An Interview with Raffi Cavoukian
by Pamela Gerloff
Raffi Cavoukian, known around the world
as "Raffi," is an internationally renowned children's troubadour
whose award winning recordings have played in millions of
homes, schools, and libraries. A generation of fans in Canada
and the United States has grown up with his children's classic,
"Baby Beluga." Raffi has been a longtime champion of children
and ecology and his original songs have been sung in premiere
concert halls, at the Kyoto Global Forum, and in the General
Assembly of the United Nations.
Raffi is a member of the Order of Canada,
the Order of British Columbia, and the Global 500, as well
as a recipient of the United Nation's Earth Achievement
Award. He was recently awarded an honorary doctorate degree
from the University of Victoria and will be awarded an honorary
doctorate from The University of British Columbia in May,
2005. He is a member of the board of advisors of More Than
President of the "triple bottom line"
company Troubadour Music, Raffi is also the founder of child
honoring, an original philosophy and unifying principle
for restoring the human and natural communities. He has
published an autobiography,
The Life of a Children's
(Homeland Press, 1999) and written "A Covenant
for Honoring Children," an expression of society's duty
to its young.
You've said that your dream is to embrace child honoring
as a central organizing principle in society-
And you often ask people to imagine the benefits of a child-honoring
society: "one whose love for its children is manifest in
every aspect of its design and organization." What do you
imagine a society that truly honors children would look
It would be a society where the primacy of the early years
would be well understood by everyone. People would understand
that we are formative creatures; we grow from a little tiny
baby whose brain after birth is still forming- and it forms
with all of the impressions that the child perceives: of
love or its absence, of connection or its absence. If we,
as a society, were to understand this, I think we would
change all of our institutions to support giving the best
start possible to every child in our society.
would be a non-partisan understanding. Of course, people
would differ about how to provide that support for every
child, but there would be a tangible sense that we would
detoxify the air, the water, and the soil; that foods would
be grown without pesticides; that corporations would serve
the common good. It would be a revolution of values-and
I use those words consciously. A childhonoring society evokes,
for me, the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child."
Every sector of society would understand and respect the
irreducible needs of the very young. You might say that
there would be a truly compassionate, familyfriendly agenda
to politics. A childfriendly world would be our goal-a world
that is hospitable to newborns; as they say in some circles
of the United Nations, "a world fit for children."
You've said elsewhere that you don't mean a society where
Not at all.
People sometimes feel fearful when we start talking about
honoring children. They're afraid we're going to turn over
the world to them.
Right-and I don't mean that at all. That would disrespect
the child, actually. Children need our guidance. They need
to test our strength, but to know that our strength is superior
to theirs. They have their own power- their power to inspire
best kind of conscious parenting sets reasonable limits
(reasonable to the adult, I mean!). In the best parenting,
warm bonds are there, but they're there because the child
feels not only cared for, but secure within the limits that
are firmly set and held.
why I haven't called this initiative "child centered." It's
not child centered. Child honoring is, of course, a children-first
approach to healing communities and eco systems. But that's
very different from a society where children rule.
It's really about a change of perspective, isn't it?
Covenant for Honoring Children
find these joys to be self-evident: That all children
are created whole, endowed with innate intelligence,
with dignity and wonder, worthy of respect. The embodiment
of life, liberty, and happiness, children are original
blessings, here to learn their own song. Every girl
and boy is entitled to love, to dream, and to belong
to a loving "village." And to pursue a life of purpose.
We affirm our duty to nourish
and nurture the young, to honor their caring ideals
as the heart of being human. To recognize the early
years as the foundation of life, and to cherish
the contribution of young children to human evolution.
We commit ourselves to peaceful
ways and vow to keep from harm or neglect these,
our most vulnerable citizens. As guardians of our
prosperity, we honor the bountiful Earth whose diversity
sustains us. Thus we pledge our love for generations
The words of "A Covenant for Honoring Children" suggest
nine guiding principles for living. Taken together,
they offer a holistic way of restoring natural and
human communities, thus brightening the outlook for
the world we share. They form the basis for a multi-faith
consensus on societal renewal.
For an elaboration of each of the
nine principles, please visit
That's right. Not only the change of perspective that comes
when you don the child-honoring lens-when you look through
a child-honoring lens, the world looks very different-but
also, it's what a lot of ecological economists have been
talking about: moving from a "bottom line society" to a
"triple bottom line society." In a triple bottom line society,
instead of money being the sole, or even the most important,
concern, other profit and loss pictures become equally important.
A triple bottom line economy would be one in which social
and environmental, as well as financial, considerations
are at play. The word "responsibility" comes to mind. In
all three spheres, we need to behave responsibly.
