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From Systems Failure to Renewal

“Could this not be the single thought that steers us through the dangerous passage — a world that honours all its children?” Peter Senge, senior lecturer, MIT.

The upside of systems meltdown in the financial sector is that it offers the opportunity to think systemically about the global family and envision bold paths to restoration and renewal.

When any one of a number of “planet in peril” crises can bring civilization to its knees, can there be a systemic remedy for humanity? Are there universal principles around which to build a viable future? The key to seeing our survival dilemma clearly is understanding that the crises we face (personal, cultural, planetary) don’t exist in isolation; they need addressing as a whole. The global economic meltdown presents the “perfect storm” for systems renewal: transforming the whole of society by conscious design, with the child in mind.

Thinking in systems means seeing patterns, connecting the dots, seeing the big picture. From a systems perspective we can ask, What is our society for? Does it have a “systems goal”? What might that be? What kind of social system do we want—one that works for the few, the many, or for all the people? And what social system would be in harmony with natural systems that are the basis for all life?

When babies are in the picture, conscience answers “We need a society that provides for every baby’s irreducible basic needs.” That’s not socialism, it’s the right answer. Neuroscience and the economics of early childhood development now support our sense of moral duty. Addressing a newborn’s needs is in everyone’s interest and can’t be left to chance. Consider the economic impacts of the following:

“We now understand how early child and brain development sets trajectories in the health, learning and behaviour for life. How we apply this knowledge in our various societies will determine whether we will be successful in the 21st century. To establish stable, prosperous, equitable societies, we have to make equality of opportunity for all young children a key policy of our societies.” Dr Fraser Mustard, Early Years 2 Report / McCain, Mustard, Shanker, 2007

“…a growing body of program evaluations shows that early childhood programs have the potential to generate government savings that more than repay their costs and produce returns to society as a whole that outpace most public and private investments.” Rand Corporation: The Economics of Early Childhood Policy, 2008

Can we afford not to design with the child in mind?

Echoing The Earth Charter (Rio 1992) and the UN’s Convention On The Rights of The Child, many voices urge a systems shift to a caring and sustainable world, one that measures what really matters, one that honours its young. Peter Senge’s “necessary revolution,” Riane Eisler’s “partnership society,” Bill McDonough’s “cradle to cradle design,” Janine Benyus’s “biomimicry” and David Korten’s “Earth community” come to mind. Indispensable among them, the integrated philosophy Child Honouring calls for a “compassion revolution”: a children-first way to sustainability, “a vast change in the human paradigm” as the Honourable Iona Campagnolo (former Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia) put it.

Homo Universalis, Spirit of ONE

“The well-being of children is so critical it warrants the commitment of government, institutions, service providers and individuals. This does not mean everyone plays the same role; but everyone needs to play a role. The world’s future literally depends on it.” McCain, Mustard, Shanker, Early Years Study 2, 2007

The child—as humanity’s primary concern—deserves scrutiny. Across all cultures, we see an essential humanity visible in the very young: infancy reveals the universal glory of human development. Every baby smiles and cries the same, eats and poops the same, and regardless of culture has the same physiological need (and capacity) for love — the prime nutrient. In recent years, Nelson Mandela urged global leaders to drop their rhetoric and “turn this world around, for the children!” And the Dalai Lama called for a universal ethic for the world’s billions, regardless of religion. Why not, then, a universal ethic honouring the Child, the universal human?

The Child, Homo universalis sapiens, is every culture’s treasure, humanity’s foundational intelligence. Its prowess is at once awesome and yet, in infancy, totally dependent on “respectful love” to be activated. Human early learning is the stuff of genius—infants playfully acquire the most complex skills of language and speech when nurture sparks their latent powers. Denied that nurturing love, any child’s loving capacity can atrophy and contort into a complex of afflictive behaviors. When given that love, a child is free to flourish, secure in the bond of belonging. As humanity’s developing intelligence, the Child is indispensable to the community of nations.

“All aspects of adult human capital, from workforce skills to cooperative and lawful behavior, build on capacities that are developed during childhood, beginning at birth,” concludes a recent report by the US National Scientific Council. In other words, neuroscience is beginning to confirm and explain the inner workings of what social science and common experience have long maintained—that loving, stable, secure, stimulating and rewarding relationships with family and caregivers in the earliest months and years of life are critical for almost all aspects of a child’s development.” UNICEF 2008 Report, Child Care.

“Right from the beginning” can be the call for conscious birthing and pregnancy, and for a mother’s well being: mental, emotional and physical. Love of father and family, community support, and unpolluted surroundings ideally create the best womb experience, our first environment. Scientist Theo Colborn rightly calls for “inner space” to be the pristine, toxic-free coccoon of healthy development. This, along with universal child care throughout our global village, would yield profound long-term benefits to both people and our planet.

The universal and irreducible needs of all infants, wherever they live, offer a unifying principle for systems renewal worldwide—ONE principle fits all. Without exception, spiritual and faith traditions bid us to care for each other. And as David Korten writes in Agenda For A New Economy (2009), “The struggle for the health and well-being of our children is potentially the unifying political issue of our time…” To date, our societies have neither made children and families a priority nor respected the priority needs of the very young. Doing so would mark an evolutionary step in human consciousness.

No child would vote to be left out of society’s abundance. No family would vote to go hungry or homeless. That’s why designing for less than meeting everyone’s needs is not an option—it’s morally indefensible.

