Do we need to teach children to have a social conscience?
The other night I was privileged to be at Hamer Hall in the presence of the legendary Joan Baez. This is a woman who despite being an incredible singer, sees herself first and foremost as an activist. Now even as someone for whom singing is almost as necessary as breathing I can say, "Joan Baez, I get it". Although I'm not the slightest bit brave and you'll never see me venturing into a war zone, when it comes to caring about things and people I have sometimes wished I had an off switch.
Now I know that 'intentional teaching' is the new big buzz word, but surely our actions can be intentional without being obviously visible as teaching. Social conscience is all about empathy, and can empathy be taught? Sure we can talk about it, but can you make someone feel something? I think children act what they know. This sounds cliché and so does 'children do as you do and not as you say', but both are probably true. I think this is the answer. Children will develop empathy by experiencing it from others.
So at the risk of repeating myself I will say that it's about being present, about really listening to what children are telling us, about noticing when they want to tell us but aren't able to, about seeing the subtle changes in behaviour that indicate that they're feeling hurt in some way, and about responding with concern and caring when they are suffering. Once again we have to look through their eyes so we don't brush off their feelings because through adult eyes they might seem insignificant.
On the other end of the scale we must allow children to be hurt in order for them to be able to develop empathy. If we over protect them they won't understand others' suffering. They need to be exposed to a wide range of human emotions in safe environments, and to be allowed to express a wide range of emotions. We can intentionally teach children about emotions by giving names to them, and we can expand their awareness of their feelings by talking about how they are connected to their own actions and the actions of others.
I will be controversial here by saying that I think we should minimize children's exposure to violence or representations of violence. I also believe that we should restrict toys such as weapons, as they encourage children to play-out the representations of violence that they've seen. I understand that children use this type of play to come to terms with their world, but we should consider the prevalence of violent cartoons and TV shows, action figures, superheroes etc. Are we providing a subtext that this is a world permeated with threat and danger, when the reality is that in this country most people try to do the right thing and in my experience are capable of being kind and caring?
Under no circumstance is violence okay. If we ever want to experience a more peaceful world the solution lies with our children. They will create a world that reflects who they are and what they believe the world is like. What would John Lennon have said? What would Bob Dylan or Joan Baez say? What are we saying, modelling and showing to our children? Are we representing and being what we want them to become?