Robert J. Burrowes
Every day, human adults kill 35,000 of our children. We kill them in wars. We kill them with drones. We kill them in our homes. We also kill children in vast numbers by starving them to death in Africa, Asia and Central/South America because we use military violence to maintain an ‘economic’ system that allocates resources for military weapons, as well as corporate profits for the wealthy, instead of resources for living.
Apart from those children we kill every day, we sell many others into sexual slavery, we kidnap others to terrorize them into becoming child soldiers, we force others to work as slave laborers, in horrific conditions, in fields and factories (and buy the cheap products of their exploited labor as our latest ‘bargain’), and we condemn millions to live in poverty, homelessness and misery. We cause many children to be born with grotesque genetic deformities because we use horrific weapons, like those with depleted uranium, on their parents. We also inflict violence on children in many other forms, ranging from ‘ordinary’ domestic violence to genital mutilation. And we imprison vast numbers of children in school in the delusional belief that this is good for them. See ‘Do We Want School or Education?’ Whatever other damage that school does, it certainly helps to create the next generation of child-destroyers.
Despite all of the above, we adults still maintain our delusion that we humans love our children. And that we are civilized. Mind boggling!
While some effort has been made by the international community to recognize that young human beings have needs (see, for example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child), so far these efforts have failed to identify, and therefore meaningfully address, the primary reason why no child in the world today has their most fundamental needs met. This failure ensures that all of our other efforts to preserve and enhance life must ultimately fail, as our rush to extinction graphically illustrates. How can I say this? Consider this.
The man who inflicts violence on women was damaged during childhood. The white person who inflicts violence on people of colour was damaged during childhood. The employer who exploits workers was damaged during childhood. The individual who endorses the state violence inflicted on indigenous peoples was damaged during childhood. The terrorist, the political leader who wages war and the soldier who kills in our name were all damaged during childhood. The person who supports structures of violence (such as the military, police, legal and prison systems) was damaged during childhood. The person who supports structures of exploitation (such as capitalism and imperialism) was damaged during childhood. The person who thoughtlessly participates in destruction of the natural environment was damaged during childhood.
Violence does not ‘just happen’. It is perpetrated by damaged individuals, including ourselves. Or it is built into political, social and economic structures by damaged individuals, such as ourselves. So we have a choice. We can take responsibility for healing the damage done to ourselves. And we can take responsibility for ending the origin of all of this violence: the violence we adults inflict on children. Or we can continue to delude ourselves that there is another source of all of the violence in our world and devote more erroneous effort to addressing it.
All violence is an outcome of the visible, ‘invisible’ and ‘utterly invisible’ violence inflicted by adults on children. See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
Once the child has been damaged, they will inflict violence on themself, the people around them, as well as non-human species and the natural environment; they will also play a part in maintaining structures of violence and exploitation (such as the education and legal systems, as well as capitalism) in which they are both victim and perpetrator.
Where violence has been exposed in other contexts, it has led to liberation movements (such as the anti-slavery movement; the anti-war movement; struggles against imperialism, colonialism and racism; women’s liberation; struggles for the rights of indigenous peoples; the environment movement; animal liberation; struggles for the rights of people with disabilities; and the struggle against homophobia) as well as solidarity movements (in which, for example, whites have acted in solidarity with people of colour, pro-feminist men have acted in solidarity with women, and humans have acted in solidarity with non-human species and the natural environment).
Clearly, a children’s and adolescents’ liberation movement, by whatever name, is long overdue. And while an appropriate charter of young people’s needs might include many provisions contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it must ultimately include fundamental provisions that identify the need to live without the fear and experience of adult violence in its many forms, and the need to be listened to and allowed to act in accord with their own Self-will, even when this conflicts with adult preferences. Until we are able to acknowledge and support these needs of children, we are deluding ourselves about the possibility of effectively tackling the military, ecological and economic threats to our survival. And time is clearly running out. So, to all young people, everywhere, my promise is this:
I admit that I inflict violence on you, particularly when you have feelings that frighten me. I also admit that I do not listen to you and trust you when you tell me what you need because I like to pretend that I know better than you do or, and it’s scary for me to admit this, you might make choices that conflict with social norms or laws and I will have to make a stand with you, or even on your behalf.
From today, I promise that I will try to no longer inflict this violence on you, including that which I call ‘punishment’ so that I can pretend that I am not using violence, and I will do all that I can to stop other adults inflicting violence on you as well.
I also admit that we adults have done a bad job at looking after each other, including all of our children, and planet Earth, your home, and that you are going to have an increasingly difficult life as the natural world continues to break down. So I promise to participate in efforts being made to address all of these problems, such as that outlined in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’. You can do this with me, if you like.
