How to love a child through the challenges of life

By Rachel Macy Stafford

For Hands Free Mama

Published: Thursday, Sept. 6 2012 9:00 a.m. MDT

With the agility of a professional athlete, Kyle dodged the moving vehicles in his path. After several blocks of running directly into on-coming traffic, he slowed his pace. Although it was still morning, the tropical sun was bearing down on the black tarmac baking anyone crazy enough to be running full speed on it.

Kyle took a sharp left and began walking through a dilapidated strip mall. Standing next to a trash compactor, he bent over with his hands on his knees. He was heaving to catch his breath. That is when he saw me. I must have looked ridiculous — the front of my lightweight blouse soaked with sweat, my once-styled hair now plastered to the side of my beat-red face. He stood up abruptly like a frightened animal that thought it was alone suddenly discovering he'd been spotted.

But it was not a look of fear.

I saw his body relax. He did not attempt to run again. Kyle stood and watched me approach. My exhaustion caused me to slow to a walk.

Kyle remained still.

I had no idea what I was going to say or what I was going to do, but I kept walking closer.

We locked eyes, and I willed every ounce of compassion and understanding in my heart toward his own.

He opened his mouth to speak when a police car pulled up, abruptly filling the space between Kyle and me. The principal of the school and an officer got out. They spoke calmly to Kyle who went willingly into the back of the vehicle. I did not come close enough to hear their words, but I didn't take my eyes off Kyle's face. His eyes never left mine ... even as they drove away.

It was days before Kyle would be allowed to return to school. I shared my disappointment regarding the turn of events with Kyle's speech therapist who was familiar with Kyle's past history and family situation.

She placed her hand on my shoulder and said, "No one ever ran after him before, Rachel. No one. They just let him go."

But I couldn't help but feel that I had failed him ... that I should have done more or said more ... that I should have fixed the situation, or better yet, prevented the situation.

Kyle eventually came back to school. I quickly noticed that when he had a choice of which teacher to work with or which teacher to accompany him to special classes, he chose me. As weeks passed, he was glued to my side, complying with instructions, attempting to do his work, and once in awhile even smiling. For a child with severe attachment issues, it was quite amazing that he was developing a bond with me.

One day on the way to art class, Kyle unexpectedly grasped my hand. It was unusual for a boy his age and size to hold his teacher's hand, but I knew I must act like it was the most normal thing in the world.

And then he leaned in and quietly said something I will never forget.

"I love you, Miss Stafford," he whispered. And then, "I never told anyone that before."

Part of me wanted to ask, "Why me?"

But instead I simply relished the momentan unimaginable breakthrough from the child whose file bore the words: "Unable to express love or maintain a loving relationship with another human being."

Besides, I knew the turning point. Things changed the day he ran, and I ran after him — even though I didn't have the right words ... even though I wasn't able to save him from the mess he was in.

It was the day I didn't throw my hands up in the air deciding he was too fast ... a waste of time and effort ... a lost cause.

It was the day my mere presence was enough to make a profound difference.

Ten years have passed since I've seen Kyle. I no longer live in the same state that I did back then. But I often think of him. When I am out running ... when I am to the point where my legs are tired and aching ... I think of him.

And I think of him when those really hard parenting dilemmas come my way — problems derived from inside and outside of the home — issues that make me want to beat my head against the wall or lower it in despair. I think of Kyle in those moments when I don't know what to do or what to say when I look into my children's troubled eyes.

That is when I see Kyle's face and remember I don't always have to have the answer. Because sometimes there is no clear-cut answer.

And I remember I don't always have to "fix" their troubled hearts. Because there will be times when I can't.

I think of Kyle and remember the power of presence. Because it's possible to say, "I won't let you go through this alone," without muttering a single word.

Thank you, Kyle, for revealing the key to loving a child through the challenges of life.

Sometimes our mere presence is enough.

Sometimes it is exactly what is needed to change a dismal situation into one of hope.

Read more from Rachel Macy Stafford on Hands Free Mama.

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