The Children are Watching
The sheer innocence in the face of this little boy peering over the border wall from his home in Mexico into the US got me to thinking about what he would see. Would he see friendly neighbors, a wall of uniformed guards, a “land of opportunity,” or a threat to a healthy, peaceful childhood?
His openness becomes our obligation: is what the grownups are doing – and making – and undoing – good for children? Is it what we want them to see and to find security in and to one day emulate? The photograph reminded me of a simple but powerful book written by Ted and Nancy Sizer, The Students are Watching. The subtitle carries the Sizers' central message: Schools and the Moral Contract. Written in 1999, partially in response to the killings of students by students at Columbine High School, the Sizers write about schools as representing our social contract with our youth. By the ways they teach, not just the content they teach, our schools have the potential to foster in youth an individual moral agency grounded in the common good. The Sizers, educators committed to equity and to a public education system predicated on democratic values and practices, address the alienation many youth feel in large, impersonal, bureaucratic schools where teaching and learning are generic, routinized, or aimed at a technical mastery. They argue that such schooling precludes the experience of, and deep understanding of, the values imbedded in our domains of knowledge and in our democracy. For Nancy and Ted Sizer, the “standards” our schools need to attain are the values of empathy, curiosity for learning, respect for thinking, and concern for the common good. Students will find these credible and be inspired to grow toward them when they see the adults – in the school and in the community, enact them as a part of normal everyday practice.
We know the children are watching: what are they seeing in the adults around them today? I began this “Children Are Watching” series of blog posts thinking I’d be writing about such issues as whether Congress would fully fund the critically needed Children’s Health Insurance program (CHIP), and protect DACA considering the president’s arbitrary cut-off date for these young people’s safe immigration status. The increasing urgency of gun control. Lots of issues pending that related to the needs of children.
I never dreamed I’d have to be writing about babies and toddlers taken from their parents by our own government and by all accounts “lost” in the increasingly anti-immigrant system being erected by this administration. I would have shuddered to think we’d need to write about the US government threatening to cut off military aid (military aid?) to Ecuador for introducing into a World Health Organization resolution a statement encouraging breast feeding (those formula companies need their profits!!
The children are not just watching – they are living this anti-child nightmare. A sick child may not know what CHIP is, but she does know if her mama says “we don’t have money for a doctor.” The at least 800,000 youth covered by the DACA status are now teenagers and older, but they have younger siblings, sometimes children of their own, children growing up with the anxiety of impermanence.
And even very young children see the images of children in cages at the border, or whisked down dark streets to “shelters” out of the public eye. They cannot miss the tears and horror that their own parents and teachers can’t hide from them at each new story of family separations, of children held hostage far from their parents. You don’t have to be a brown child who speaks another language and just got here to feel the fear that my parents may disappear, that my parents can’t always protect me.
The Sizers were right: the children see what we do as our enacted values. What values are the children seeing in us right now? I hope in addition to seeing the official cruelty of these immigration policies, the demonizing of “people not like us,”, they can see the thousands of Americans who are rising up on behalf of children.
The children can also see people who love them, speak up for them, take political risks for them (why should being an advocate for children be risky in our democracy?), take on the powerful on their behalf. Hope may be less visible than all these outrages, but it is emerging in powerful new ways:
School children, grandmothers, community groups, civic leaders, mayors and governors and courageous senators have stepped up to protest using child separation to intimidate asylum seekers into leaving. From teachers to psychiatrists and psychologists to pediatricians, professional organizations have used their expertise to speak out on behalf of these children, to end the harm of trauma and separation. Airlines have told the government they will not transport the separated children, nor profit from those separations. Lawyers are offering to represent immigrant families pro-bono to get them released from these illegal detentions, to demand legally required credible fear hearings. Ordinary Americans of all ages and cultures and political persuasions – and many people in other countries, are raising money to assist these families get their kids back (I hope the news isn’t true that these already traumatized families are having to pay for the DNA tests to prove their kids are theirs, or for the airfare to bring their kids back from across the US.) There are still many profiteers, eagerly scooping up our tax dollars without regard to the children they are exploiting. But there is no longer silence. The children can see much creative action to end this cruelty and hear the loud chorus of “never again, not in our name.”
But the children aren’t merely watching: Literally millions of Americans of all ages joined in the rallies and marches led by the students of Marjorie Steadman High School of Parkland High School to pressure Congress and the states for gun control laws. These youth mobilized a nation.
Historians and psychologists and anthropologists and biographers will no doubt look back on this anti-child period of our history and give us explanations for what is right now, as we live it, inexplicable. Did our elected leaders hate their mothers, or their children? Did the growing awareness of the fragility of the planet engender a futureless fatalism? Did fear supplant optimism as the American civic currency? I can’t speculate with any real sense of understanding. But I do know that the children are watching. Let’s not give them reason to give up on us.
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