I will also let you make all of your choices freely in the same way that I expect to make mine. If you make mistakes, if you change your mind, I will accept these as part of your learning and growing. (I still make mistakes and change my mind too although I like to pretend that I don’t!) This means, for example, that if you tell me that you do not want to go to school (where I know that other adults will tell you what to do in violation of your Self-will), then I will not force you to do so. There are better ways of learning and we can work out together how you might go about doing this.
If we have differences about what to do, I promise that I will talk about it with you until we find a way forward that seems fair to us both. When I was a child, the adults in my life didn’t give me much choice about what I did, so I am scared that talking about something means that ‘no-one will listen’ and I won’t get what I want. But I will try to trust that if I talk honestly to you about what I need, then you will listen carefully and help me to get what I need as well. I sort of know that if I listen and I am fair to you, and I trust you to listen and to be fair with me, then you will learn to listen and be fair with everyone. But this is hard for me. Conflict has often been scary.
I will not presume that you are less capable than I am, even though you are younger. I will treat you like an equal, just as we adults like to be treated as equals.
I will be honest with you about how I feel and what I need.
Most importantly of all, I promise that I will listen to you as best I can. See ‘Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening’. I get scared when you are scared, angry or sad but part of me knows that you need to feel scared, angry or sad (or something else) when things don’t work out as you want, just as you will sometimes feel content, loving or happy when things do work out. Of course, it is easier for me to listen when you are content, loving and happy, and I wish that you were like that all of the time! But life isn’t like that hey? I also get scared when you tell me that your Dad/Mum or someone I think is our friend is abusing you but I will do my best to listen to and support you to defend yourself against this violence, one way or another. In my heart, I know that listening means listening to however you are and letting that guide what you do. In the adult world, however, this just isn’t easy to do every day. But I will try! This means, then, that I will also not try to scare you out of telling me the truth when I don’t like it, including your truth about me!
From today, in a nutshell, I promise that I will support you to act in accord with your own Self-will. I want you to be free and to be everything that you were born to be.
Oh, and finally, as best I can, I promise to love you and to respect you as a unique, beautiful and compassionate creation with a great deal to offer the world (as long as adults don’t get in your way). You are, indeed, a child of the Universe. You do, indeed, have a right to be here.
As an adult, would you be willing to make this promise too? To whom would you make it?
If you are not willing to make this promise, what does this tell you about yourself?
There is no doubt that giving every child (or adult, for that matter) all of the space they need to feel, deeply, what they want to do, and to then let them do it (or to have the feelings they naturally have if someone or something prevents them from doing so) will have some dysfunctional outcomes in the short term. This is because we have all been dysfunctionalized, to a greater or lesser extent, by the violence we have already suffered throughout our lives. But listening deeply to a child from birth (or starting today), and supporting them to act out their own Self-will, will lead to an infinitely better overall outcome than the system of emotional suppression, control and punishment of children which has generated the incredibly violent world in which we now find ourselves.
It will, of course, be difficult for some form of young people’s liberation movement to emerge given the extraordinary level of violence which children suffer and their economic dependence on adults. However, many social contexts still provide some space, and social media might offer new opportunities, for political organization by young people. Until they do organize politically, those adults who wish to act in solidarity with children can readily do so by doing any or all of the following seven things.
First, like some individual members of other violent/oppressive groups before you (such as anti-racist whites and pro-feminist men who sought to eliminate their own racism/sexism), you could take responsibility for identifying and progressively eliminating your own violence against children (using the information in ‘Why Violence?’ above as a guide or, preferably, by listening to children).
Second, you could raise awareness of violence against children and challenge/support others, including institutions, to take responsibility for ending their violence against children (perhaps by asking them to consider making the ‘Promise to Children’ above). Third, you could listen to children (in silence) with patience, love and compassion when children feel safe to talk of (or otherwise reveal, perhaps through some form of artistic expression) their experience of violence and to express their feelings (including fear, anger, sadness and others) about this violence.
Fourth, you could organize a safe forum (facilitated by someone experienced in listening to emotionally-disturbing events) in which a few children could share with each other (by talking or through some form of artistic expression) their experiences of, and feelings about, the violence they have suffered and witnessed. Fifth, you could support children’s efforts to communicate and organize around the issue of adult violence against children. Sixth, you could support children to take action against adult violence when those children feel courageous enough to act (or you could act on the child’s behalf when the child is too young or too terrified to act for itself).
Finally, you could act in solidarity with the child in yourself. You were a victim as a child and no one acted in solidarity with you. You can learn to listen to yourself while you have your feelings about violent childhood experiences or you can get someone else you trust to listen to you about what happened to you. In time, this will make you better able to listen to, and be an ally of, children (even when they tell you about your violence against them).
If you wish to join the worldwide movement to end all violence, including violence against children, you can sign online ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
It takes courage to tell the truth that no-one wants to hear.
It takes fearlessness to act on it.
This article ‘My Promise to Children’ was originally published in various progressive news outlets in July-August 2013.