by Michael Gibbons
Imagine an ethnically diverse community where all families share meaningful work, a minimal secure income, affordable health care, food security, a safe local environment and access to good schools…
In this community’s safe and secure households, parents and caregivers are not stressed by forms of socio-economic deprivation. As a result, they have the time and energy to engage in healthy “serve and return” nurturing interactions with their youngest children. This joyful experience of positive mutual reinforcement helps shape the positive brain architecture that scientists suggest encourages prosocial behaviors like empathy, emotional regulation, frustration tolerance, and moral understanding.
Imagine that another feature of this community is a general consensus – reinforced by local civic and spiritual leaders – that kindness, dignity, tolerance and mutual respect are shared social norms that guide both personal interactions, and the rules and culture of local institutions like schools, religious institutions and area businesses.
One way that this normative culture expresses itself in this community is a general absence of forceful adult social control over children at home, in the community and in the schools. Children in this community are visible, consulted, listened to and learned from, as equal members of the community. They serve as members of the school board, vote in local elections in age-appropriate ways, and help deliberate about community plans and rules. Annual community events feature child-led activities as well as adult-organized festivities.
Over a thirty year period, several cohorts of children grow up in this community and spread out into the world…
How would they show up? Live? Work? Love? How would they perceive the world around them? What pre-conceptions of what is right would they bring to bear? Would they be well-equipped to succeed in the world as it exists? Would they struggle? Or would they forge new paths based on the inner guidance of a different reality, their own native human rights common sense?
What would it really take to cultivate the seeds of a human rights culture as the native common sense norms of young children?
One way to think about this is from the perspective of “emergence”. Margaret Wheatley, the leader and thinker about emergent systems and social change, reminds us that:
“Emergence is the process whereby interactions create something new and different that cannot be changed. Once something has emerged, it is here to stay. The only way to create something different is to start over, to begin again… Emergence demands a different relationship with life, where we are curious, open, alert. The only thing we can predict is that life will surprise us. We have to be flexible and willing to adapt…”
Letting go of control of children, and instead, attending to the quality of our relationships with them, could help cultivate patterns of a new reality that, once set loose in the world, can remake the world.
What would it be like to grow up in a world where the unconscious bias of “adultism” – the deficit view that children are less fully human than adults, their views are less valid, their vulnerabilities more acute – was discredited, and a healthy and joyous celebration of children as full-fledged community members was the norm? How would the children who grow up with this as their indigenous culture, the wellspring of their worldview, inhabit our world?
How can we work to realise a vision like this, and thereby release new waves of positive human energy into a world urgently needing healing, renewal, reinvigorated organizations and systems?
Michael Gibbons has worked in basic education, community development and social justice since the mid 1970s in Asia, Africa, Latin America and low-income areas of the USA. Over the last 20 years, he led global grantmaking programmes advancing children’s rights and the right to education at Wellspring Philanthropic Fund and Banyan Tree Foundation. He was country director and education advisor for Save the Children in the 1980s-90s, and was director of agricultural training for the US Peace Corps after serving as a volunteer in Sierra Leone in the 1970s. He is currently a Scholar in Residence at American University teaching courses in international training, education and development and working with partners around the world on the convergence of human rights, transformative education and social justice. Michael is also a published poet.