Natural born killers?
As London comes to terms with another terrorist attack in a matter of weeks, it’s very hard not to sit and wonder: ‘When will this end?’
Sadly, I believe it won’t end. Not until we look at how we treat the youngest people in our society. Children are not born violent. They are not born terrorists. They are not born with anger so deep that they can take any ideology and twist it to justify violence. Children are all born with the same raw building blocks, which are the same basic body systems that need to mature for a child to grow and understand the world around them. In evolutionary terms everything is ultimately about survival. All children begin to make the necessary connections between these raw building blocks, but how these blocks are connected is key. As the stress system, the emotional brain, and the ‘thinking’ brain slowly mature, the ‘messages’ received from the environment a child grows up in have a big influence on how these crucial systems develop.
Children are not born violent. They are not born terrorists. They are not born with anger so deep that they can take
any ideology and twist it to justify violence.
With loving, responsive caregiving, we build emotional intelligence and social intelligence. With firm but gentle boundaries, respectful interaction, acceptance of feelings and compassionate and thoughtful interaction, our children create their sense of self, of who they are as an individual. We model, and they internalise our family values, our compassion for others, our worldview. Every time we speak, interact and communicate as parents, as educators, as a society, we are sending messages to our children.
So what happens to child development in a sub-optimal environment?
Evolution is very clever. The reason that children are born with the raw building blocks that need connection, rather than fully functioning body systems, is a matter of survival. The brain and body connections our children develop from the environment they grow up in become the tools and skills they will use for navigating through life. What use is empathy, if you need to be selfish to ensure you have enough to eat? What use is compassion, when you live in an environment where you need to fight to survive? What use is tolerance, when you feel marginalised? What use is democracy, debate and respect for others’ opinions when you feel unheard? What use is individual liberty, when you need a group to feel safe? Children can of course survive without a nurturing environment – but at what cost?
In 2017 the UK ranked 156 out of 165 countries relating to the protection of children’s rights. Rankings were across six key indicators including: discrimination (particularly of refugees and Muslim children), the best interests of the child, legislation and respect for children’s views. Here in the UK we ranked 156th – that should be a shocking statistic for us all to take in!
How can we expect our children to reach their full potential? How can we expect that our children develop into compassionate, moral, thoughtful, tolerant, articulate and peace-filled young adults, when we place so little priority on the health and wellbeing of our children?
If we want a democratic, free society where individual liberty is respected, where different opinions, choices, faiths and religions are accepted and tolerance is the norm, don’t we need our children to be able to practice? Shouldn’t we be transforming our education system so that it respects and gives voice to the individual? Creating environments that model respect for children as competent, articulate, passionate, opinionated equal members of society? Shouldn’t we be focusing on creating policies that advocate for and uphold all children’s rights? Couldn’t we be doing more to push parents, educators and society to focus on building respectful relationships and interaction with children?
These terrorists were the children of yesterday. The roots of their unspeakable acts are long grown. We can put in place short-term measures, but unless we as parents, educators, as society, invest heavily in ensuring the rights of all our children, to offer them what they come into this world expecting in terms of nurture, care and respect; there will be no end. It starts with family. It continues with education. And it’s cemented by society.
“The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing.”
– Labi Siffre
What song do we want to be sung?
Guest blog by Lucy Stephens.