To be childish is generally viewed in a pejorative way. That is wrong – children are life’s greatest gift; we bring them into the world not just to sustain human life, but as an all-important link in the chain of human development. Children are not only future grown-ups, they are an important part of family and social life. For parents and siblings, they are the most important enrichment of life. For society they are a reminder of what the human being is all about, before being corrupted by social and cultural rules and conditions.
To bring children into this world is a big responsibility, yet in many societies, less than 20 years into their lives, they are sent to die for country, tribe and flag. It is the prime human responsibility to guarantee life. Much emphasis is also rightly put on children’s education, yet it is often an exercise in trial and error.
But a not-less-important question is what can we learn from children? From birth, children espouse love, honest curiosity and happiness, characteristics that should follow us all of our lives. In connecting with children, we must first of all learn who and what they are, and what we can learn from them, before we teach them.
We can learn from children, first and foremost, how to love. Children love in an unconditional way – for the sake of affection and not in return for something.
A child finds it easy to say “I love you” and actually mean it.
Children will tell you the truth, even if unpleasant, like the child who told the emperor that he had no clothes. The most difficult crowd to please is a class of small children, because they will not hesitate to tell you that you bore them to death.
At the same time, children are endlessly curious; they spare no question and investigate with a real hunger to understand their surroundings – from “What is this TV show” to “Who is God?” Today’s children are more knowledgeable than ever as early on they are acquainted with the computer.
Above all, children are of course “childish,” which means that they have a great ability to play, to learn and to be happy. It is an innocent happiness, not happiness for a purpose. Innocence is a great attribute as cynicism is a dangerous lens. It is something we should not divorce ourselves from throughout our lives.
With all of our love and admiration for children, the question remains, do we treat them responsibly enough? The answer, at least in conflict areas, is a clear no.
Children are the main victims of conflict and war.
The threat or outbreak of violence ruins the lives of children and their hopes to grow up with happiness and a free mind.
In studies conducted in Sderot and Gaza, it turns out that about half the children, Israelis and Palestinians, suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder – they have nightmares, are afraid of darkness and noise, suffer from anxiety attacks and even depression.
The same goes for the former Yugoslavia, Ireland, South Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka etc.
where children to this very day suffer from the effects of violence and hatred.
Indeed a sad state of the world, and probably humanity’s biggest failure, is not providing for children.
A child born in a conflict region is exposed to much hatred and little self-reliance. There is always someone to blame – “It’s the fault of the Jews” or “it’s the fault of the Arabs” is an easy way to avoid taking responsibility. Hatred is poisonous to a child’s upbringing and his or her comprehension of humanitarian values of mutual respect and equality. Too many children in conflict areas are born into racism, be it in Gaza or the Jewish Quarter of Hebron. Children in conflict areas know that at a very young age, they can be recruited into military service, which tells them that conflict is solvable by violence. Worst of all is the experience of loss – the death of a close family member or friend, or simply witnessing death, are traumas for life. The majority of children in conflict areas are physical and/or emotional victims, and society must take the responsibility to tackle this tragedy in every possible way.
First and foremost, when leaders make decisions about war and peace – sending young people into harm’s way – they need to take into consideration the millions of children whose lives will be affected, often destroyed, by conflict and violence. That must be the case for the children of one’s own country, as well as for the children of “the other side.”
Recently, the IDF criticized soldiers for arresting a five-year-old in the West Bank. That the picture of it, seen the world over, brought us much damage was the reasoning behind the criticism. The issue is not the picture, but the child.
That responsibility also lies with parents when forming an opinion about war and peace – the life of children should be a prime consideration. It is one of life’s greatest riddles as to why parents, throughout history, were and still are ready to risk, if not sacrifice, the lives of their children for the sake of a war, even an unjustified one. It is very doubtful that children would send their parents to die for country and flag.
It is commonly believed that on issues of war and peace, one should not take personal concerns into consideration. The life of a child is not just a personal consideration, but also a moral predicament.
In conflict areas, the education of children can balance the poisonous impact of hostility and violence through emphasis by teachers and parents on the values of tolerance. Children must be taught about equality; just as in their own kindergarten, where children are different from one another yet equal in importance and value, the same is true for all other children, even those of the enemy.
Children can be proud of their country and heritage and celebrate national and religious holidays, yet at the same time universal values are not less important, particularly respect for the other and the understanding that children are the same everywhere, irrespective of their nationality, race, color, religion and gender.
These values can serve as immunization for the hateful language and environment that they are often exposed to in conflict.
Children can learn about the world, about suffering of others, such as on the African continent. Early on in life, they ought to be exposed to the possibility of solidarity, assistance and contribution.
I recently learned from my granddaughter Anouk of her project with other young Israelis at the Gymnasia Herzliya growing sea algae (spirulina) that is an important nutritional supplement for malnourished African children.
She and her friends understand that giving is more important than receiving.
In this way, children of conflict must be also children of the world. It is important for them to meet children from other countries, to discover other cultures and to be part of a larger world family.
Society must protect its children physically and mentally. This was also the advice of the United Nations when it enacted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere should have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitations; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. Children’s rights should be respected as the most important human right.
In educating children in conflict areas, we should be caring but not paternalistic, and talk to children as equals, as actually they are better in many ways. There is so much to learn from children. To be childish should be a compliment – it means to be playful, happy, innocent and curious, and to know how to love. This must be upheld.
Shimon Peres was once asked what commandment would he add to the Ten Commandments if he could.
He replied, “Respect your daughter and your son.”
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. This column was edited by Barbara Hurwitz.