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 at odds and their 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 their 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”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “When a Child from a Troubled Family Nominates You to Nurture Them”

  1. It's not always escaping from trouble. One of my Brazilian inlaws has been adopted in this way by a gifted little girl – I mean gifted, not just bright. She's not looking for love, but stimulus. Small children hoover up stuff – a normal child learns one word every couple of waking hours for years – but with her you can almost hear the motor.

  2. Beautiful post, Keith. My office has served in a small way as a part-time parenting alternative for a few students over the years: the working-class undergraduate whose parents were seriously threatening to kick her out of the house for being a lesbian (thus making her drop out of school, because she had no way of affording rent plus tuition); the child of highly religious and traditional immigrants who were telling her to deal with clinical depression by praying more; a couple of others. In my academic career I've regretted, and bemoaned as retrospectively a colossal waste of time, many commitments that I've unwittingly signed up for. But I've never regretted being there for such students.

    And those students, at a relatively elite university, were in some ways luckier than most–as well as being adults who had had relatively decent and stable families to that point. As for those who can, and do, more seriously and continuously help kids who are really deprived and desperate: angels indeed.

    1. Thanks Andy. Although we are paid to do chalk and talk and the like, I sometimes think the most important things we do as professors are activities such as the ones you describe that are not in our official job descriptions.

  3. Once upon a time there was a program called "Block Parents". I know, because my grandfather belonged to it. When we visited him, it was not unusual for neighborhood kids to come by for a meal or a snack or just to hang with grandad. It's a shame that our paranoia about all those around us have killed those sorts of programs. I cannot imagine the liability issues we would have today, and what insurance against those contingencies might cost.

  4. Or sometimes you admire the kid from a distance, while hoping your own fingernails will continue to grip the slope. And wonder just how unpleasing their home must be that they prefer yours to it.

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