Examine the marketing materials for most aid organizations, and you’ll notice that children are prominently featured in everything from clean water to refugee resettlement. Sometimes they’re depicted as desperate, wide-eyed, malnourished, dirty and alone. Other times, images portray children flashing wide grins, full of energy and unbridled hope for the future. The innocence of youth is compelling.
Children are incredibly precious, significant, and special. Everyone knows this. Why in the world would I be encouraging us to consider decreasing our emphasis on them?
Before you call me a Grinch and accuse me of possessing a “heart that’s two sizes too small,” here’s why I think it would actually be in the best interest of children if we stopped exclusively focusing our aid efforts on them:
1. It masks the fact that not all children in poverty are orphans.
Overly simplistic images of children by themselves and out of the context of their surroundings perpetuate a pervasive, damaging picture of poverty that tells us that around the world that all children in poverty are orphans. In truth, the vast majority have a living relative. The Better Care Network points to studies in Cambodia, for example, revealing that 75% of children living in orphanages are not actually orphans but have one or more biological parents still living. And even more have living extended family members.
2. It can put children at greater risk.
When an organization, particularly a residential care institution, focuses exclusively on providing for children, over-extended parents are more likely to send their children away, assuming that their sons and daughters will have better access to care and opportunities at an institution, rather than in their family’s home. Parents are trying to do what’s best for their children. But studies show a disturbing trend: children in these situations become more, not less, vulnerable. The trauma of being separated from their families and the impersonal attention that they may receive at an institution can make them more likely to experience developmental delays, difficulty forming attachments, exploitation, and abuse.
3. It can undermine families.
For deep, lasting change to occur, transformation must be experienced not only by children, but by their whole families. I’ve witnessed the gut wrenching reality that when children are returned to families who have not received the support and care that they need as caregivers, children can end up in the same cyclical, heartbreaking situation. For every heartwarming picture that you’ve seen of little hands eagerly holding donated gifts and treats, there’s a second picture that you’re not seeing: their family.
Might it be that by focusing on children we are undermining the role of their family? Why are parents invisible and often forgotten? Perhaps it’s because giving a few toys to a child is far easier than walking alongside a parent who wants to start and grow a small business or become free from addiction. Perhaps it’s because we assume culpability of parents for their situation. Whatever the reason, loving children demands an equal measure of love for the family around them, no matter how difficult it might be.
Please understand me. I am all for helping children! I simply believe that focusing exclusively on children to the exclusion of their families often proves to be less helpful, and possibly even damaging, in the long run.
Let’s seek out organizations and strategic approaches that focus on empowering men and women to provide for themselves and their families. When the family flourishes, children grow up with strength and hope for the future.