A Call for the Year of the Child: Attending to Childhood Human Rights

by Melissa Greer, DO

Since the spring of 2020, we have all been stretched in different ways, yet a cautiously hopeful feeling is in the air. Particularly vulnerable among us have been the youngest children, and new initiatives are springing up worldwide to help them. In the UK, one such initiative, sponsored by the Children’s Parliament in Scotland, has dedicated 2021 as “The Year of Childhood,” focusing on children’s human rights. They are working to “create opportunities to share rights-based practice in an atmosphere of optimism and confidence.”[i]

It is interesting to study the development of human rights through time. The awakening to human rights occurs as a social evolution of consciousness regarding a maturation of the human feeling that no one is well unless we all are well. For children in the US, this first began around the issue of work conditions. It was in Massachusetts in 1852 that laws were first established ensuring children were sent to school. It wasn’t until 1989 that the first international United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) took place and made a commitment to create a legal document protecting children’s rights as human beings. Their goal was to “set out the human rights that must be realized for every child to flourish and reach their full potential. Identifying children’s human rights as realities ensures that all children grow up happy, healthy and safe and live with dignity. Childhood is the most important time in our lives. It is a time when lifelong health and wellbeing outcomes are established and habits of a lifetime are formed.”[ii]

The four core Principles of the UNCRC are:

  1. Non-discrimination.
    2. Best interests of the child - “In all actions concerning children […] the best interest of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
    3. The right to survival and development - “State parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.”
    4. The views of the child.[iii]

For as much good and progress as this convention held, some aspects still reflect an old widespread misconception that a child is like a small adult. A true understanding of a child’s developmental needs has yet to be properly recognized in our society. This understanding must be penetrated and elaborated before we can commonly hold as true the rights of each child’s developmental needs. But we have to begin somewhere.

In the realms of the “right to a child’s best interest” and the “right to development,”[iv] those of us who work with small children out of anthroposophic insight can, as a matter of course, come to see these insights as the best way to lay the foundation for a child to flourish and reach their own potential. With these insights, I believe the highest potential realization of the UNCRC as an international children’s rights document could actually bring us a new generation of healthy adults able to meet life and each other in the ways that the world of tomorrow will require.

So where do we begin? We are still within a time of social trauma for many young children, which has affected their development and mental health. It is important to understand that all trauma is in one form or degree an unmet need. Most adults don’t remember what it was like as a 4- or 5-year-old child, so let’s try to start with the children themselves. The experience of life for a young child before the change of teeth can be compared to an open body of water. Like the water, young children feel the ripples of events and emotions as a small lake does when receiving the impact of a thrown pebble, a fallen tree, or the blowing wind. Along with the biological activities of growth and decay, these external influences also affect how the shore of sand and clay around the pond is laid down. Children are open to all that the adults around them feel, say, and do. They are in a stage of deep imitation, mirroring their environment just as the water reflects what is around them as their bodies are formed. They take the activities of the day with them into their sleep as they grow and develop physically, emotionally, and cognitively. At no other time is a human more vulnerable to outside influences than in early childhood when the nervous system and organs are forming. Children naturally look for all that is good in the world and especially in the adults around them who they emulate. They take in all that it is to be human: work, play, language, subtle gestures, vitality, arousal levels, moral feelings, etc., and from these their self-image becomes psychologically sculpted as a platform for their essential selves.

“There are two magic words which indicate how the child enters into relation with the environment. They are: Imitation, and Example. The Greek philosopher Aristotle called the human being the most imitative of creatures. For no age in life is this more true than for the first stage of childhood, before the change of teeth. What goes on in the

physical environment, this the child imitates, and in the process of imitation the physical organs are cast into the forms which then become permanent. ‘Physical environment’ must, however, be taken in the widest imaginable sense. It includes not only what goes on around the child in the material sense, but everything that takes place in the child’s environment — everything that can be perceived by the senses, that can work from the surrounding physical space upon the inner powers of the child. This includes all the moral or immoral actions, all the wise or foolish actions, that the child sees.” - Rudolf Steiner[v]

