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.


Back to all Speeches and Essays


Child Honouring: The next Ecological Paradigm

I feel honoured to be here with you today. I left the University of Toronto before the end of my 2nd year, to pursue my love of folk music, songwriting and performing. So for me to be asked to give a talk at Harvard is really quite a thrill.

The thing is, since leaving University, I’ve been on a path of self-directed learning. Like a child, I’ve worked hard to find meaning-hungry for the kind of knowledge that connects the dots between various disciplines.

Tonight, I want to talk about an idea I call child honouring, a simple idea which, at its heart, involves understanding, respect, and reverence, for a universal human experience—the growing child. I see child honouring as a holistic lens with which to view the related environments that comprise the ecology of the child.

But first, I’d like to give you a brief sketch of my recent life and my thinking along the way, in the hope that it might shed light on my blended passions for children and for the Earth.

In brief, the story of my life is one of adaptation and change: from my birth into an Armenian family in Cairo, Egypt to the move to Toronto when I was 10; from a city boy, to a man who grew to love Nature; and from a person totally oblivious to children, to one who learned to appreciate and love them.

It was in my yoga studies in the mid 1970s that I was introduced to the idea of cause and effect, not only concerning dietary choices and exercise habits, but also about how our thoughts, words and actions affect ourselves and others, and our planet.

My years of making music for children and families—a calling I feel privileged to have found—not only gave me the delight of countless renditions Baby Beluga with thousands of eager voices, it brought other gifts as well.

Working with the idea of respect for the young child gave me a window through which to understand the importance of self-respect and self-esteem, and then to regard with respect, all life in the Earth family.

My Baby Beluga album in 1980 was the earliest expression of my growing environmental awareness. Besides the title song, there was one inspired by the UN’s declarations on the Rights of the Child, a song called All I Really Need, one that I wrote in 1979 about basic human needs which, in a way, was a protest against our consumer culture.

…a song in my heart, food in my belly, love in my family…

As I think about it, for a long time I’ve approached environmental issues in human terms, keeping in mind that when it comes to environmental pollution, young children—with their tiny bodies and still developing organs—are the most vulnerable people.

The yoga and meditation I was practicing also stressed the power of positive thinking. That’s why my best-known song Baby Beluga, became not a sad save-the-whale lament, but instead a love song for a beautiful little whale—a song that children could take to heart.

In 1989, at the height of my career, I came to learn that beluga whales in the St. Lawrence river were not only on the endangered list, their bodies were found to be so full of toxins as to be classified hazardous waste. Can you imagine how that made me feel? That was the year that the state of our beleaguered planet, made it to the cover of Time magazine.

The news about the belugas was one of the reasons why I set aside my usual work for a while, and recorded an ecology album entitled Evergreen Everblue, with songs that called for a radical change of heart and mind.

Meanwhile, I heard from many teachers that the 1990 Earth Day celebrations worldwide, had produced something tangible: elementary schools all across North America were now including environmental education, in their curriculum.

And the kids were on fire with their desire to save the Earth. I read it in the letters they wrote, and I saw it in the faces of those I met. They formed Earth clubs at school, bugged their parents to recycle, wrote to elected officials to save the whales and rainforests, and they studied local bioregions. Concerned for their future, kids took global restoration seriously.

In 1992, I attended the United Nations conference in Rio known as the Earth Summit, with its goal to set humanity on a sustainable course. That’s when I heard these unforgettable words, in a speech by a 12-year-old Canadian girl named Severn. She said:

“Losing my future is not like losing an election, or a few points on the stock exchange. I am here to tell you adults, you must change your ways… You grown-ups say you love us. I challenge you, please, make your actions reflect your words.”

After the Earth Summit, I truly hoped we would see a substantial turn away from business-as-usual. I hoped governments would finally get serious about detoxifying industry, subsidizing renewable energies, supporting organic farming, and actively promoting an ecological revolution!

But, although sustainable development became a key phrase, it brought only superficial change. The following year, in both the Canadian national election, and the G7 economic summit, environment was nowhere on the agenda. Even though Al Gore, in his book, Earth in the Balance, called for ecology to become society’s “central organizing principle,” politicians have clearly not embraced that bit of wisdom.

Similarly overlooked was the “Warning to Humanity,” published in 1993 by the Union of Concerned Scientists—over 1600 of them, including more than 100 Nobel laureates—calling for “a great change” in our ways if we are to preserve a viable life on Earth. That document was sent to 160 world leaders. That same year in Kyoto, I heard Mikhail Gorbachev say that the 21st Century would be either one of restoration, or catastrophe.

Professionally, I had by this time returned to the concert stage, and I had regained a sense of joy and play in my personal life. And this feeling produced two new studio albums for me, in 1994 and 1995.

