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Big World on Tiny Shoulders

We can all be guilty of losing sight of just how intensely our children take on board the troubles of the world.

I have been truly moved by how upset some of the children I have spoken to are regarding the plight facing Syrian refugee children. It’s so easy to forget how deeply our children absorb and react to world events.

In my childhood, we were encouraged to consider the starving children in Cambodia when we struggled to finish a meal we were less than enthusiastic about. It was repeated so often - as I’m sure it was for future generations prompted to be grateful they weren’t the starving ones in Ethiopia, Sudan, Haiti and other disaster zones - that we became immune to the emotional blackmail. However, I also remember lying awake at night, weeping for the children who were growing up in poverty, whilst I enjoyed a comparatively comfortable life, hunger free and with a roof over my head every night. I can still recall the depth of my sense of injustice and powerlessness to right the wrongs of the world.

It’s easy to imagine that the events of the day wash over our children, that they have other concerns, or that they don’t understand the workings of the adult world. I’m not so sure. And it’s not just the global events that have impact, closer to home our children may be trying to take on responsibility for situations that are out of their hands. It’s quite common for children to feel they are somehow to blame for a negative state of affairs at home, whether it’s a trivial issue, or a more major crisis.

We can easily underestimate how accountable children feel for their family’s well being. I was an asthmatic child who had flirted with death on more than one occasion, and who was more traumatised by the impact this had on my parents than I was by the illness itself. In order to keep an eye on my ability to continue breathing, my mother insisted my bedroom door was kept ajar and she and my father would listen outside before turning in for the night to reassure themselves that all was well. If I was wheezy at night, I would listen out for them coming upstairs, wait for when I knew they were listening at the door and then hold my breath so that they would think everything was okay. I felt responsible for their wellbeing and held a duty of care not to worry them unnecessarily, alerting their concern when I felt I could cope with the situation myself, without their intervention.

I don’t for one moment imagine that this is unusual. I think children take on board much more than we might give them credit for. We owe it to them to try and alleviate that pressure, to reassure them that we are the grown-ups, and the onus is on us, not them. They should be free to enjoy their childhood with as few burdens as possible, and those of us in the lucky part of the world should revel in our ability to deliver that to them.

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