become a world that doesn’t do a very good job of valuing childhood. This needs to change. Our future depends upon it.