Whenever tragedy strikes, it is always the children involved who suffer most. Impressionable and vulnerable, children are the first to get swept up in both natural disasters and manmade drama, always ending up in the eye of the storm. Even if they survive the squall, they emerge broken, having lost the one thing that matters most in the process: their childhood.
The current situation in Ukraine is robbing children of their innocence at an alarming rate, doing untold damage to an entire generation of Ukrainian youth. Gripped by violence and fear, unemployment continues to rise in Ukraine, with nearly 60% of the country’s population living at or below the poverty line.
Breadwinners who are lucky enough to find employment are consumed by the need to provide for their families, working long hours to meet their most basic material needs. Under these harsh conditions, and in the total absence of social support services and appropriate educational programming, distress and hardships are ignored and the children suffer in silence.
What happens to children who miss out on a proper childhood? How important is it to allow kids to just be kids?
Years of scientific research have shown that people cannot learn theoretically. Rather, we learn by doing, by engaging our hands, hearts and minds. These physical, emotional and intellectual interactions and experiences allow us to retain information and create a picture of the world around us. But the quality of these experiences also determines further development.
Studies focused on children who were physically abused reveal that if children’s experiences are consistently negative or traumatic, they will wind up with insufficiently formed neural connections. That is, the areas of their brains that are responsible for decision-making, judgment and planning simply will not develop properly. What’s more, children who are cheated of a normative childhood will have lower IQs, become incapable of establishing harmonious relationships, and experience constant severe mood changes.
In a sense, it all boils down to freedom and connection. Children learn and develop best when presented with opportunities for independent exploration of the surrounding world. They need to make mistakes, study their errors and figure out why a particular method didn’t work. Of course, children embrace this freedom with the understanding that their parents, and other adults who care for them, will ward off danger when necessary and catch them when they fall. The trouble begins when the adults in a child’s life cannot provide them with this brand of supportive freedom. In fact, emotional connection and warm contact with adults is one of the basic needs of a child in childhood.
Scientific evidence suggests that there is a defined receptive period for the development of human abilities during which the basics of functionality are most easily absorbed. If a child misses this window of opportunity, he may never be able to recover fully. Examples that we are all familiar with include verbal delays, impaired motor skills, poor coordination, extreme impulsiveness, attention deficits and learning disabilities, but the list goes on and on.
Childhood is fleeting, and if it is obscured by tragedy and trauma, we can only assume that a complicated and arduous adulthood awaits. Indeed, the emotional, social and physical development of young children has a direct effect on their overall development and on the adults they will become.
LifeChanger FSU seeks out Jewish children living in the most economically depressed areas of Ukraine who are grappling with extreme poverty, neglect, abuse, and overlooked physical and emotional disabilities, and changes their lives dramatically by providing frameworks for housing, education and health care and creating dynamic and comprehensive solutions to address their unique physical, mental and social needs and distance them from negative influences and the lure of drug addiction, alcoholism and crime.
When working with the children enrolled in LifeChanger FSU, the most vulnerable Jewish children in the region, I am always struck by the extent to which our current situation in Ukraine impacts their abilities to learn, grow and connect with others.
For example, from the moment I began working with 7-year-old Sophia, who had struggled with poverty and abuse since birth, she showed sharp negativity toward any task I presented, even those that would normally be interesting, if not fascinating, to children her age. Additionally, while Sophia had a good memory, she had trouble paying attention and showed very weak verbal-logical and imaginative thinking skills, which is detrimental during the stage when “playing pretend” is both an emotional outlet and a social learning tool.
Throughout our sessions together, Sophia displayed impulsive behavior, tried to establish her own rules, and was aggressive to children her own age and defiant to adults. This behavior clearly illustrated Sophia’s general mistrust of the world around her – a world that had failed her. Trauma had ravaged her intellectual and psychological development, and it would have stunted her growth permanently had LifeChanger FSU not stepped in to establish new social, educational and therapeutic frameworks for Sophia and set her on a new course towards sustained recovery and significant, drastic growth.
No child should be a salvage project. Every child deserves a childhood.
With all the suffering in the world, it would be easy to give up hope. But the Jewish people, as a nation, embody faith and resilience, and we cannot abandon our ideals in the face of harsh realities. In the spirit of “all Jews are responsible for one another,” we must realize that it is our duty – every one of us – to provide our children with the freedom and connection they need to grow and thrive. By allowing our kids to just be kids, they will create a better world for their children, one in which every child is guaranteed the blessings of a normative childhood.