Would you say more about how money relates to creating a
At the very basic level, those who have more money, as opposed
to less, have more choices, and enjoy the power that comes
with that choice-making ability. We who have more choices
need to remember that money is supposed to serve us. Money
is a symbol and it should not turn tyrant. A monetary economy
is supposed to serve the people-and by that I mean all the
people, every child and every child's family. If I were
going to playfully invent something called capitalism, I
would probably call it goodwillism, so that the maximizing
wouldn't be about maximizing capital; it would be about
been an entrepreneur of a triple bottom line company-Troubadour
Music-for almost 30 years and am now the chair of The Troubadour
Foundation, which is working with a number of childhonoring
initiatives. What I've learned about money is that money
has a phantom power, which, if not directed toward good,
can wreak havoc. For example, the stark truth is that if
people have savings in a bank or a credit union (let's say
a teachers' association credit union), most people have
no idea what the bank or credit union is doing with those
savings. Unless there are stipulations as to how that money
is invested, it can go to all manner of investments that
are opposite to the values of the people who have invested
their savings there.
So intentionally aligning our money with our values can
help support a child-honoring society.
wrote that you went from "a person totally oblivious
to children to someone who learned to appreciate
and love them." How did that happen?
happened over a number of years, but it began one
day in the mid-70s, when I was in a classroom in
front of first-grade kids. (I used to take my guitar
into classrooms and sing for kids before I did concerts.)
Until that day, I was used to thinking of children
as a group of kids-a group of second graders or
a group of kindergartners. They were a group of
kids to me. But that day, my eyes gazed across the
group, and I beheld the children as individuals.
A very important light went on, and I thought, "My
goodness, every one of these people is an individual."
Sure, they may share the traits of childhood, but
they're individuals-and that was a key. Beyond that,
I needed to learn about how to entertain people
who are not like adults. Children are not little
adults. I had been an entertainer for grown-ups
before-a folk singer-so I had to learn who my new
audience was. In order to do that, I had to talk
to people who knew children. I had to read books
about children and child development. The child
development reading and studying became a tremendous
window of learning for me-not only about children,
but about myself and how I grew to be the person
that I am.
What are some other practical steps that we as individuals
can take to help create a child-honoring society?
I can give you an action list of 12 things to do, but I
prefer not to. I prefer that people reflect on the child-honoring
covenant that I wrote. I invite people to read the covenant
and the principles and, if they feel so inspired, to
the covenant and principles -make them a part of their lives.
first principle is
. We can begin
by showing respectful love to every child we know or encounter.
Of course, we can do that with adults as well, but it's
so important with the child. It's so important that the
love we give the child be respectful. Essentially, the covenant
is about seeing the innate brilliance of every child, and,
with our actions, behaving in ways that respect the living
world we all share.
You're suggesting that the solutions will naturally emerge
from the people themselves.
Yes. People can figure out what to do. This is an invitational
process, not a prescriptive one.
are impacted by personal, cultural, and planetary conditions.
When I say "personal" I mean in their personal and family
lives. Cultural conditions can mean such things as the economic
model that we live by, the educational system and how it
regards the child, or how religions regard the child.
first question we ask is,
How do we regard the child?
How do we treat the child?
How we treat
the child comes from how we regard the child.
child honoring requires a process of "seeing"-seeing the
child for who she or he is. That's why the first line of
the covenant says,
We find these joys to be self-evident,
that all children are created whole, endowed with innate
intelligence, dignity, and wonder, worthy of respect.
very birth, by being here, we are blessings to the world.
That's not a view held by a majority of humanity at this
point. But it shall be.
that for optimism? It reminds me of a quote from Eleanor
Roosevelt, who said, "If a thing must be done, it can be."
It also makes me think of an article I just read, which
pointed out that some of the great cathedrals of Europe
took 800 years to build.
We may not have that much time to turn this world around,
Would you say more about that?
It's what other people are saying. I've had conversations
with people such as Maurice Strong, who was the chair of
the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992; Stanley Greenspan, the
premier child psychiatrist in Washington, D.C.; and chimpanzee
researcher and environmentalist Jane Goodall. When I have
talked with them about what we need to do to turn this world
around, they've said, "You know, we don't have much time."
There is a sense that this is the defining moment in the
history of humanity, that we have perhaps but one generation
to decisively set humanity's course.
are saying this, too- such as Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface,
the carpeting giant in Atlanta. More and more people are
understanding that the turn toward sustainability is one
we need to make now. The 1990s were called the turnaround
decade, but we didn't see the turnaround that we needed.
