Thinking About Other People's Children

When my eldest son was learning to ride a bike and getting quite proficient, our gentle encouragement to try without the training wheels was met with total resistance. Yet one morning he came home from his coop kindergarten on top of the world, proudly riding on just two wheels. Another parent had watched him on his bike, saw clearly that he was ready, and suggested that he give it a try. For some reason, this suggestion looked more attractive than ours had. So this father helped my son take off the training wheels, ran up and down with him as he practiced, offered lots of encouragement--and together they succeeded.

It was a little thing. I'm sure that my son would have done it sooner or later without that help. But I was touched. Another parent had noticed my child, had an idea about him, and put in some time and energy to help him along the way.

I thought about little things that I've done for other people's children. Often they've involved not accepting limitations that parent and child both have gotten used to. A child my second son's age tells me that he can't climb up a ladder, that he needs my help. My son has been climbing that way with ease for ages, so I am skeptical and encourage him to give it a try. I put a hand ready, say I won't let him fall, and tell him to go for it. I listen to him protest about how "he can't, he can't" as he slowly makes his way up. Then I get to compliment him warmly on his success, while he looks as pleased as he can be.

This is a little thing too. But multiplied many times, they are not little. They can make an enormous difference to the children--knowing that other adults are thinking about them, seeing how good they are, and caring that they have big, full lives. The world looks safer--and the difficulties that might otherwise be caused by the blind spots and limitations of their parents become significantly reduced. These little things can make a huge difference to the parents as well--knowing that it's not all up to us, that somebody else sees and values our child, that when we get stuck and can't help them, they can still get help.

Of course, many non-parent adults relate to our children all the time--as schoolteachers, Sunday School teachers, camp counselors, etc. Adults in those roles can have a profound impact on the life of a child. But we don't have to be in a defined role to be of great use. Sometimes a friend or a neighbor who is around a child without being their parent or having any defined role in their life can be of more help than anyone else.

We may hold back for many reasons--feeling that we don't know enough, feeling that it's not our place, or not wanting to bother. (Though I know that each child is precious, wonderful and unique, I still love my own the best and think of them first. As I struggle to put out enough for them, the idea of putting out for someone else's child can feel like the last thing in the world I want to do.) But it's not really that hard. The parts are simplicity itself: getting to know someone, listening to them, liking them, encouraging them. And there is something about a parent extending her/himself to someone else's child that is a profound contradiction to the isolation in which we operate as parents so much of the time. It is a wonderful gift to give to a whole family--and a priceless one to receive in return.