Children: The Battleground of Change


What does the child's mind make of the world? Each society has its own special concept of what it means to be a person and its particular way of embedding that sense in its young. By direct and subtle means, children are informed of what and whom they may become, admire, hate and fear. At least initially, the social and political consciousness of the adult world becomes mirrored in the mind of the child. As children become increasingly subject to multiple or shifting political and cultural contexts, or when the parent's culture is in conflict, transition or threatened with extinction, the sensitive process of socialization and self-identification becomes more complex.

In many developing countries, nearly half the population is under the age of fifteen. These children face situations of economic, political and social upheaval. Before reaching adulthood, many work to support families and are called upon to take responsibility in their country's development and conflicts. Children are the most numerous casualties of famine, war and forced migration. In growing numbers, they are even soldiers in armed battle. Most challenging is the fact that they are growing up in a world in which constant change, both local and distant, significantly remakes the boundaries of their existence. Perhaps never before has so much been required of developing human beings must cope with a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented and interdependent.

If we define childhood as the training period for becoming an adult, the lives and thoughts of children can tell us much about the societies in which they live. In the following articles much of the focus is on children in what a recent UNICEF forum called "especially difficult circumstances" - victims of repression and violence, refugee children, exploited labor, the hungry or homeless. This unsettling view of childhood becomes frightening given the vast numbers of children who suffer such conditions. Yet, many of the issues raised - self identity, transitions and relationship to authority - pertain as well to youth in "the normal course of their lives."

Childhood is more a social than biological designation. Unlike infancy and adolescence which are defined more by physical characteristics the concept of childhood has cross-culturally varied interpretations terms of the child's role in the community and the responsibilities of adults for the well-being of the child. Nonetheless, the primary reality of being a child is being in the power of adults. Children are shaped morally and politically by the strivings, attitudes and tensions of the adult world. They are given their society's vision for the future and the mandate to carry it out. As the psychologist, Niel Postman remarked, "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."

Normal Course of Their Lives

Tribal peoples traditionally regarded themselves as integrally a part of the natural world and belonging to a complex web of kinship and responsibility. Children passed through initiation rites that prepared them for life within their culture and created strong ties to the community. Change happened slowly and repetition of cultural values was the norm.

For both tribal and complex societies this picture has changed. New technologies repeatedly redefine our relationship to the environment and confound easy communication between generations. Where they continue to exist, rites of passage into adulthood have become privatized, devoid of collective social significance. Rather than being part of a role-defined hierarchy, children are asked to be adaptable to constant change, often in disregard or contradiction to long-standing cultural traditions. Whereas common participation in a strong cultural system creates stability, situations of rapid social change lead to the disruption of intergenerational relations, upheavals in social structure and the breakdown of symbols of collective identity. Increased value placed on innovation and change simultaneously elevates youth. This along with the erosion of cultural norms and unclear guideposts for the future, places youth in a both powerful and precarious position.

In both extreme and everyday circumstances, children become separated from the world of their parents. When isolated cultures or tribal groups become targeted for development, a people's way of life is often destroyed. External influences restructure the relationship of people to each other and the environment. Formerly self-sufficient people become dependent. New social and economic demands influence child-rearing practices and childhood expectations. Simultaneously, parents may react to the changes in their lives by questioning their sense of self-reliance and competence - confusion that is passed on to their children.

On the surface, children seem thoroughly adapt table. Compared with adults, they easily acquire new languages and behavior. There is an Iroquois saying, however, that one cannot for long have one's feet placed in two canoes. In fact, cultural change is more easily accomplished by children who disengage themselves from their elders. The promise of employment, new attitudes about education and fascination with a stylized reality fashioned by the mass media lead youth as did the structured, cultural traditions of the past. The long-range effects and implications of such intergenerational separation and even conflict is something that needs to be examined more closely.

Widespread education is a goal of many developing countries and is deemed necessary for a child's and the society's survival in the future. No longer is the oral transmission of knowledge considered sufficient; literacy is seen as the child's key to understanding the world.

At the same time, however, education can raise false expectations and cause migration of the child away from home, parents and community. Oral traditions and written language are conceptually different, and the information learned at school may refute rather than add to knowledge held by the child's community. Boarding schools, for example, are often deliberate attempts to assimilate children into the dominant society, even forbidding children to speak the same language as their parents.

