Beyond surviving: helping our children thrive

Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

I agree with Douglass, but my greatest concern is that the army of builders is too small.

At birth, so many of our children begin a long march toward stunted growth and early death. Absent timely intervention from caring individuals, their fate is often sealed. I am hopeful that one key takeaway from the powerful conversations that are happening in our region right now is a prioritization of our region’s children. I, like many, was disheartened to learn that Missouri leads the nation in the number of black children suspended from elementary school. That fact coupled with the realization that Missouri continues to top the nation’s charts for black homicide victimization rates leaves me reeling.

I believe that building strong children is principally the responsibility of parents and families. And if they fall short or need a little help, other caring adults should consider it a privilege to step in. Stepping in is usually just a series of small things that add up to something huge in the lives of young people and families. Not too long ago, I was with a leader who talked about opening his home to friends of his children who lived in particularly difficult situations. He took time to ask them their plans for their futures. This small act helps. When I was in foster care, we called these families “resource families.” These families confront young people who are supposed to be in school when they roam the streets aimlessly. They plug in to the life of a kid and his or her family, consistently providing any time they have. This is what we need: a way for people who can help to plug in and provide guideposts.

A long time ago, during a particularly tough period of my life, I wondered how long children could survive on their own without responsible adults to provide guidance for right and wrong. After mom died, my three siblings and I moved in with a distant cousin who later had a stroke and became incapacitated. While she was undergoing treatment (she never recovered), the four of us, ages 11 to 17, lived on our own in her north St. Louis City home for what seemed like an eternity (although it was probably no more than three months). Many adults from the church occasionally dropped food by the house. We ate well, but we were cognitively, emotionally and psychologically malnourished. This period of life didn’t cause our deprivation; it simply compounded what had been born many years earlier. When children are starved of proper parenting, this leads to overwhelmingly bad things. Parents can devolve to a place where they don’t notice the effect they have on their children. I liken the experience to generational asphyxiation—a slow death by suffocation. In order for us to change the trajectory of a generation, we have to mobilize an army of caring adults who are willing to work to challenge young people to take a different path and understand that they are marked for greatness, not prematurely sealed in death.

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