Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving toddler was on the desk when one of our children came into my home office. I usually keep it out of sight when children are around.
The toddler is in a fetal position face down in the desert dust. The roundness of the child’s distended tummy is still visible. A vulture waits patiently behind the dying baby. At the time, Carter’s image personalized the famine in Sudan.
My school-age son was instantly outraged when he saw the photograph. He wanted to know why that was happening to that baby, why someone didn’t save the child from the bird. He wasn’t even close to satisfied with my facts, and he began to argue, “Let’s just go get him.” He got angry with me because he thought I was simply refusing.
Children are often distressed by the suffering of other children. But my son’s reaction was stronger than natural sympathy; his emotion was fueled by his own painful experiences before we adopted him at age 3.
Pain and violence in their own lives don’t make children better able to deal with violence and pain they later witness. It doesn’t even develop a buffer from the negative impact of media violence.
Instead, pain and violence in their own young lives penetrate and wound them, leaving leaks in their otherwise healthy resistance to the pain of witnessing violence. They can even be more vulnerable to the negative impact of media violence.
This is especially common and true when no caring adults are present to protect and reassure them. Children living in immediate danger, as in war zones and natural disasters, do better in the presence of adults who can reassure them and create a sense of protection.
In this way my son was like many other violated children who become more vulnerable to personal distress when they see pain and violence around them. During my son’s early childhood, adults hurt rather than protected him; the absence of protective adults in the photograph probably helped set him off.
I was reminded by the children hurt by Hurricane Katrina of this relationship between experiencing violence early and being vulnerable to seeing suffering later.
Members of Bethel Lutheran Church in Biloxi, Miss., saw the hurricane’s impact on their own children, even though they were a reassuring, protective presence during Katrina. They decided to do something about it for their own and for other children. They arranged for a weeklong Camp Noah in July.
Children attend free because the camp is supported by independent fundraising.
Professional leaders of Camp Noah know that in natural disasters children can lose basics such as routines and friends. Their losses can go unnoticed by adults who must attend to immediate, concrete tasks.
Children with those losses often show common symptoms of childhood stress: disturbances in sleep and eating, more volatile emotions and regressive behaviors that make them seem younger. On the other hand, anxious children sometimes hide their feelings because they do not want to further upset their already disturbed parents. Camp Noah wants to accomplish three main things. It wants to help reduce the stress on children, restore their sense of competence and rebuild a sense of assurance around them by helping them discover that God cares for them.
Dianne Tipton, a member of Bethel Lutheran who helped coordinate Camp Noah, wrote to me about evaluations completed by some parents. “My daughter no longer runs when she hears thunder, one said.”
Another said that the children “have actually talked to us about it (the storm).” Yet another reported simply that a child “smiles more.”
Perhaps the most significant signal of the program’s impact is more subtle.
Tipton wrote that “Miss Betty, (a member of the professional team), brought 50 knitting kits. One of the children asked her what she was knitting and she explained that she was knitting bandages for AIDS and leprosy patients in South Africa. Before long we had six children asking for more yarn so they could knit bandages. On Friday we had only nine kits left; we blessed those bandages and sent them to Global Ministries.”
Ah, yes, the healing power of purpose. It is a power wielded by gentle, caring adults who help distressed children reach out to help others.
Bill France, a father of three, is a child advocate in the criminal justice system and has worked as director of clinical programs at Luther Child Center in Everett. You can send e-mail to bill@ billfrance.com.