If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves. -Carl Gustav Jung
What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of people do we want our children to be? What kind of moral examples, teachings, choices — personal, community, economic, faith, and political — are we parents, grandparents, community adults, political leaders, and citizens prepared to make in this new century and millennium to make our children strong inside and empower them to seek and help build a more just, compassionate, and less violent society and world?
Over two thousand years ago Jesus taught that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” His message is in danger of being lost as so many of our children of privilege and poverty chase material idols that fade, and stuff themselves with the cultural junk foods of violence, drugs, greed, and material things that fail to fill the deeper hunger for community and purpose all humans share.
The twentieth century was characterized by stunning scientific and technological progress. We split the atom, pierced space, walked on the moon, landed on Mars, and broke the genetic code. Instant communication led to an information explosion and daily money trading in the trillions. We witnessed astonishing and unjust increases in wealth for a few resulting from a tiny microchip and we can fly through the air faster than the speed of sound and cruise the seas quicker than the creatures inhabiting them. We created the capacity to feed the world’s population and to prevent the poverty that afflicts millions of humankind. But something is missing. Our scientific and military progress have not been accompanied by comparable moral and spiritual progress.
Every child today is endangered by our violence-saturated culture and excessive consumerism and greed. Buying is equated with happiness. Possessing things is equated with success. Children are marketed sex, alcohol, tobacco, and guns as the way to be accepted and hip. And a child or teen dies every 3 hours and 28 minutes from gunfire and is injured by a gun every 35 minutes in a nation where guns, other than toy guns, are the only unregulated consumer product although they take 30,000 lives a year, more than 2,500 of them child and teen lives.
I believe the Old Testament prophets, the Gospels, the Koran, other great faiths, history, moral decency, and common sense beckon us to examine anew as individuals and as a people what we are to live by and teach our children by precept and example. Parents, grandparents, teachers, preachers, neighbors, people of conscience, and people of faith must lift a strong counter voice to the corrupting messages of our culture and political process and teach our children that they can and must make a difference and be bridges between people of all colors, genders, sexual orientation, politics, and cultures.
I believe each of us is put on this earth for a purpose and with the duty to make our world a better place. My parents and Black community elders taught, by word and deed, that service is the rent each of us pays for living and that the only thing that lasts is what is shared with others. They passed down the habit of service by creating opportunities for children to serve at very young ages. They took us to help the poor with them. They taught us about the duty of citizenship by taking us with them to vote. And they made sure we met great role models including great Black college presidents like Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Dr. Mordecai Johnson, great singers Richard Hayes, Dorothy Maynor and Marian Anderson. And they taught us about our historic s/heroes like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass to let us know there was a big world of opportunity beyond our segregated small town Jim Crow southern existence by following their courageous examples. They also taught that service and charity are not enough — that we must also raise our voices for justice and freedom for all. And through their examples, they taught us that if we don’t like the way the world is, we can and must do our part to change it. Success is never guaranteed, but contributing to the struggle is a responsibility and a privilege.
And never has the call to moral and political struggle for justice been more urgent in our nation and world as now when forces of regression seek to erode — indeed destroy — racial and gender progress and dash the hopes of millions of children for a life free from poverty, hunger, homelessness, unequal education, health care, and a chance to get ready for school through quality early childhood supports.
How can we make a difference? By remembering and respecting the sanctity of all human beings — created by and equal in God’s sight — whatever their race, creed, color, gender, sexual preference, or disability. In this time of racial, gender, economic, and political divisiveness, coarsening of political rhetoric, and fraying of America’s democracy, I hope we adults can transmit respectful messages of hope and decency that build and not tear down our community, national and world civility and mutual respect.
So in the aftermath of this 2016 election I urge adults in America of all races, faiths and political persuasions to make a difference by being an example for teaching our children to love themselves and others as God loves us and treating others respectfully and fairly. To our children, I hope they will make a difference as they grow by being courageous; by aiming high, and holding on to ideals of mutual respect; by caring and serving; by being honest and telling the truth; by persevering and not giving up no matter how difficult the challenge; by being determined and resourceful; by being grateful for the gift and wonders of life; by working together with others; by being compassionate and kind; by being nonviolent and working for community, national and world justice and peace; and by being faithful and struggling for what they believe.
All of our children need to know that goodness and wisdom come in all colors and countries and genders and sizes and do not belong to any single person or group or nation. In this time of national transition laced with racial, gender, economic and political discord, I hope our political leaders across the spectrum will be worthy examples for our children to emulate. I also hope all parents, teachers and people in every sphere of life from top to bottom in our nation will by example help build children who are strong on the inside, with spiritual anchors to meet challenges with resiliency, knowing always what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
We all can and must make a positive difference in helping America become America — one people under God. Never has there been a more urgent time for all of us to help bind our wounds and heal our divisions and work for a nation and world where all are respected and welcome as God’s sacred children.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.