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And, How Are the Children?

“Kasserian Ingera,” which translates to ”and, how are the children?” is the traditional greeting of Masai warriors. The anticipated and hoped for response is “all the children are well.” This exchange is not like the perfunctory American greeting of “how are you?” and the automatic response of “I’m fine,” whether one is actually fine or not. It’s deliberate. It’s intentional. The Masai greeting is an accurate barometer of the well being of their society.

Obviously, I am not a Masai warrior so the perspective I am offering is speculative, at best. To me, one of the striking elements of the Masai greeting is its inclusiveness. It’s not “how are your children,” or “are the children happy?” This brilliant greeting pivots on two words: “are” and “the.”

In their asking “are,” they anticipate a total picture response. Not one limited to the generalized welfare of the population of their younger generation. “Are” suggests a state of being and encompasses many facets of concern. Are their tummies full? Are they experiencing love? Are they happy, content and optimistic? Are they feeling safe? Are they secure intellectually, emotionally and mentally?

And then there’s “the.” The children. “How are the children?” I interpret this to suggest all children, not some or most, but all. How are all of our children? The pending answer puts everything else, every challenge, every worry, every concern into perspective. If our children are well, we are well and our society is well. This expression, “and, how are the children?” connotes that the true strength of a community is determined by the well-being of its children.

And, how are the children in mid-March 2021 in the United States of America? If we are honest with ourselves and each other, we would need to answer . . .

All the children are not well.

And, how are the children? More than eleven million children in this country (one in six) experience food insecurity, lacking a reliable notion of when their next meal will occur and from what source. Over 20 million students across the country rely on free meals at their schools. The pandemic-forced school closures have certainly frustrated this situation, though many districts have devised “grab and go” meal distribution sites to ease this burden. But, even with these interventions in place, childhood hunger, in the richest nation in the world, remains a daunting problem.

And, how are the children? The food insecurity data is a clear indicator of greater household insecurity. If there isn’t sufficient money for food, there may be underlying financial stressors of unemployment (or under employment), overdue rent, utilities and other bills. In the United States, 14.4% of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty.

And, how are the children? Under-nourished children equal under-nourished minds. It is inconceivable to think that children can experience intellectual and academic success in the absence of nutrition.

And, how are the children? The global pandemic has forced an educational dilemma that is inequitable and inaccessible for many children. A reliance on the internet and related technologies has expanded the gap between students with the means of access and those that do not enjoy that same level of access. Zip codes and the vast array of socio-economic factors kids experience has created an uneven playing field, one that frequently disadvantages minority children.

And, how are the children? For many kids, their ability to identify how their educational experience translates to be something of personal relevance, that force that keeps them connected to the enterprise of learning, is diminished. In the absence of relevance we see dis-engagement, disenfranchisement and dis-connection. (i.e. “why bother. I quit.”)

And, how are the children? The forced isolation of the past year has taken an enormous toll on the social and emotional development of children.

And, how are the children? Disturbing trends are being reported by pediatricians and mental health practitioners regarding increased incidents of fear, anxiety and depression among school-age children.

And, how are the children? In a country that places economic health over the educational, emotional and mental health of its children, all the children are not well. Even as we glimpse a light at the end of this horrific tunnel, it is likely that the losses and uncertainties of the last year will impact our kids for quite some time.

How do we support our kids through these stressful times? The American Academy of Pediatrics offered some solid suggestions in a recent article on their website. First, talk to kids. Parents should invite their children to express how they are feeling (educators should engage their students as well). “Feeling depressed, hopeless, anxious, and angry may be signs (children) could benefit from more support during this difficult time. Keep in mind that adolescents and young adults may try to hide their struggles because of fear, shame, or a sense of responsibility to avoid burdening others. Younger children may not know how to talk about these feelings but may show changes in their behavior or development.”

The article lists some telling behaviors to watch for that might indicate a child is not well and may be nearing crisis.

  • Changes in mood that are not usual for the child, such as ongoing irritability, feelings of hopelessness or rage, and frequent conflicts with friends and family.

  • Changes in behavior, such as stepping back from personal relationships. If an ordinarily outgoing teen shows little interest in texting or video chatting with their friends, for example, this might be cause for concern.

  • A loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. Did a music-loving child suddenly stop wanting to practice guitar, for example? Did that aspiring chef lose all interest in cooking and baking?

  • Changes in appetite, weight or eating patterns, such as never being hungry or eating all the time.

  • Problems with memory, thinking, or concentration.

  • Less interest in schoolwork and a drop in academic effort.

  • Changes in appearance, such as lack of basic personal hygiene (within reason, since many are doing slightly less grooming during this time at home).

  • An increase in risky or reckless behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol.

  • Thoughts, talking or writing about death or suicide. If this occurs, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or text the Crisis Text Line by texting 'TALK' to 741741. Reserve 911 for situations where self-harming actions are happening or are about to happen. In a non-crisis situation, talk with a pediatrician about any concerns you have about a child's mental health.

Like the Masai, the well being of our society is dependent on the well being of our children. It is their overall, and inclusive, health that must matter the most: their intellectual, creative, social, emotional, physical and mental health. Many of the unhealthy patterns currently in play were actually in place prior to the pandemic. Certainly, the pandemic has further exacerbated some of these issues. But, a blind “return to normal” once the current situation is behind us will leave us facing the same inequities as before. Unless . . .

Unless we resolve to put kids first and do things differently.

“And, how are the children?”

“All the children are well.”

That’s what kids deserve.

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