There is this story I tell in the memoir I wrote about our family coping with the death of our father. It goes like this:
We were living in a trailer park off Morris Road. I was 11 or 12, and Mama needed to have surgery. I remain unsure of the nature of the surgery but I think it had something to do with endometriosis. Mama had suffered with that for awhile before Daddy died.
I can’t remember who came and took care of us. Or if she just left us at home with Grandpa Harve, himself a stroke victim. In fact, I recall very little of the aftermath of that surgery. Only that as a young girl I wanted desperately to show Mama that she was loved and cared for. So taking a mason jar, I went around that trailer park collecting monies from people in order to buy my mother flowers.
Growing up in Georgia, I knew that whenever somebody went into the hospital they were supposed to get flowers. I had no money of my own and no way of earning any quick enough to buy Mama flowers, so I went door-to-door begging people who hardly had any spare change for their spare change. Recalling that young girl and all she endured, and the way her heart so fully loved her mother wrecks me, even now.
The powerlessness position of childhood impacts us throughout our lives. It’s why we can remember so much of what happened to us 40 years ago, yet we can’t remember what we did four days ago.
Ask any POW, there is a humility that results from such powerlessness. For children, this vulnerability is often confused with shame, or embarrassment. A child thinks that they ought to be able to take care of things that, in reality, are beyond their ability. And frankly, too many adults expect kids to do the job that they themselves are unwilling to do. Just consider the gun situation in the country. Kids demanding what Congress itself refuses to do.
These days it seems the only way some people want to empower a child is with an AR-15.
A child who longs to buy their mom flowers or a gift but can’t afford to do so, feels defeated, powerless, at the very worst ashamed. Forced into such a position merely by their dependency & vulnerability, a child will often lack confidence in themselves. Begging at any age comes with a loss of personal dignity. This is heightened for children who simply have to rely upon the adults in their lives, no matter how selfish and/or cruel such adults may be.
Shouldn’t we, the adults, be striving to make children feel empowered? Shouldn’t we want to teach them how to be kind and thoughtful people, by being kindhearted and thoughtful ourselves? Whether that entails something as simple as giving a child money to buy their mum flowers, or enabling a son to pick out a gift for the grandparent they adore. Or helping them make a card or record a video of endearments. There are so many ways we can help instill dignity into children. We have the power to help children not feel so powerless.
The confidence of a child is built upon such moments.
Not one person whose door I knocked on in that trailer park turned me down. Most only had 50 cents or a dollar to give, but they gave it with a generous heart. It brings me to tears still, thinking of those goodhearted people, and the way they dignified my efforts as a child to care for my mother.
When a child is equipped to care for others it builds dignity within them. But if a child comes to you requesting help in showing another person how much they are cherished and you refuse to help, it robs not only them of confidence, it robs you of your dignity as well. Moreover, you’ve just taught that child how to grow into a wastrel like you.
We can do better.
We must do better.
It doesn’t require much beyond a heart that cares for others.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author After the Flag has Been Folded (HarperCollins).