Systemic instability | WORLD
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Systemic instability

Children miss a lot more than a hot meal when they don’t have a mom and dad

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WHEN ROBERT HENDERSON was an undergrad at Yale, many of his fellow students didn’t hesitate to share their family backgrounds. “My mom was super strict growing up,” explained one young woman he met at a party. “Classic Asian mom, I’m sure you know what I mean.”

“Well, my mom is Korean,” he replied. “But my family life wasn’t really like that.”

“Ah! So, you didn’t have a traumatic childhood.”

Readers of Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class may indulge in ironic laughter at this point. Henderson’s Korean mom was a drug addict who tied him to a chair with a bathrobe belt while she got high. Even so, when neighbors reported his crying to the LAPD, he clung to her so hard they had to pry him off. A series of foster homes followed—in the last, he was treated as unpaid labor—before a couple from Northern California adopted him at age 8. His new father, a truck driver, shot hoops with Robert in the park and took him along on a haul to Montana. But this idyllic interlude ended with an ugly divorce, after which the man he called Dad wanted nothing more to do with him.

His adoptive mom began a relationship with another woman, which provided a degree of stability. But financial difficulties led the pair to make a new start in Oakland, and eventually they split up as well. Robert, in his teens by then, stayed behind in his small town, where he lived with similarly rootless friends, indulged in heavy drinking and petty crime, and blew his straight-A middle-­school record by barely attending high school.

Three factors snatched him from the dead-end street where most of his friends ended up: a few encouraging teachers (especially the one who taught him to read), books about other hard-luck kids who made good, and the U.S. Air Force. The military provided order and discipline, as well as a stepping-stone for applying to college. That’s how he got into Yale, listening to classmates complain about microaggressions and white privilege.

Readers can draw their own conclusions: Only in America. The military turns boys into men. Same-sex parents are better than no parents. But Henderson makes his own conclusion perfectly clear: Though he’s achieved the heights of American success (Ivy League education, widely published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal), he would, without hesitation, trade it all for a happy childhood with a mom and dad. Better a laborer at peace with his past than a haunted bestselling author.

Critics of the cultural marriage decline often focus on material deprivation. The Two-Parent Privilege, a book I reviewed recently, draws on data to prove how single parents can’t provide the resources a child needs to become a successful adult. True that, but I recall Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, a memoir of her neglectful parents. Walls certainly experienced deprivation while dragged from one abandoned house to another, often lacking food or adequate clothes. But she and her siblings also had memories of Dad reading aloud on winter nights and Mom making popcorn on a hot plate, and perhaps that was just enough attention and stability for their children to turn adversity to their advantage. All three went on to create successful careers for themselves.

Henderson ends his memoir noting how “luxury beliefs” about “outdated” marriage and the nuclear ­family have sifted down from elites to the lower classes. The outré college kids, he observes, went full bourgeois after graduation, getting married and laying out their own children’s path to privilege just like their parents did. Meanwhile, his childhood friends are in jail, hopelessly addicted, or dead.

In a way, children don’t need much—mostly, to be taken seriously as children, not little adults or units in the system. To have a mom and dad who stay together and care about them, however imperfectly. That’s God’s plan, and if that’s all you can do, it will most likely be enough.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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