A lament for the children of war

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THE images from Ukraine are startling, horrifying and heart-wrenching… and so senseless and wrong. More than three million children displaced by war, and hundreds killed.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/03/2022 (245 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE images from Ukraine are startling, horrifying and heart-wrenching… and so senseless and wrong. More than three million children displaced by war, and hundreds killed.

It has often been said that the measure of our regard for humanity is reflected in our attitude toward our children. Recent, enduring and past atrocities visited on the world’s children would suggest we have little respect for the human condition, the gift of human life and humane living. The Ukraine atrocities are just the latest cause for justified rage.

It’s time the world took more seriously the responsibility we have for our children, which is significantly different than that we adults have for each other. While we watch the lives of children wantonly snuffed out and their futures irreparably compromised, I perceive little will to consider their suffering as crimes against humanity, which they undoubtedly are.

We know the consequences of adult actions regarding children’s lives. Children living with loving caring adults in safe homes and schools usually thrive and flourish, themselves turning into great friends, good neighbours and contributing citizens. Children surviving wars, exploitation and abuse often do not, too often suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse, perpetuating abuse, engaging in criminal activity and resorting to other forms of violence visited on themselves and others, including their own children.

In his 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman attributed the difficulties children are experiencing to their being thrust into the adult world before they were ready. Even before the era of social media, he worried about the indiscriminate exposure of children to the adult world.

In 2006, in the same vein, teacher and sociologist Sue Palmer wrote Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World Is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It. In it she outlined how our worlds are not preparing our children, by teaching or through example, to maintain the mores, norms and values of healthy societies, also emphasizing the devastating effects of “adult” childhood experiences.

Although neither of them touched on children as survivors of wars, residential schools or sexual exploitation, both were clear that when childhood is compromised, not just the children suffer — so do present and future generations. It is not just the children directly impacted by adult actions, or prematurely thrust into adult situations, but also those children who observed what was happening to other children. And in our world, there is lots to see and fear.

From Ukraine, media images show thousands of children, some killed by random bombing, some walking to the border unaccompanied by adults, some crying as they leave their fathers behind, and busloads of orphans being transported to safety.

Cancer patients are being moved back and forth to wards and shelters, children taken from their schools and separated from their friends, all traumatized by the wail of sirens and the destruction of their homes and schools. And mothers traumatized because they cannot shield their children from the present horrors, further traumatizing children who sense, more than understand, their parents’ desperation and despair.

There seems no end in sight to the human tragedy being visited on the young in this war, as in all conflicts, such as those in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Myanmar, Yemen… the list goes on.

There are ongoing consequences for those who survive, and for their parents and families. And of course, the consequences of war for children and young people will not end if, and when, the war does, just as it did not end for those subjected to residential-school abuse when the schools were forced to close. Missing healthy childhoods causes unhealthy, dysfunctional adulthoods.

Interrupting children’s lives and education, and compromising their safety and well-being for questionable, unjustifiable adult whims, is simply wrong and destructive of humanity, including our own.

Meanwhile, our children are watching adults “indulge” ourselves with unwarranted wars, overblown mandate grievances, intercultural and racial hatred, religious intolerance and gender discrimination, justifying violence toward them and each other, and lying to cover our toxic inclinations while pretending to do so for their sakes. Even if they don’t articulate it, children feel their unfairness, wrongness and indifference.

Safeguarding all children and supporting healthy childhoods is the moral obligation of every adult. The current inhumanity perpetrated on children in Ukraine and elsewhere deserves global international attention and condemnation.

John R. Wiens is dean emeritus at the faculty of education, University of Manitoba. A lifelong educator, he has served as a teacher, counsellor, work education co-ordinator, principal, school superintendent and university professor.

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