Images of children are often used to sell us stuff. Ruffled hair children lie in bed to advertise pillows or insurance; cute children at breakfast sell cereals; neat children in school blazers with a computer in one hand, a tennis racket in the other and a violin slung over the shoulder sell schools.
Those images are attractive enough, but they are idealised. Universal Children’s Day invites us to attend to the deeper everyday reality of children’s lives around the world, and to ask why children are so important and call so persuasively on our care and generosity. It reminds us that no children are always charming and cute. Ultimately they are persons like ourselves. If they are to find a satisfying life and to contribute faithfully to society, they need support and mentoring through their childhood.
Their vulnerability and promise reminds us that, like adults, each of them is precious, a gift to society. Like adults, too, all children – including adolescents - have their own personal gifts and limitations, experience their own successes and failures, and do their own good and bad actions. No child is always smiling, always agreeable, always well-behaved. Nor are all children endowed with an equal natural intelligence. Each is unique and precious and claims respect.
In previous centuries children were often depicted as small adults and were expected to act like them. Recent advances in the study of the brain have demonstrated the differences between children and adults. In particular they show that children are less capable of understanding the context and consequences of their actions. Adolescents, too, rely more on their peers when making decisions.
If we are to respect children we must respect both the unique dignity of each child and also the differences between them. This is particularly important when are dealing with children who behave badly. To respond to the bad behaviour of children, including adolescents, by detaining them and holding them in isolation damages their growth. It makes their growth subservient to the claimed needs of society for security and fails to treat them with the respect for which their age calls. To refer to them as monsters or as incorrigible pests is disrespectful to them and ignores the truth of their development. At Jesuit Social Services we see many children whose development has been hindered by neglect and sometimes by violence in their homes and neighbourhoods. If accompanied and helped to benefit from education they can grow into mature adults who contribute richly to society. They deserve the opportunity.
Universal Children’s Day also invites us to think of the future world that our children will receive from us. As we judge our ancestors, so our children and grandchildren will judge us. Today the most important issue governing the future is the environment. The risks to the world from failing to address the damage done by the exploitation of our natural world are now clear. So are the kinds of action we must take to address it.
Children increasingly recognise the perils facing the world and are alarmed at the failure of governments to address them. They are becoming persuasive advocates for change. As a result they are often patronised or criticised by adults who do not want their lives and interests disturbed by the radical actions needed to address climate change.
Universal Children’s Day invites us to encourage children in their commitment to shape a sustainable and just society and in their moral passion. They deserve mentoring and nurturing in their enthusiasms, not being put down with weary cynicism. To live generously and with hope in the world that we are leaving them will surely require a higher level of virtue, intelligence, lack of self-interest and respect for their own children’s generation than we have ever reached.