Natural Life Magazine

Raising a Humane Child
By Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

Raising a Humane Child
Photo Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock

For those of us who are aware of the issues that threaten people, animals and our planet – such as sweatshops, child labor, slavery, war, poverty, oppressive governments, over-consumption, habitat destruction, inefficient use of non-renewable resources and industrialized agriculture – parenthood poses a unique set of challenges. Many people agree that these and other issues must be addressed quickly, but they can seem large and impossible to change, particularly in light of the busy lives we lead as parents. On the other hand, we have a very real and personal stake in seeing that these problems get solved for the sake of our children and their children. Humane Parenting gives us some easy-to-implement ideas for ways we can help find everyday solutions to these dilemmas.

Humane Parenting is part of the growing Humane Education movement, which seeks to understand the connections among education, human rights, consumerism and culture, environmentalism and animal protection. The ideas and techniques used in Humane Parenting give us, as our children’s first teachers, some tools we can use to help us raise global citizens who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

Before we ask how we can practice Humane Parenting, we have to consider what we mean by the word “humane.” If we define this word as “exhibiting the best qualities of human beings,” then we can consider the character traits that we value most in ourselves and the people around us, and that we most want to cultivate in our sons and daughters. Most people, when asked this question, name characteristics such as kindness, creativity, patience, open-mindedness, compassion, empathy, intelligence and helpfulness. Humane Parenting challenges us not only to teach our children ways to exhibit these qualities in relation to their families, friends and communities, but also to Earth and all the beings who live here.

As set out by Humane Education pioneer Zoe Weil, Humane Parenting uses the following elements:

Provide Accurate Information

In order to find solutions to complex problems, we need to make the effort to understand the problems. We need to get our information from a variety of sources so that we can appreciate the multiple perspectives that are an inevitable part of life. However, for busy parents and caretakers this can often be the most challenging part of Humane Parenting. It is difficult to find the time to complete the myriad tasks we must attend to every day just to keep our families functioning, never mind carving out hours for research on things that often do not seem to have an immediate relevance in our lives. However, living consciously and learning what we can about the world around us sets an impportant example for our children and allows us to live fuller lives in accordance with our values.

One thing we must guard against as parents is giving our children too much information before they are ready for it. Consider a story that a friend recently told me about a trip to our local soup kitchen. She had been volunteering there for years and decided that it was time to bring her four-year-old son with her. However, when they left at the end of their shift, she was surprised to find that her son was not feeling grateful for the comfortable life he leads. Instead, he was terrified that some stroke of bad luck might befall his own family, making them homeless and hungry like the people he had met that night. Adults often feel hopeless and discouraged in the face of information about things like corporate greed, the AIDS crisis in Africa or oil spills in the Arctic. Now imagine how afraid and anxious young children probably feel when faced with the same information. Our goal is for our children to feel safe and empowered, not disheartened and disconnected.

Although every child is different, it has been suggested that most children do not possess the intellectual and emotional sophistication to process information about global and human rights tragedies until they are at least ten years old. There are some highly visible examples of some extraordinary children who are ready to deal with these issues at a younger age, such as Ryan Hreljac, who founded Ryan’s Well to help provide clean water to impoverished people around the globe at age six and Craig Kielburger who helped found Free the Children and toured southeastern Asia at age 12, learning about child labor and meeting such people as Mother Theresa and the Prime Minister of Canada. However, for most children it is best to save the current events lessons until they are sufficiently mature to handle them and, instead, act as a role model, taking the time to learn about the issues that are important to you.

In order to raise humane children, we need to raise our children humanely.

Refine the Three Rs

Many of us grew up with the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic, but Humane Parenting asks us to consider a different set of lessons – reverence, respect and responsibility. If we are able to help our children develop reverence for the world around them, or at least to respect those parts that they do not necessarily revere, they are more likely to act responsibly. If we can teach our children to love themselves, other people, animals and the planet, and to value the role that every being plays in the functioning of the system, then it will be that much easier for them to see it as their job to protect and preserve it.

When we try to help our children learn about the world around them, we need to be very careful about the messages that we send them. Recently, someone on an email list posted that she had taken her children out to collect acorns and had so many extras that she was willing to ship them to anyone who wanted them. There are two things about this that are bothersome.

Richard Louv quotes a Native American saying in his book Last Child in the Woods: “It is better to know one mountain than to visit many mountains.” In other words, if we are trying to teach our children about Nature, the best place to start is our own backyards, examining what is familiar to us. If we are trying to refine the Three Rs for our children, particularly when they are young, it is better to go outside and look at what grows in our own communities than to have Nature shipped in from afar.

More worrisome, though, is the message of domination over Nature that was conveyed by the acorn collection activity. Any effort to get children outside and paying attention to the details of their surroundings is good. However, a vital element of these activities is learning that everything that exists in Nature has a purpose right where it is. In the case of the acorns, they fall from the trees to become food for the squirrels and chipmunks who will bury them to be eaten during lean times. The ones that are not dug back up will grow and replace any trees that have fallen due to disease, severe winds or lightning strikes. It is only through this cycle of Nature that trees continue to give us more acorns to look at, as well as giving animals the resources they need to survive and adding oxygen to the atmosphere. By collecting acorns for no purpose other than the sake of collecting them, we send the message that they are ours for the taking.

This is not to say that we can never take anything from Nature; indeed, we need to take things to survive. However, when we do decide to take things from the natural world, it is our responsibility to ensure that we take only as much as we can use, and that we do it consciously and with gratitude.

