When a Child from a Troubled Family Nominates You to Nurture Them

I know a wonderful couple with a bustling but well-organized houseful of children. The stable cast of characters are their own kids, but from time to time there are also nomadic children who drift in and out, usually at mealtimes but also sometimes at less predictable moments. These uninvited visitors are not generally children who are particularly close to the couple’s children; rather, they are neighborhood kids from troubled families. Sometimes they are children whose parents are odds and the house is full of screaming, recrimination and the threat of violence. Sometimes they are children whose parent has a mental health or substance use problem and the house is disorganized and anxiety-provoking.

Two things impress me about this situation as I have observed it over the years.

The first is the couple’s ethic of inclusion. They could reasonably say to these desperate strangers “You aren’t our children. This is our home, not your home. This is our dinner, not your dinner.” But they don’t say those things, nor do they demand of their visitors any explanation for their presence. Instead, they make permeable the boundary of the bubble of support, consistency, safety and nourishment they provide to their own children.

The children impress me too, in the way that kids who are not getting what they need in their troubled family often do. Somehow many neglected children know that what they need is out there somewhere, and they hunt for it like parched camels in search of an oasis in The Gobi. Anyone who has been a teacher recognizes the phenomenon: The kid who arrives before class and lingers afterwards because he or she is receiving some treasured benefit from the teacher. It might be respect, or a sense of safety, or attention or a chance to look up to someone. The child may not even be able to articulate exactly what they are getting from these interactions, yet they know in their heart that they need it to thrive.

If you have some stability and love in your life, sooner or later you will probably have the experience of being nominated by a child from a troubled family to nurture them. You will not ask to be nominated, nor will your input be sought on the selection because the child is a nominating committee of one. The revelation of the nomination may be subtle and hesitant and wordless, such that you will miss it if you aren’t paying attention. It might come from a child in the neighborhood or in your religious community, or from your own kid’s friend at school or scout troop or baseball team, or from a kid who keeps finding reasons to come into the store or restaurant or office where you work.

You are not obligated to accept the nomination, but should in any event consider it a compliment. The nominator is after all putting their well-being, instinctively, in your hands. That makes receiving the nomination a responsibility, because no matter which way you respond, it will make a difference in the child’s life. If you accept, you may end up being the person that child talks glowingly about years later as an adult, when he or she says “The reason I made it through the hard times was that an angel took an interest in me.”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.