Children form significant, lifelong memories of their interactions with the various adults who enter their lives, including their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers and so on. Those memories, and the experiences from which they derive, shape the beliefs children hold with respect to themselves, others and the world in which they live. They also shape their behaviour.
The way adults treat any generation of children shapes the way those children will, in turn, treat the next generation when they are adults. It follows that if we are seeking to create a more gentle, humanistic world we adults need to pause and reflect on how we interact with the current generation of children.
Yesterday, I was returning to the Melbourne CBD on an over crowded tram after a day at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. People were packed into the tram like sardines in a can. Shoulder-to-shoulder they stood in the aisles, swaying and brushing against each other with every jerk and bump. In this environment of uncomfortable levels of physical closeness to strangers eye-contact is minimal and conversation, when it exists, is brief and muted.
So it was that I could clearly hear in the carriage behind me a young girl of primary school age initiate a conversation with a complete stranger standing adjacent to her on the tram. The child had apparently noticed that this stranger had spoken with a heavy accent and had summoned the courage to inquire after its origin. The stranger, who I later observed to be an exotic-looking young woman, responded that her accent was Spanish. The child advised the young woman that she was learning Spanish. What followed over almost one hour was a child maintaining an animated and enthusiastic conversation about learning Spanish, to which the young woman responded with acceptance, warmth, patience and corresponding enthusiasm.
As a psychologist who has interacted with children over a long career I could not help but be impressed, and touched, by the manner in which the young woman engaged with the child. It left me sure that this child would remember fondly the day she interacted with a real-life Spanish-speaking adult, apart from her teacher. I thought immediately of what might be the legacy of this interaction for the child, and what had been the young woman’s own experiences of relating to adults when she was a child that had resulted in her warm, accepting and caring manner towards a previously unknown child.