Advertising aimed at children is so prevalent in our lives that many people think it’s okay. But child-development experts for years have said that ads on kids' TV shows, for example, constitute an unfair assault on impressionable minds that aren’t old enough to appraise the sales pitch.

"Yes, we have no advertising"  Excerpt from Raffi's article in
the Globe and Mail.


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Child Honouring and Sustainable Societies

How Raffi Cavoukian’s System of Focusing on Children Can Help Us All

In the ebb and flow of popular environmental consciousness, my elementary school years in the early nineties constituted a crest on the wave of environmental enthusiasm.  My first computer game taught me how to save the rainforests, the green vote mattered enough that the senate’s highest-profile environmentalist, Al Gore, was put on the Democratic ticket, reduce reuse recycle became a mantra, and my cartoon hero was a caped crusader, Captain Planet, whose mission was to “take polluters down to zero,” with the help of his empowered international youth sidekicks. 

My generation was given unprecedented exposure abstract environmental enthusiasm, but then the fad faded, and my teenage years witnessed in the reign of the luxury SUV and the proliferation of the McMansion.
What went wrong with the attempts to shape my generation and save the earth?  The fad, for the most part, did not spring up into action.  Can our future child-centered attempts at changing the environment go beyond cartoon heroes; change the way children think about the environment; perhaps more importantly, change the way adults think about children, and ultimately protect children’s health and well-being now and their futures?

Raffi Cavoukian & Child Honoring

Baby Beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below,
And a little white whale on the go.
­– Raffi, “Baby Beluga”

As a product of the eighties and early nineties environmentalism-for-kids, my theme song was “Baby Beluga” by the children’s musician Raffi Cavoukian.  The song, which he co-wrote with his wife Debi Pike in 1980 lasts to this day as a popular children’s song.  The storyline is simple: a little whale swims and frolics in the deep blue sea.  The lyrics and storyline paint only a serene picture of a happy little whale, but the selection of an endangered species—a fact never mentioned or hinted in the song itself—was not arbitrary.   As a singer, though, Raffi was not all activism all the time.  When not singing about endangered species, he would encourage listeners to “shake their sillies” and “wiggle their waggles.”[1] Even such an “activist” song as Baby Beluga never explicitly demanded action; it only instilled the simple idea of an animal with a mother and home, an animal to whom a child could relate.  “For three year olds,” Raffi explains, “loving the beluga was the key as far as I was concerned, a seed that could grow with time.”[2] A generation of fans, myself among them, would grow up aware of species beluga and expect that baby belugas will be a part of our children’s lullabies and dreams, too.  Raffi, as a musician, understood that outlook precedes action.

While I transitioned from child to adult, Raffi undertook his own transformation.  Mostly retired from children’s songwriting and performing, he has dedicated himself to systems thinking and activism.  In doing so, he has not abandoned his fans. Raffi Cavoukian sang silly songs, but he succeeded in great measure because he took his audience quite seriously.

His own background lends itself to a global and environmental perspective.  An ethnic Armenian whose family settled in Egypt before his birth and emigrated to Canada in his childhood, Raffi was himself a precocious child.  As a preteen, he jokingly referred to his mother as the “minister of finance” and his father as the “governor-general.”  In grade seven, the Ontario Minister of Lands and Forests visited his Toronto school to award him first place in an environmental-awareness poster drawing contest.  His winning entry featured a bird happily perched atop a “No Hunting” sign and was entitled, “Keep It Peaceful.”[3]

Early in his music career, Raffi Cavoukian described a realization that shaped his music.  “Children are as whole in their stage of development as adults are in their current place on life’s journey. . . During the impressionable years of forming self-esteem and character, the child is actively learning by pretending and imitating and messing up, by trying and failing and succeeding, daring and surrendering.”[4] This realization would grow beyond his approach to creating children’s music to his entire worldview.  His view of children simultaneously recognizes their vulnerability and their individual worth.  They are equal in worth to adults, but in need of adults for protection.

He has developed a unified theory for children’s rights he calls “Child Honoring,” and his answer to the environmental crises of today may be as surprising as it is bold: We first must change how society thinks of children; then we must fight for the environment accordingly.  “The irreducible needs of all children can offer a unifying ethic by which cultures of our interdependent world might reorder their priorities,” says Cavoukian. “It’s a novel idea—organizing society around the needs of its youngest members.”[5] Such an novel idea requires an understanding of how environmental degradation disproportionately harms children; it requires a shift in cultural assumptions that have subverted the best interest of children to the best interest of more powerful interests; and it requires that the environmental obstacles to children’s well being be confronted by specific, pragmatic reforms.

