As Americans, we believe we are entitled to our individual rights and freedoms from the moment we are born. After all, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, is clearly laid out for us.
As adults, we understand that those rights need to be respected and protected and have a duty to teach our children about defending their own rights while respecting the rights of others. A comprehensible way to teach them about individual rights is in the way children relate to the world around them: through their senses.
What We See. We have the right to determine what we see through media and in the world around us. For children, parental monitoring modifies this right. Though adults have the right to determine what they view, parents have the responsibility to preview what their children view in order to confirm that it is age-appropriate and aligns with their family values. When our children grow up and become adults, they inherit the right to self-monitor, but between the ages of 0-18, it is our job to guide them.
This includes previewing books and magazines to be sure that they are appropriate for our children. It’s not enough to simply look at age recommendations, read reviews and go with another’s judgment. We need to judge for ourselves that this is material our children will understand. We need to carefully investigate movies, television shows, and video games for inappropriate content that children might be exposed to. Children have individual rights, but parents have the difficult job of adding a filter to what children are exposed to.
What We Hear. We have the right to determine what children hear through the media and in the world around us. Adults should be hyper-aware of what they say around children even if we are not talking directly to them. For example, if we are talking to another adult and our children (or other people’s children) are in hearing distance (at a somewhat lower height) don’t be fooled if they don’t seem to be paying attention. Children hear everything! They might not fully understand what we are saying, but they often repeat it to other children, or simply blurt it out at an inconvenient time.
As a teacher I hear this all the time. Children disclose “facts” as they understand them and when we ask where they learned it, it is usually from an overheard conversation. We want to hear the news, but the news is very difficult for children to understand and if they are just hearing it in the background with no explanation, it can lead to confusion, questions and fears that go unanswered. We listen to music but not always to the lyrics; our children, however, do listen to the words and then sing the lyrics, often to the dismay of their parents. Children learn particularly well through music and song, so it is important to give them a musical menu that promotes concepts, values and ideals that we believe in. What do the songs we listen to teach our children about healthy relationships, kindness, acceptance, and belonging? Are we promoting the positive values we cherish? Both parents and teachers have an opportunity to fill our children’s world with sounds and words that help them express their place in the world.
What We Touch. We have the right to explore our world and learn about the wonders that surround us. Some of the best places to teach children about the amazing gifts of nature are our State and National Parks. Some of the best memories my children have are of our road trips to National Parks such as Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Teton, and Redwood. We traveled to Mammoth Mountain and drove up the coast of California stopping along the way at points of interest and lighthouses. Closer to home we spent many Sundays at Malibu Creek State Park, Topanga State Park, and the local beaches, especially Zuma.
What my children touched—pinecones, crystals, rocks, sand, shells, and sticks—gave them an appreciation of nature that has lasted throughout their lives. They built pretend villages, dug in the sand building castles and wading pools, and still treasure the shells and crystals they collected over the years. What we touch in nature also touches us. Parents can provide children with these experiences and watch them develop an appreciation for the natural world and the beauty that can be found everywhere—in our neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries, too.
What We Taste. We have the right to taste foods of many cultures. This is one way to learn about other cultures and nationalities. We can learn about our own family traditions by replicating recipes passed down from grandparents and great grandparents. Cooking together is a family activity that builds memories and teaches children the joy of creating a meal as they learn real skills such as measuring, fractions, chemistry (the reaction of ingredients), reading recipes, and following directions. When we expose our children to different kinds of foods, we also pique their interest and build tolerance for other cultures. Young children are willing to try new foods that their parents enjoy which, one hopes, encourages their curiosity about new foods when they are older. When we travel with our children, eating the local cuisine can foster a love of adventure as they explore and learn about other cultures. Food is often a great equalizer when people come together to enjoy good company and good tastes.
What We Smell. We have the right to enjoy clean air, fresh and clear, to smell spring flowers blooming, local bushes, herbs and plants that give fragrance to our world. We also have the right to avoid smells imposed on us, such as smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and vaping pens. These smells are not just unwelcome odors but harmful chemicals that enter our bodies. This is obvious to young children who recognize the value of clean air without knowing about ongoing struggles against polluters.
The celebration of Earth Day each year, even if it’s “virtual reality” this year, reminds us that we have only one planet, and must work together to maintain an environment that supports all life, people, animals, and plants that inhabit our planet. Teaching our children about their human rights by teaching them through what they see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is an organic way to introduce children to the expanding world around them and empower them to protect their constitutional rights.