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By Marian Wright Edelman
July 1, 1998

In In The Golden Year, the great English Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote:

Ah! when shall all men's good
Be each man's rule, and universal peace
Lie like a shaft of light across the land,
And like a lane of beams athwart the sea,
Through all the circle of the golden year?

If we were to change it to read: "When shall all children's good be each person's rule...", the world would be healed. I think we've forgotten the primary rule of all civilizations and all creatures. A lioness will die protecting her cubs; elephants will move about the land in search of food and water clustered around their young who walk at the center of the group, surrounded by caring adults.

Have human beings, besieged by drugs, violence, economic distress, and a culture ready to dump its values over the side of the lifeboat for material gain and power, become less than the beasts? Sometimes I'm afraid that we're getting there.

Putting children first is not always the easiest or most comfortable thing to do. I have been a full-time mother and the full-time president of the Children's Defense Fund for almost three decades. I know how hard it is to remember what is important, to keep a proper balance between work and family, to constantly examine the pages of my life story by the light in my children's eyes. But I know that nothing else I can ever do will matter as much. If you're a parent, you've been here. You know what it's like to juggle a dozen things and wonder how you can make it through one more day. But you do, because you must.

But what if you're not a parent? Shouldn't you care about children too? Something disturbing has happened to us in the past few decades. People who have no children of their own have begun to think that children are none of their business. If that's where you are, you're dead wrong.

It is said in the Native American culture that a grandparent's job is to pray for the children. Children, I believe, are everyone's responsibility — a trust that involves working, praying, and living in a way that puts children first and provides a model for adulthood.

If you are involved in glorifying violence in the media, you are not putting children first. If you work or advocate for federal, state, or local government policy like protecting guns and cigarettes and marketing them to children, you are not putting children first. If you are not supporting the life of a child you brought into the world with time, attention, and money, you are not putting children first. If you are abusing alcohol or drugs or indulging in violence in the presence of children who do what you do, not what you say, you are not putting children first. If you are not teaching and living a love- and value-based life, you are not putting children first.

I believe this is a crucial time in the history of the world. It should never become too trite to say our children are our future. As we approach the new millennium, we can work to ensure a future for our earth and our species. We can make each year a "golden year" by making "all children's good" our own personal rule. We can put children first in everything we do. We can all work towards the goals we at the Children's Defense Fund and the Black Community Crusade for Children have made our passion and our life's work: to ensure for all children a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life.

Or we can end history in a generation.

Let me end as I began with Tennyson's message of hope:

The deep moans round with many voices.
Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund and a working committee member of the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind®.

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