November 20: International Children’s Day
Advertisements of beautifully dressed children playing happily in springtime gardens are images of the childhood we would like for all our children. Yet we know that for many people childhood is a hard time. We see cruelty to children as monstrous, but find it tolerated in our society.
Christians rate Herod’s slaughter of young children in order to get rid of a potential claimant to his throne as a barbarous act that shows his rule to have been despotic and cruel.
The Russian novelist Dostoevsky used a story of an abused child both to judge both Russian society and to question belief in a God who allowed it to happen. Charles Dickens’ portrayal of the conditions in which small English children were compelled to work aroused horror and pressure to reform. In Australia periodic revelations of the abusive treatment of young people in the justice system occasionally arouse public outcry.
The sexual abuse of children by church representatives, too, has made many people reassess their faith and membership of the church.
Cruelty to children, however, is tolerated and often taken for granted. We turn our eyes from it, unready to pay the cost of addressing it.
It becomes normal and its harm is not recognised. indeed it has often been praised. That was the case with savage beatings which were taken to drive rebellious spirits out of children, and also with sending prepubescent children to dirty and dangerous work in mines or in the cocoa fields for profit.
It remains the case in societies riven by civil war where small children are routinely given guns and made to fight. Underdeveloped aversion to risk, empathy and moral sense are a benefit to those who fight in cruel wars. They poison the lives of the children caught in them.
In our society, too, we habitually turn our eyes away from children sentenced to child prisons and from the way this affects their future lives. They are the victims of our anxieties. We also turn our eyes away from the plight of the children on Nauru who have lost all hope and desire to live. They are the price of our immunity from being bothered by people seeking asylum.
If children are to live free from abuse and free to play there must be a change of heart in society. Jesus asked that change of his disciples – to welcome little children and to become like them. To welcome vulnerable children, as we hope to do in our programs at Jesuit Social Services, builds a deep empathy with children.
We come to imagine what it is like for children to be in solitary confinement, to work in a dark mine, to be deprived of hope of a country to call their home. And our desire to make a better world for them becomes personal.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.