Guest columnist John Paradis: Let’s make world safe for kids to be silly


Published: 11-22-2023 5:30 PM

Last week, I watched a 1-pound eastern gray squirrel roll a 10-pound pumpkin across our yard to the edge of our woods.

Then, in a matter of minutes, the rodent gnawed off the stem and chewed a hole. It continued to bore inside, eventually fitting its entire body inside, minus its bushy tail, a look that resembles a furry coonskin cap.

Our two cats watched this crime scene from inside their warm house and did nothing. Just as they did several times before over the last month. This was, I believe, the 10th pumpkin that has met such a fate this autumn at our house.

Every year, we put pumpkins on our front stoop and along a stone wall in our front yard. Every year, our cats watch the squirrels decimate the gourds from a front door window.

This ritual first started with our two children. Now that they are adults, we text them photos from our smartphones to show them that we have continued this annual farce — silly cats watching silly squirrels eating silly pumpkins.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to be silly is to exhibit a lack of common sense or sound judgment, or to be “playfully lighthearted and amusing,” as in a “silly sense of humor.” Doing something just for the sheer “fun of it” is sometimes seen as a “silly waste of time.”

Hardly. Being silly is the best use of time. Being silly is to be human.

In Ukraine, schoolchildren visit a website called “Stories with Clever Hedgehog,” created by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, a University of Delaware developmental psychology professor and director of the university’s child’s play, learning and development lab. The Clever Hedgehog is the master of the website. The concept is entirely silly and why kids love it.

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“If you put a child on (“Stories with Clever Hedgehog”), you don’t have to worry for a moment,” Golinkoff said recently. “There is nothing on there that can hurt kids … nobody is pushing anything but having a good time.”

In Kibbutz Re’im in southern Israel, in the dawn morning light on Saturday, Oct. 7, young people were swaying away at a music festival in the desert, doing silly dance moves when Hamas terrorists attacked them. Children were among the hostages taken by Hamas.

In Lewiston, Maine, on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 25, children were having fun being silly, rolling perfectly hard spherical balls down a bowling alley when a gunman attacked them.

In Gaza, there is nowhere safe for Gaza’s 1 million children to turn, let alone be silly. Since Oct. 7, more than 13,600 children have reportedly been killed or injured, and many more are missing under the rubble of collapsed buildings and homes, according to UNICEF’s executive director Catherine Russell. Despite this week’s “truce,” UNICEF is preparing for more suffering.

In Sudan, Russell’s agency reports that over 1.7 million children have been displaced due to hunger, disease, and war.

In 1994, while on active duty on a military base in Germany, I helped form a Unitarian Universalist fellowship because I believed in the Unitarian affirmation in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

I still do, but it has become increasingly clearer to me that the first principle for all of humanity should be keeping every child safe and alive and to provide them with the means to be happy, to be kids … to be silly.

It is my belief that the true cost of war and violence is measured in children’s lives.

During the winter of 1995, I found myself in Sarajevo as part of a military team that went into that besieged city where, in the three previous years, 1,600 children were murdered. The protection of Sarajevo is one of the biggest failures among the United Nation’s peacekeeping missions.

In Sarajevo today, there is a War Childhood Museum that chronicles the experiences of children who lived through the war. It opened in 2017. It has since expanded to reflect the wartime experiences of children everywhere. Current research projects include how children are being affected today by the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

In one of the museum’s exhibits, there are hundreds of toys and other items donated by people who were just kids when war broke out in Ukraine several years ago. One of the items is a teddy bear that a mother gave to her son after a grenade blew off two fingers of the boy’s right hand.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the suffering of children, including death and extreme injury. In one harrowing scene, a mother wailed uncontrollably after learning that her child was killed after an Air Force F-16 fighter jet crashed into her house.

My own museum resides within my cerebral memories. Screaming mothers and children invade my dreams. The current conflicts do not help.

That’s why, I think, our family continues to position perfectly good pumpkins at our home for hungry squirrels to eat. We need symbols and reminders that we humans can be silly. Our lives are made of stories, the sillier the better. War and violence can’t defeat our capacity to be silly.

John Paradis lives in Florence.