Resilience and the child

[notice]A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.[/notice]

Much has been written about the ‘children of today’, being the ‘leaders of tomorrow’. In harmony with Martin Luther King JR’s sentiment that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”, I firmly believe that today’s investments into their lives will not only reverberate through the life of the individual child, but will impact on a future generation who will be touched, directly or indirectly, by the child (and the eventuating adult’s) engagement with society at large. Not having children of my own, I made peace with the fact that there are certain aspects of myself and life in general that I will never be able to fully comprehend or, at least, experience. I am therefore not able to fully identify with parents who express their dismay at some of the challenges associated with bringing up a child, or the joy they experience when a child graduate from Potty-Training University. If something doesn’t challenge you, it most probably won’t change you. I therefore absorb parenting-in-action whilst spending time at a shopping mall or watching a five year old bringing to life the sentiments of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who states that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them…”

“It’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it.” — Frank Warren

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A deeper appreciation for children was kick-started during my first few days of a three year career as investigator at the SAPS Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) Unit. Despite the stolen smiles and some of the most unspeakable acts committed against children, I was often astonished by their profound resilience and ability to rise above some of the most abysmal experiences. During informal conversations or attempts to build rapport with a child victim who suffered abuse over an extended period of time, questions about their dreams or aspirations for the future are often posed. Those working with abused children or adolescents will agree that many of these children respond with a passionate answer which usually includes: “I want to help other children” or “I want to become a social worker”. I once interacted with a pre-teen who was sexually assaulted over a period of months. She communicated a deep sense of responsibility towards innocent children whom she aspired to protect and equip with the knowledge gained from her personal experiences at the hands of a perpetrator.

As parents and adults we obviously have a tremendous responsibility towards their overall well-being. During engagements with children in a Kids Kingdom (Sunday school) class and listening to their conversations and sharing of experiences with one another, I often realise how vulnerable they can be despite the presence of solid parenting and systems being in place. Some parents underestimate the subversive nature of the world and inadvertently allow social media to offer their child a ‘serpent and a stone’ whilst they, as parents, should be offering the ‘cake and the steak’. As Christians we are, through the Word of God, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and therefore empowered to infuse this wisdom into our engagement with children whilst teaching them about the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). Yes, children are resilient indeed, and, as adults, many of us can testify that our scars remind us of what we have been through and do not have to dictate our future. Let’s do what we can to protect, comfort, teach and empower. Finally, the following poem by Shel Silverstein (1930 – 1999) does well in capturing the resilient nature of children:

SICK

“I cannot go to school today”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.

My mouth is wet, my throat is dry.
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox.

And there’s one more – that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut, my eyes are blue,
It might be the instamatic flu.

I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke.
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in.

My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My toes are cold, my toes are numb,

I have a sliver in my thumb.

My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,

I think my hair is falling out.

My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,

There’s a hole inside my ear.

I have a hangnail, and my heart is …
What? What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is ………….. Saturday?

G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

Shel Silverstein, 1930 – 1999