Our Misfit Children, Young and Old

by Robert Joe Stout

Mr. Stout, a free-lance journalist, lives in Chico, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  March 2, 1977, p. 194. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Too often churches and church organizations overlook basic truisms: that the human impulse is to achieve; that children, like septuagenarians, respond to need more quickly than to praise; and that do-gooders all too often are egotists seeking applause rather than results.

Four days after a 72-year-old retired government worker was brought to a southern California hospital’s emergency ward by his 12-year-old “companion,” a county welfare worker dropped in on the pair and initiated legal action to have the child made a dependent of the court. The old man and the child were living, the worker’s report showed, in a tiny downtown apartment without adequate heating, cooking facilities or bedroom space. Nor were they related. The child had run away from her mother, a confirmed alcoholic, a year and a half before, and the old man was noticeably senile.

A superior court judge assigned the child to a licensed foster home and committed her “grandfather” to a medical facility. The hearing lasted less than three minutes and was one of nearly 100 cases processed that day.

Four months later the child was in a Los Angeles juvenile-detention facility with criminal charges pending. Her “grandfather” lay comatose 40 miles away and was being fed intravenously while doctors tried to diagnose a series of strokelike afflictions. Sent into counseling, the child at first refused to talk, then unfolded a description of a Peter Pan existence with the old man that had “provided her with the closest thing to happiness she’d known in her short and troubled life.”

The counselor, an insightful young academic, researched the case history and judicial reports. The child had been given a medical checkup the day after she was picked up by the welfare department. She had been, according to the report, “under weight but otherwise in excellent health.” Although she had not attended school with any sort of regularity, she scored well on academic tests. Psychological evaluation placed her in the 13-to-15 age bracket emotionally.

Her adopted grandfather also had been examined and was reported to be in good health. An observer described him as “good-humored and perceptive.” According to the child, he received a monthly retirement check which they had stretched by shopping carefully. They had taken daily walks together and, for entertainment, had watched television or played a complicated board game aptly entitled “Aggravation.”

“More than that,” the counselor continued, “they aided, encouraged and loved each other. Their living quarters weren’t much to look at but health wise probably weren’t much worse than those found in many rest homes. They were happy and were doing a competent job in managing their affairs. What the county did, in effect, was to destroy two functioning members of society by interfering.

“The old man now is hopelessly senile. And it will take a minor miracle to divert the child from criminality and, eventually, prison.”

‘Ye Must Become as Little Children’

Halfway across the United States, in an Austin, Texas, suburb, a retired Congregational minister nodded his understanding of an ultimatum delivered by two sympathetic but firm policemen. His wife -- who had been a widow when he married her shortly before his retirement -- was a light sleeper and occasionally left the house early in the morning, got hopelessly lost, then turned herself over to the nearest law enforcement officer to be taken home. The minister had suffered a fall and had to walk on crutches. And, because of medicine he was taking, he slept too soundly to be aware of her early morning expeditions.

The policemen made it clear that they would ask the courts to undertake action to force either the minister’s wife or the two of them to take up residence in a supervised nursing facility. The clergyman was determined to find a more satisfactory solution. As an interim measure, he talked a neighbor into allowing her children to watch and entertain his wandering wife.

He did not know that the children, ages eight, ten and 11, had been in trouble for theft, malicious mischief and running away from home. (The older two were, in fact, on court-ordered probation.) He offered them 50 cents an hour, plus snacks and treats. Half-asleep, churlish, complaining, they took turns babysitting in the elderly couple’s house, stealing odds and ends and commandeering the TV.

But gradually they changed. So did the minister’s wife. She began to bake again and to play the piano. Buttonless coats and torn blouses appeared in her sewing basket. Her memory seemed to improve. So did her housekeeping. She asked her husband for “guidance books” that her young friends could read. She insisted that they bring their homework with them when they “visited” and laughed and told them how skittish and stupid she herself had been in school.

They picked flowers for her, made vases and pencil holders, wove “God’s-eyes” and scarves and formed a delegation to tell her husband that she needed new panties and hose. Their mother cornered him to thank him for what he’d done for her children. At school their grades and conduct had improved. Instead of squandering their earnings, they had purchased gifts for her, and furniture items. Only a very godly man, she congratulated him, could have influenced them to that degree in such a short time.

The minister smiled as he quoted from an old sermon: “And the Bible states that ye must become as little children to gain admittance to his heavenly realm.”

His wife had virtually become a child again. And the children he had enlisted to entertain her had grown to an adulthood denied them by previous experiences. The ending cycle of one life had merged into the beginning cycles of three others -- “the way God intended that life should,” the minister nodded.