In 1994 I joined a business community called the Social Venture Network (SVN)—based in San Francisco—an international organization of successful businesses and entrepreneurs dedicated to giving commerce a multiple-bottom-line comprised of fiscal, social and environmental responsibility. Member companies include Ben and Jerry’s, The Body Shop, and Stonyfield Farms Yogurt—all dedicated to “doing well by doing good.”

And around this time, I thought a great deal about the economic values that drive our society, and shape our consumer culture. And I realized that when economic growth is based on the Gross Domestic Product (or GDP), that is to say, solely on the sum of monetary transactions—totally ignoring their impact on human and Earthly communities-it’s like saying “What you do doesn’t matter, as long as it generates money.”

To me, this narrow idea of growth as a measure of a society’s health-based entirely on a fiscal tally that ignores other criteria—makes little sense, and yet it’s exactly what drives our society, and what gets politicians elected. That’s how we can have, within a so-called robust economy, record numbers of children living in poverty, and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots of our society.

At the threshold of a new century, I believe Canadians need-and indeed America and the world needs—a stronger vision to carry us into the year 2000. We need a new global ethic to inspire a sense of working toward transcendent rewards, a collective dream in which we all play a part.

For our children and ourselves, the most important work of our time is building a restorative and sustainable future. And it will take some fire in the belly to do it.

Tonight I have a dream to share with you… a dream in which little children are singing this little light of mine …A recurring dream, about a fundamental redesign of our society, guided by priority attention to the developing child’s real and universal human needs; a dream about a society thereby maximizing the immeasurable currencies—of caring and compassion, of healing and renewal.

We know that childhood experience shapes behavior for a lifetime—that the early years are the foundation of human life.

It’s curious then, that in all the social revolutions recorded in human history, not one has had as its central idea, serving the needs of the young child; not one has recognized the proactive, logical and emotional appeal of “doing right by the child” to thus benefit all life; not one has had as its guiding light, the essential reality of the universal human experience—the growing child.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “if a thing must be done, it can be.” And so, in that spirit, I would now invite you to consider a novel idea, without concerns of feasibility. I am asking you to simply imagine, the benefits of a “child-honouring society”—one whose love for its children is manifest in every aspect of its design and organization.

I want to make it clear, that I am not talking about a society where children rule. Not at all. I am proposing, however, that we shift the adult-centered view of the world towards a renewed look at young children, a reverent look: at those who most depend on us, but are all too often left out of sustainability strategies.

I’m presenting child-honouring as an integrated ecological paradigm, one comprised of the many interwoven environments that make up the ecology of the child—a paradigm whose many components cannot be considered separately, without relation to the rest.

Shortly after the collapse of both Apartheid and the Soviet Union, when I thought about the scale of the social problems we face in Canada and the United States, it looked to me as though the fabric of our society was also coming undone. The epidemic in child sexual abuse, violence against women, alarming statistics on teen suicides, teen pregnancies and school violence, the terrible prevalence of breast cancer, the rise in homelessness…

And when I realized that the vast majority of the sexual violations of children occur at home—at the hands of family members—I saw the whole situation as a systemic collapse, a fundamental breakdown of human relations. And the breakdown in human communities seemed to mirror the compromised natural systems of our world—a host of global problems we know all too well.

Several years ago, I went back and again read the child development books I had read in the 1980s, and also a couple of new ones: The Magical Child, by Joseph Chilton Pearce, and Children First, by Penelope Leach.

Not only did these authors renew my respect for the innate intelligence of the young child, they confirmed my suspicion that unless society launched a substantial and sustained effort on children’s behalf, we would see behavioral dysfunctions passed on and magnified, from one generation to another to another. And as Penelope Leach puts it, without societal support, the best intentions of parents fall short—lacking the community resources to bring priority attention to the very young.

And then I read a most unusual book that brought home to me, in a stark way, what we humans are doing to our world and to each other. Entitled Our Stolen Future, the book details the impact of industrial commerce, not only on our own children, but on human and animal populations around the world.

We learn that the latest research—on a wide range of toxic chemicals—reveals a world where no one, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, can hide from the industrial chemicals that pervade our environment and permeate our bodies.

It appears that within the past half-century, in just 50 years, human invention has found uses for over 70,000 manmade chemicals-most of which were never tested for their effect on human health. This scale of industrial activity has seriously altered the chemical make-up of the Earth, to a point where all her children are now born “at risk.” The prevalence of persistent pollutants worldwide (even in mothers’ milk) now poses an unprecedented challenge to all children, wherever they live. A challenge to them and therefore to humanity.

It is this cumulative threat to human health and human potential, that’s got me convinced that we desperately need a potent catalyst for change, that we need a new ethic by which to embrace a new paradigm. It’s motivated me to share a vision that may be of help.

