I had read years ago that just one stable, caring, and encouraging person can make the difference in a child’s life. So, I read a little more and discovered an article called the Science of Resilience written by Bari Walsh in 2015 for the Harvard Graduate School of Education (gse.harvard.edu). She states, “Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”
To summarize, although it is preferable to be surrounded by a number of stable and committed adults, the relationship with just one such adult can be the tipping point in a child’s life. A relationship with a caring and present adult provides the consistent interactions that build the child’s ability to respond to negative situations and to grow into a healthy ‘being’ able to handle whatever life throws his or her way. Without this constant and consistent relationship, the brain does not develop to it’s full capacity which could lead to a heightened level of stress and which could ultimately affect the child’s development and make it difficult for him or her to adapt to life events. The article goes on to discuss the importance and consequences of resilience in children.
I just read an amazing little book that got me reflecting on this whole idea that just one caring person can make the difference between a child thriving and barely surviving.
Fight Night was written by a Canadian author and is written in the form of a letter from a nine year old girl to her absentee father. The girl lives with her pregnant mother and her grandmother and has been expelled from school due to fighting. Her grandmother is homeschooling her, but this is a loose term due to grandmother’s unconventional methods. The girl’s mother has long engaged in erratic behaviour. I read this book, and then I went through it again so as not to miss the foreshadowing, the nuances, the life lessons. It is a book about family attachments, mental illness, resilience, intense loss, children who are forced to grow up too fast, and the reminder that one caring, supportive adult can change a child’s life. It’s about having to fight, even in the darkest moments, for joy in life, and learning what it really means to fight. While the mother is erratic, the grandmother is eccentric and larger than life, and the girl is an old-beyond-her-years child trying to make sense of life. Grandmother is definitely the rock star of the book. I laughed out loud at the irreverence and was emotional during the tender moments. This is a fast read, and an engaging, artfully written book.
This got me thinking further about the stable and committed people in my life as a child. I was fortunate to have a mother, father, and, yes, a grandmother who were always there as a ‘shelter’ in the storm of life. No matter the circumstances, or where we lived, or how much money we did not have, there was always routine. We always sat down together at the same time every day for dinner. (I never knew that cereal or bread and milk was not a valid supper!) Bed time was at a certain time. We learned skills by reading books that were probably beyond our years, by playing card games with the adults, and by playing Jacks (remember those?) We learned creativity by making our own paper dolls and building our own doll houses. We might have been a bit isolated and moved around alot, but we were never exposed to BIG issues such as alcoholism or violence. Mom and dad did not step in to ‘save us’, but we knew, behind closed doors, that they always believed in us. Whatever was happening in the bigger world of school or the community, we always knew we had a haven to return to.
Yes, we missed out on many opportunities for enjoyment and adventure. We were naive to the world. But, I agree with Bari Walsh’s comment that resilience can be built over time. We had a solid foundation in the family which prepared us to step out of our parents' door and into the world, building resilience as we went.
This also got me thinking about the people who were NOT family who played an important role in my development. I remember one teacher in Grade 8 who assigned a project in which each student had to write a letter to another student in the class. (In hindsight, this was a very poor assignment for the obvious reason that some students might receive many letters and some might receive none.) I was at a very awkward age, lost somewhere between ‘tomboy’ and young ‘lady’ (I wanted that 'tomboy' stage to last forever, and I am sure I never achieved 'lady' status!). I do not know how that teacher knew I would not receive a letter from another student, but he wrote me a letter, himself, which I can still pretty much recite to this day, affirming that I was just fine the way I was and that I was going to be a very "interesting" woman someday. I really liked his use of the word ‘interesting’ - not smart or attractive, but interesting. Lovely.
This got me thinking even further. Our provincial addictions counselling agency once had a slogan, something to the effect, “You may never know the difference you make.” It was a reminder that, regardless of our circumstances in life, we are in a position to make a difference to someone. In my career in human services, we had a clientele who initially did not want to come to the office; but over time, I truly hope that we became the ‘somebody’ to many of them. When their lives were in turmoil, they knew that we remained in the same office, at the same desks, with the same pictures on the wall - some of us for over 35 years! We were sometimes the only ‘constant’, encouraging, voice of reason for so many people.
Now, as we are in midlife, we might not have that many opportunities to be that 'somebody' to a child. But I can guarantee that there is someone, somewhere, that needs a 'somebody', even if just in passing. It might be in our family, or in our neighbourhood, at a store, or at a helping agency.
I think that is one if the reasons why I loved Fight Night so much. It resonated with me on so many levels personally and really reminded me to be the ‘somebody’ to somebody.