To a child, the world must seem like a confused and perilous place. One need only to sit and watch the grim scenes unfold on television: hundreds of thousands of Sudanese children and mothers huddled together in refugee camps - their worn faces and bodies a testament to the rape and pillage they have survived. Or footage of mothers and children foraging for food in famine-racked North Korea. Or images of children in Southeast Asia, many infected with AIDS, sold to traffickers and living in slave-like conditions.
For many children, these scenes loom just outside the door. As mothers, what do we say to our children? How do we explain the seemingly ceaseless, senseless abuse, violence and killing? How do we do so truthfully and, at the same time, impart hope for a better future?
First, we must prepare ourselves. As the first educators of the next generation, we must seek to make sense of the world in our own minds. Much is said about the importance of education, but mothers themselves must be educated. Without an understanding of the forces at play in the world, of the hijacking of minds and hearts for power and political ascendancy and, conversely, the human capacity to hope, to transcend and to act justly - we cannot begin to help our children make their way.
As we reflect on our understanding of the world, it is our responsibility as mothers to examine our thinking, knowing that consciously or unconsciously children will absorb our attitudes, our habits and our worldview. In a world so painfully divided by political agendas, violent conflict, extremes of wealth and poverty, gender stereotypes, racism, religious disputes and other permutations of "us" versus "them," we must strive not to pass on the attitudes that perpetuate the prevailing order. We need to scrutinize our own thinking. This is perhaps our greatest challenge.
Second, we must tell our children that we are all one people, that there is only one human race and we have just one planet to learn to live together on. This concept of oneness and interdependence is the bedrock upon which we should build our efforts to educate our children. For, in an increasingly interconnected world, the capacity of any one individual to do good or evil increases exponentially. As such, we must consider that every child is potentially the light of the world - or its darkness.
WHAT ACTIONS, then, can help our children become beacons of light? I would begin by helping them to understand the idea of connectedness - connectedness to their family, their community, their environment and the world. Over the past century, our lived experiences, coupled with scientific and social advances, have gradually broken down the barriers that once compartmentalized our world and its people.
We know that girls and women have the same rights as boys and men and that the oppression of girls and women contributes to the breakdown of communities. We know that, despite sinister notions of racial superiority, we are part of one human race. We know that our commercial activity has a direct and negative impact on our environment and our health.
In other words, there is no "us" and "them," there is only "us." This is what I want to teach my children.
The paradigm of interconnectedness also raises the question of justice and responsibility. How can we impart in our children the sense of responsibility for making their community and their world a better place? How can we teach them about justice when we see so little of it in the world?
We can begin at home by cultivating the child's capacity for compassion - an awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. We can encourage children to help at home or in the community. On a larger scale, we must also make them aware of the challenges in the world and help them to feel compassion even for those they may never meet. Even children as young as three years old are capable of sharing, refraining from hitting when angry and are beginning to develop a sense of right and wrong about how people should be treated.
In the midst of our chaotic and beleaguered world, we can also strive to impart hope to our children. Notwithstanding present-day human suffering, by many accounts the number of wars and conflicts is steadily decreasing. Awareness and intolerance of injustice and inequality are steadily building momentum. More and more children are in schools. The voice of women is increasingly heard in their communities, nations and the world. The degradation of our environment has finally captured the attention of the world.
We can tell them these things, then, and explain that despite what they often see in the media, many people are working hard to build a better world. History need not repeat itself.
As I consider these questions, I am drawn to the writings of the Baha'i faith. "God has given us eyes, that we may look about us at the world, and lay hold of whatsoever will further civilization and the arts of living," wrote Abdu'l-Baha, son of the founder of the Baha'i faith. "Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines... until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge."
Let's give our children the vision and the tools to further our civilization and to perfect the art of living.
The writer, a native of India and a lawyer, is the principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the UN and serves as a member-at-large on the UN's NGO Committee on Human Rights. She is the mother of two sons.
Amotz Asa-El's column returns next week.