Since March 2020, masked environments for children have been just one example of ongoing experiences of unmet needs when considering the establishment of healthy connections. For children who have experienced such masked environments, sometimes for several hours each day, we need to ask, “What are the real consequences of these experiences for children?” This deeply imitative period of life is one in which young children drink in all they can through their senses. With this, they build their physical organs, giving each a foundation for their whole life and biography. For a child, wearing a mask and frequently being exposed to the half-covered faces of others deeply affects this organ development as well as language perception and body language sensitivity as part of relationship attachment. It is not only the effects of a covered face and the flat, cool communication experience of masks which strongly affect children but also the fear of closeness and disruption of heart connection that is behind the practice of face covering and social distancing. What do these kinds of communication experiences do to a child’s image of the human being and their developing organs? Don’t we need the whole human face to best understand each other, even as adults?

For children of all ages, masked situations require some degree of coping and adjustment. Children over seven years of age have gone through early childhood and thus have some orientation and most have some ability to communicate their needs and feelings. For children less than seven years of age, the situation is more dire. One cannot explain to a younger child conceptually what is happening. In fact, an adult’s reasoned explanations are often damaging. They are experiencing what is happening around them in a holistic way through example and imitation, and are unable to find meaning in abstract reasoning.

Young children still significantly live in a pre-birth spiritual consciousness which speaks the picture-language of archetypes, instructive wisdom, and the riddles of the soul’s journeys. This is why fairy tales give them such nourishment. They recognize a language there with which they are more familiar than matter-based intellectual explanations. With wonder they can feel that good always wins over evil. The essence of the symbolic pictures reveals eternal truths of the inner human experience.

Can we know for certain that the experiences of masks covering significant portions of the face do not affect the way children will subsequently perceive human beings, themselves included? They experience that the human nose and mouth are hidden. The natural human body becomes implicitly understood as being something dangerous, and our very own bodies are also seen as a source of danger to everyone else because this has been the worldview that the adults are modeling. This experience has been imprinted in the child’s bodily unconsciousness as an experience of fear of the other. As the human encounter is the basic building block for community and society, this experience will affect not only the health of each one of us but also of society as a whole in ways that we may not as yet be able to imagine.

Through policies originally intended to be helpful, we have created adverse childhood events which only much later will show up as health problems for these individuals. Children cope with even the most dysfunctional situations as a social reflex to attach to the adults around them out of their need for love, care, and survival. Adults cannot use their children’s apparent lack of complaints as a standard to judge the degree of effects, healthy or otherwise. The less children can communicate their needs and fears, the more they have to find other ways to cope with dysfunction, and the more unconscious their responses to stressors become. This fight, flight, freeze or surrender response deeply affects their breathing, endocrine and immune systems, and their respective reflex hyperreactive autonomic responses. These effects can bring physical illness later in life. The body keeps the score. Our responsibility and task as adults is to create environments for children in which there is no need for them to create survival reflex compensatory defensive mechanisms.

“Illnesses that appear in later life are often only the result of educational errors made in the very earliest years of childhood. This is why an education which is really based on a knowledge of humanity must study the human being as a whole from birth until death. To be able to look at a person as a whole is the very essence of anthroposophical knowledge. Then too, one discovers how very strong the connection is between the child and the environment. I would go as far as to say that the soul of the child goes right out into the surroundings, experiences these surroundings intimately, and indeed has a much stronger relationship to them than at a later period of life.” -Rudolf Steiner[vi]

Children in the first seven years of life need most of all to experience the good, true, and beautiful through example and imitation of their surroundings. Many adults have lost the instinct to protect them from adult themes and allow them space to feel safe in the world as they grow. This was important in the pandemic year because even a period of a few months holds vital life experiences in a child’s life. Children need to know that hygiene is good but that human beings, above all, are a source of healing for each other. Fear of the other is a pathology in itself.

