The Building Blocks of Youth

“To take children seriously is to value them for who they are right now rather than adults-in-the-making.” ~ Alfie Kohn

We all like to see our kids enjoying themselves.  We all want to protect our kids however there is a big difference between “protecting” and “hiding” them from the realities of the world.  Too many parents have little understanding of the subliminal learning that is continual in that time of our life.  What looks like fun and games forms the foundation of future belief systems.  This is why we cannot underestimate the importance of what we role model to our children while maintaining, at least, a modicum of understanding of what they are being exposed to.  They are our future who will be the accelerants of change.

My childhood, in retrospect, was anything but normal.  To me it was normal (hate that word) but by societal standards it wasn’t.  The foundational pillars of my belief system were developed in an institution.  It was an era when hospitals offered polio kids the best chance to thrive.  The communities of the 50’s and 60’s were not designed for inclusion and access.  There were no programs, policies or regulations that demanded community supports so hospital life was my norm.

Bedrest with leg and back splints with head immobilized to maintain neck strength
Stretching tendons and strengthening neck muscles by maintaining head position (circa 1955)

Hospitals provided polio survivors healthcare, education and an active social life, something not available in the general population of the time.  At four years old I was encased in enough metal bracing to qualify me as a “knight of the realm”.  The technology of the day resulted in that equipment weighing more than I did.

By age sixteen I had spend eights years in a hospital, had over a dozen surgeries, completed ten years of schooling, had been a cub, scout, etc and had a very active peer-based social life.  By sixteen the only equipment I was using was a pair of crutches while having achieved my dream to wear tight blue jeans.  My needs were much simpler back then so the foundations of my belief system were developed based on experiences gained in a hospital.

Growing up in a hospital provides a very different perspective on life.  We were the petrie dishes for advancements in healthcare and technology.  We were excellent test subjects for the modernization of healthcare.  And technology (medical or otherwise), as we now know it today, was the substance of sci-fi books.  TV was a relatively new technology and a limited luxury in the hospital which meant one communal TV with limited access time.  We were experiments and I mean that in a good way.

Our mental stimulus came from books, comics, talk, imagination and each other. With the amount of time you spend in bed (classrooms were often half beds and half wheelchairs) you had a lot of time for reading.  We learnt by talking, questioning and reading.  The last two were very important because, as polio survivors, we had to be adaptable and open to adaptive solutions to potential barriers.  We were learning to be our own advocates without even realizing it.

I understood, early in life, that adaptability and compromise were essential while not even knowing what the words meant.  They were part of my belief foundations minus my self-awareness.  Our access to books was like living in a library, anything we wanted to read was made available to us.  By the time I was ten I was in love with anything focused on philosophy, communication or science fiction.  They often melted and, as Proust would say, “I was seeing with new eyes”.  My perception of the world was very different from that of my siblings.  Growing up as a polio kid at the height of the social change movement of the 50’s and 60’s made for some very impactful life lessons, I just didn’t realize it at the time.

By ten year old I was reading Marcel Proust, Khalil Gibran, and the likes of Edgar Cayce. And how could I ignore Marshall McLuhan, he was born in Edmonton, I was in the Calgary Children’s Hospital (that wasn’t its official title), he had studied at the University of Manitoba, I had contracted polio in Manitoba so I felt a bit of affinity for him.  Regardless of what I read, it all contributed to my future belief system.  It’s amazing how the naivety of youth and the inability to apply in-depth logic can influence you.  A prime example of that was the development regarding my perception to death.  When you are nine years old and they are bundling up the body of an eight year old in the bed next to you death was part of life.  People die in hospitals and that continues to be a reality.

Marcel Proust quote...
Marcel Proust quote…

By the time I hit puberty I was a natural fit for the “free love and peace out” generation.  I took Proust saying to heart and approached every new experience with new vision.

By the time I was sixteen I was finished with the hospital and the foundations for my beliefs were laid.  Parents do need to understand that every situation their child faces will create an experience that will help build the wall of their future belief system.  Although I didn’t recognize the complete ramifications of what my youth would wield I now recognize how it laid the foundations for who I am and how I think.  The influencers of who I am today were build on the experiences I had in a hospital.

Seventeen years old and all dressed up to head for the first Canadian National Wheelchair Games
Seventeen years old and all dressed up to head for the first Canadian National Wheelchair Games

Change is a constant in a hospital.  My early life was continual change.  I went from a kid wrapped in a metal body cage to an overly inquisitive teenager using only crutches.  Like a true Gemini, I thrive on change.  My beliefs are firm but flexible and I have dealt with change all of my life.  That’s the nature of society, change in inevitable.  If your beliefs are build in cement change is a challenge.

Childhood experiences become cemented beliefs when parents don’t take the time to put things in context for young minds.  It is the adult that needs to help the child process new experiences and not take it for granted that the child gets the same take away as the adult.  Parents need to be aware of this and need to understand how the exposure to various experiences will shape their child later in life.

My lesson for the day…



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s