Grace for Children

November 26, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: The Christmas season is touted as the time to focus on children. But Thanksgiving may be more appropriate. Here is an occasion to express gratitude to and for children, and idea that runs counter to the news.

The news about young people is almost always bad: Stories of newborns left in dumpsters or in bathrooms, stories of infants beaten and burned, of neglected children, of children under-educated, under-nourished, under-loved, or children turned into monsters, like the 15-year-old boy in New Jersey accused of raping and murdering a 10 year old, or children abducted and murdered like Polly Klaas, children strangled like John Benet Ramsey, children on drugs, pregnant children, children with AIDS. I’ve never done percentages, but I would bet that the full quarter of all local news stories involves harm to children.

How many stories do not make the evening news, those that occur behind the blank walls of seemingly innocent houses, behind the terrible houses, behind the terrible silence of doors?

The evidence of the dire state of American children is hardly anecdotal. The annual numbers are out there–three million children reported to public social service agencies for abuse or neglect by adults, over a thousand dead as a result of abuse or neglect, over half a million in foster care or in substitute homes, 14 million in poverty, 100,000 homeless, urban, rural, poor, wealthy, every color, every size.

The country treats its children like disposable chattel, always has. In mid 17th century Massachusetts there were stubborn child laws to justify beatings. In mid 18th century the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, advised, “If you spare the rod, you will spoil the child.” In mid 19th century Philadelphia, a baby was found in a garbage can every day of the week.

Under these circumstances the idea of expressing gratitude to children may seem silly, remote, and out of place. Adults are accustomed to thinking of gratitude as something that children owed them, that children ought to be grateful for what we given them, an idea, which when translated to shouting, probably results in child abuse itself. “More?” asked the man in Oliver Twist, “You want more?”

Yet, children in every stage of childhood give as generously as they get. In infancy they give the mere pleasure of existing, in early childhood the pleasure of growing and learning, in the teenage years the pleasure of finding moral and intellectual direction; as young adults the pleasure of watching admirable and capable young people enter the world.

Gratitude, though it is felt on the receiving end, is something that one gives. Children, powerless as they are, give all the time. What they give most–oddly enough–is need. They need. And adults who are needed are presented with a gift of finding within themselves the capacity to answer need.

In a way children make adults of adults because they force certain grownup virtues on them: Compromise, for one thing, patience for another; most of all, the sense that one has the ability and the obligation to help someone else out, a task made all the more satisfying when that someone else is small, helpless, and trusting.

At every Thanksgiving table this year and every year a different sort of news about children is in plain sight. When the nanny trial is long past and the trial of the man accused of assaulting and crushing the skull of that other child in New York, and before the other news takes its place, there is still before one’s eyes a better sort of news.

Disbursed among the grownups at the table are the people whom they created and for whom they are responsible and to whom they might direct a portion of grace. Thank you for improving, ennobling, and gladdening our lives.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.