Apparently there was once a time in Western civilization when children were seen but not heard. Yesterday, when eating at a fast food restaurant, I realized those days are truly over. We were surrounded by several young boys who insisted on screaming and running up and down the aisles, despite their mother imploring them to stop (and that’s all she was doing—telling them to stop, not making them stop. But that’s another column). Kids today are loud.
Part of the reason is because we no longer think of children as creatures who must obey adults as much as we think of them as creatures deserving of love and attention, so as to mold them into well-adjusted, healthy adults. We wouldn’t want to stunt their growth or harm their creativity or mar their spirit, would we?
One side effect of living with this parenting philosophy, though, is that many of us become paranoid that we may inadvertently cause irreparably emotional harm to our children—by not hugging them enough, or by hugging them too much; by leaving them with baby-sitters, or by becoming too wrapped up in our kids; by being too strict, or by not being strict enough. We picture our kids as fragile plants that could wilt if not cared for properly. But perhaps we take too much on ourselves, and in the process create a world in which our kids are no longer able to withstand difficult things.
These sorts of thoughts have been haunting me since returning from a children’s home in Kenya, hardly the place where we would think that children could thrive. But let me tell you about my friend Jennifer. She was eleven the first time we met her, the same age as my daughter Rebecca at the time, and they stuck to each other like glue. Jennifer is a bright girl, an avid reader, a graceful dancer, and she has an infectious smile.
For many years, though, that smile was hidden. One day, sitting among the briars under the shade of a cactus tree, she told us her story. Her father died when she was three, and her mother married a man who wanted nothing to do with Jennifer or her brothers. He beat them mercilessly (as he did their mother). At one point he was so angry with my little friend that he began to strangle her. The brothers raised the alarm, and the grandmother rushed over from next door to the rescue. She took Jennifer home with her, but after a few days sent her back, for her husband didn’t want the girl, either.
By the time Jennifer was seven, her step-father decided to marry her off to be the third wife of a much older man, who was willing to pay for the privilege. Jennifer begged her mother to stop the marriage, but she refused. So her brothers took her and they fled for the streets.
To find food, the three children rooted through garbage cans, constantly on the lookout for the police, who frequently beat and arrest street children. Jennifer watched one brother die from exposure, and another from malnutrition, before she was rescued and taken to live at the Mulli Children’s Family, where we met her.
I am so grateful that I can spare my children the desperation of being hungry; the pain of being beaten; the exploitation of being used. I don’t mean to diminish the privilege we share as Canadian parents. And yet, I also see how amazingly well these children on the other side of the world can do when they are cared for physically, spiritually, and emotionally. A little food and a lot of love goes a long way.
Before I went to Africa, I pictured these orphaned children as being disconsolate, broken-hearted, and fearful. What I found was the most hopeful place on earth, where 867 children, many with stories even more horrifying than Jennifer’s, find acceptance and opportunity. And they revel in it.
The Christmas season is coming, and I can’t help but wonder why our children, who are so much better off by every scale, don’t seem to be as joyful and as peaceful. I wouldn’t want Rebecca to trade places with Jennifer. But I do hope and pray that this season, perhaps our kids will catch the vision of how blessed they truly are.