Unfortunately, few private or governmental agencies have attempted to blend the institutionalized aged with the institutionalized young, despite numerous examples of success in families and compact social groups where cramped conditions or economic necessity pushes the two together. Immigrant Jewish children in New York’s garment district often were raised by grandparents or great-grandparents, as were Italian children in Chicago and San Francisco. Needed and appreciated despite infirmities and sometimes inaccurate memories, these elderly citizens were able to share more of their time, humor and patience than younger working parents could. And the children learned responsibility by the experience of watching over, helping or entertaining relatives in their declining years.

A friend of mine, a professor of Asian literature at a west coast university, visiting an India-born, Oxford-educated colleague, was greeted with the traditional Hindu clasped-hand bow. His host introduced his family in Bengali, a language my friend had made all effort to learn but had never actually mastered. But he answered each of them in that tongue and was puzzled only when his host presented his mother as one of “my children.”

The venerable woman did, in fact, dine with the children that evening. They played little pranks on each other at the table, laughed and feigned mock-serious expressions when her son or his wife entered the kitchen. “Later that evening I asked my colleague about his choice of words and he nodded, ‘Yes, I called her my child -- an affectionate term, we use it all the time,’ After a long, blessed life, she had earned the privilege of becoming a child again, he said. Her mixing of past and present, fantasy and fact, did not offend him any more than his other children’s make-believe did. ‘To watch them play together is to watch the two clasped hands of God.”’

Simone de Beauvoir refers to the world’s aged as a “wasted resource.” Our organized society, forever simplistic in its approaches, herds the old together with the assumption that similar problems and similar interests create an atmosphere of belonging.

Evidence to the contrary can be verified. Love itself is a melding of opposites: contrasts provide stimulation. Nothing is as dreary as a retirement colony where everyone faces the same undeviating patterns -- and escapes. Stimulation may be more important to health -- psychologically, at least -- than comfort. The seven-year-old and the 70-year-old can be catalysts to each other. And their problems, viewed jointly, may have more in common than one might think.

Both age groups lie just outside the social mainstream. The child, particularly the deprived child, sees the world as an uncharted, oppressive force. Nothing is quite accessible. The child both envies and fears the adult’s assumption of power (which is denied to the very young). All values center on adult achievement. In fantasy, the youngster replaces them and wins acclaim.

The old, forced into retirement, also lie outside that mainstream. They see life as being centered on young-adult virility and power (which they have lost). The unchartered, oppressive force is about to crush them: nothing remains but death. They are unappreciated, ignored, forgotten. In fantasy they relive their young adulthood, remake the world that slipped past them. They are lonely and feel unnecessary and lost.

Partnerships of Youth and Age

Last year over 10,000 pre-teenaged boys were processed through the Texas court system as “status offenders” (juveniles apprehended for offenses that would not have been offenses if committed by adults). At least as many 70-year-olds were institutionalized for being unable to take care of themselves. Yet, less than a century and a half before, an 11-year-old boy and his partly crippled great-grandfather had maintained a valley bottom outpost, unaided, against Indians, ice storms and wild animal depredations for almost six months until the rest of their family could return from a trip to Louisiana marked by a rash of mishaps.

Forty years later, a San Saba rancher reported that the oldest hand -- and foreman -- of a hay-cutting crew was 14 and that most of the workers were three or four years younger than that. In nearby Cuero, a crusty old rancher nearing 80 herded more than 500 head of cattle aided only by a “skinny little colored boy” not yet in puberty. A Hays County family left the maintenance of their 30-acre farm, including eight or nine milk cows, to a “slightly addled” grandmother and three pre-teenaged children while they roved northward on a cattle drive. The foursome not only kept everything going but were able to plant spring crops and dig a small but functional root cellar.

None of them would be allowed that kind of independence today. The very laws and agencies set up to protect them from poor houses, starvation and medical negligence sweep them into a corner out of public view, where they are fed, housed and forgotten. They could lean on, teach and enjoy each other. Unfortunately, they are kept apart.

All too often churches and church organizations, like tax-supported public agencies, unthinkingly let their benevolent efforts fall into easily definable categories. Their well-intended programs to alleviate juvenile delinquency or ease the burdens of the aged overlook basic truisms: that the human impulse is to achieve; that children, like septuagenarians, respond to need more quickly than to praise; and that do-gooders all too often are egotists seeking applause rather than results.

Those who have earned their relapse into childhood deserve the chance to live, and to learn from and teach those who are just beginning the adventure called life.