“To all the children
To the children who swim beneath
The waves of the sea, to those who live in
The soils of the Earth, to the children of the flowers
In the meadows and the trees in the forest, to
All those children who roam over the land
And the winged ones who fly with the winds,
To the human children too, that all the children
May go together into the future ….
— Thomas Berry”
Children may not know all the details about climate change, for example, but they know that adults are worried about something called that. Children pick up feelings of anger, fear and sadness from adults around them, without necessarily knowing what’s stirring those feelings.
“Almost three-quarters of young people aged 11–16 are concerned about how climate change will impact on their lives and two-thirds of young people are worried about how climate change will affect other children and families in developing countries. ” (as per a study by Unicef UK, 2013)
Children, at least younger ones, generally adopt their parents’ point of view about the world, but that doesn’t necessarily reassure them.
When children feel despair for the future, they develop fewer defenses than most adults; they are not as numbed and detached. Adults depersonalize the peril, talk in abstract terms, while children see it in concrete terms, which can be based on terrorising concepts or images.
The Effects of Silence
Adults’ silence on all these threats to safety and well-being, and our desire to carry on business as usual take a high toll on children and adults alike. Silence conveys fatalism, seeming to say that our collective future is out of our hands, and that there’s nothing we can do to change it.
Silence can also convey indifference. If parents don’t talk about these issues, a child can conclude that they don’t care — perhaps even wonder if their parents don’t care what might happen to their children.
Silence reinforces repression. Adults’ difficulty in communicating in these areas teaches that certain feelings are taboo: feelings like grief, fear, anger and even compassion for the suffering of people and animals. In turn, this repression of feelings can breed cynicism. Teens may begin to wonder whether feelings of anguish over destruction and injustice even exist in many grown-ups. If we do have these feelings, then we are hypocrites for pretending everything is all right. If we really don’t have such feelings, we deserve their contempt. They may try to shock us awake through their behaviour, so we see the horror of what we are doing to the Earth and one another.
And of course the toll is wider yet. The rising incidence of drug and alcohol abuse, crime, suicide and screen addiction among teenagers and even children is sad evidence of the erosion of meaning. A sense of alienation, both from family and future, is pervasive, manifesting not only in anti-social and self-destructive behaviors, but less visibly in the loss of the capacity to make meaningful choices and commitments.
Suggestions for overcoming the fear and the silence
Take joy in life with them, especially in nature.
First and foremost, help your children ground themselves in nature by taking them into natural settings as much as possible (and leave your cell phone behind). Take time to watch a snail, admire a flower, hug a tree.
Know and honour your own feelings.
Identify for yourself your own fear, anger and sorrow for the world. While we want to be honest and open with our children, we don’t want to use our conversations with them to vent our own feelings.
Invite children to share their feelings and knowledge.
Begin by asking open questions, such as “What troubles you about the world today?” or by briefly sharing your own feelings about an item in the news; then ask about their feelings. Talk about an action you are engaged in, why you are doing it, and then ask how they feel about it.”
Help children affirm and define their feelings.
What remains unspoken and unacknowledged is more frightening than a danger we can talk about together. Many children and adults do not know what they are feeling before they express it. Help children put their vague apprehensions into words or images, even act them out. At the same time, don’t think you must relieve your children of their emotional pain. Just sharing will help relieve their fear of the feelings — and your fear as well.
Acknowledge what you don’t know.
Children will ask questions you can’t answer. Remember that questions are often veiled statements about concerns and fears. Invite children to express the concern behind the question — that may help them more than any answer you can give. Your job is to help the child explore questions and feelings, not necessarily to provide answers. So whether or not you have an answer, you can simply say, “I’ve wondered about that, too. What do you imagine might happen? How do you feel about that?” Or, when appropriate, “What do you think we might do about that?
Support them in taking action in their own right.
We all feel empowered when we act on behalf of our world. Children and teens are no different. They feel validated when we take their ideas seriously and help them find immediate, practical ways of putting these ideas into action. Encourage them to draw or write their imaginings and to share them with one another. Then be ready to help if a project emerges.
There are many ways that children can work for the Great Turning, especially hands-on within in their own community. Many children love environmental cleanups in nearby parks and natural areas, because they can see tangible results in the bags of debris collected and in the litter-free landscape they leave behind.
This text includes extracts from the book Coming Back to Life, by Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, a foundational collection of practices for the Work That Reconnects worldwide. Much gratitude.
Gaia Speaking facilitates “ReGeneration” workshops for parents and children in and around Cape Town, South Africa