What societal system, then, would nurture both people and their habitats? Not the failed economic model that rewarded the greedy few, harmed the many and imperilled the Earth. That can’t be fixed. Its bubble has burst. We need to consciously design a profoundly new economy—a peacemaking economy—whose systems goal is to serve every child’s irreducible needs, one with a planetary consciousness. For humanity as a whole. As ONE.

Colossal as this sounds, we do have an epic opportunity: in our globalized economy, to fundamentally transform one nation’s economy requires a shift in the entire system! Painful though these times are for so many, we have a chance to transform the whole of our socio-economic system with a well-being ethic, with the universal ethic of Child Honouring. Our young deserve a systems shift from consuming to conserving, from polluting to clean energy, from reckless corporate power to social responsibility—with self confidence a key systems goal.

Child-Honouring Protocol

From a design perspective, the left-right political spectrum cannot address human challenges that are neither conservative nor liberal. The individual and collective go together, like genes and nurture. Both grow from the conscious love (or lack thereof) that builds brains, relationships and belief systems. No belief system, economic or other, can compare with a child’s need to feel and believe in the love of family and community. Nothing is more important.

Meeting the universal needs of all the world’s children calls for a design revolution of unparalleled scale—a compassion revolution for detoxifying the social, cultural and planetary environments in which we live.

We need a “child-honouring protocol” by which major deliberations are made with the Child in mind. Such a protocol would serve the entire human family: by creating jobs for work that really needs doing, by restructuring finance to serve the greatest number, by restoring the biosphere to safeguard children’s health and well being. What might such a massive change involve? For starters, a post-fossil-fuel era that ushers in

  • a proliferation of clean renewable energy systems
  • senior level Ministers for Children who play a key role in budgetary decisions
  • an eco-economy with a balance of fiscal, social and environmental factors, and a well-being index to measure what really matters
  • political and economic cycles that reward long-term thinking
  • a host of local child-friendly policies inspired by A Covenant for Honouring Children
  • family support policies to optimize early years experience and build community
  • education that respects every child’s personhood and innate intelligence
  • corporate charter reform to direct ingenuity’s rewards to the whole of society
  • militarism’s decline in response to massive and sustained acts of peacemaking; a comprehensive nuclear weapons ban
  • a thorough detox of the materials, processes, and products of industry. (As the developing fetus is vulnerable to even the minutest doses of harmful compounds, industry needs a clear, compassionate goal: zero toxic emissions.)
  • a new nonviolence mantra for all of society, “First Do No Harm”
  • a call from spiritual and faith leaders for an end to the physical punishment of children

In place of private and public sectors with conflicting rights (as we have now), imagine the well-being of all citizens is entrenched in an integrated covenant: a children-first declaration of human needs, rights and responsibilities by which humanity would benefit for generations to come.

The rippling rewards of such a massive systems shift in the personal, cultural and planetary domains — to psychological health, freed creativity and true prosperity — are truly unimaginable. We can, through a child-honouring lens, glimpse a view of a vibrant, highly relational world that celebrates diversity and joyful living in meeting life’s many challenges without creating additional unnecessary suffering.

State of The Possible

Conscious design of immense proportions is a grand exercise in visioning. Designing a society that shows love for the Child in all sectors — think of the virtues and character building this would foster, the emotional infrastructure for Homo Universalis and friends!

The task at hand seems daunting. We’re called to do the impossible — restore and replenish human and natural systems far faster than imaginable. And yet we’ve seen the impossible happen over and over in recent years: The Berlin Wall, Apartheid, Soviet Union, are all a thing of the past. History shows there’s no wall too tall to fall.

In the Child—the ultimate state of the possible—the “impossible” is everyday magic. Einstein said it best: imagination is more important than knowledge. When a child’s imagining capacity is lovingly affirmed right from the start, the whole process of being-belonging-becoming can align towards compassion and grow with confidence to maturity. And societal dysfunctions, whether military-industrial aggressions or personal abuses, are revealed for what they are: fragmented, immature, fear-based belief systems. As a species, aren’t we far too smart to be stuck in fear?

Economists Robert Putnam (Harvard) and John Helliwell (UBC) are hailing “The More We Get Together” (…the happier we’ll be) as “the social capital theme song.” That a 150-year-old children’s song known in many languages now has special value bodes well, not just because millions of children have grown up singing it recent decades. We are called to work collaboratively as never before, and we needn’t make that tougher than it is.

The key for us now is to know what really needs doing, and to get on with it. Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” is a far better rallying cry than “well, this could be very difficult.” Like Cesar Chaves, Obama exudes a spirit of the possible. As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “If a thing must be done, it can be.” Change the system? Let’s do it.

A spirit of ONE moves us to a unity of purpose for the world’s children. We can envision humanity as a whole and hear its child ambassadors calling us to live for the greatest good. To live by conscious design. To design a world fit for children.

In a race against time, we engage the possible. Oh yes, we can spread the wealth around, not by incremental reform but by conscious design of the whole of society “with the child in mind,” by extending compassion’s immeasurable currency both near and far. We can kneel and kiss the ground, protecting and restoring the planetary systems that feed and provide for us. We can drop the blind devotion to past relics and flex our power to imagine and design the possible world busy being born.

We must, as a species, harness the power of infancy for good.

Child Honouring is the key.

© 2009, 2019 Raffi Cavoukian
Raffi Foundation for Honouring Children –


July 15, 2009 News