When folks ask me if there is a job description for surrogate grandparents at the Children’s Village, I used to answer “Yes, the job description is to give unconditional love to the kids under our care.” I don’t say that anymore, not so confidently anyway. It’s way too glib. It sounds like I’m talking about cuddly puppies or cute little babies.
In the real world of flawed human beings, unconditional love may exist but it is very rare. We try; we really do try to give unconditional love to our Village kids just as we tried to do the same for our own children. But “stuff” gets in the way. Things like our own flaws as human beings. None of us have lived all these years without coming to grips with our own failings. We ain’t perfect; not even close.
I became very conscious of my own shortcomings soon after I arrived at the Village. I’m tooling along the freeway one day taking a nine year-old boy to his football practice and listening to a 49’ers game on the radio. The niners had the game won with the ball in their possession and only one minute left on the clock then, they fumbled. The other team picks up the ball and scores a touchdown; the game is lost. I let out a loud “Oh,
F- – k”. The little guy next to me looks at me wide-eyed. “Grandpa Hank!” I mutter an apology, embarrassed that I used the “f” word in front of a kid. A minute later I look over at him. He is smiling to himself, probably can’t wait to tell the other kids.
Nor are all the kids lovable little munchkins. Omigosh no! These little guys can drain your energy, test your patience, and try your creativity in ways you never dreamed of. We are asked to love kids who have become master manipulators because that’s the way they have survived, to love kids who are angry and resentful because their parents have failed them, to love kids who have never been tucked in at night by a mom who cared, who never had a Dad rooting for them at Little League baseball games.
Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town fame used to say that there “is no such thing as a bad boy.” Hmm! I honor his sentiment but, in my way of thinking, kids are kids. Like us grown-ups they are neither all good nor all bad. And kids who have been referred to us by the courts have special challenges. They have, by definition, been abused or neglected by the very parents whose job it is to care for them. They fight back sometimes by closing down emotionally or by physically lashing out or by refusing to trust or accept help. These are angry young people who don’t really want to be at the Village. They yearn to be a part of that idealized loving family they never had. Providing unconditional love to these kids takes more than giving them a friendly smile and a treat of Oreo cookies and milk.
Most of us are much more at home in the culture of conditional love. “You watch my back; I’ll watch yours.” Even little kids understand that kind of love, “If you let me play with your teddy bear, I’ll be your best friend.” Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, legendary for his work among the gangs in Los Angeles, once said that “Gangs are bastions of conditional love-one false move and you find yourself outside.” Dysfunctional families are like that, too. I love you as long as you don’t expect a lot of attention or ask for money or put a crimp in my life style.
But at the Village we have to try our best to give our kids more than the “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours” kind of love. We know now that we can’t expect to get a lot of payback from kids who have never received love themselves. But they are still beautiful and so we muddle on, we imperfect grandparents, doing our best to love imperfect kids. It’s what we do.
PS. The little guy who heard me lose it and use the “f” word has become one of my closest buddies. Go figure.