The Scope of Child Honoring

Here’s to the world we love, blue skies and ponies and children at play.
­- Raffi, “The World We Love.”

Child Honoring as a systematic philosophy is organized broadly into givens, a covenant, and principles. Like any ethical claims, rests on certain assumptions.  Three assumptions Raffi openly admits and describes as the “three givens:”

        “The early years are the most important—early childhood is the gateway to humane being.

        “We face planetary degradation that is unprecedented in scope and scale—a state of emergency that most endangers the very young, and that requires a remedy of equal scale.

        “This crisis calls for a systemic response in detoxifying the environments that make up the world of the child.”[6]

The “givens” follow a logical order, asserting first the importance of early childhood, secondly defining the challenge, unprecedented planetary degradation, and thirdly declaring that if the first two givens are true, a response that takes into account both what we know about children and what we know about ecology is necessary.

Assuming his three givens to be correct, Raffi Cavoukian wrote his “Covenant for Honoring Children,” a poetic expression of his feelings towards children.  The popular notion that children are the future is insufficient.  He insists that we view them not as future people but in the present: “all children are created whole, endowed with innate intelligence, with dignity and wonder, worthy of respect.”  Our regard for children cannot be contingent on their future knowledge and accomplishments; they already deserve treatment as full members of society with both value and rights.  “Children are original blessings,” he argues, and “every girl and boy is entitled to love, to dream, to belong to a loving ‘village.’   We affirm our duty to nourish and nurture the young, to honor their caring ideals as the heart of being human.  To recognize the early years as the foundation of life, and cherish to contribution of young children . . . As guardians of their prosperity we honor the bountiful Earth whose diversity sustains us.  Thus we pledge our love for generations to come.”[7] Here he shows the connection between high regard for children and the environment.  The ideal of passing on a better life to children than the one we ourselves enjoy is necessarily intertwined with the environment we give them.

Ultimately, Cavoukian sees that childhood is not experienced in theoretical compartments defined by academic fields.  The experience of childhood is holistic. Children do not live childhood in abstract compartments, but as a comprehensive experience.  Childhood, therefore, is not defined by ecology, psychology, economics, or medicine as individual fields, but by their interplay as a whole upon a child. Thus, the nine principles he outlines as defining Child Honoring do not at first glance all seem expressly ecological. Although Cavoukian describes Child Honoring as an “ecological paradigm,”[8] ecological solutions do not exist in a vacuum; seeing them in a larger system strengthens their implementation.

In this light Child Honoring clearly must be comprehensive and systematic.  The principles of Child Honoring are the underlying concepts that create a framework for pragmatic action.  Like the overarching system of Child Honoring itself, individual principles do not neatly fit into “adult” academic fields, but are defined from the perspective a child’s perception.  Before any attempt to extricate an ecological philosophy from Child Honoring, a broad understanding of the principles is necessary.

The principles of Child Honoring are respectful love, diversity, caring community, conscious parenting, emotional intelligence, nonviolence, safe environments, sustainability, and ethical commerce.[9]

Respectful love entails both how we see and how feel toward children.  This is a societal ethic, because Cavoukian calls for more than the adoration of parents towards children; he believes that “the whole community” ought to love children, and not  with a doting air of superiority, but “as whole people,” “persons in their own right.”[10] For adults to view children as their equals—not in power or knowledge but in humanity and inherent worth—and for adults to collectively view children, not just the ones to whom they are close, in such a light, would change the dynamic of policy debates, and though voiceless, the very young would assume their rightful place as an interest group, and maybe even as the interest group with the most at stake.

“Diversity” has more apparent ecological application as Cavoukian defines it to include “biodiversity” and “ecosystems.”[11] Where Child Honoring goes further than an appreciation of environmental diversity for its own sake is the assertion that maintaining ecological diversity is a quality of life issue and an obligation to future generations.

The principles of caring community, conscious parenting, and emotional intelligence primarily emphasize education and psychology, but are not limited to those fields.  Cavoukian advocates universal access to neighborhood “family resource centers” where children have an alternative to playing violent video games and eating junk food as they wait for working parents to come home, but he also suggests that “green schoolyards, bicycle lanes, and pesticide-free parks.”[12] Ecological consciousness is therefore part of how caring community is expressed.  Conscious parenting, in part, is Cavoukian’s call to break the patterns of poor parenting that perpetuate child abuse by actually teaching children themselves child development and parenting.  Implicit in this suggestion is that destructive ideas need to acknowledged and corrected as part of early childhood education.  Rather than believing children are incapable of changing dangerous patterns, Cavoukian argues that children must be the change to dangerous patterns.   Finally, the principle of emotional intelligence emphasizes compassion, cooperation, and creativity over other measures of intelligence.  An educated generation who will see environmental policy in such a light would improve the situation far more rapidly than generations operating under an ethic of greed and competitiveness.

