Imagine being a kid in Gaza right now. I googled “children in Gaza” and discovered that an estimated 98% of children there have been direct witnesses to serious violence. I wonder what chance those kids have to experience the features of childhood that we cherish, like innocence, wonder, whimsy, and freedom—significantly less than 98%, I’d bet.
The same is true for many children in Israel, Sudan, Zimbabwe, New Orleans, Oakland, and so on. It’s sad, to say the least, to think how the trauma of their “formative” years will affect these children as they grow into adults.In 2004, I became acquainted with a co-founder of the Children In Crisis Primary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone named Alex P. Columbus. He and several other courageous educators founded the school for orphans soon after the brutal decade-long civil war ended in their country. Alex writes about the way the school has tried to reach out to young people:
The Children in Crisis Primary School started classes under a mango tree with twenty children identified by community members in a town called Mabani in the Port Loko District of the Northern Province. These children had lost their parents …
The school continued classes under the tree for that entire first academic year. For its second year, the school acquired some plastic sheeting in an effort to create a learning environment more protected from the elements. The school obtained some zinc sheeting, cement, and sand to improve the structure of the building.
Because of the commitment of the school’s volunteer teachers, the pupils started to thrive and community members became interested in sending their children to the school. Since the second year, the school’s student population has increased dramatically. With the community’s support, the school has grown to serve three hundred and forty pupils, and for all of these students, the school operates with sixteen teachers …
Children in Crisis Primary School has proudly set up a vocational training center as way of building up these adolescents’ abilities in soap making, tailoring, and other vocations, so that they too can contribute socially and economically to the rebuilding of Sierra Leone.
Thanks to the efforts of a few adults who could not help but know the trauma experienced by the Children In Crisis students, those students are making the best of their limited opportunities in a war-ravaged part of the world. We hope, of course, that our children do the same with their wider scope of opportunities here. But just because most kids here have more opportunities—and haven’t seen war firsthand—doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced trauma that will stay with them for their entire lives.
Over the next few articles, I will present examples of ordinary childhood trauma that have stuck with people for decades—and have changed the way they’ve lived their lives. What unites these examples is the hidden nature of the trauma, and how from an adult’s perspective the trauma may seem insignificant or easily overcome. But it wasn’t, and that’s the tricky part of protecting kids from lasting psychological harm: how to know what’s hurting a child when there are no shrapnel wounds or scars to show us.
I’m hoping to promote better communication between adults and children, more constant “keeping in touch,” or even just a bit more effort on our part to remember what it’s like to be a kid. What hurt us when we were that age? What moments of fear and shame and anxiety have stuck with us throughout our lives? And what might have helped us deal with the lingering effects of those moments? How might a sensitive adult striking just the right note of empathy or awareness have lessened our pain? We don’t all need to start schools for orphans in order to make a difference in the lives of children. Sometimes we just need to put ourselves in their smaller shoes for a few minutes, and then reach out.