Frederick Douglas once observed that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Whether this is true or not is certainly less than obvious. The lack of clarity starts with the meaning of “strong children” and “broken men.” The ambiguity extends to include how one might go about building a child, strong or not, and the skills and tools needed to repair broken men. If one posits that “strong children” are kids who are well adjusted and that “broken men” are adults who are maladjusted, the aphorism is likely true.
Adults may become maladjusted, “broken,” after they are adults. This can happen due to numerous causes and circumstances; but since Douglas connects strong children and broken men, it is fair to conclude that he is focusing on a presumed connection between childhood and later adult adjustment. His point is that it is easier to bring up well adjusted children than it is to correct the maladjustment of adults, when that adult maladjustment is a result of a problematic childhood.
It’s certainly true that some children grow to be maladjusted adults, despite receiving appropriate developmental support and nurturing throughout their childhood. This sad reality gives proof to the conclusion that building strong children is far from easy and is occasionally not possible. It’s also true that inadequate developmental support and nurturing nearly guarantee that children will grow up to be maladjusted adults. Further, the severity of adult maladjustment is proportional to the degree of inadequacy: the more severe the neglect, the more severe the adult maladjustment.
The hidden truth here is that the resulting adult maladjustment is usually only partially repairable; and far too frequently, the damage is not repairable at all. The long term effects of child neglect are usually serious and often permanent. A family, community, or society that neglects its children is committed to the creation of maladjusted adults. It’s as simple as that.
Despite energetic protestation, denial, and endless rhetoric to the contrary, the neglect of children is extensive in systematic in virtually all communities, states, and throughout the country. If you doubt that, look at the inadequacy of public education, health care for many children, inadequate housing, drug abuse and crime, family violence, and the myriad of other ways children are being neglected. Look carefully because what you see is the very real and ongoing commitment of community, state, and national leaders to adult maladjustment, what Douglas calls “broken men.”
If you are committed to a world of fewer broken men, a world where children are valued and not neglected, start with your children and your family.
Leo Tolstoy knew that “All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Your family is like other families in many ways. It has its ups and downs, strengths and vulnerabilities, its problems and opportunities. Your family is not perfect nor is it without its moments of perfection. As is true for other families, yours is somewhere between what you hope it can be and what you sometimes fear it might become.
Buddha expressed the tension of hope and fear like this, “A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.” Tolstoy’s happy family, Buddha’s beautiful flower garden, and your hope symbolize the potential for harmony and well–being for you and yours.
Just as your child wants your unconditional love and encouragement, you want him to love you, to love himself, to love other people, and to love the world around him. You express your love through hugs, playing, and doing things together. You encourage him to share his feelings, fears, and frustrations. At the same time, you give him the freedom to grow and to experience the bigger world. You want him to have an exciting life of his own, knowing that his relationship with you is secure and predictable.
In addition, you want your child to respect you, to respect himself, to respect other people, and to respect the world about him. You know that much of his attitude toward himself and toward the world about him comes from your attitude about him.
Just as children learn to love by being loved, they learn respect for self and others by being respected. Your behavior, attitudes, and beliefs will be reflected in your child. More than you may ever know, he “does as you do.”
Children also develop attitudes toward themselves and others as a response to the attitudes and beliefs others communicate to them. In part, your child will become what you tell him he will become. You convey this definition of self through your physical, emotional, spiritual, and social interactions with him as well as through the way you relate as his parent. Beyond these things, there is a whole world of influences over which you have little control. Your hope must be that you have nourished and nurtured your child’s potentials so that he can effectively deal with the multiple influences of the world. You hope that your loving respect has been strong enough and clear enough to be integrated into his being as he moves out into a world that may not perceive him as unique. His sense of being special comes from you. You can only trust that it is solid enough to last him a lifetime.