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USING ONE'S PAST AS AN EXCUSE FOR CURRENT BEHAVIOR MUST END

Listen carefully and you'll hear a lot of excuses for why people behave as they do.

"I'm stingy because I grew up poor.""I'm mean because I was picked on."

"I killed my children because I was molested by my stepfather."

"I was abused as a child" is used in courtrooms to explain everything from burglary to murder to rape.

You don't often hear: "I chose to do it . . . ."

Tragic things happen to people - too many of them to innocent children, whose childhoods are curtailed and whose paths are altered.

No child should go to bed hungry. No child should be ridiculed for poverty he cannot control. No child should live in fear of beatings or neglect or sexual predators.

Children shouldn't have to be afraid to go outside. Parents shouldn't have to be afraid to let their children play in the park.

A lot of "shouldn't happens" do happen. But while we sympathize and try to make things better, perhaps it's time for society to add, "Enough. We're sorry about your past. But we are not going to accept your behavior. You have to take responsibility. The cycle ends here."

Individuals have said exactly that in words and in the lives they choose to lead.

My father had an abusive childhood. His stepfather ridiculed and belittled him and refused to love another man's son.

My father used his experiences as a primer of how not to behave.

Singing was discouraged in the house of his youth. Experimentation was ridiculed, especially if it failed to produce hoped-for results. Children didn't speak unless spoken to. One man's word was law - martial law.

We grew up far differently. We sang - on or off key - because it expressed joy, and that was always encouraged. We laughed. We tried new things, and our curiosity was fed and repeatedly satisfied. We voiced our thoughts and had an attentive audience, which led to engaging conversation that broadened our perspectives and challenged our minds.

When Dad told us to do something, we did it, not because we were afraid of his fearsome authority but because we loved and respected him.

Others have carved honorable lives out of disastrous beginnings as well.

My friend "Joe" had a childhood that made Dad's look restful.

At age 2 or 3, he was adopted by a family that didn't want him but did want his two sisters. It was a package deal.

His mother let him know she didn't want him; his father beat him and molested his sister.

When he was 9, he ran away, but police found him.

He refused to go home.

Instead, he was sent to a youth program as an "incorrigible" child. He was there two years and did fairly well. But when he was deemed ready to go home, he ran away again.

He was 11 years old, and he's lived on his own since - more than 20 years.

He survived on his wits, with the assistance of people who took him in for a bit here and there - usually sympathetic relatives of young friends he met along the way. Some of the people he "crashed" with would probably be considered odd themselves by most people. They tended to be people who lived their own lives in mildly eccentric ways.

Not one of them, Joe says, ever told him he was a victim. And because he didn't know it, he didn't try to use it as an excuse for abysmal behavior.

Today he's an honorable man and a loyal friend. He wasn't well-educated, but he read a lot and eventually, as an adult, went back to school for a diploma. He worked hard as soon as he could get a job and became independent.

If anyone has an excuse to feel put upon or to eschew his past, surely it's a man who had to begin raising himself as a little boy.

But the way he sees it, people don't always have good lives as children. As adults, however, they do have choices.