As we better attune to the needs of children, we cannot help but feel the needs of Mother Earth more deeply. And vice versa. This ripening sensitivity reveals what indigenous people have known for millennia: that children, we, are not separate from our environment.
For generations, however, this awareness, empathy and care has been marginal, at best, in western culture. We’ve lived and treated our environment, including its inhabitants, as distinct from our body. And historic attachment disruptions with children have co-existed as expressions of this fundamental disconnect from the land and its manifold creatures.
Colonizing hearts, minds and lands
While indigenous cultures have long placed the child at the centre of the circle around which the family and community extends, western culture has built a hierarchy system at home and school. The emotional needs of children and forming secure attachments have not been a priority; rather, “top-down” control, rushing children somewhere, preparing them for future “success”, has.
In many ways, we’ve industrialized and commodified children, treated them as objects to mold instead of wise beings to unfold, as Jess Lair poetically notes. The current factory model school system, originally designed to turn children into obedient workers to feed the growing economy of the late 1800’s, is but one example. Going back further in time we find Protestant Correctional Institutions that deemed it right to abusively break the will of children, to mold them into “righteousness”.
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the Rod correction shall drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15).
At home, school and elsewhere, and in countless ways, we’ve controlled the innate resourcefulness of children, just as we’ve controlled the resources of our planet. Connecting to and wisely drawing out with care the immanent brilliance of children has not been our intent; neither has working in right relationship, or dialoguing, with the land, as has been custom with indigenous peoples, whether that be in the context of killing a deer for food or harvesting cedar for shelter.
For centuries, this fundamental disconnect has compelled dominant cultures to view plants as static backdrops to carelessly take versus wise teachers and powerful healers. Animals have been treated as slaves, confined and tortured, instead being seen as equals, friends and powerful allies. Far from the Shamans of the Amazon who, for thousands of years, have lived in harmony and reciprocity with the land, western minds have sought entitlement. Our waters now fill with plastic, our top soils erode, and “we’re now losing species at up to 1,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.”
With ineffable breaches in attunement, care and empathy, ambitious and greedy minds have made it a normalized practice to colonize the land, just as we’ve normalized the colonization of our children’s hearts and minds. The two go hand-in-hand, for children are pure expressions of Mother Earth.
Fortunately, with the help of research and advocacy, we are slowly waking to this.
Cutting the umbilical chord
Only recently have we discovered that a delay in cutting the umbilical chord supports development: “In the first few minutes after birth, blood is still circulating from the placenta to the infant. When clamping is put off for two or three minutes, it allows a physiological transfer of oxygen-rich blood to flow into the infant — a process called placental transfusion.” Children benefit, we now realize, from this additional blood volume.
What if our quick-to-cut-off medical procedure was a metaphor for more pervasive, impulsive western ways—the proclivity to sever the delicate bond we have with our environment; the disregard for the power of sustained intimacy with mother and Mother Earth, she who holds us, feeds us, loves us; the need to make getting somewhere more important than connection, the here and now?
It may seem small and insignificant, but this pattern of detachment is symbolized in the design of strollers or prams. In the majority of them, the child faces away from the cooing mother and her calming eyes and towards the busy streets and stimulating lights. Already, in the tenderness of infancy, we are pointing our impressionable young ones away from their primary attachment figure and out into the bustling world. For so many traditional societies, where the mother or father carries the growing infant in a sling throughout the day, this practice would seem utterly shocking. It is but one small example of how we in the “civilized” world have long been ignorant of the power of the relational field and biological imperative for safe connection.
The public education system, as already noted, is a larger example of the ingrained pattern of separation in western culture: Kids placed on islands (desks) and in rows, separate from one another, in age segregated class structures, away from older and younger kids they could learn from and support, and away from the teacher who stands at the front of the room. This is no way to learn, especially for young children who depend on movement, play and social interaction for their education.
Erika Christakis illuminates the bereft state of connection existing between children and their teachers across the United States: “One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.” This is no surprise given public education’s push towards product over process, academia versus play, “there” versus “here”.
When we consider how important having a secure attachment is for young, developing bodies during the formative years (0-7), then we can grasp the potential ramifications of student disconnect on wellbeing, both short and long term. The misinformed and oft-harmful systematic prioritization of correcting and directing over connecting “cuts the umbilical chord” too quickly, too often, bypassing the critical role secure attachment plays in brain development, learning and self-regulation. It makes the thinking mind more important than the feeling heart/body, which, in itself, is perhaps the most fundamental and crucial disconnect from which all other divisive acts arise.
And we can go further on the matter of education: What about standardized curriculum? How do we see chronic separation playing out there? Let’s start with a question: Historically speaking, how much of the curriculum has been an expression of our connection with the land versus the longstanding drive to conquer it? How much has promoted deep kinship with animals and trees and rivers versus preparing kids for jobs where they ignorantly exploit those very things?