Safe environments, sustainability, and ethical commerce are the principles with the most expressly ecological ramifications, but just as Cavoukian had no problem injecting ecological concerns in other categories, he has no hesitancy in seeing ecological concerns in light of education or psychology.  As for safe environments, Cavoukian explains, “The very young need protection from the toxic influences that permeate modern life.”  Among these toxic influences he warns against domestic abuse, excessive corporate advertising directly toward children, and harmful chemicals in the environment and food supply.  It may be risky to overly associate issues of such immediate urgency and severity as child abuse with Cavoukian’s passion against corporate advertising to children; but Child Honoring would assert that childhood itself needs to be a secure, safe environment and it is risky not to at least see all attacks on the innocence of childhood.

“Sustainability,” Cavoukian says, “means living in a way that does not compromise the lives of future generations. It refers not merely to conservation of resources, renewable energy development, and antipollution laws.  To be sustainable, societies need to build social capacity by tapping the productive power of a contented heart.”[13] Child Honoring views sustainability as a question of quality of life, in which natural resources are integral part but not the sole concern.  Child rearing practices and educational approaches, too, can be unsustainable if they leave generations less emotionally healthy than those who came before.  Thus not only should psychology and education be applied to environmentalism, environmentalism can offer insights to the fields of psychology and education.

The Child Honoring principles conclude with ethical commerce.  Cavoukian admits that commerce is “fundamental”[14] but suggests the contemporary paradigms cannot last.  He advocates “triple bottom line” business and full-cost accounting practices.  He is keenly aware that the one of the greatest obstacles to meaningful reform in commerce is short-sightedness and calls for “political and economic cycles that reward long-term thinking.”[15]

The specific actions Child Honoring suggests are not unique to Raffi Cavoukian, nor are its component ethical arguments.  Its merit is as an integrated philosophy.  Child Honoring posits that children are precious and vulnerable, and dares people to view those simple truths in all their practical complexity, approaching an array of challenges with the question, “How do we love all the children?”[16]

The Paradigm Shift and its Opposition

Turn, turn, turn, turn this world around.
For the children, turn this world around.
­- Raffi, “Turn this World Around” from the CD, Resisto Dancing

Cavoukian’s argument, with which he aims to do no less than alter the societies of the world, is premised on the notion that “planetary degradation . . . most endangers the very young.”  It is important to know if he is right, and if so, is the danger upon children immediate or he could be more abstractly that their futures are endangered?  The National Institutes of Health children’s Web site on asthma,[17] is just one indication that indicates Cavoukian’s premise is accurate and immediate.  Chronic diseases such as asthma, neurodevelopment disorders, and childhood cancers have seen dramatic rises in incidences in the last fifty years.[18]

The paradigm shift involved in Child Honoring is perhaps understated by Cavoukian himself, who simply describes it as “a corrective lens.”[19] It is difficult to imagine the powerful of the world changing corporate and political policy based on a notion of defending the vulnerable.  Therein is the sad role of children in environmental policy; they at once have the most vested interest in the environment, and no voice in the system, not even in democracies.  The only antidote is for adults to deliberately choose to be their advocates.  Child Honoring insists, though, that children need not be a competing interest group, but a complementary one.  “Children are not a partisan concern, and Child Honoring is not pitted against person or ideology.”[20] Ultimately, Cavoukian argues, children’s interests are adults self-interest: children’s well-being “trickles upward.”[21] The potential of Child Honoring as a means to environmental reform therefore is not its power to replace partisanship, religion, or culture, but to function within them.  Yet this is predicated on overcoming two challenges.  The way society views children must change, which directly challenges our implicit theory of community, and secondly, compassion towards children requires long-term thinking and planning, a direct challenge to our implicit theory of time.

Our sense of community, who were are, and who matters are shaped by our political and economic systems.