For all the progress we might have made in the 1990s in our awareness of environmental issues, it could be said that the failure of the ’90s was that sustainability did not become a household word; and I’d say it’s because elected officials (and CEOs) have not shown leadership, when it comes to linking environmental responsibility and economic benefit.

This has perpetuated, for example, the false notion that environmental protection costs jobs, and distracted us from the restorative work that needs our attention.

And because politicians still seem unwilling to make a positive link between environmental issues and economic change, we still lack the leaders to promote sustainable pathways as being fiscally prudent—especially at election time—let alone to speak honestly and with some urgency about the state of our natural and social environments.

Just last month, near the end of the 1990s—what some called the “turnaround decade”—the UNEP, in its Global 2000 Report, states that “Full-scale emergencies now exist in a number of fields. The world water cycle seems unlikely to be able to cope with demands in the coming decades, land degradation has negated many advances made by increased agricultural productivity, air pollution is at crisis point in many major cities, and global warming now seems inevitable.”

It further states—and this confirms what I said about the failure of the 1990s—that “the environment remains largely outside the mainstream of everyday human consciousness and is still considered an add-on to the fabric of life.”

And even with that, when will sustainability catch on in the public discourse? How will it become a transformative lens through which to view our present and future course as a society? Politicians are fond of saying, “Children are our future.” But which of your candidates for President will address sustainability, as a major election theme?

There’s another important link we don’t make.

Interestingly enough, you say the word “environment” and people think of air, water and soil, forests, endangered animal species. Say the word “ecology,” and we may think of ecosystems, or biodiversity. It’s curious that people almost never connect the word ecology with children. Maybe it’s because we don’t think of ourselves—day to day—as a biological species, and we seldom regard our babies and infants as the young of the human animal.

You might say, when it comes to ecology children are the missing link. One very good reason to make that link is that where biospheric contaminants are concerned, the most vulnerable humans are those still in formation—our very youngest citizens.

That’s why I have in recent years been searching for a new lens with which to view our current dilemma, a holistic lens that enables us to see both our ecological crisis and its attendant opportunities in a new light.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Biblical proverb (29:18).

Two weeks ago in Ottawa, in Parliament we Canadians heard the Speech from the Throne, our government’s directive for the coming years.

As one who’s proud to live in such a beautiful country, I held my breath, hoping for a vision—one that might launch a decade, let alone a century. But instead I heard the usual rhetoric of “building on our strengths,” Canada taking the lead, and so on. Vision and integrated thinking were in short supply.

As one of the wealthier nations among nations, at a pivotal moment in history fraught with vast global problems, Canada’s tone could be one of humility, sharing, commitment to long-term sustainability and the greater good on a global scale—a tone of compassion and generosity.

Yet the many references to the so-called “new economy” had me wondering what’s really new about it? To me it sounds like another gold rush. The new economy is actually the old one—working now at dazzling speeds in unlimited markets, continuing to worship growth. Nothing bold or new, like, for example, a sustainability charter with which to reconfigure societal priorities.

And the speech also featured the twisted logic all too common nowadays, suggesting that it’s the citizens who serve the markets and the economy, not the other way around.

Since the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Internet, computer technology’s role in advancing a global economy has emerged triumphant.

And yet, I wonder about the ongoing obsession with computers and the Internet. For all their obvious uses as super-tools, has their glitter hijacked public discourse relative to the purpose for which they might be used? What does cyberspace have to offer the real world under duress?

And with electronic-commerce now set to surge, has this techno-dazzle reached a point where proponents of conservative values, such as organic food production or sustainable forestry, are made to sound at best quaint, or off the mark, or worse yet, slow?

Well, things are changing so fast that we’re finding it hard to breathe, or think clearly.

In the real world, asthma is the leading cause of our children’s admissions to hospital. The new economy can’t touch that. In recent years, the alarming increase in various childhood diseases has made “children’s environmental health” a serious societal issue. But, the new economy won’t touch that either. In fact, its blindness to anything other than fiscal gain is itself part of the problem. Come Christmas shopping time, we’ll hear a lot about consumer confidence, and nothing about self-esteem.

In this month’s Atlantic Monthly, the cover article called Beyond the Information Revolution contains nothing about the global environmental crisis or any of our social woes, but idolizes computer omnipotence. Is this just hype or a new religion? Listen to this excerpt on children (and I quote):

“The psychological impact of the Information Revolution has… perhaps been the greatest on the way in which young children learn. Beginning at age four (and often younger), children now rapidly develop computer skills, soon surpassing their elders; computers are their toys and their learning tools,” end quote. Age four and younger… is that so?

The notion that there’s something wonderful about computers infringing on the early years, is not enchanting to my ears. It disturbs me to think it may well promote the emergence of another dubious and costly obsession: the idea that every young child needs a computer.

