Here in the summery stretch after Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I find myself wondering why we don’t have a Children’s Day, one unofficial holiday that formalizes our appreciation for the non-adults among us. Maybe the card and gift companies just haven’t thought of that yet. Maybe most parents are still emotionally and financially depleted from the materialistic orgy that used to be known as Christmas. Or maybe we feel we already spend enough of our waking hours acknowledging our children: driving them to ballet class or hockey practice, regulating their use of a baffling array of electronic devices, guarding them against insult, illness, and failure, or simply earning enough money to feed and clothe them.
On most days, you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of parental affection. In a café last month, killing time before picking up one of my daughters from school, I watched a new mother carrying her small son around the room. He was a restless little guy, inquisitive and energetic, and you could see, in the way the woman held and looked at him, the very essence of love. On the soccer sidelines, most mothers and fathers are encouraging and proud, having taken time away from household chores, golf, work, or recreational shopping to stand there and watch their kids burn through the unrenewable energy source we call youth.
That same love is painfully obvious in the lives of single parents and those working multiple jobs, in mothers and fathers with handicapped children, and in the pediatric hospital corridors. Any mom, dad, uncle, or aunt who’s ever experienced a very sick child, or, worse, a chronically or critically ill one, knows how the brutal mystery of life’s apparent unfairness rips at the insides. That awful feeling is nothing less than the tearing of the fibers of love’s flesh. It’s a torment second only to the torment of losing a son or daughter. It’s also a tangible measure of how much we care.
Then, of course, there are those who don’t care so much. We’ve all seen them. There are fathers and mothers who have everything they need in the way of material goods and yet choose a lifestyle that minimizes time spent with their children. Some parents hit, some scream, some criticize mercilessly, some flee the responsibility entirely, and some just don’t pay attention.
To one extent or another we all take out our insecurities, dissatisfactions, and unfulfilled needs on our kids: They’re easy targets. We dislike our body, our job, our spouse, our debts, our boss, or our own mother or father, and that sly anguish gets passed along in ways that are hidden or all too obvious.
In “The Drama of the Gifted Child,’’ psychologist Alice Miller writes, “Only if we become sensitive to the fine and subtle ways in which a child may suffer humiliation can we hope to develop the respect for him that a child needs from the very first day of his life onward if he is to develop emotionally.”
And yet, children are continually being humiliated — by bullies in the classroom and by overbearing parents, coaches, and teachers. The ultimate example is the plague of sexual abuse, a societal sickness, a planetary disgrace, a blight on our collective spiritual life that has consequences so deep and far reaching we can’t begin to measure them. Somehow, most children survive, physically and otherwise, and stand among us like monuments to human resiliency.
This isn’t a call for “helicopter parenting,’’ or for the kind of self-indulgence that encourages catering to a child’s every whim and behavior. That’s not love; that’s laziness. Or, more precisely, it’s the parent hoping to salve his or her own wounds by trying to protect the child from every pain, real and imagined. There is no such thing as completely protecting our children from pain. But there is such a thing as taking them for granted. So maybe, despite the ways in which the card and gift companies would surely corrupt it, Children’s Day isn’t such a bad idea after all — one day a year to do more explicitly what many of us do all the time: be grateful for this gift in our midst.Roland Merullo is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lunch with Buddha.’’ He can be reached at Roland@RolandMerullo.com.