In both democracy and capitalism, a child’s position in the community is precarious.  In democracy, power exists among the voters.  In the United States, children (those under 18) form 24.6% of the population; they nearly double senior citizens (12.4%).  The very young—under age five—form 6.8% of the population.[22] Yet, children do not have the benefit of being proportionately represented.  They do not function as a constituency whose votes are courted.  At best they are a special interest, a cause utterly dependently on others to conscientiously chose to vote in their behalf.  Children’s prospects in our democracy are less promising in this regard.  With decreased birthrates and improved life expectancy, the proportion of U.S. population over 65 steadily rises while the percentage under 18 decreases.  Children, already dependent on others for their political voice, are losing market share. Yet, these numbers inverse themselves in poorer countries.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example 47% of the population is under 15 and only 3% is over 65.[23] Thus, in countries, like the U.S. where meaningful long-term environmental change may best be implemented, children do not have the clout to guarantee it; while in the developing world children, who suffer most from environmental degradation, dominate the population.

Our economic system rewards those with money, which again children themselves do not have.  This demonstrates itself in society’s low regard of children and of the professionals who work with them:

“In spite of all the advances we’d made (less corporal punishment, more caring fathers), children [are] still a minority group unlike any other.  We are still largely unaware of the biases we hold towards children.  . . .  Why are caregivers and teachers of the very young the lowest-paid teaching professionals and shown little respect?  Why are they not accorded that status and prestige of say, college professors?  Given that childhood forms the person, what does the above say about how society sees children, and—just as important—what does this mean for the adults they become?”[24]

Child Honoring demands that adults—not only traditional child advocates like parents and teachers, but CEO’s, politicians, entrepreneurs, society as a whole—deliberately choose “a compassionate view of children, one that views children to be whole people with a dignity all their own, and with unique needs as they grow,”[25] to accept children as whole persons whose merit matches adults, an assumption that democracy and capitalism do not systematically afford children.

Child Honoring also confronts our implicit theory of time. “A culture that thrives on instant gratification and short-term profit cannot embrace such vital and long-term issues as renewable energy.”[26] An implicit theory of time which places all value on now is one that defines those currently in power as most important.  In asserting today’s or this quarter’s profits, as supreme, opportunities are missed.  The energy crisis of the 1970s was a tragic missed opportunity to reform energy policy sooner.[27] Organic farming struggles to spread because “it takes at least three years of fallow fields to achieve organic capacity.”[28] Cars that run with any alternative fuel to gasoline are trapped in the chicken-egg game of no available cars vs. no available fuel.  Society is so orientated to the next election or the next quarter report that long-term investments are unpopular or impossible.  The way adults treat today’s children, borrowing against their futures for the immediate benefit, is not new.  The ninety-nine year treaty of the British Empire with China over Hong Kong is a classic example.  Immediate profit for the English could be gained with the assurance that any complications would come long after the signers’ deaths.  Society needs to reorient itself to long-term planning.  Today’s voters thinking only of their own lifetimes are effectively making treaties with the environment set to expire in their children’s lifetimes.  A Child Honoring worldview would not accept an implicit theory of time any less than the lifetime of today’s children.

The opposition to Child Honoring, an admittedly reactionary stance, is no less than the status quo.  Its enemies include those who subscribe to the “toxicity of an economic system that only valued activities measured in dollars, regardless of their impact on personal and planetary health.”[29] One economist, Steven E. Landsburg, is especially unapologetic.  He prescribes economics as “the antidote to naïve environmentalism.” He offers as an example, the construction of a parking lot.  “Jack wants his woodland and the expense of Jill’s parking space and Jill wants her parking space at the expense of Jack’s woodland.”  In his view, this environmental decision is “morally neutral” and a simple matter of preference. He even confronts the notion of environmentalism for the sake of future generations.  “But,” he asks, “do we have any reason to think that future generations will prefer inheriting the wilderness to inheriting the profits from the parking lot?” [30]

Those who pollute and harm our environment may feel that to do so is their privilege, but the willing acceptance of dirty air in exchange as the price for the pleasure of a luxury S.U.V. is not the fair free market at play; it is greed and it charges everyone the cost of the lifestyle of a few.  Landsburg sees environmental policy as a morally neutral question of preferences.   He does not acknowledge the preferences of a few have consequences for all.  It is easy to see that this phenomenon extends beyond families; it plays out internationally.  Wealthy nations feel entitled to a certain standard of living and certain lifestyle, but the ecological costs are spread among all nations.  And, tragically, this saga is intergenerational.  The adults of today pay for their excesses with their children’s environment.  “Child Honoring” calls for a deliberate break from the pattern.  It calls for the powerful of today to reprioritize society for the sake of its most vulnerable members.