I remember the days of caring for salmon eggs in my grade three classroom and then taking them down to the creek to hatch. I remember elements of ecological awareness brought into the classroom and during our field trips to farms and forests. But this holistic pedogeological orientation was just a small part of the myopic academic and industrial agenda long played out in our institution. From elementary school to university, education, for the most part, promoted separation consciousness—how to be successful in spite of how our goals, actions and future jobs may impact Mother Earth.
While this is changing, this systematic approach of separating children from their inner nature and Mother Nature, while calling it “education”, is still the dominant culture of our learning institutions. The push to drive individuation and disconnect in pedagogy reinforces the illusion that kids must learn and live as separate from their environment—that they are fundamentally separate!
So sad, especially when we remember how young children, in their right brain dominant awareness, instinctively experience themselves as deeply connected to others and life.
On the home front, the pattern of separation plays out in the west’s orientation towards nuclear families distinct from aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends who play a vital role in sharing the heavy responsibility of raising children. This separation places a large burden on parents who often both hold jobs. The continued exhaustion takes its toll on children who do not get their attachment needs met because parents are barely surviving the routines of shopping, cleaning, cooking, driving and bedtime. Parents are spending more time attached to the work at hand than to the children they love.
Technology soothes the spinning mind, the constant pressure, the cries of children who hunger for more attention. At the dinner table, on the couch, in the car, or in the stroller, children are given the “pacifying” power of screen time, which creates pseudo-attachment and addictive patterns. This faux “umbilical chord” or connection seemingly sedates their overwhelm but simultaneously stimulates their vulnerable, growing brains in ways they are not neurologically ready for.
It is a vicious loop. The west’s compulsive agenda of “progress” and “success”, as propagated in our schools and media, exacerbates the ingrained, insidious and seductive “more” ethos, what Omid Safi calls the disease of being busy. Unwittingly, we fall prey to it and without proper support, and then must continuously find ways to maintain and pay for the hectic life we’ve built. Meanwhile, our most vulnerable, who remind us daily what really matters—to care for the present moment—suffer for it.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has recognized and begun to address this growing “busy” trend in her country. She has created a budget that focuses on wellbeing that emphasizes citizen happiness over capitalist gain: “To Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the purpose of government spending is to ensure citizens’ health and life satisfaction, and that — not wealth or economic growth — is the metric by which a country’s progress should be measured.” The budget focuses on five areas of spending that support wellbeing: “Bolstering mental health, reducing child poverty, supporting indigenous peoples, moving to a low-carbon-emission economy, and flourishing in a digital age.”
This radical and subversive act by Ardern is an indicator that she compassionately feels the longstanding cost of “progress” and “success” on New Zealand’s citizens. The history of this ethos, of course, lies deep, far beyond the borders of this antipodean nation. From industrialization to colonialization to religious control, planet Earth and its inhabitants have long suffered from the drive for more, a drive that ultimately has roots in trauma and feelings of profound inadequacy—“I am not enough”; “I’m not worthy”; “I’m unlovable”.
We’ve lost connection to the power of our unbounded spirit, to the land, to love of self and life. And so we try to fill the land—our lives—with narrow ideologies in the same way we try to fill an empty stomach. We busily take and consume and build in blindly addictive cycles, but nothing is ever enough. The earth suffers. Children suffer. The suffering co-arises.
We’ve forgotten who we are, our roots in our soul and the soul of the Earth. And we’ve forgotten the power and necessity for relationship with other humans and the environment as a whole.
But, again, we are waking up…
Waking to empathy, care and connection
There is no coincidence that the growing outcry over how we treat Mother Nature is co-arising with our outcry over how we treat children. As we increasingly care to recycle, reduce plastic consumption, inquire into animal welfare, clean our waters, and move closer to the land, we are simultaneously speaking out on attachment, empathy, technology use and trauma in homes and schools.
We are questioning how we parent, what foods to feed our children, play-based versus academic education, child- versus teacher-led learning. We are questioning how much time children spend with homework and technology versus with their friends and in unstructured playful pursuits; how much energy is devoted to desk work and home work versus home play, running through streets and open fields.
More than ever, we have less tolerance for the disconnect between children and nature, inner nature and Mother Nature, love of children and love of life.
In no uncertain terms, we are waking up! And how we treat children and our planet is the barometer.
In our wakefulness we feel viscerally that “over there” is not separate from “in here”; that the seemingly separate parts of life are much more interconnected than we’ll ever realize: a child, a stone, a bird, a tree is an extension of our beating heart, our vibrating essence. We feel at a soul level, as we did when young, this underlying truth.
We come home to it, within and without, and cannot help but re-imagine a world where we treat others with the same tenderness, dignity and care we long for and deserve. We raise children who become fierce protectors and conscious stewards of our beautiful planet. And we, as a whole, find it harder and harder to deny and live distinct from our unified field of consciousness where you and I are One.
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults