Why we need our children to save our towns
A child of 5 years in a small Italian town, talking with his/ her teacher and his mates on the Rights of the Children’s School for Girls and boys, said: “If adults do not listen to the children they will be in big trouble.”
Obviously, the child would not be able to describe the deep troubles in which the world is falling, but because of this his warning is puzzling.
Indeed adults around the world and especially those of the developed and richer world and are causing very serious trouble, as they probably never have been created.
From an environmental point of view, we are leaving for our children and grandchildren a world worse than what we received from our fathers and grandfathers: we are, perhaps irreversibly, compromising the environment, polluting air, deforesting more and more large areas, causing the rising of the climate, destroying plant and animal species.
Despite all the international promises and agreements differences between the world of hunger and that of wealth are increasing: while the rich world get richer, in the poor world were hunger and disease increase.
Despite the tragic lessons of World Wars and dictatorships, the democracies of the nineteenth century did not refuse the war. Our national governments are still in moral and social degradation. From an economic level we have reached a deep crisis and, if you will allow me, it’s really ridiculous.
It’s ridiculous because it is the fruit of the knowledge of all the great economists of the world. An economic crisis may be repeated as soon as conditions will allow it.
Our teenagers and our young people express their distress and their hardships in the world that we are providing them with aggressive actions against the city and against others such as vandalism and bullying, or actions, even worse, against themselves, as the abuse of alcohol and drugs, motorcycle and car accidents, up to suicide
It is known the phenomenon called hikikomori in Japan: it is estimated that more than one million people aged between 14 and 30 years, predominantly males, live closed in their room, fed by their parents, without studying or working in front of the computer screen.
They chose the virtual reality rejecting the real one.
We arrived for the first time in history, to leave to those who come after us a life expectancy lower than ours. By our grandparents, we had almost 10 more years of life and our grandchildren, according to recent research, will have a lower average life expectancy compared with ours.
We achieved these results, we have caused these “serious trouble” rationally, using all the available scientific knowledge, all statements of scientific research and all the powers of the stronger politically and economically countries.
Consciously, rationally, scientifically we have ruined the world. Victoria, a girl of 10 years, belonging to the Children’s Council of Rosario in Argentina said: “The fault of all are the adults. You have to put limits to the adults “. If we did all this, , and it is difficult and we know rationally , that we can get out. We need to get help and we need to invent something new, to rely on imagination and creativity.
How much does this city cost to the children?
We must take into account the views of children because they are paying the highest price. The city, as it has developed in recent decades, has given account, almost exclusively, to the needs of the citizens of the strongest and most politically influential and the automobile, their favorite toy. It has forgotten and in fact excluded the most vulnerable citizens and first among them children.
The most significant change to be children a few decades ago and today is that children today can no longer leave the house alone and they have lost their leisure time. They are always accompanied and supervised, and all of their time is divided between the school in the morning, afternoon homeworks and language classes, sports or creative activities, but anyway schools activities. They spend their remaining time in front of a screen.
This condition creates a big imbalance between a sudden and impressive range of children autonomy since the earliest years, compared to the communication and information media (internet and phone) and at the same time the autonomy to move completely disappears
- If they cannot leave the house unaccompanied ,children cannot play and if the cannot play they cannot grow. You cannot be “accompanied” to play, you must “leave” children playing. The game, which is certainly the experience that affects more on development of the first years of life (the most important overall), needs sufficient freedom and autonomy in order to be properly experienced.
- If they cannot live the experiences of adventure and discovery, the obstacle, the pleasure or disappointment, they cannot assimilate the rules and build the necessary tools to face the world and become great and self-autonomy
- If you cannot experience the risk, as they have the desire and opportunity, at two, four, eight, ten years, because there is always someone who supervises and controls, they will accumulate an increasingly desire and a need and may be satisfied only when they reach a sufficient autonomy: when they have their house keys or a motorcycle under their butt. Everything is then sent back to adolescence, but with much greater danger.
- The experiences of bullying, the abuse of alcohol and drugs, early uncontrolled sexuality, motorbikes and cars incidents(in Italy are the leading cause of death up to 26 years), suicides, I think more than being phenomena and drama of adolescence, are coherent consequences of errors education during childhood. Who could not ride a bike and peel the knees as a child is more likely to suffer serious motorcycle accident as a teenager.
- The city without children are worse.
A new conflict
Around Childhood we have always developed conflict. The conflict between the children and the school is old, has always existed. It has been analyzed and described almost as a natural and necessary phenomenon. The conflict between the children and cars is very old because cars create danger and the danger creates fear in adults and reduces the autonomy of children.
We can say more generally that the relationship between children and adults has always caused some conflict because children are annoying and disturbing .. But what now I register as a new conflict is between children and their own parents: parents are asking to society and to the city administrators more security, more control and supervision for their children, greater freedom and greater autonomy.
A child of the Children’s Council of Rome asked the mayor: “We ask the city for permission to leave the house”
Faced with this conflict everyone must choose where to stay: with the girls and the children or their parents? If we stay with the parents we are certainly against children, but if we’re not with the children we are against their parents.
This is a good rule of democracy and justice: every time we encourage the young, the last ones will enrich , every time that people in power increases it the suffering are the lower ones. I figured this out by reflecting on the battles and victories of women: each of their conquest was a step forward for everyone. If we can apply this to women it’s the same for children.
Who are we? Who is the school with? Who is the city with ? Who is the mayor with ? Who is the policy with ?
In the past, in times of crisis the prophets came. But Moses Maimonides, Cordoba in the late 12 writes: “Since the prophets and the prophecy exist or are no longer recognized and they do not manifest themselves in a more clearly way, the art of prophecy is entrusted to children and fools and we must pay attention to them “And then we must recognize the high value of the prophetic words of the Italian 5 years of Victoria of Rosario, asking for their help, listen to them and take account of what they say us.
Children can help us: the project “The City of Girls and Boys”
If we are convinced that change is urgently needed , children can help us. But we must be willing and able to listen to them. That requires some conditions: to be sure that they have important things to tell us, knowing to understand what they ask and have the courage to take in account of what they ask whatever the cost is.
The “City of Girls and Boys” offers to mayors, politicians, administrators, but also to educators (parents and teachers) to ask for help and advice to children. To recruit children as a parameter for evaluation and change for the city, thinking that a city suitable for children is a better city for all. Children are not being called as one of the many social and generational categories, but as capable of representing the ‘”Other”, the different, the distance from the power, from the competence, and common opinion, homogeneous and conformist of the adult. Then a child as a paradigm of diversity: the mayor, who learns to listen to children actually becomes the mayor of all.
A particularly exciting aspects is to see how the proposal of urban changes of children coincide substantially with those of experts and scientists, particularly psychologists, environmentalists, sociologists, urban planners, pediatricians and even lawyers and the way they move away from choices of policy makers and administrators of the city .
The project consists of two main axes:
- Children’s participation in the government of the city through children’s councils considered as consultative bodies of Mayors and Local Government, as the correct application of Article. 12 of the Convention of 1989 and the design of shared spaces and street furniture especially for children.
- The return to children the right to move freely in their city, reviewing the policies of mobility, in order to allow children to play the essential activities of exploration, and adventure, the presence of children in urban areas will return safe to the city. The project has promoted membership in various cities and now has a network of nearly 200 cities in Italy, Spain, Argentina and other Latin American countries.
A different policy
In the nearly twenty years of experience we have collected proposals of children from different countries and they agree on some key demands, which describe a different policy. The children are asking to their governments for a different policy, closer to the needs of all citizens, more sensitive to the needs of environmental sustainability and cheaper. A different policy from that of politicians, which seeks not the consent, but happiness.
a. A different security policy
Security has now become a central issue in political debate. Faced with a looming political danger, policy reassures voters saying do not worry, we’ll take care. And the only way in which they are working on is to increase the defense: police, cameras, security doors, electronic reading satellite devices, mobile phones. Here we have many contradictions arising.
The most important is the paradox created by the reduction of crime, as documented by the Ministry of the Interior and as confirmed by the administrator of Rome and Milan on one hand, and the increasing of fear on the other one . The paradox that emerges is that, as the sociologist and social psychologists have explained, if you increases the defense consequentlywill increase the feeling of fear or danger. The real problem is probably related to the fact that today the fear is considered a resource that is used by the policy to increase the electoral support, and is used by the communication media that dedicate to the facts of the most heinous crime a morbid attention that increases the listening and hence the advertising collection.
This creates a vicious cycle that generates a feeling of insecurity mainly paid by the most vulnerable categories and first from boys and girls.
What is the alternative proposal that the children put forward, what is their idea of security?
We can consider the proposal represented from a child in the Children’s Council of Rosario in Argentina: “The adults have to help us but from afar.” A proposal that should deserves a deep reflection from adults. Helping from afar certainly means not to accompany by the hand, not controlling our children directly and personally. Probably means striving to create social conditions (not personal) for hospitality and attention. It can probably be represented by an eloquent proposal of Herman, also from Rosario: “It is easy (to be sure): just think there are two adults, who take a coffee, in every block.” So not in the street to watch the children, but to get a coffee. And at the same time to be there because their presence makes the road safe.
To this different idea of security we are ready to add another more innovative and puzzling: children in the street make sure the road. Again a paradox: we do not allow our children to go out because we believe that the road is dangerous and yet the road is dangerous because there are not more children. If there are children we’re better. Children know how to awake in their neighbors attitudes of solidarity and care, they can build a new neighborhood.
