The Difference One Person Can Make in a Child’s Life

Writer Pat Conroy’s father was a brute, heaping verbal and physical abuse on his children, treating them as though they were raw recruits in a sadistic boot camp.

For many, this sets them down a road filled with physical and psychological hardships. But some, such as Conroy, overcome such a harsh childhood.

So what is it that kept the Conroy sane? What allowed him to transcend the daily horrors? Conroy attributes his salvation to his mother, who provided the counter-weight his tyrannical father.

When he was a boy, Conroy reports, his mother read aloud to him. One that stands out in his memory is The Diary of Anne Frank. The books was more than inspiring. Conroy says that he fell in love with Anne and became hysterical when, at the end of the book, he learned of her fate.

"And then my mother said something that affected me my entire life. She said she wanted us to become the kind of family that would hide Jews."

Here was the father beating the hell out his children and a mother who wanted them to be rescuers of children like Anne Frank.

Exactly so, I thought. That is the kind of families we all need to become — families that risk all in order to save from certain death the lives of people who may be strangers. The model held before Conroy’s mother didn’t want them to imitate their father but rather to rise to their latent, nobler self. What she wanted from her children was for them to be altruistic.

‘You are better than your father,’ was the implicit message. ‘You don’t have to be like him. You can become the kind of person who could rescue you. It is better to help people than harm them. You need not be a victim; you can be a protector.’

Conroy was saved by his mother’s quiet courage to show her son a different way and to hold before him a better set of values than he experienced from his own father.

Being moral is more than saying nice things or being a pleasant, inoffensive person. It necessitates the kind of character that Conroy's mother hoped for in her own family. And, as with Conroy, sometimes it takes just one person to articulate the ideal for a child, an ideal whose pull ultimately outweighs the brutal power of an abusive father.

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