Kigali – “Daddy, can you please tell me a story?” Almost every night my daughters, when they were younger, wanted me to tell them stories before going to bed. The older one wanted to hear scary stories, even though she knew she would not be able to sleep afterwards. The younger one did not like scary stories.
When I went to put her to bed, she would state her terms, “Dad, for tonight’s story I don’t want any vampires, monsters, witches, werewolves, or duppies (Jamaican ghosts).
Also, can the story be about a little girl in that village far far away beside the forest? You can include a giant if you want.” She was always precise!
As they grew older, I spent less time telling them imaginary stories and more time talking to them about real global events in the world. They were just as interested!
In our family, dinner time became a time for discussions about events in the news and things that we all experienced during our day.
After eating, we often shared real stories about various experiences we had: my wife and I sharing a traditional meal with an ancient tribe in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia; me listening to an old woman in Bosnia telling her story about the Bosnian civil war and how she had to run to the hills with nothing but her cow when the war started. Sometimes it was an experience we all shared, such as visiting the Baduy people in Banten, Indonesia.
The Baduy are regarded as an ‘uncontacted people’ - a tribe that is almost completely isolated from the outside world. The children enjoyed their meeting with the ‘outer Baduy’ who are allowed to see foreigners. We also spent time with a community of Rastafarians from the Nyabinghi Order in rural Jamaica, and we have been to see the pygmies in the hills of Uganda.
For my wife and I, these and other visits were always about cultivating a healthy habit of sitting, listening, learning and treating people, whoever they are, with respect and dignity. It was always about seeing differences not in terms of which culture is superior or inferior but in terms of understanding the richness of our global diversity.
These days our dinner time family talks centre a lot on environmental challenges we face as human beings, living on this One Planet that we all share.
We talk about things like the melting of the glaciers, the loss of our wildlife and biodiversity, and the devastation of the Indonesian and Amazon forests. As we talk about the issues, we also discuss each of our roles and responsibilities as global citizens to take care of this planet that nurtures and takes care of us.
As parents we don’t pretend to have all the answers; and we listen to their views and perspectives.
We are amazed at how quickly they grasp the issues, and how often they start coming up with suggestions. (Sometimes they challenge me and the UN, and demand that we do more! Once, one daughter, 11 years old at the time, asked me for the email of the UN Secretary General. She said she wanted to write to him personally to get the UN to do more to end a war and to protect our climate!) We sometimes hear them telling certain business-owners what they can do to make their businesses more sustainable.
At home in Jamaica it was the children who started recycling and getting us and their grandmother to do the same. My older daughter stopped eating meat some years ago, partly for her own good health and partly for the health of the planet.
Today we see many other children, including Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish activist, carrying the message that we all must rally to save our planet. In an interview some years ago, Greta said that she first heard about climate change at the age of eight and could not understand why so little was being done about it. She was eight years old! Now, she is a voice in a global movement to protect our planet!
The point is that children are never too young to start learning. And one of our most important roles as parents is to prepare our children for their roles in society.We have a duty to nurture a next generation of global citizens who are tolerant of differences between people, and who understand that there is strength in our diversity.
We need to prepare a generation that is conscious and aware of what is happening in the world and understand that we are all connected to the One Planet we share.
This year, the UN will convene a Climate Summit on the theme, ‘A Race We Can Win. A Race We Must Win.’ It will seek to challenge states, cities, companies, investors and citizens to step up climate action. There is a lot that needs to be done to protect this One Planet that we all – Pygmies, Baduy, Christians, Muslims, Papuans, Rastafarians, Europeans, Africans, etc. - live on.
We all need to work together to save our planet. Our children can play a role. Let us start having those conversations with them.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.