Sixty-six years before the world’s most-ratified human rights treaty was adopted, poet Kahlil Gibran expressed its heart:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
The treaty, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), marks its 30th anniversary on Nov. 20. It’s been ratified by every country in the world but one.
As CEO of an organization that works to connect children living in poverty with the people and resources they need to change their stories, I see how children’s rights are violated every day. I’m also in awe of kids’ immense potential to remake the world.
“The sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” Yes. A child is a promise, one way or another.
Promises can be broken.
When kids don’t realize their rights to health care, safe water, nutrition and education (UNCRC articles 24 and 28), they can’t realize their potential. If they don’t realize their rights to legal assistance, information, privacy and expression — to an identity, name and nationality — they miss opportunities that lead to productive adulthood (articles 40, 17, 16, 13, 8 and 7). If they’re not protected from violence, abuse, neglect and ill-treatment (19, 32-38), their development can collapse in an instant.
This includes the emotional violence that children suffer in the U.S.
A September report from the inspector general’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services on immigrant children separated from their parents at our southern border says they “showed more fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress symptoms than children who were not separated.” A staffer from one facility quotes kids: “Every heartbeat hurts” and “I can’t feel my heart.” One 7-year-old thought his father had been killed and that he’d be next.
A child’s relationship with their primary caregiver is bedrock for all their future relationships. A rupture to it can damage a child’s social, cognitive and physical development. Long-term health effects can include addiction, heart disease, cancer and early death.
For the separated children, all of this was preventable (children have the right to live with their parents — Article 9). While free mental health care and other support may mitigate some damage, I wonder: In 20 years, how will these children parent their own? In 40, how will their health be?
I also wonder about the effects of the active shooter drills held in most U.S. public schools. Sometimes kids are told it’s a drill and sometimes not. They text goodbyes and I-love-yous as they cower in their classrooms, jolting at loud noises and rattled doorknobs.
I don’t believe active-shooter practice would have saved my son, Colin, from what he suffered in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. I know that the simulation of such an event — the emotional violence of it — isn’t what he wants for his own two little ones.
Educators agree, urging preventive measures like “threat assessment programs in schools to understand and intervene when a student is a risk to themselves or others.”
A recent incident in an Oregon high school affirms this mindset. A student reported a classmate’s suicidal intentions to school authorities, who dispatched security guard/coach Keanon Lowe to bring him to the office. Arriving in the classroom just before the student, he wrestled a gun away from the boy and pulled him into the hall. Video released later shows what happened next: Lowe bear-hugging the broken child, loving him to safety. “I felt how scared he was, I felt it all,” Lowe said. “I told him I cared about him, that people care about him. He was really surprised. He said, ‘You do?’ I said, ‘Yep, I just met you and I care about you. It’s going to be OK.’’’
It was more than OK: Other students saw in real time what love can do.
Children have an innate grasp of this idea and its power. In ChildFund Alliance’s most recent Small Voices, Big Dreams survey, which asked nearly 5,500 children from 15 countries what adults could do to protect them from violence, more than 90% answered, “Love children more.”
See them, know them, listen to them more.
Children have the right to be heard (12). As the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself, they know a few things. Who might they become if we truly honored their rights — all of them, everywhere?