Recently, on a trip to Florida, my daughter was fascinated by the fact that the long, thin acorns she saw there differed so much from the short, fat acorns that we have in the northeast. I permitted her to take a couple of them home for the sake of comparison, but then reminded her that we could not take any more because the animals in Florida needed them for food, which she easily accepted.

Cultivate the Three Cs

Just as important as helping our children to develop the emotional connections to their world that will inspire them to act conscientiously is teaching them how to think about problems and develop innovative solutions. Once our children are motivated to help solve the many troubles in the world, they need the tools that will help them understand the problems, evaluate the reasons these problems exist, think of innovative ways to address the problems and, finally, they will need the tools to decide which of these solutions are worth pursuing. The three Cs of curiosity, creativity and critical thinking help them to do this.

Again, modeling is a crucial element of developing these qualities in our children. However, many of us inadvertently thwart opportunities in our everyday lives to help our children cultivate their minds. Several months ago, my daughter and I were taking a walk with a friend and her son. My daughter was distracted by the sound of frogs and walked over to see several of them by the edge of the water. “Look at the frogs by the pond!” she exclaimed excitedly, to which my friend replied, “That’s not a pond, that’s a vernal pool.” Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I had no idea what a vernal pool was any more than my daughter did. I realize that my friend, a devoted naturalist and environmentalist, was trying to help my daughter widen her knowledge of the natural world. However, what happened was that my young child was confused and distracted from the important thing, which was admiring the frogs and their beautiful songs.

Of course, we need to give our children the vocabulary they need to talk about the world around them. Sometimes, they are only looking for a simple answer to a question about something they see. However, we are wise to guard against our natural impulse to offer an immediate answer to every question they ask, and to fill their time with a play-by-play commentary about what is around them. As Alfred North Whitehead said, “When you name something, you tend to stop thinking about it.” Our children need the time, the silence and the mental space to think and learn things for themselves.

Provide Positive Choices

Modeling positive lifestyle choices for our children is the most powerful and straightforward way we can teach them about what we believe in. No amount of lecturing and learning about the issues of human rights, consumerism, environmentalism and animal welfare will do much to influence our children if we do not put our knowledge into action. Many parents would agree that charity starts at home with watering a neighbor’s plants while he is on vacation, shoveling the driveway for a friend who is in ill-health or preparing meals for someone in our community who is having a difficult time. Humane Parenting asks us to look beyond traditional ideas about community service, finding ways to also serve the global community through our everyday actions.

Every family has different resources, different priorities and different interpretations of the best way to have a positive impact on the world. Some people will be drawn to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle after examining the issues addressed by Humane Parenting. Others will choose to eat locally-raised meat, vegetables and dairy products or perhaps they will choose wild-caught fish. Humane Parenting is not about a certain way of doing things, but is simply a call to identify our values, examine our choices and make active, conscious decisions about our actions.

When we act as passive bystanders who have no control over what happens around us, we pass that attitude down to our children. When we act as educated, powerful contributors who can use our dollars, our votes and our voices to change the world for the better, then that is the attitude that our children inherit from us. They may not make exactly the same choices we would, but that is fine – even experts often disagree about the best ways to implement change. What we want is for them to care about people, animals and the planet, and for them to feel empowered to live their values.

Practice Positive Parenting

In order to raise humane children, we need to raise our children humanely. It should be clear that Humane Parenting is all about raising children who are confident, caring and independent. In order to do this, we must treat them respectfully from the start, recognizing that the experience and knowledge that we possess by virtue of our age does not mean that our needs are more important than those of our children, nor does it mean that our opinions are necessarily more valid. There are many positive parenting philosophies that we can draw from to find a style that speaks to us and works for our family. When we begin to practice this type of thoughtfulness with our children and partners, it becomes easier to act courteously towards everyone we meet and, as a result, we are able to better model the type of compassionate treatment of others that we are looking to instill in our children.

In their book Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids, Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson say, “The way that you parent will affect not only your child, but the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in your child’s future. You don’t have a choice about whether or not to affect the net of interdependence; however, you do have a choice about how you affect it.” Though they were not necessarily referring to the principles of Humane Parenting as they have been laid out here, this sentiment applies perfectly to what we are trying to accomplish.

The way we choose to live our lives affects so many people, as well as non-humans and the planet itself. We will never know even a fraction of the impact we have on the world in terms of the laborers who create the things we use, the resources we consume and the waste we produce, and the animals who lose their homes and their lives to accommodate us. Especially among the relatively wealthy people living in the affluent countries of North America and Europe, all of our choices take a huge toll on the planet and all its inhabitants. If we, as parents, want our children to live in a world that is peaceful and sustainable, then it is vital that we begin to consider our impact on a global scale and that we raise our children to do the same.

Learn More

Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times by Zoe Weil (New Society Publishers, 2003)

Earth Education: A New Beginning by Steve Van Matre (The Institute for Earth Education, 1990)

Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids by Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson (PuddleDancer Press, 2006)

Kelly Coyle DiNorcia lives in New Jersey with husband John, daughter Bess (5/05), son Harry (5/08) and a four-footed menagerie. She spends her time washing sippy cups and small people, having tickle fights and snuggle fests – and when she’s not doing that, she’s likely reading, writing, blogging or connecting with other like-minded parents.

This article was published in Natural Life Magazine in 2009.


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