We fell further and further behind. That brings a certain
urgency to the situation, not only in our own countries,
but to the world culture-because we're such an interconnected
that one thing we'll need to do in moving toward a child-honoring
society is to change what we measure in our economy. Right
now we have the Gross Domestic Product [GDP]. It's a very
crude and, in some ways, dangerous measure, because it only
counts the money, and it adds indiscriminately! It doesn't
look at how the money was generated, whether what was done
in generating the money is useful or not, whether we want
those activities to grow or not. It asks no questions.
need to come up with something like a quality of life index
or an index of well-being that measures what matters most
in life. That would be a Smart Domestic Product, not a Gross
Domestic Product. That would be a measure that shows us
that the things we want to grow are growing and the things
we want to shrink are in fact diminishing. That kind of
index would be a child-honoring index, hopefully, because
the criteria regarding the wellbeing of children would be
factored in. In other words, the child-honoring lens would
be applied to that index.
good news is that, in Canada, a number of my colleagues
are working on exactly what I'm talking about.
on Learning from Children
the most important thing you've learned from children?
that's easy-the importance of play.
do seem to know how important play is!
it's the way they are. Their knowing is their being.
I think it's astonishing that the very young learn
the most important things in life-how to be a person,
how to talk and eat and write-they learn all of
those astonishingly complex feats while they are
in a mode of play. That says two things to me: Play
is important -because that's the mode children are
in when they learn this stuff, right?-and it's important
to retain play throughout life. Almost any task
done with a playful attitude becomes more do-able.
Our most recent issue of
More Than Money Journal
was on the topic of money and happiness. In it, we published
an article on Bhutan; it discussed that country's shift
away from the Gross Domestic Product as a measure of economic
well-being to an index it calls Gross National Happiness.
A Wealth of Happiness:
Bhutan's Economy of Well-Being
," by Karen Mazurkewich,
More Than Money Journal, Issue #38, Money and Happiness,
The Gross National Happiness index is kind of what I was
talking about-goodwillism. It's an economy that values intangible
It's interesting that people who have been to Bhutan say
that people do seem happier there-especially the children.
interesting. Often, when you ask children
about the world
want-when you ask them who would
have food and shelter and clothing -almost universally,
you will hear from them that they want those things for
everybody. As one six-year-old said to me, "Nothing ought
to cost more than 20 dollars!"
world children want is the world that child honoring tries
to express. Children don't want their beluga whales going
extinct and being riddled with toxic chemicals. They don't
want their eagles to be endangered and to become extinct.
They want a natural, pristine, beautiful world. Now, who
doesn't want that?
I will say, in the conflict of interest between the power
of corporations to do good or harm, and in the reasonable
right of every child to breathe and to be fed-to be nourished-the
child's needs must prevail. I mean, this is such a reasonable
statement! Just to have to make it says a lot about us.
It does seem kind of peculiar that we even have to talk
about child honoring.
I know. I think of it this way: In the film
the filmmakers have looked at the behavior of the publicly-
traded corporation and come to the conclusion that it's
the behavior of a psychopathic entity; that is, the traits
that corporations show in their behavior are psychopathic.
That calls to mind Erich Fromm, who talked about the pathology
of the normal-the idea that what seems normal can actually
be pathological, and the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who
said that healthy individuation requires resisting unhealthy
enculturation. We are swimming in unhealthy enculturation
at the moment. And, you know, corporate ingenuity can be
directed towards good or not. Unfortunately, corporations,
which, legally, are only mandated to serve the interests
of their shareholders, aren't particularly good vehicles
for being accountable to the public good. So, to the extent
that there are competing rights between the rights of an
abstract entity we call the corporation and the reasonable
basic human rights of a being who is real flesh and blood-our
child, this soul-encased, corporal being-this is the one
whose needs must prevail.
Haven't you suggested elsewhere that in the history of humanity,
we've never really had a child-honoring society?
I think what I've said is that we've never had a revolution
inspired by the universal needs of children. But perhaps
child honoring is an idea whose time has come. Many people
around the world, including Nelson Mandela, are campaigning
for the world of children. In 2000, Mandela said that it
is not enough for world leaders to spout empty rhetoric.
He said, "What we need to do is to turn this world around
for the children." I subsequently wrote a song called "Turn
This World Around for the Children" and sang it for him
spoke and sang at a conference at the World Bank called
Investing in Early Childhood. There were a number of presentations
there about how investment in early childhood saves many
times that amount in socioeconomic costs later on in life.
So financiers and economists, too, are coming to understand
that we need to tend to the early needs of children as a
proactive measure, not only in order to build the most productive
societies, but also to save money in socioeconomic costs-the
cost of neglect, you might say. The idea of attending to
and meeting the needs of children is definitely gaining
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