Editor’s Note: We are honored to publish the following guest post by Zoe Weil. Zoe is the President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), www.HumaneEducation.org and author of Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times and Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life. In March, IHE is offering a month-long, distance-learning course for parents titled “Raising a Humane Child.” For more information, visit http://humaneeducation.org/sections/view/raising_a_humane_child or call (207) 667-1025.
What do you want most for your children? I think that the majority of us parents, when we deeply reflect upon this question, find ourselves hoping our children will grow up to be joyful, kind, generous, honest, compassionate, good people who persevere and have integrity. There’s a word that sums up these qualities: humane. According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word humane means, “Having what are considered the best qualities of human beings.”
I’ve been a humane educator for over twenty years teaching about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection in an effort to inspire people to identify and then embody their values through their daily choices, work, acts of citizenship, and participation in community in order to bring about a more peaceful and sustainable world for all. As a humane educator, I’ve had the opportunity to examine with students the effects of our decisions on ourselves and others, and to explore the ways in which we can solve entrenched problems and create restorative systems.
Two years ago, I was the speaker at our local high school’s National Honor Society induction, and as part of my talk we analyzed the effects of a conventional cotton T-shirt on ourselves, other people, the environment, and animals. After the presentation, one of the inductees, a bright and forthright junior planning to become a physician one day, told a mutual friend that my talk made her angry because, as she said, “We should have been learning this since Kindergarten!”
As parents, I believe we have a responsibility to raise conscious and conscientious children who have the knowledge, will and capacity to address grave problems such as climate change, escalating worldwide slavery, alarming rates of species extinction, terrorism, an energy crisis, and more. If we fail to embrace this responsibility, I believe we fail our children because they will inherit a world worse off than that of our own generation. Like the girl above, our children may one day be angry that we neglected to provide them with the information and skills to be agents of change who can live their values and their dreams fully.
And so I’ve come to believe that the purview of humane education – where students gain the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be solutionaries for a better world – cannot be left solely to schools (where it has yet to take hold as a goal or purpose for education anyway), and must be embraced wholeheartedly by parents.
This means that we parents must ourselves become curious, creative, critical thinkers, role models of humane living, and engaged changemakers for a better world through our parenting, acts of citizenship, work outside the home, and community involvement. We must fully examine our own values and hopes for our children so that we can resist cultural messages that would have us sacrifice our most heartfelt vision – that our children embody the qualities above – in favor of more “practical” imperatives that surround us, whether these are good grades and test scores for good colleges and lucrative jobs, success at athletics, and so on. Of course, our children can be straight A students and great athletes while still embodying humane qualities, but so often, cultural imperatives eclipse what we might want most for our children and steer us toward goals that may prevent the deeper cultivation of compassion, generosity, kindness, and so on.
We parents can resist cultural messages that are shallow and lack meaning and deep purpose, but it is no easy task. As if raising children weren’t hard enough, raising deeply humane children in a culture replete with materialism, endless competition, greed, either/or thinking and myopia, is profoundly challenging. We cannot do it without a deep personal commitment to modeling humane values, without a community of like-minded parents, without schools and teachers that support and reinforce our great purpose, and with endlessly blaring media messages that undermine our values at every turn.
But as hard as this challenge is, choosing to build a supportive community around our children, to influence their schools, and to take up the great work of modeling for our children the lives we would wish for them is profoundly rewarding. Parenting our children in this way brings its own joy, meaning, and great satisfaction because we ourselves choose to live with integrity, honesty, kindness, wisdom and perseverance which is the best antidote to fear, despair, and disempowerment, and perhaps the greatest gift we can give our kids.