My 11-year-old asked: “Is there going to be a world war?” when a news story about Russia and Ukraine came on the car radio. I replied: “I hope not. Some countries are arguing at the moment, and hopefully, they will sort it out.” When I noticed the worried expression on his face, I added: “but it’s happening on the other side of the world, so it won’t affect us”.
Though my comment did nothing to encourage his sense of social responsibility, in that moment, I felt it was more important to provide him with a sense of safety than try to develop his social conscience. Children have been exposed to a constant stream of fear in recent times, from climate change, a global pandemic, and now a potential full-scale war, and they need to be protected.
But the simple explanation was not enough for my son. “Whose side are we on?” he asked.
Having little or no knowledge of the intricacies of this conflict, I attempted to give a coherent answer, suggesting that Russia was trying to bully Ukraine, and we should always try to support the oppressed rather than the oppressor, and concluded with the impression that we were on “Ukraine’s side”.
This chat with my son got me thinking. How do we develop a socially conscious child but not have them lying awake at night worrying about the planet, spreading Covid-19 or a war?
I believe that we have to work with the temperament of the child. You won’t hear many psychotherapists, psychologists or psychiatrists talk about temperament because we know very little about how to influence it. It seems to sit somewhere in the middle of the nature versus nurture debate but proves to be an immovable concept, impervious to any intervention.
Temperament is an essential feature of personality, as it informs the lens with which we see the world and how we respond to events. Temperament can vary hugely from child to child and the phrase ‘chalk and cheese’, when used to compare siblings, is almost always referring to some notable differences in temperament.
Rather than trying to ‘change’ temperament, we need to work with it. It is not possible to make a meek child fiery or make a fiery child meek. Instead, we have to teach the meek child to be less meek and the fiery child to be less fiery.
A child with an anxious temperament can be prone to rumination or over-analysis. In this circumstance, a ‘less is more’ approach is advised. Children naturally conscious of others or labelled ‘a worrier’ may need to be protected from information around the climate, public health and global conflicts.
The more oblivious child, who appears to have less emotional complexity, may need to be encouraged to become more aware of their role in society and their responsibility for creating a better world for others.
Introducing your child to the harsh realities of the world requires flexibility and perhaps some creative versions of the truth to protect the innocence of childhood. So pacing the exposure of the cold facts is best aligned to your child’s temperament.
Drive to pick a line
The second part of the conversation with my son that resonated was the “which side are we on?” question. I worry a lot about contemporary discourse and how we seem corralled into polarised viewpoints. There appears to be a drive to ‘pick a lane’, or define ourselves as ‘right’ or ‘left’, which has greatly limited our capacity to consider issues and achieve balance properly.
Opportunities for reasoned debate and discussion are compromised in a world that demands that we ‘nail our colours to the mast’, ‘pick a side’ or ‘state our position’. I wonder if this for-or-against dynamic limits our capacity for critical thinking or achieving balance and compromise?
Childhood is blessed by the lack of awareness of complexity. The child’s world is divided into global appraisals of good and bad, and this false clarity suits the stage of their cognitive development.
I lament the days as a pre-pubertal child when the world was divided into goodies or baddies, cops or robbers and cowboys or Indians. This was a time of blissful ignorance where these definitive separations allowed us to feel safe.
However, as we got older, we realised the world is more complex than that and good and bad are not always identifiable and can co-exist in one entity. This lack of clarity is a challenge for the emotional and cognitive parts of a child’s brain to manage.
When should we end the innocence/ ignorance of childhood and introduce the reality of uncertainty? I believe this very much relates to the child’s temperament and their tendency for over-thinking. Some people advocate an ‘honesty-at-all-t