In my children’s osteopathic clinic, I have found adult stress patterns in young children for the first time. Usually these types of adult musculoskeletal findings are a result of years of fight, flight, freeze or surrender autonomic responses to stress. A common pattern has been for the typical neck and shoulder sclerotic hypertonicity to escalate down the spine and reduce abdominal diaphragm engagement, along with cool hands and feet. A somatic phenomenon I call “chest guarding” has become a common finding for young children. Belly and headache complaints are often signs of anxiety and depression for parents to be aware of. New onset symptoms of nail-biting, teeth-grinding, emotional outbursts, nightmares, ritual behavior, and self-harm reports have significantly increased over this year. It is imperative that we learn from what this year has brought and go forward with renewed seriousness in safeguarding childhood development. Children need safe spaces.

Below are a few brief and basic true childhood rights that simply have not yet been fully socially realized.

Each child has the right to:

1) Soul warmth encouragement: The most important help you can give the children in your presence is an experience of your own joy and love for the world. If you are afraid and weighed down, remember that children take that in. Practicing true positivity and openness as a parent is a spiritual practice that uplifts the whole family.

2) Body warmth encouragement: In my children’s osteopathic clinic, I experienced immediate help in the releasing of stress patterns by simply warming up cold feet! It is something all parents, teachers, and therapists can offer. A warm footbath and/or hot water bottles are often undervalued healing tools.

3) Protection of the senses: What a child takes in has to be digested just as food is metabolically digested. Keep sensory impressions simple and natural. Screens and social media are not good for children. Consider them junk food and, at times, even poison for their maturing sensory systems.

4) Play and free movement experiences: Our relationship with play is established in childhood and brings freshness and creativity to life as an adult, helping us navigate change and meet life’s challenges. A wonderful resource to better understand the benefits of play can be found here: https://allianceforchildhood.org/benefits-of-play

In order for a child to fully master their body, free movement is essential. The life body matures from the inside out. In the final stages of this first round of development, after having laid the foundation for all of the inner organ systems, the life body pushes the adult teeth out to replace the baby teeth. This same peripheral nurturing is seen in Waldorf education in developing first the proximal large gross motor skills (time outside for running and climbing trees) and proceeding to distal fine motor activities in the hands and fingers through beeswax modeling and knitting. Eurythmy is also a valuable help to the growing child in establishing whole sheath hygiene. I encourage parent groups to take up the practice of eurythmy to experience for themselves what this offers therapeutically.

5) Healthy connection with others: In the first years of life, as a child learns language, there is no substitute for an in-person encounter and experience of the full human face. Abstract ideas are foreign to a young child. Adult concepts, especially repeating sensational news stories to other adults in a child’s presence, can be overwhelming. Often talking less is more helpful! Keep it simple, heart-imbued, and honest. Find bridges of connection through goodness.

6) Healthy connection with spirit: Reverence, fairy tales, and spending time with nature are natural to young children. Learn from them and then continue to nurture these experiences. Adults have sometimes lost their natural connections to spirit, often through their own negative childhood and education experiences. Retrieve these experiences and start afresh today by experiencing festivals through the cycle of the year. Discover the many wonders of nature each day to share with your family at home. Live into the archetypes within the fairy tales that touch the deeper soul spaces.

7) Regular daily rhythms: Honor the need for regular daily rhythms in a child’s life. Rhythms help the child to feel secure and content while helping the life body fulfill the mighty task of bodily development in its own rhythms. Disruptions to routine are awakening, something we all have to adjust to. For a special occasion, it may be just what we need to more fully experience a special time. However, if this happens frequently, it is often a stress inducing experience. Even for adults this is the case, but often we have gotten so good at coping, adapting and pushing ahead that we overlook our more basic needs for maintaining the stability of rhythm.

8) Forms of medicine that encourage health rather than disease management: Children have the right to experience childhood fevers. Working with anthroposophic medicine and therapies is ideal but not as easy for some to access. The long-lasting relationships within primary care with a doctor who knows your family and understands your health goals is most important. Find a doctor who supports health in your child and recognizes that no one treatment fits all. Individual care requires individual considerations. “First do no harm,” and “The best interest of the child shall be the primary consideration,”[vii] are the basic principles any good doctor must work out of. The child deserves this kind of care as their right.

