What Breaks My Heart

Kids. Kids break my heart.

No, not my kids. I’ve written about my son and my daughter. I’m very proud of them and the young man and woman they’ve become. Yeah, they’re teenagers, so things aren’t perfect. They can be kind of maddening sometimes. That’s what teenagers do. But, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Kids in pain. Kids getting a raw deal. That’s what breaks my heart.

My lovely bride used to work in social services. I’ve heard more than a few sad tales that make you want to do very bad things to the adults responsible. My wife is out of that business now, but I heard another tale today.

A friend of hers, living with her husband and an infant, recently had her husband’s 6-year old nephew and 8 year-old niece placed in their home. They had been in foster care for a year after their mother abandoned them with a babysitter. Those kids come out of foster care into a nice little home with two caring adults, but a home where a young family isn’t swimming in money.

I’ve been there. Single income, and not a big one at that. Spouse and children. Not enough money for much of anything besides the basics, and even those can be a struggle at times. Making it really because of being super thrifty, plus aid from friends and family. It’s hard. It’s stressful. At times, it just fucking sucks.

Now add two other kids, who just need someone to love them. They come to their new home with pretty much nothing. The little boy’s birthday is in a couple days. They asked for oatmeal for their first lunch with their new family. CPS was helping the family find beds, sheets, and other basics today.

My heart hurts for them. We’re going to help, because we can. But, my heart hurts not just because the story is sad; it hurts because childhood trauma like that is scientifically proven to dramatically increase the odds of trauma across the spectrum of that child’s life when they become an adult (I highly recommend reading information on the ACE study and/or a presentation by Dr. Robert Anda on the topic; it will make you re-think how you consider supporting both children and adults in life). Today’s sad story for a child all too often becomes society’s problem in the future, in addition to an adult wracked with pain.

I have another example close to home. One of my children’s friends is in a bad place. They cut themselves sometimes. Their home life is a fucking train wreck. Ok on the surface, mired in complex and painful dysfunction with extended family when you dig deeper. Not exactly a good place for vibrant mental health and emotional development…as if being a teenager wasn’t tough enough emotionally.

Our home is a safe place for that friend. They know they can come over whenever they need to. My wife and I have spent time with them. We’re intentional about showing we care, because we do. They’re a good kid. Just one getting a raw deal. And my heart hurts because of it.

What does that mean?

Maybe it means we should do what we can to help kids when we can. Maybe that’s money. Maybe that’s time. Maybe that’s offering a safe place. Maybe it’s getting real with them or the adults in their life if the time is right. Maybe it just means praying for them, because sometimes that’s all you can do.

Maybe there are more ways. What about your professional life?

I used to work at the U.S. Department of Education, helping implement No Child Left Behind; an important, laudable, at-times controversial, and imperfect education reform law. It passed in partnership between President George W. Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy, with the 100% meritorious goal of eliminating the achievement gap between affluent and white kids versus poor and minority kids. What did I like about that job? Helping advance the education of kids who needed it most, getting a better education so as adults, they could break the cycle and not need that help.

One of the most memorable school visits I did in that job was at an elementary school in Boise, Idaho, in a not very good part of town. By stereotype, the school should have been pretty bad. It was one of the best in the state.


People. People who cared. The principal created a culture that didn’t accept excuses for why kids couldn’t learn. Her view: yes, those kids had challenges. Their homes might be broken. They might be poorly clothed. They might not have school supplies. They might not get a reliable three square meals a day. But when they walked through the doors of that school every day, the staff was going to do everything they could to help those children learn. And they did.

When the pleasant reading areas assembled in the hallways at that school, complete with comfortable couches and chairs, were a sought-after reward by the students, somebody is doing something right. And those kids are much more likely to be successful later in life because of the environment those educators created.

What are you doing right to help a kid?

I bet you could find one who needs it. I mean really needs it.

A kind word. Some time to talk. An unexpected birthday present. Some athletic gear or school supplies they need. Some food so their parents can provide good, healthy meals.

Because when I look into the eyes of a kid who comes from a shitty home and is eager to learn, when I look into the eyes of a kid who is going hungry sometimes, when I look into the eyes of a kid who is cutting themselves because their emotional state is such a mess, when I look into the eyes of a kid who doesn’t understand why the adult in their life is being such an ass to them…I want to do something more.

Maybe we all should.

Update: minor edits made for clearer factual accuracy.

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