One good document as proof of this statement is the experience of Buenos Aires. In 2001, after another act of violence against children going to school in one of the outlying districts of the city, people rebel and meet to decide what to do. They reject to call for a greater police presence ( shooting could happen with unpredictable outcomes) and say they want children to school alone referring to our own project “City of Children”. To do this involves, as expected, traders and senior citizens, and promote awareness in schools and districts and call this experience “Safe routes to school”. In 2005, when experience had now spread into many districts of Greater Buenos Aires and entered in the Federal Capital, the responsible for the safety of the city, in a public meeting, declared that in the districts that promoted this experience, the facts of urban crime decreased by 50%!
b. A different mobility and health policy
We have already described the serious consequences of the lack of autonomy and independent movement of girls and children in their city. If children cannot freely download their energies for an appropriate time each day they run many risks for their health and their development. Sport courses are not enough where families enroll them in the afternoon with severe economic burdens. These courses are not games but schools. The movement is controlled by an instructor and designed to train a future “champion” and then they are never spontaneous and free, but controlled and directed. Many childhood diseases have their root cause in the long periods of inactivity in front of a screen. At these times the children eat and drink unsuitable products for their health. From all the researches conducted , it seems that the only winning proposal against the television or video games, is the possibility of leaving home to go and play freely with friends. The autonomy of movement is a very great prevention. A democratic and worried city about the health of its citizens, starting from the smallest citizens should ensure that everyone can move freely in their own city.
c. A different politics of public space and play
Kids do not want spaces for children, separately and dedicated to them where to spend time under constant adult supervision. The gardens for children with slides, swings and other games are a modern invention that does not take into account the wishes and needs of children. For them the right space to play is the public space, from the stairs and the yard to get to the sidewalks, plazas and gardens. A city that wants to meet the needs of children should avoid spending money in these separate and stereotyped spaces and encourage the participation of girls and boys in public spaces.
Here again the children have clear ideas and the work to be done in their children’s Italians, Spaniards and Argentines Councils, the proposals that emerge could become a program of urban projects.
“There are too many parking lots and the children have no place to play. We propose to do in half “: half for the machines, and half for children.
” Not spaces dedicated, and specialized, but shared, and secure as they are occupied”;
“You don’t need the police”;
“There should not be the parents”;
“The playing areas are all horizontal and you cannot hide”;
“Grown up people always put the same games in the gardens and there is no taste because it’s like seeing the same movie, and there is no surprise”;
“Grown up people put the flower beds in the large gardens and the children cannot play”;
“They should put the bushes so we can kiss in secret.”
“A good place to be for children should not be too sure” this last interesting feature: the child does not say they should not be safe but not “too” safe, as if the overconfidence took away the opportunity to play and fun .
Right to play
In this city, in which children can use public spaces as all other citizens must recognize the right to play. This means first that the game cannot and should not be prohibited. Being recognized by Article 31 of the Convention on the rights of boys and girls cannot be banned or at home, or in cities. We cannot forbid children to play on the rooms, in hallways or in the courtyards of apartment buildings, we cannot prohibit to play on the sidewalks or city squares. Prohibitions and warning notices should disappear . It would be desirable that should appear signs that say: “Children are invited to play”, “The City respects the right to play”, “Adults should not interfere with children playing.”
The other condition is that children have time to play. This mainly means less homework and less activity in the afternoon. The children spend at school a number of hours similar to or higher than what their parents go to work. It is absurd that the school feels the need to engage even the afternoon, at the weekend and on holidays. On the other hand, families should also take a step back, do not take up all the time remaining with afternoon language courses and schools, sports or expressive activities every day and leave their children sufficient free time that they can administer themselves, together with their friends, in areas of their choice. Of course, as always has been, this autonomy must be experienced within a framework of rules of time and space that the families themselves will indicate.
d. A different economic policy
Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations on May 8, 2002 in New York opening the Special Session of the UN Children’s Fund, concluded his speech by saying: “How could we fail, especially now that we know that every dollar invested in improving the conditions of childhood have a return for all the society equal to 7 dollars? “This statement was confusing and was presented in front of all the heads of state and government of the world. IN the periods in which the income never reached the capital of 10% he suggested a kind of virtuous investment that could make 700%!
A few years later I found out where Kofi Annan had taken that information, when I met the research by James Heckman, Nobel Prize for economics in 2000. Heckman had carried out a search for which it had selected a group of children from neighborhoods with high crime rate and with an IQ below average and had offered them the frequency for three years (3 to 6) to a school child quality (in the U.S. reserved to the classes culturally and economically higher).
When the experimental sample has completed twenty years , the scholar has evaluated the results and found that the young men had had a career and vocational education much higher compared to the social status of their mates who had not participated in the experiment and had, compared to them, a criminal activity 70% lower. Not considering the moral and social value of the result , the economist could assess that the costs and benefits, the highest productivity and lowest social cost (police, social services, hospitals, prisons) could show that every dollar invested had made more than $ 7 and in a projection for the entire life of the subjects were able to estimate that the income could exceed the $ 8.
Relying on scientific basis I would suggest three areas in which all the resources invested will produce strong returns:
- natural Lactation: ensure that all mothers can enjoy at least a year with their child and every child can enjoy his/her mother and especially her breasts. For this it is worth to change government guarantees and the rules work.
- free game for boys and girls: to create conditions of urban planning and social organization because all children can enjoy a leisure day during which playing with friends in public places.
- a high- level of infant and primary schools for all girls and boys.
The country that would have the courage to intervene with these measures could come out from the economic crisis in a few years and prepare its citizens for a future full of hope.
Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione
del Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR)
responsabile del progetto internazionale
“La città delle bambine e dei bambini”
Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione