Children don’t see material benefits in the same way adults do. From my childhood in South America, I recall a visitor who asked me and my sisters if it was hard to live so simply. Looking up at the stranger, I wondered if he was crazy. Hard? What on earth did he mean? I couldn’t imagine a happier childhood. But now I understand the foundation of our happiness. Instead of things, my parents gave us time and attention on a daily basis. No matter how hectic their schedule, they tried to eat breakfast with us before we went off to school each morning.
The idea of gathering as a family, for a meal or simply to end the day together, has fallen by the wayside. Even if we wish for it, conflicting schedules and long commutes often make it impossible. But regardless of the reason, it is the children who lose out, and I am not convinced that it is always a matter of economic necessity.
Though my parents worked long hours, they made a point of drawing us all in at the end of the day to gather and regroup. Our generation needs to reclaim this concept of anchoring a family to give the children a foundation. It takes sacrifice on the part of parents, but the results make it completely worthwhile.
I have been amazed to find, on my travels around the world, that in some of the most impoverished places on earth, in Africa, South America, and the Middle East, there is also the greatest devotion to family and children. These places lack all of the material advantages we take for granted in the developed sectors of the West. Infant mortality rates are high, water is polluted, food is meager, and medicines are always in short supply, if they are available at all. Toys are sticks or tin cans, clothes are ragged, babies lack cribs and strollers. Yet nowhere have I seen such radiant smiles, such warmhearted hugs, or such great affection between parents and teens, elderly people and small children.
What is it about the plush homes of our own country, where every material need is more than adequately attended to, that leaves our children in such a different state? Maybe it is the lack of something to live and work for beyond a better car and a bigger house.
I won’t romanticize poverty. Nor am I blind to the fact that there are many poor children in the “developed world,” from the migrant camps in Florida and California to the ghettos of New York and London’s East End. In those places and others too numerous to name, children are being denied the most basic necessities – let alone the additional trappings that most of us feel we deserve. Deprivation gives rise to neglect and abuse. These children are in my prayers daily, and their suffering is a judgment on a society where many other children are suffocating in overabundance. I firmly believe that the well-being of a child is not dependent on his or her access to material wealth, but on the knowledge that he or she is loved.
Mother Teresa once observed, after a visit to North America, that she had never seen such an abundance of things. But, she went on, she had also never seen “such a poverty of the spirit, of loneliness, and of being unwanted.…That is the worst disease in the world today, not tuberculosis or leprosy.…It is the poverty born of a lack of love.”
What does it mean to give a child love? Many parents, especially those whose work keeps them away from their families for days or even weeks at a time, try to overcome feelings of guilt by bringing home gifts. Well-meaning as they are, they forget that what their children really want, and need, is time and attentiveness, a listening ear, and an encouraging word.
Deep down, every parent knows that bringing up a child entails more than providing for them. It’s a rare father or mother who won’t readily admit that they ought to take more time with their children. My father often said that investing in time spent with your children is more important than investing in your bank account.
Obviously, it is impossible to live without money and material goods, and every household must have its provider and its plans for the future. But ultimately it is the love we give our children, and not the material things, that will remain with them for life. And that is something we all too easily forget with the lure of a bigger paycheck or a better job.
Dale, a good friend, used to work for one of the largest law firms in the world. Though he once made more money per year than many people make in a lifetime, his paycheck and his prestige meant little to his family – perhaps because he was never at home to enjoy it with them. Excuses didn’t go over well, either with his wife or his children, so rather than dig in his heels, Dale decided to try listening. Soon he had heard enough and made up his mind that there was only one thing to do – quit the firm. As he tells it:
A colleague and I were driving home from a Cub Scout gathering. While the van-full of boys played and laughed in the back seats, he cleared his throat and broached a difficult subject. “Dale, you are making a big mistake by leaving the law firm. Do you realize that?” He was referring to my decision to give six months’ notice of my resignation. “It’s not like you can just do whatever you want,” he continued. “You have five children. You have a duty to give them the best life possible and to send them to the best universities they can get into. You are shirking your duty.”
I let a few moments pass. Finally, I replied. “It wasn’t my idea. I never intended to cut back to less than twenty hours per week. My daughters pleaded that I quit.”
It was true. For the last two years I had balanced twenty hours per week as a lawyer with an equal amount of time serving men dying of AIDS and cancer. This was a dramatic change from my life as a lawyer who lived on airplanes, opening accounts all over the country and working eighty to ninety hours a week. But when the Iraq war hit, my part-time legal work suddenly exploded, and soon I was back to my old schedule.
About six weeks into this reversion, my daughter disappeared from school: she simply wasn’t there one afternoon when we went to pick her up. We looked for her for over two hours and finally contacted the police. Later she was found by a friend walking alone on a roadside, crying. Her explanation was simple: “Dad, when you were gone all the time, it didn’t matter. But now I’ve gotten used to you being here, and I can’t take it. I want you to quit being a lawyer.”
First I tried to get my older daughter to talk some sense into her younger sister, but it didn’t work. She agreed with her completely. Then I put it all down on paper for them to contemplate – to show them just how stiff the economic consequences would be: pay for your own clothes, car, gas, insurance, yearbooks, prom, college, trips, etc. It didn’t matter. My daughters wanted me.
My colleague was bringing the van to a stop at a red light. “Look,” he said impatiently. “You’re avoiding your responsibility!” A few moments passed before I sealed the discussion. It seemed too important to finish quickly. I was focusing on a clump of trees that refused to fall in line, refused to be controlled, refused to be cut down and processed at the corporate mill.
“I disagree,” I told him gently. “I disagree. And I bet, in your heart of hearts, that you do, too.
Excerpted from Their Name Is Today.