The articles by Macdonald, Lobo and Mohawk discuss the need for education that reinforces the cognitive process already shaped by the child's native language and relates to the constellation of relationships that form the child's perception of the world. According to Paolo Friere, if an educational program fails to respect a particular world view held by those being taught, this constitutes "cultural invasion".

Perhaps more pervasive and threatening to cultural diversity is the proliferation of mass culture through the electronic media. Children are particularly vulnerable to the influences of advertising which direct appeal to instinct rather than intellect or reason. Their goals and values become shaped by what social theorist Jacques Ellul refers to as "fashioned images of things, events and people that may not reflect reality but which are truer than reality." The dangers of increasingly standardized culture are expressed by Marshall McLuhan as the "detribalization" by technology that submerges native cultures with a flood of concepts for which nothing has prepared them.

"Especially Difficult Circumstances"

Superimposed upon the social and cultural upheaval already mentioned are extreme situations affecting huge populations of children. Often members of the nuclear family, the extended family or even an entire community may become dispersed. Because of poverty and lack of resources at home, one or both parents may leave in search of work. The child may be sent off to work, for education or may be removed to the care of agencies that malign the child's culture. Refugee children, whose families are missing or incomplete, find themselves uprooted from many ties to their past.

Emersion of entire cultures is more than the inevitable mingling of world views caused by the "shrinking world" phenomenon of modern technology and communications. For example, the relocation of Guatemalan Indians into "model villages" - thereby disrupting traditional relationships with the land and tearing at the social fabric of daily life - is part of a government strategy to assert its control. Other, more subtle attacks on the cultural expression of tribal peoples serve to remind them of their subordinate position with the dominant culture.

Many governments not only fail to protect the rights of the child, but inflict intentional abuse on children to achieve political ends. There are numerous cases in which children have been the victims of repression, violence, persecution, torture and death. Children are being called to war, recruited by the glorification of violence or promises of "job, paycheck and a square meal" otherwise unavailable.

Under the Khmer Rouge, children and youth, separated from their parents, were sent to labor and re-education camps where they were indoctrinated against traditional Cambodian life. Young boys, particularly between the ages of twelve and sixteen, became the foot soldiers in the armies of Pol Pot, now thousands of fellow Cambodians.

More recently, the deliberate separation of youth from their communities, their indoctrination and use as enforcement agents of civil control have occurred in Ethiopia, Uganda and Guatemala. In South Africa, the student movement against the injustices of apartheid has become a special target of the security forces, whose violence against children has only recently been documented.

Along with the physical maltreatment of children, is psychological and emotional trauma triggered by separation from parents and community, witnessing violence, or the loss of nurturance necessary for healthy development into adulthood. In South Africa, for example, physical violence inflicted on black children is only one of the human rights abuses which keep these children from attending school, push them into unskilled and often dangerous labor and deprive them of adequate housing, food and health care.

"Repression has repercussions far beyond its immediate victims," writes Jennifer Schirmer referring to Chilean children who witness violence on their parents. Like many of the other children in difficult circumstances, they'd are forced into premature adulthood - thrust into situations and charged with responsibilities that would challenge the limits of adult comprehension and abilities.

"Why are children, the future of any community, if not the world itself, being singled out in today's armed conflicts?" Neil Boothby's answer to his own question is disheartening - that the preciousness of children is what makes them such efficient targets for squelching resistance. We can only speculate about what kind of adults these children of especially difficult circumstances will become. Although many seem to persevere with extreme courage and moral determination, the information we do have from psychological studies is discouraging - that children of violence tend to re-enact violence as adults.

Recently, international attempts at the protection of the health and rights of children have accelerated. International agencies in conjunction with local governments have taken impressive strides in curbing child mortality from dehydration and diseases preventable by inoculation. Yet similar advances in the improvement of child nutrition and other fundamental human rights for children are slower in coming. During the past decade and a half, monetary allocations by developing countries for healthcare and education have dipped significantly while military spending has increased.

While it is easier to identify abuses than to promote common acceptance of fundamental human rights, focused international attention on violence against children can only help to lessen its frequency. At the same time, root causes need to be analyzed so that recommendations and corrective actions will have more than temporary or local significance.

To quote sociologist Kasper Naegele,

The adult world...sees in youth a special embodiment of its own wider assumptions; that life is open, that there is space for change and betterment, and that the future will improve on the past.

But time will tell.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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