I recently found myself in a crisis in the back of a Land Rover in rural Tanzania. We were on a tour of the poorest of the poor--a gentle-hearted group of families suffering from malnutrition and abject poverty in a tiny drought-afflicted village. This was one of those heart-stopping moments that stays with you forever--and none of it was registering with my kids. One was reading a comic book and the other was two hundred pages into a vampire book. Neither looked up when we pulled up or left. They had something else to do. They were tired. They were bored.
I wasn't sure whether to pull the old mom card--you know, the hissing command issued in the ear that says get it together now--or else. I didn't know if i should just let them be because the situation was so intense (even for someone thirty years their senior) or launch into some self-righteous speech. In the end, I decided on something in between: a firm request to put the books down and pay attention--at least while we were on the tour.
In the end, I'm not sure if any of it made a difference.
I know it's probably naive to expect more from kids, but I was really affected by their apparent lack of interest. "I don't know what to say," one child explained later in the day without an ounce of guilt or concern. "I have my hands full with my own life. I don't have that much space to think about helping someone else."
I still haven't completely recovered from that statement. It leaves me without any words at all.
Reflecting on it now two weeks after the fact, I can see that my concern is centered around values--that set of guidelines or principles that we've chosen to give our lives direction and meaning. How is it that my kids in that instance so quickly passed over something that fully engaged my values? How is it that an experience that was rife with opportunity for a response and the most simple kind reaction seemed to strike them as no big deal? And maybe this is the most important question of all: how can we know if our children are internalizing at all our most essential values?
After this trip, I have no idea.
I want my kids to understand they have choices. And I want them to feel connected to a personal sense of power as well as the consequences their choices generate. But what happens when that understanding of power, choices and consequences leaves out caring? What happens when kids decide being compassionate is optional? Do you pass it off as just a phase? Or is it time to march everyone to Habitat for Humanity every weekend for the rest of their childhood lives?
I'm still asking myself these questions.
What matters to you when you think about who your children might become? What values do you hope they decide to carry with them into the future? What do you do when it looks like they're missing what you'd hope was an obvious invitation to what matters to you most?
photo taken after meeting with some of the poorest people in Tanzania; by Stephanie Roberts, Arusha Tanzania