Guiding Children for Change

Consider for a moment that all of our global challenges and social problems could be remedied in a single generation. As simplistic as that sounds, developmental theory supports it: Children look to their early learning experiences to form their understanding of the world around them and their sense of how things “should” and should not work. The bottom line is this:  whatever children are exposed to in their home life and early care experiences will form their concept of normalcy. If a child grows up in a community without cars, we would not expect her to one day complain of the tedium of walking or cycling everywhere; however, if that same child grows up in a two-car family where distance drives are the everyday “norm”, she will file a grievance over having to walk 10 minutes to attend high school each morning. This very simple principle of experiential learning can be leveraged to actively create social change to benefit our families, neighbourhoods, communities, and the entire population of this planet, if done right.

As a species, our position is currently precarious on account of our conditioning: the economy is precarious because of a capitalist system that demands constant and exponential growth from a finite resource base (yet we have been taught to cringe rather than rejoice at reports of decreased GDP); our personal sense of purpose in life is increasingly uncertain as we have spent decades in pursuit of inner happiness via consumerism (yet government-backed corporate regimes continue to happily encourage our now almost intrinsic taste for immediate gratification); our environment is vulnerable because we have been taught to value our resources only in dollars, and our social values are deteriorating at break-neck speed as we have learned, experientially, that our society essentially boils down to every man for himself.

So what could the outcome be if an entire community taught their children that holiday presents are items that are thoughtfully handmade, never store-bought? Or if we took the active-lifestyle-healthy-body-weight message to a new level and tackled the ethics of over-eating when most of the earth’s population lives undernourished every day of their lives? Or if a city mandated and supported every neighbourhood to organize their own car-share program, so that instead of the single-car family being touted as the most environmentally conscious choice, 50 households all shared a vehicle, and shared the responsibility for walking their children to school each day? Children readily absorb whatever message we consistently present to them; whether that message is a full-out anti-tobacco campaign, or a general attitude towards the fast food industry, young children are the only demographic capable of 100% buy-in, without demanding public consultations or countless layers of bureaucracy to conclusively prove whatever point.

With young children, we are starting with a blank slate, so we have a unique opportunity to aspire for better and challenge our adult concept of what constitutes “Best Practices”, socially, environmentally, and as conscious consumers. I challenge you to make the time to consider how you would define these Best Practices for yourself if you had the same blank slate as a child: Would you ever shop at your favourite stores, knowing the labour practices they support? Would you ever want to eat fast food, knowing what it’s made of? Would you ever get in your car and drive, knowing that your daily trips out may cost your future grandchildren the right to a liveable planet? Would you ever spray your lawn with harmful chemicals, knowing that this will cost us all our right to safe drinking water? Would you even have a lawn, knowing that you could be using that space to teach your children how to grow their own food? How would you change your personal habits to address the fact that two-thirds of the planet’s working population can’t even afford to feed themselves? What would you do differently? What choices would you make to better shape your children’s understanding of their future role as responsible citizens? Children are counting on all of us to make the best possible choices and to equip them to do the same – are we meeting this challenge, or simply settling each day for “good enough”?

Tiffany Nelson provides family-centred childcare and uses a Montessori-oriented preschool program to promote conscious values in Nanaimo’s youngest citizens.