I’ve been thinking about the journey of life.
Maybe it’s because I’m now less than 12 months shy of 60. Maybe it’s because I’m spending a lot of time with my youngest granddaughter (who, together with her mom, is living with us). Or maybe it’s just the wonder of seeing new life all around me, as leaves burst forth in warm, fresh greens and birds sing their nesting love songs.
What kind of a journey is life? I’d say it’s a whitewater rafting trip.
The kind of whitewater depends in large part upon the stretch of the river on which one begins. My beginning was with good parents and a stable home life; easy, Class I waters. That good start and the stability of the support I continued to receive brought me safely through the Class II and III stretches of adolescence and young adulthood that seem inevitable.
There was always the potential for disaster (after all, one can drown in a placid stream). But the river my parents chose, and the early choices I made about particular passages through the rapids (with their help and guidance) made for a mostly fulfilling adventure into school, marriage, family and career.
Then my wife and I made a fateful decision. Where the river branched, we took the unfamiliar fork of adoption of hard-to-place kids and foster parenting. Instead of traveling the river as our parents had, we added to our biological family children of other mothers who needed what we believed we could offer: a sturdy raft, adequate supplies, and guidance to navigate the rapids. Some we pulled from eddy pools to which the river had kindly steered them. Some we snatched from midstream boulders to which they clung, fishing them out of the whitewater that had torn them from their rafts and those with whom they had been traveling.
This branch of life’s river is full of obstructions that cause the river to pile up, pound, swirl and rage. Those obstructions have names: fetal alcohol syndrome; criminal neglect; physical, emotional and psychological abuse; abandonment; attachment disorder; and a host of others.
The obstructions are there, in the river the child must run. The child can’t choose a more placid branch, nor wish the whitewater away. They must run it, or perish. And if they run it, they fear that they may perish anyway.
Class V. Definitely class V.
Extremely Difficult – Exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids, following each other almost without interruption; riverbed extremely obstructed; big drops; violent currents; very steep gradient. Paddlers should have prior Class IV or better whitewater experience with experienced guides who know the river.
Our kids aren’t the only kids so challenged. Millions of children in this country are placed on river runs that defy navigation without sturdy rafts, adequate supplies and support from experienced guides.
And many enter the whitewater without any of those essential things.
Unfair, you say? Yes, yes it is.
But it’s worse than that.
Children born with certain traits are more likely to find themselves in such rapids. In particular, children of color. Take poverty.
Inadequate financial resources in childhood are closely associated with a range of difficulties that carry over into adulthood: poor mental and physical health, inadequate nutrition, poorer educational attainment among them. It isn’t just the presence or absence of money, though money is important in its own right. Poverty and financial stress frequently are indicative of other problems. One-parent households are more likely in this group, for example, and the research tells us that children do best in two-parent households. Parents who are not able to pay their monthly bills do not develop, and therefore cannot teach, good financial management and budgeting skills. And families where parents are working as hard as they can just to keep food on the table often are families where support at home for the child’s education, let alone the child’s other interests, is necessarily lacking.
Children in economically distressed families also are likely to live in neighborhoods where many or most other families are similarly distressed. That leaves little in the way of a “village” to provide additional support for these children who need it most.
The racial bias in the distribution of wealth and income need not be understood as a conspiracy against people of color. The parents of today’s children were once children themselves. The stretch of river on which they started life conditioned (though it did not determine) their adulthood; that’s also what the research tells us. Compelled to run the Class V rapids themselves, it is necessarily what their children will come to know.
If we care (and we should) about the fate of the next generation, we need to come to terms with the social and institutional patterns that set groups apart, that launch a higher proportion of children of one color on the easiest Class I and II waters, and higher proportions of other children in dangerous whitewater.
And we need to come to terms with what it will take to change those patterns.
Targeted resources. Experienced guides.
And a sustained commitment, by all of us, to see all of our children safely downstream.