Change through the young
There’s a saying that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Old habits die hard. In my past life in government, I would often tell my audiences, half-jokingly but half-seriously, that I had given up on grownups as agents for meaningful change. I believed then, as I still do now, that our development efforts should focus more on our children and youth, who are still idealistic and unspoiled by the evil ways of the world. They are thus more likely to bring about change for that brighter future we all long for.
Many perhaps fail to see young people as the powerful agents of change that they are. This is not just because they themselves will embody the change that will shape society’s future as they take over from the previous generation. Within the present, they are also the best means for changing their elders’ attitudes and mindsets. Children are actually the best entry points into the hearts and minds of the adults around them, especially in their immediate families.
My wife Pilar and I have directly witnessed this phenomenon at work since many years ago, as we spent part of our weekends back then reading books, including Bible-based and values-oriented ones, to children in poor communities in our town of Los Baños. We occasionally brought our own young children to join and help. Our five children have since grown and are now pursuing careers of their own, but we could see how their early experience of working among poor children had a lasting positive impact on their values to this day.
What was even more gratifying about working directly with poor young children was witnessing the impact we made not only on the children themselves, but also on their parents. Some of these parents were to later tell us that their children would come home from our reading sessions full of eager stories from what they had read. A mother told us the touching story of how her child treasured a book we had given her as a Christmas giveaway, carefully wrapping it in a piece of cloth every night before going to bed. Other parents told of how their children started asking difficult questions about negative behaviors they were seeing in their family and community. We heard parents admitting to have changed themselves on the impetus of their children. Some eventually became willing active partners as our reading sessions with their children later expanded into various other activities to help uplift their community.
Once, while reviewing a foreign-assisted coastal resources management initiative, I asked how the children and youth were harnessed in the community endeavors. The schoolchildren occasionally gather for cleanup days to pick up trash along the beach, they said—but that was about it. Asked how the young people were represented in the partnership council that oversaw the local program, they told me that a representative of the Department of Education sat in the council on behalf of the children and youth.
Those replies gave me discomfort, for two reasons. One, the children and youth were valued only for their manual labor, for cleaning up. And yet these young people can contribute far more, especially in helping change bad habits of their grownups who were responsible for littering the coastlines in the first place. I’ve seen, for example, how advocacy activities done by children and youth, including environmental theaters, poster drives and essay writing, can command the attention of young and old alike. Their creativity and talent can go well beyond what their muscles can in asserting their full potential as change agents in the community. Two, I see no reason why children and youth cannot speak directly for themselves in various bodies. With all due respect to educators, there is nothing like hearing the sentiments of the young expressed from their own eyes, ears and mouths. Much as we grownups care for our offspring, we cannot presume to speak for them well enough. The voices of children and youth must be directly heard, and heard time and time again, as we plan for the future that they will inherit from us grownups of today. The future, after all, belongs to them.
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