What the homeless can teach us about raising children.
On Thanksgiving morning, I took my sons to a feed the homeless event in downtown San Jose. We were assigned the roles of “table hosts”—volunteers who sit down at the tables and talk with the homeless people who are waiting for their meals.
At our table sat a 40 year old man wearing a Channel Islands Surfboard sweatshirt. Michael had just gotten back from Santa Barbara, where I had lived for 17 years, so we struck up a conversation.
Micheal used to be a truck driver, but hit rock bottom due to drug and alcohol problems. He had been homeless for the last 14 years.
“What do you need more than anything else, right here, right now?” I asked.
“Stability. It is so hard to jump the gap of homelessness when you don’t have any stability,” said Michael.
“What is the most difficult part of being homeless?” I asked.
“Not being able to have relationships,” he said.
“Relationships with friends and family,” I probed.
“Yes, but also intimate relationships with women,” he added.
Later, Michael told me how he had just recently found out that he was borderline schizophrenic. It turns out that his parents knew about this from his birth since Michael had been exposed to maternal infection in the amniotic fluid.
His parents never told him about the diagnosis because they wanted him to have a normal life. They just warned Michael, “Don’t ever use drugs or alcohol.”
Michael said that he wasn’t angry at his parents because they were just trying to protect him, but he did admit that huge parts of his life would have been different had he known that he was borderline schizophrenic.
As selfish as it sounds, I couldn’t help worrying about my sons while feeding the homeless. No parent wants to see their children hit rock bottom or go homeless.
I took Michael’s words to heart and thought about what I could do to keep my sons off the street. Here are three things Michael taught me that I can do to be a better parent.
Michael said it is hard to “jump the gap of homelessness” without stability. If you think about it, it is hard to jump any gap without stability.
My boys will face many gaps in their lives—adolescence, heartbreak, peer pressure, education, joblessness, spirituality. The best way I can support my sons through these transitions is provide them with a stable base to jump from.
John Bowlby, father of attachment theory, emphasizes children’s need for a “secure base” from which they can explore and grow. So how do I provide this stability?
Again, Michael offers some insight: “It’s hard to keep a job when you don’t have a safe place to sleep at night.”
Safety is key. I need to provide my sons with physical and emotional safety. They need to feel like they have a safe place to return to if they fail or mess up. I realized that telling the boys to “toughen up,” “be a man,” and “suck it up” were not conducive to creating this safe place or secure base.
In order to provide my sons with a secure base, I need to let them express their full emotional spectrum for as long as possible. I need to let them know that it is ok to come to me when they are hurt and crying. That I will comfort them and love them no matter what.
I was surprised to hear from Michael that the most difficult part of being homeless was not lack of shelter or food, but not being able to sustain relationships. What a beautiful reminder. Relationships are more important than food and shelter.
I want to ensure that my sons have deep loving relationships with as many people as possible. I can role model deep relationships for them. I can also make sure that our relationship is secure.
Michael reminded me that we need to do whatever is in our power to heal and sustain relationships. When I was a young basketball coach, one of my mentors told me, “Never write anyone off.” He was talking about never giving up on a player, no matter how much trouble they caused you.
I think we could apply this advice to all of humanity. Never write anyone off. Never exclude anyone from your circle of friends. Don’t withhold love to anyone.
If my sons can realize this, then they will not struggle with relationships in their lives.
Tell the Truth
Michael’s parents never told him that he was borderline schizophrenic because they were trying to protect him. As a parent, I often lie to my sons in order to protect them. I’m starting to realize that these lies might cause more damage than good in the long run.
I’m not saying we should never lie to our children. Some things can remain unsaid until children are mature enough to hear it. In the movie Interstellar, the astronauts program the robots to tell the truth 90% of the time. I like this ratio.
We can lie 10% of the time, as long as nine times out of ten we tell the truth. What I have found is that children often know the truth, and when we lie to them, they start losing trust in us. A lack of trust poisons even the strongest relationships.
When I was about 10 years old, I asked for a remote control car for Christmas. My step-father said that we wouldn’t be getting any gifts because money was tight. On Christmas morning, he handed me the remote control car with a big smile on his face.
As much as I wanted to be happy about getting the car, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed by my step-father. I understand he had lied to me to heighten the surprise, but it shocked me to think that he would lie to my face. A part of my trust in my parents died that Christmas day.
I’m going to try to tell the truth with my sons, so they don’t lose trust in me. If they ever catch me in a lie, I will apologize on the spot and explain to them why I lied.
I am thankful to have met Michael and shared a meal with him. He taught me some powerful lessons about life and fatherhood. On this rainy holiday weekend, I hope that he is sharing shelter with someone special.
Photo: flickr-Rak Tia