Recently, I was waiting in line at a highway rest stop and struck up a conversation with the woman in front of me. Her story stayed with me. She had an autistic son whose condition had been diagnosed even before he was a year old. Over a decade later, her son had received appropriate intervention steadily throughout his childhood. Now, at the crux of adolescence, he was thriving at a school specialized to meet his needs.
Her story stayed with me because of how early her son’s problem was identified—a testament to having parents who did not have their head in the sand when trouble was on the horizon. Their acceptance that their son was different meant that intervention was timely.
People are not always so free of denial and evasion when warning signs appear, even in the case of their own medical issues (or marital problems). This is human nature, but it is a flaw that can cause children serious setbacks, or worse. Children with special needs generally require well- timed interventions to make a difference for their future. Environmentally caused damage to children, like the lead in Flint’s drinking water, ought to be dealt with immediately or, better yet, prevented, before our children are at risk.
A culture with strong strains of denial and deflection is less equipped to face issues squarely. Getting caught up in the unscientific fad of forgoing infant vaccines puts the whole society at risk. Climate change, which will create dire problems for our grandchildren according to current trajectories, is too often treated as something we can’t influence. Guns that aren’t designed with childproofing cause deadly accidents, as exemplified by a kindergartner I once interviewed in Chicago, an only child because she killed her big brother when handling a gun her father hadn’t stored safely.
In children’s chronic illnesses, a major source of problems traces to prescribed treatment that isn’t carried out. Children with asthma who don’t receive the prescribed treatment account for a majority of juvenile deaths from asthma.
This is Valentine’s Day month, when we’re romantically reminded that love is blind. When it comes to really loving our children, though, love needs to be sighted. Caring adults must seek to understand the larger implications and long-term risks for our children of what is going on. Love means heeding warning signs before it’s too late. It means taking appropriate action before a threat becomes reality.
So happy Valentine’s Day to all the parents out there who put sunscreen on their babies, make first graders wear their seatbelts, and keep an eye out for depression in their teens. Having the courage to exercise foresight is an act of love beyond measure.
Cindy Dell Clark is a founding member of Child’s World America and an anthropologist who studies American children and families. In 2016 she interviewed families qualifying for poverty assistance in Camden County, New Jersey. Her book on American kids and Santa Claus is Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children’s Myths in Contemporary America.