Creating Family Care
I hear about "old people" folks and "kid" folks, those who gravitate to the elderly, and those (who, like me) have infinite patience with anyone under 13. Where are the folks dedicated to working with the great majority of people in between, that classic 18-54 demographic?
Somehow, it's not such a sexy cause. There are impassioned adult advocates, but the word "child" awakens a different kind of support, something of an instinctual reaction. Kids and old people seemingly can't be blamed for the problems they're experiencing, and therefore deserve our uniform support, right?
No matter the appeal of an eight-year-old's energy and cocky smirk, that child doesn't live in a world dominated by volunteer big siblings. She doesn't go to sleep, wake up and get fed in my dorm; I don't take care of her seven days a week--and at this moment in my life I couldn't do so no matter how much I might want to. We, and they, need the adults in their lives to promote their healthy long-term development in the six and a half days a week when I'm at least a phone call, if not farther, away.
But how can we reconcile our feelings about those adults who seem to keep making mistakes? What about the anger that rises in me every time I trudge up the stairs to see my mentee and hear yelling so loud it shakes the apartment building?
Despite the chaos, I'm a classic goofball, spinning kids around the room, charmed by their antics and shy smiles. But, what do I have to say to their mom except, "How are you doing?" Aren't those feelings I'm working to suppress--"how could you have gotten pregnant so many times with different fathers, how could you yell at your kids like that"--somewhat valid? It can be hard, scary and uncomfortable to talk with parents whose values you're not sure of, who might doubt you the same way; it can seem much easier to ignore that element of a child's life.
Yet these conversations and the very discomfort they arouse hold incredible possibilities for us, the parent and the child. Whatever I think of their mother, the reality remains that she is with those kids 24-7 and cares enough to get them mentors. It's natural to question people's motivations and even begin to make moral judgments. We're human and prone to do that, especially when we don't have the catch of an innocent child's face or the wrinkles and halted step of grandfatherly figure to check our pronouncements. The challenge is channeling that intensity constructively and questioning our own presumptions.
The importance of thinking beyond the child was highlighted for me by a pediatrician. I expected this doctor from the old city hospital to advocate passionately for children's health as a singularly critical issue. Instead, he challenged volunteers and other pediatricians to redefine the child-versus-adult dichotomy that I, and I think many others, unconsciously form when we attempt to decide which individuals are deserving of our time and money.
What are we not saying when we make a seemingly innocent comment like, "Those kids have no control over their lives and of course we should do everything possible to help them"? Within this rationalization lies a hidden (or not so hidden) implication about those kids' parents, who are responsible, have choices and could change their lives, and therefore aren't as deserving.
We must ask ourselves how to create services that generate long-term impact. It is impossible to do it without devoting energy to the lives of parents. Isn't it pretty hypocritical and lacking in common sense to advocate strongly for a mother's prenatal care and then, immediately after birth, shift focus to exclusive care of newborns? Who brings those kids in for appointments? What about their future health? The health of any kids they may have later on? Through their children, hospitals can reach these mothers, whether or not they're adolescents.
That's why the teen and tot clinic is such a good idea; one physician sees the mother and child together until the child is five years old. If we can all acknowledge the great impact of the family on childhood development, we need to take every opportunity to work with the family unit as a whole and create services that understand these connections.
My mentee's mom (like almost every parent) and I have the common goal of enabling her daughter to grow into an amazing young adult: this is how we have been able to develop a relationship over the past two years. It's our responsibility as volunteers to consider the parent a source of wisdom about the six and a half days a week we're not there. To listen, ask questions, and share with parents the specific strengths and weaknesses of the kids we get to know. To visit and call when there aren't discipline problems, when there's no motivation besides a chance to hear a story.
Similarly, parents and doctors can reach joint decisions to affect the kid's health, whether that involves quitting smoking or reading aloud a book each night. Framing both within the child's medical visit creates a sense of shared purpose, and capitalizes on the opportunity to create family-based solutions that can prevent future health concerns.
Those shared moments, at the hospital or an apartment in Dorchester, make it possible to foster the kids' ability to grow and change and benefit once that doctor changes hospitals and I graduate and move away, while, like every morning, the child's mom's still there. Ultimately, what greater goal can we work toward achieving?
Tiger Edwards '01 is a psychology concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.