Growing up in a crowded home—with seven children, two parents, and, at one time, an aunt and uncle living in the basement—provided countless daily challenges. Fitting around the breakfast table, agreeing on a television program (with just one television in the house), rationing out phone minutes (in the long- gone days of landlines and long-distance calling), finding the right piece of unclaimed clothing or sneakers, and catching any time alone were the normal tests of the day.
As a child with so many brothers and sisters, we used our voices—constantly and usually in hushed tones—but we were taught not to question authority. When we were encouraged to speak, we were told to speak quietly, be respectful, and keep our opinions to ourselves. That philosophy, however, seems out- dated. In fact, we should teach the opposite to today’s upcoming generation. We should encourage our children to speak freely and to want to be heard. In other words, we should inspire children not only to find their voices but also to speak freely, and honestly.
I have written in the past about the next generation, and some of the thoughts I have expressed may be viewed as critical of today’s youth. On the other hand, and in all fairness to the children of today, many of the challenges they confront are far greater than those faced by my generation. Most of us cannot imagine what teenagers face today.
Indeed, the pressures from peers and the ever-present, yet misleading, messages from social media about how one should act or look are damaging to self-work and skew reality, foisting unrealistic expectations on our children when they are most impressionable and most susceptible to the wrong message. Living up to oversized expectations is something that layers in additional unnecessary worry and can have significant negative consequences. Children today are exposed to enormous and complex community and social issues on a daily basis, and they need to be equipped to engage, speak out, and be heard. Parents need to recognize these challenges and offer a counterbalance.
It is vital that every child knows they have a voice, that it matters, and that the strength of their voice can and should be used to help others and to effect positive change. Put simply, our children should be given the tools and the reinforcement from all of us to speak and be heard. Our future might depend upon it.
Some of my favorite moments in the Legislature occurred when young people would come to testify be- fore committee or to address legislators on the floor of the Senate or the Assembly. The emotion on the faces of legislators, some of whom I barely ever saw smile, was evident. They were clearly moved every time a child spoke. Every time.
I remember seeing Rocco, a young student from South Jersey testify before the Assembly Budget Committee (several years running) about the need to fund Braille in our schools. Rocco was amazingly effective, and every time he testified, you could have heard a pin drop in the room.
I recall seeing Jason from Bergen County (with his parents Diane and Jason) come to Trenton to speak so clearly about the needs for some of our special needs individuals. Jason moved the entire room, and he helped establish real change.
I learned recently about a special effort to help the younger generation find its voice. My dear friend Matt Eventoff trains senior executives on communication and public speaking during the day and volunteers doing the same with at-risk young adults at night. He, along with a co-author, Thomas Ray Garcia, recently put together the first in a series of free children’s books, Speechless, and a picture novel, Speak
Fearlessly. The idea behind both was to create free material to help every child, regardless of economic situation or status, find their voice and learn how to use it. They make all of the resources free at www.speakwithstylebooks.com. There is no sign-up requirement, no email address collection, no fee. Simply log on and download. To be clear, no one is making money on this effort—everything is donated.
I love the story behind Speechless, which as released first in Spanish and then in English, shows children where English is spoken at home as a second language that their voices matter as much as anyone else’s voice. Eight-year-old Amelia Martinez is terrified to deliver a speech at the Grand Oratory. However, when the intolerant Mr. Rhetorick steals the village’s voices, Amelia must use her public speaking skills to save Voz from eternal silence. On her quest, Amelia gains confidence at every turn, from speaking to forest animals to finding her own voice.
I heard that Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli has been supplying hundreds of copies to teachers and students in Trenton. Chris Paladino and the DEVCO team have been doing the same in Paterson. Marc Cinque and the Premio Foods team are doing the same exact thing in Hawthorne and Union City. Folks are beginning to do it in cities from Pleasantville to Atlantic City. And many, many more throughout the United States. In addition, a certain law firm in Cedar Grove will be doing a major push in Newark to provide these tools for learning. We also ordered hundreds of copies for Mayor Brian Stack in Union City.
More of us need to be more engaged. More of us need to push this idea and help make these vital resources available to aid children in finding their voices.
There is a basic rule of holding an elected office: to help those who do not always know they have a voice. In addition, helping the most vulnerable among us—our children—to find their voice is as noble a goal as one can find. The work is underway, but there remains much to do.
Let me close by addressing our 120 legislators — the next time you are about to stand up and pontificate in committee on some bill, or provide some observation, think about bringing a young person from your district to the committee room instead. Let them speak, and guess who the audience remembers.