Saturday, August 12, 2000


Always remember the kids

        A simple question, yet the 9-year-old struggled with it.

        “So how many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked at the end of an interview, trying to put her comments in context.

        Her brow furrowed. Her lips began soundlessly counting, then she shook her head and started again. “Uh, five,” she said finally, still unsure.

        “It's OK,” I said, patting her shoulder. “I was just going to say I bet you're a big help at home.”

        I watched the girl walk away thinking how often I have seen children suffer under such confusion. No matter what a stranger says, it is never really OK.

        There are a few questions every child has a right to know how to answer. Who makes up her family — who and where the members are — is first among them. Yet many children today grow up in a chaotic web of broken and shifting relationships.

Shifting surroundings
               A parent comes and goes, sometimes for a few weeks and sometimes forever. New siblings keep popping up. Parents' girlfriends and boyfriends and their children — what would they be, step-friends? — become a part of family life. A child opens her heart to them, and then they are gone.

        Adults have the right to make whatever choices they like about relationships and living arrangements. But let's not kid ourselves. Sloppily lived lives and selfish impulses bring suffering to the children.

        I have seen brave, brave children try to hold up under the mess of their parents' choices. Often, they are given the gruesome task of keeping Family Secrets. Ten-year-olds struggling to build the facade of a normal life around an alcoholic parent. Kindergartners told to lie about where they live, so the family can falsely claim residence in a school district. Adolescents who keep up the family image and never reveal that Dad beats Mom. A ninth-grade girl who excuses away bumps and bruises as klutziness until, one day, the whole ugly story of abuse and incest comes spilling out on the back of a vocabulary test.

        I remember the day well. It was the worst of my teaching career.

Information overload
        And sometimes children are given too much information, brought center-ring into the boxing match their parents' marriage has become. Sometimes, forced into the role of confidante, they go to school preoccupied with their parents' job hunt, debt, romantic break-up.

        And then, of course, there are times when no one tells the child anything. Some children grow up never having a clue about the nature of their brother's or sister's disability. No one tells them if there is a name, reason or treatment for it, so they live in a cloud of silence and shame. Some children grow up down the street from a nice man who, one day, the neighborhood children reveal is their father.

        And some are told to smile their way through their parents' divorce, their grandmother's death or the sixth “career move” across the country in the last seven years.

        And those sad, frightened children get very, very good at smiling.

        Forgive my bluntness. Or don't. It doesn't matter. The truth remains the same. Children are not our nurses, psychologists, punching bags, confidantes, enablers, alibis, bargaining chips, spies, sexual partners, rightful property or status symbols.

        Children are the closest link we've got to the divine. How wrong to cloud their pure and lovely light with the darkness of our own shortcomings.


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