* AUTHOR’S NOTE: Regarding this post (as with all my posts discussing strangers), should the person in these photos find them offensive or disruptive to their personal lives, please leave me a message or comment, and I’ll remove them. *
While in Amsterdam for King’s Day last year, I witnessed a very common, nonetheless teaching moment between a man and a young boy. For the sake of this story, as I did that day, I’ll assume the man was the father and the young boy his son. As the father walked, pushing a stroller, his son tentatively rode his bike a few meters in front of him. I could tell the boy had been riding without training wheels for some time, but he was still in the “uncomfortable” phase of bike-riding. Just as I was thinking this, the boy lost his balance and down he tumbled. As one can imagine, crying ensued. His father calmly walked over, knelt down, and began to speak in (what I like to call) the “it’ll be ok” voice. The “it’ll be ok” voice is used not only to calm and reassure a child, but also to give the parent a moment to assess the damage and make sure that the situation will, in fact, be ok. Although I don’t speak Dutch (again, assuming), I’m sure this is what was occurring, as I’ve used this same voice with my daughter on countless occasions.
Speaking of my daughter, I began to think of her profoundly as I watched this scene. Did I use my “it’ll be ok” voice enough during her youth? Did I use it too much? Did I console her during her times of distress while simultaneously reinforcing her self esteem? I imagine these types of questions are on the minds of many parents. I’ve heard stories and read numerous accounts of communities throughout history who would raise their youth together; various community members teaching children (not their own) the skills and trades they knew, so that said children would gain a “general knowledge” of what the world was and how to survive in it. While I appreciate and applaud the idea, I don’t believe that would work in the current society I live in (I must say “I” here, as I’m sure there are still communities/societies around the world who practice this successfully). Our opportunities as adults (parents or not) to instill knowledge and share experiences with the youth of today are ever decreasing. With all of the social media, news, applications, rumors and falsities circulating, it’s no wonder they might have some difficulties understanding what will “be ok” and what will truly hurt them. Furthermore, with travel being easier, opportunities abroad becoming more common and communication across multimedia practically inescapable, we’re not always physically close enough to pick them up when they fall…like this father in Amsterdam was.
Wiping tears from his eyes and straightening the brim on his hat, the boy pulled himself together, got back on his bike, and began tentatively riding ahead as his father followed, smiling slightly. That smile is also something I’m familiar with: the often sought but not always found “it actually was ok” smile. While we may want everything to turn out “ok” for those we care about, it doesn’t always end that way. I say this not only as a father, but as a college professor and humanitarian photographer. Our children won’t always be the best on the team, our students won’t always finish top of their class, and the situation of impoverished children in countries around the world often times do not improve. Are we as adults then liars when we tell our youth that things will “be ok”? Are we being deceitful when we encourage them to “try and try again when at first they don’t succeed”? I don’t believe so. I simply believe that achieving perfection shouldn’t be the true measurement of one succeeding or not. Although my daughter didn’t finish high school as the fastest swimmer on her team, she beat her own record and impressed her coaches on more than one occasion. While all of my students can’t finish at the top of their classes, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many of them go on to find jobs which make them happy and start families which make them even happier. A number of the children I’ve photographed in situations too bleak to describe went on to not only pull themselves out of those situations, but they’ve been able to volunteer and help give back to those communities in need. I’ve learned in life that few people achieve the “perfection” they strive for, and therefore may not recognize their own accomplishments. I think it’s our job as adults, parents, friends and family to remind them…it’s the “try and try again” part that is the actual success.