And How Are the Children?

A reflection for Gun Violence Awareness Day

Among the many fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe had more fearsome or mightier warriors than the Masai. The Masai warriors traditionally greeted each other by asking, “And how are the children?” Even warriors with no children of their own responded with, “All the children are well.” This greeting meant, of course, that peace and safety prevailed; that the Masai faithfully honored their reason for being, their proper function, and their responsibilities.
An excerpt adapted from a sermon by Reverend Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill, First Parish, Framingham, MA (1991).

Imagine if we greeted each other with that question today, “And how are the children?” The truthful answer would be, “Our children are suffering!”

Our children are suffering, terrified by yet another school shooting.

Our children are suffering, reeling from the isolation and fear brought on by the pandemic.

And our children are suffering, harmed by the insidiousness of white supremacy, engendering institutional and interpersonal violence, including gun violence.

How do we know our children are suffering? Because they’re telling us! Some of our children are responding to their pain in the most human of ways – by causing harm. When Black and Brown children act out, however, community members – specifically white community members – respond with fear. They demand the surveillance and exclusion of Black and Brown youth and the enforcement of “Zero Tolerance” policies that perpetuate systemic wrongs. But, when Black and Brown children are persecuted, our community has demonstrated that they’re willing to tolerate such persecution. Where was the fear, the outrage, the demand for absolute punishment and expulsion, when nooses hung from a tree out in front of our schools?

As professionals whose role it is to zealously advocate for all of our children, we fervently reject “Zero Tolerance” as public policy, and demand unequivocally that it not be applied when responding to children’s behavior. Our children are simply manifesting the world around them – a world that adults, and expressly white adults, created for them. “Zero Tolerance” does the opposite of holding children accountable. Exclusion scapegoats children and enables us—the adults—to evade responsibility for addressing the roots of our children’s actions. “Zero Tolerance” policies do not keep communities safe. The most credible research tells us what keeps communities safe: children feeling connected to at least one adult in their school; being engaged in their community; basic human needs of food and shelter being met. Read the Moran Center’s recent report, “Reimaging School Safety” which captures this research in the school context, laying out alternative, restorative solutions and approaches to harm.

Yes, we need to hold all of our children accountable for the harms they’ve caused. How? By being trustworthy adults; by listening to them; by meeting the needs of their families; by creating solutions with, not for, them; by creating supportive environments where they can face the harms they’ve caused honestly, and hear from those they’ve harmed; by creating restorative, community-based solutions based on the wisdom and experience of community members most impacted; and by valuing the principle that no child – no one – should be reduced to the worst thing they’ve ever done.

And we adults must hold ourselves accountable too! To the white people asking “What can we do? How can we stem gun violence? How can we combat the hatred symbolized by those nooses hanging outside our schools?” It’s the same answer to all of these questions: We must confront racism, white supremacy, and opportunity hoarding within ourselves, within our families, and within our community. We must challenge our white neighbors, friends, and family members to confront their vast privileges and dig deep into the hard truths of what it truly means to see all of our children as our own. Let’s do this work with urgency so that we can then say with honesty and certainty that all our children are, in fact, well!

Patrick Keenan-Devlin

Executive Director