People all over the country have been protesting the travel ban that prohibits people from certain countries from traveling to the United States. There has been so much talk of building a wall to separate our nation from the “others” that the school age children in my life are expressing fears and asking questions. The me first, us and them, competitive and divisive rhetoric is pervasive and unnerving. Understandably, many of us grown folks are not feeling like ourselves. The sky is grey. The news is glum. Some of us are feeling defeated, depleted and exhausted. Others are feeling fired up and activated.
Of course, the little children in our lives hear our conversations and the stories on the news. Even those who have little exposure to such adult things can sense when we are feeling edgy or off kilter. Now, more than ever, it is essential that we practice presence. If we are brooding about the latest executive order or a tiff we’ve had with a relative on social media, the children we are with will feel our anger or distress. But, they will not understand it. They may internalize it or mirror it, but they will not understand.
At this young age, children are developmentally unready to be burdened with the injustices of the world. They are still learning to love the world. They gaze in wonder at the snowflakes that land on them. They delight in catching a glimpse of rabbit prints in the snow. As their parents and caregivers, we are honored to guide them as they experience the beauty of the world unfolding before them.
When they are older, they will have a solid foundation based on their early experiences that the world is good. They will have learned to love the earth, its creatures and their fellow human beings. Then, when they are ready, knowledgeable and strong, they will have the life experience to empathize and the power to fight injustice and to confront their fears. Right now, they are (physically) little beings who are looking to us for reassurance and guidance. They need to know that the grown-ups in their lives are okay and that we will take care of them. They don’t need us to tell them. They need to feel it.
The current cultural climate may compel us to educate our children about social justice, conservationism, diversity and advocacy. When considering how we might do this, it is essential that we consider the development of the young child. Very young children respond to rich experiences, to songs and stories. Lectures and overt instruction rarely resonate with the toddlers and preschoolers. At LifeWays we “teach” conservationism by letting the children play in nature and, through their play and explorations, develop a love for the outdoors. A toddler who is learning to navigate the difference between affection and aggression is learning the basics of social justice. Sharing simple and authentic foods, songs and folk tales offers an introduction into humanity’s rich and diverse cultural heritage. Children who experience our openness, compassion and empathy toward all humanity trust that all are welcome.
Jaimmie Stugard is the Director and KinderHouse Teacher at the LifeWays Early Childhood Center of Milwaukee. She is also the Wisconsin LifeWays Training music teacher.