Ecological Child Honoring in Action:
Implemented Examples and Ideas for Progress

After all the philosophy, there is the question of pragmatic effect.  What would the embrace of Child Honoring as a way of thinking mean for environmental policy?  Would it introduce new ideas to the marketplace? The “corrective lens” analogy is fitting.  In the anthology Child Honoring, in which numerous scholars contribute essays highlighting various Child Honoring principles many progressive and serious measures, such as an emphasis on triple bottom line business, are discussed, but none of them are exclusive to Child Honoring.  Yet, it is worth investigating how a Child Honoring lens may change these ideas or open new minds to them.

Child Honoring changes terms of policy debates.  It relegates all interest groups—business, government, even environmentalists—behind the best interest of children, confident that helping the most vulnerable first will ultimately well-serve all. Movements already exist to change the terms of the debate into a Child Honoring light by changing how we measure success.  The Genuine Progress Indicator, an algorithm that measures quality of life instead of profit alone, like GDP, is a step in this direction.  In 1995, a joint statement by 400 economists said, “Since the GDP only measures the quantity of market activity without accounting for the social and ecological costs involved, it is both inadequate and misleading as a measure of true prosperity.”[31]

Future policy needs to be made with a foundational understanding of children’s health and an absolute refusal to let children be guinea pigs for insufficiently tested chemicals.  In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences published a report Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children in which they declared, “Children are not little adults.”[32] This shockingly simple assertion—children’s health cannot be assured by testing designed to assert safety for adults—led to dramatic action.  The Food Quality Protection Act, passed unanimously in Congress in 1996, distinctly mentions children and Philip J. Landrigan calls it “the first explicitly child-honoring environmental law ever passed.”[33] Toxic chemicals seem to be an environmental issue that disproportionately harms children, but under our current regulatory model “chemicals are ‘innocent’ until they are proven hazardous.”[34] This model puts business first and effectively places children in the role of safety inspectors for many years.

The possibilities are limitless when focus changes from today to tomorrow and when greed by the powerful is replaced by compassion for the weak.

Child Honoring and My Ecological Worldview

In November 2006 my outlook on the urgency of the environmental crisis changed when my twin daughters Emerald and Lanéa were born.  Previously my environmentalism was passive—a vote for a “green” candidate every few years and a few half-hearted attempts at recycling.  Suddenly the stream where I fished as a child, the parks in which I played, the undeveloped suburban woodland where I went sledding and built forts, the pond where I ice-skated on cold New England days all mattered not only as memories but as hopes for my own daughters’ future.  Keeping those green spaces and keeping our climate is essential to my understanding of passing on a world at least as good as I had it to my own daughters.

Child Honoring strikes a chord with me because it connects ecology to something that I innately care far more deeply about than “environmentalism”—my kids.  While some activists would love to get more sweeping and passionate support for environmental causes on their own merits, they may have an uphill battle.   In positing our collective love of children as a basis for lasting ecological change, Raffi Cavoukian is gambling on the universality of human experience.  Love for children is not limited to traditional human boundaries of religion, politics, or nationality.  If we re-centered our society on children, much the way a new parent does his own life, ecological awareness would follow.  He realizes that environmental ethics are part of the system of human societies.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the great children’s writer, wrote on the dedication page of his classic, The Little Prince, “All grown ups were children first, but few of them remember it.”  I think children are born environmentalists; they approach nature with awe and wonder and love.  They also have a stronger sense of equality and justice than many adults.  “People are equal in their basic wish for peace and happiness,” explains the Dalai Lama, himself an advocate of Raffi Cavoukian’s Child Honoring, “In this children have much to teach adults.  They naturally recognize other children as being like themselves and easily befriend each other.”[35]

As adults deliberately remember childhood, deliberately prioritize children, and deliberately challenge the power centric models of community and immediate gratification models of time, they are engaging in the philosophy of Child Honoring.  Child Honoring principles—whether or not they are ever known by that name—may indeed be the best hope for the environment of this world and its children.

Jonathan Cathèll-Williams was a junior at Harvard University and a proud new father of twin daughters when he wrote this essay.
[1] Raffi.  “Shake Your Sillies Out.” More Singable Songs. Music Album.
[2] Cavoukian, Raffi.  The Life of a Children’s Troubadour. Vancouver: Homeland Press, 1999. p. 123.
[3] Ibid. pp. 55-56.
[4] Ibid. pp. 12-14.
[5] Cavoukian, Raffi.  “Introduction.” Child Honoring : How to Turn This World Around. Eds. Raffi Cavoukian and Sharna Olfman. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006. pp. xviii-xix.
[6] Cavoukian, Raffi. “What is Child Honouring?” Cited October 27, 2008.

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