I think of early childhood, the first seven years of life, as an unhurried time of wonder, for bonding with the primary world; a time for cultivating emotional intelligence, for nurturing children’s humanity.

I’m fond of saying that I’m looking for the “emotional intelligentsia” among adults that would keep the computer screen in its place—away from the developing minds and bodies of the very young.

We ought to have learned by now, that there’s no gain in rushing a child; that parents wanting the best for their children would do well not to see them in a race or competition, speeding for the job market. Children, unlike computers, cannot be hurried up and made faster. As author Joseph Chilton Pearce puts it, anxiety is the crippler of intelligence.

…a song in my heart, food in my belly, love in my family…

In my view, the true wealth of a free society lies in the healthy development of every one of its children, growing in good physical health and emotional intelligence.

Behold the newborn baby, the magical child! A newborn’s brain is the most dazzling intelligence on Earth. Acknowledge it fully, reflect its beauty, and it will blossom. But this inborn potential needs love, to catch fire. LOVE is the prime nutrient for healthy growth and development—not immature, smothering, or possessive, but respectful love and nurturing, appropriate and mature love.

And children need the kind of love that sees them as legitimate beings, persons in their own right. They need this not only from parents and caregivers, but from the community as a whole. To me, this suggests that we as a society, conduct our business in a manner consistent with that love, and fundamentally redesign the “village” it takes to raise a child.

When we attend the newborn with loving care, with attunement and empathy, we cultivate the physiological connections that allow the child to prosper. Secure in the bond of belonging, that child is truly free: to breathe the mystery of life’s grandeur and to sense the Universe as kin; to respect diversity and celebrate difference, secure in the largesse of being.

It is this early attention to the human potential of every child that we so urgently need to embrace, if we are to stem the noticeable “soul erosion” among our older youth.

And to create a society that earns the allegience of all its children, I believe we need a new level of honesty with our young, as well as a policy of inclusion—a transparency of means and intentions by which to restore trust.

We’ll need to listen to their concerns, benefit from their insights, and by our actions show that we love them. In upcoming elections, someone might well say: “It’s the children, stupid! It’s the children.”

The business of a child-honouring society requires a whole new alchemy: a design revolution of unparalleled scale, by which the materials, processes, and products of industry and commerce are thoroughly detoxified. Because the developing fetus is vulnerable to even the minutest doses of some toxic chemicals, for these we’ll need “a child-honouring protocol” with a clear goal: zero emissions.

Such a protocol would remodel our current economy, disconnected from living systems (as it is now), into a full-cost Earth-based economy that would protect the sanctity of the biosphere, safeguard children’s health, and thus serve the entire human family.

The physicians’ prime directive, “Do No Harm,” would be fully engaged, and we would warmly embrace the precautionary principle, as a vital part of preventative medicine.

Education would emphasize, contextual learning—in the real world—from primary experience, with eco-literacy and emotional intelligence high on the agenda. The arts would be a valued way of learning about life, from the Earth up. And the importance of play, as highly creative intelligence, would be widely understood.

And about the tension between personal health and private enterprise…

In place of society having private sectors and public sectors with often conflicting rights (as we do now), imagine the well-being of all citizens entrenched in an integrated covenant: a hierarchy of human needs, rights and responsibilities that puts children first, and by which human endeavor honours one central tenet—respecting the integrity of a child’s being.

The rippling rewards of doing so—to psychological health, freed creativity and true prosperity—are almost unimaginable. I’m envisioning a vibrant, highly relational world that supports people in joyful living, and in meeting life’s many challenges, without creating additional unnecessary suffering.

Before I close, I’ll leave you with these thoughts.

There is no belief system or enterprise as vital as a child’s need to believe in the love of her caregivers and of her community. As long as ecology remains a remote, abstract idea, I doubt that it will become central to our lives. But linked to the dreams of our children, and heard in the power of their voices, it can move us now, as never before.

Recently, a young Canadian living in Ottawa, wrote an impassioned letter to our Prime Minister, and sent me a copy. She closed her letter with this:

“I may be a just a kid, but I’m the future, and I know what I want, and I have a pretty good idea of what I need. I don’t want to have to clean up after my ancestors who poisoned the Earth… but I know I’ll have to, just to make a future for the children of tomorrow’s tomorrow… So, please, help me clean up the Earth, because the children of tomorrow’s tomorrow need you. Sincerely, Johanna Geuer, age 12.”

For Johanna and for all of tomorrow’s children, my dream is for society to embrace child-honouring as a “central organizing principle,” a process by which the entire fabric of our lives could be transformed, to everyone’s benefit.

Child-honouring, as the next ecological paradigm, could be a unique revolution in human history: A peaceful, integrated revolution from the inside out; inviting us to seek a new partnership with our children, with each other, and with our planet; redesigning society for the greatest good, by meeting the priority needs of its youngest citizens.

Thank you.

Share |