What can be done to further the health of children? A clear recognition both of the harms done over this past year as a result of rights violations of unmet childhood needs and of the necessity to protect the experiences of young children is the first step. A healthy lifestyle inspired by anthroposophy is one effective approach for promoting true hygiene in the body, soul, and spirit. Authentic Waldorf education as well as anthroposophic medicines and therapies have known beneficial effects on the health of children. All medical issues should, of course, be discussed with a child’s doctor, but I would like to share a few treatment considerations for children who have been experiencing reactive anxiety and/or depression over this year.

Uriel and Weleda Pharmacies make slightly different but equally quality cream for the chest called Aurum Lavender Rose Cream. When applied to the chest over the heart in the morning and before bedtime, this brings a soothing, protected, confident while held feeling.

Footbaths with gentle oils such as lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, rose, and Malva are helpful for the nervous child, especially before going to bed.

Warm belly compresses made from chamomile are a great balm for a child who complains of belly aches. Be sure to get the bowels moving first. Have the doctor take a look if it is moderate/severe or persists. Often, anxious children who complain of belly aches or headaches are suffering from an actual bodily experience of their emotions. In this case, the compresses or footbaths are a great help for children and parents.

I find FES biodynamic flower essences safe and helpful for children who have experienced stress over this past year. Some possibilities are walnut for transitions, angelica or shooting star for feeling spiritually connected, aspen for fears, fawn lily for feelings of isolation, yarrow for the sensitive child, and dogwood for stress induced tensing and hardening of the body.

Gentle osteopathic treatments can be helpful for children who have experienced stress. Abnormal patterns of tension and circulatory flow exist in the body from trauma such as birth, stress stimulation, repetitive movements, emotional shock, and injury. Using a gentle manual therapy, osteopathic treatments help to release imbalances allowing for healthy patterns to re-emerge. The body always strives for this balance and the treatments support this process in time.

Metal Color Light Therapy (MCLT) is a therapy with great potential for now and in the future. It would be desirable for all schools to have access to this for soul care for children within curative education. Fortunately, more therapists in this country are now being trained. I believe the awareness of the capacity to help and need for MCLT will grow in the coming years.

Taking the example of the Children’s Parliament “Year of Childhood” initiative, I’d like to propose a similar grassroots initiative to you all, LILIPOH readers. What positive impact might we make in the world for tomorrow if today local communities joined together over this 2021/2022 school year and found ways to support one another in raising consciousness of the rights of the young child in the light of anthroposophic insights? Might regional meetings gathering parents, educators, and therapists working with young children create opportunities to support and learn from each other? We are in unprecedented times and no single authority has all the answers. The solutions live in each of us and can only be realized in caring communities. How might we also educate, awaken, and support parents outside of our school and therapeutic communities in meeting the developmental needs of young children, thereby holding sacred our task as adults to help them? Much needed is a raised awareness in the realm of politics, university education programs, and conventionally trained medical practices. Might we then begin to see a societal awakening to “the human rights that must be realized for every child to flourish and reach their full potential”?[viii] This truly can be the year of the child and it will take each one of us.


Melissa Greer, D.O. is a family medicine physician in Phoenixville, PA with specialization in anthroposophic medicine. She offers care for all ages and preventative health through hygiene of body, soul and spirit. carahmedicalarts.org

[i] “Year of Childhood.” Children's Parliament, April 8, 2021. https://www.childrensparliament.org.uk/year-of-childhood/

[ii] Ibid

[iii] “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” OHCHR, November 20, 1989. https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx.

[iv] Ibid

[v]  Steiner, Rudolf. The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1981.

[vi] Steiner, Rudolf. Human Values in Education: Ten lectures given in Arnheim (Holland) July 17-24, 1924. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1971.

[vii] “Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

[viii] “Year of Childhood.”