Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

A Hard Truth About the Way We Treat Children


The teaching profession and most of the non-profit and social service sector operate on an assumption that has seemed unassailable to me all of my life: that human beings innately and inherently love and value children above the lives of adults, above all things. “Women and children first!” into the lifeboats; evacuate the kids when the bombs begin to fall.

The other day it struck me, cruelly and horribly, that this is a false premise on which to base either social policy or even, heaven help me, my own life and work.

It boils down to a review of the facts, whether they are to be found watching the news or reading history books. Time after time, in episode after episode, we see overwhelming evidence of a callousness that devalues and dehumanizes children, in particular children of “the Other,” and even sacrifices these children wholesale. And human beings, pretty much all kinds of them, have a remarkable facility for designating those not of their tribe or nation or race or class as “the Other.” Human rights campaigns notwithstanding, governments, societies, ostensibly benevolent institutions like churches, and of course individuals have shown themselves capable of both shocking active cruelty and appalling neglect toward children. This isn’t news to anyone, but what is compelling and dispiriting to ponder is that such behavior is neither anomalous or something that humanity is evolving away from.

I think the roots lie in racism, but they lie also in classism and perhaps even in our psychology. For example, the children abused, sometimes to death, in orphanages and in the dark corners of churches have not always been obviously “the Other,” but as I understand it, in most cases their vulnerability has stemmed from economic or family dysfunction that left them at the mercy of those designated as their caregivers. The bodies exhumed at the Dozier School in Florida this summer are of children to whom society paid no attention or felt so little obligation that their deaths didn’t even register to anyone outside the closed, cruel circle of the place. This story is not unusual; it’s just the one on the front pages most recently. A century ago, if there’d been a newspaper with the nerve or heart to write them, they might have been tales of the Native American boarding schools in the United States and Canada.

In 1940 the school where I work took in, as did a number of American schools, children who had been shipped “across the pond” by their British families to evade Nazi bombs. The Nazis weren’t singling out children—despite the hundreds of thousands of them who died in the Holocaust—but they weren’t interested in protecting them, either. The trans-Atlantic child evacuations ended when a German U-Boat sank the City of Benares, a passenger ship carrying 90 children to “safety” in North America. All but thirteen died. The Germans accused the British of using the children as something like a “human shield,” and they torpedoed the ship anyway.

I have been haunted since college by a line I encountered in a course on the trans-Mississippi West, perhaps the most horrible—and revealing—words in American history: “Nits make lice.” With these three words, U.S. cavalry commander John Milton Chivington justified his orders to murder and mutilate Cheyenne and Arapaho children in what is called the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. Most history books don’t even have the guts to call it, as some do, the Chivington Massacre. Chivington’s sentiment, that the children of enemies, of the Other, grow up to be bothersome adults, seems to offer an explanation for the attitudes that keep bullets flying, rockets falling, and drones buzzing across our 21st-century world. They certainly illuminate the genocidal mindset as I understand it, back as far into history as we are capable of peering. Forget about economics or ideology or even faith. The child of my enemy, of him or her whom I despise, is my enemy, is despicable, is unworthy of life. When humans decide to kill, we start there.

That’s about as grim and terrible as the story gets, maybe, but in our own country in our own time we are witnessing the resegregation of our schools by race and income level and the inevitable disparities in access to resources and opportunity that follow from this. Millions of American children live in poverty, lack adequate food and health care, and attend under-resourced and even physically dangerous schools. We can sing all we want that “children are our future,” but kids living in such circumstances are being systemically and systematically denied the chance to participate as equals in that future with their more affluent coevals.

All the worse, of course, for children who lack the legal protections of citizenship: demagogues and a whole lot of average citizens, just plain folks, seem fine with shipping the 50,000 or so recently arrived undocumented children back to whatever murderous, impoverished places they have come from. Would it be different if they were orphans from a plague in Monte Carlo or Copenhagen, carrying their bankbooks in their pale hands?

I’m all for keeping up the positive sentiments around children and the future, but I think we need to take a cold hard look at the world and see that, against all our benevolent and hopeful reckoning, we as a species are perfectly comfortable depriving children of life, liberty, and happiness—not to mention family and opportunity and dignity—with scarcely the batting of an eye.

This means (as so many Dickens novels teach us in the long, gripping, painful parts that precede the happy endings), that those of us who would be reformers, who would put ourselves out there to protect and save and teach the children, are up against a world that cares much less for its children and their lives than we want to believe. We’re going to have to revisit our happy-talk notions of human nature and understand that there really are a lot of people who don’t actually care whether the children of the poor or of some putative enemy grow up poor, too—or whether they grow up at all.