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  • Josefin Winther

The most important thing we can teach our children is hope

At a conference, my old elementary schoolteacher said one of the wisest and most

perceptive things I’ve heard in a long time: “The most important thing we can teach children in our schools is hope.”

These days, a debate is raging that pretends to be about our relationship to Mother Earth. In reality, it is a war about the best possible position on the moral high ground.

More and more reports are reaching the public eye that describe the extreme conditions we’ve managed to create on earth, and the debate about who is responsible quickly gets pointed.

In the climate debate, amid well-meaning forces, wise voices, cynical actors, superficial solutions, and the market’s impressive ability to “spin” each and every situation to its own advantage, the role of children has also been brought up.

So far, the solution has taken the form of a kind of “early intervention,” with behavior change campaigns, sustainability slogans, and methodic school initiatives. Children, the argument goes, must be enlightened early and contribute to the efforts. Adults have uncritically taken the liberty to burden children with a moral responsibility, even though children neither carry it, nor are in a position to take it on.

It is often argued that children have the right to know how serious the situation is. But children don’t need information about the climate problem; they need a childhood that prepares them to take on responsibility as adults.

To invade childhood with factual enlightenment about a catastrophic situation will, at worst, hinder their ability to take the extent of the problem seriously later on in life.

I believe that most of these actions come from good intentions. The problem is that the way we want to involve our children in the climate problem isn’t fully thought through, and most ironically, it’s hardly sustainable.

We try to fill children with insight and information, in the belief that this will foster change. But it’s never enough. Our children don’t need more knowledge; they need a deeper relationship with nature.

The term “sustainability” has almost become an outer authority. In the face of it, we often feel inadequate and unable to act. It creates a kind of shame mentality in us, where we end up hiding our own actions and look down on those of others. But we know that shame seldom leads to anything good.

We think of the climate problem as an “external” threat. But the situation is the direct result of an inner condition: alienation. An existence in which we are entirely cut off from the actual context we live in. This naturally leads to emptiness, lacking a sense of meaning, and as a result, also leads to powerlessness.

As my teacher so acutely pointed out: the most important thing we can teach children is hope. It is our strongest human power, and it can also become the driving force for our actions later in life. But first, that power must be awakened and allowed to grow big and strong.

For a little child enters a world so fragmented that even adults struggle to orient themselves within it. To ensure that children are equipped for this world, we must protect the time in their life that is unique, with a wealth of opportunities to shape a loving intimacy with the earth, the plants, the animals, and ourselves.

In childhood, we have the opportunity to nurture our inner motivation through play and exploration. It cannot be nurtured when children are used as tools. Children shouldn’t love life and nature because they supposed to be climate warriors. Children need to get in touch with nature and all the good in the world—because it is inherently good.

I don’t know if it is naïve or arrogant for adults to believe that children should be “instructed” in the seriousness of the climate problem. One imagines that then they will be able to act on what they know. But if there really were a direct connection between access to information and the ability to act, we would have, strictly speaking, taken action on what we know a long time ago.

No matter what, children will be bombarded with information about what’s at stake through our hyper-digital daily life. It’s therefore not a matter of whether they’re going to be aware of what’s going on—rather, it’s a question of how we can give them a good childhood to prepare them for what lies ahead. We gain nothing by creating a generation of misanthropes, no matter how guilty our conscience is.

I don’t believe “early intervention” solves anything. If we really do believe that, we ought to start with ourselves. Just like plants, we, too, need fertile soil to plant our roots.

If we give children that kind of world, they can grow so strong, powerful, and wise that the climate, both around us and inside of us, will not merely be something that sustains, but something that thrives.

Translation: The Norwegian American

English version published here

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