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Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences: Who Stumbles and Who Thrives?

Learning resilience from the tales of 14 uncommon siblings raised in poverty.

Key points

  • Research shows that most children are resilient.
  • In adversity, some consistently thrive; some stumble but learn later how to thrive; others permanently fall.
  • Even in those who thrive, there are lessons to learn, obstacles to overcome, and, often, inner wounds to heal.
  • 'The Kite That Couldn’t Fly' chronicles the continuum of resilience in an exceptional group of children.

In a superbly written book, The Kite That Couldn’t Fly: And Other May Avenue Stories, master storyteller Michael Menard weaves tales about growing up in a close, impoverished family of 14 children in a tiny house near Chicago. Most of the children attained exceptional success in athletics, their occupations, and their families. They loved and looked out for each other. Yet many of them also faced struggles and carried hidden wounds from their childhood adversities. In many ways, the book shares universal themes about who triumphs over adversity and who stumbles.

The author is a case in point. Being largely unsupervised gave Menard the opportunity and freedom to be creative. He figured out a way to make gloves from the skins of the mice that infested the house.

Based on Menard’s experience babysitting, he came up with the idea of disposable diapers with elasticized legs. He shared his idea with Johnson and Johnson, leading to the first of 14 patents that revolutionized the absorbent products industry. His inventions are now responsible for over $50 billion in annual sales. Lacking any technical education, he rose to worldwide vice president of engineering for the company. Despite health concerns, he figured out how to be a happy adult.

Yet Menard cried for some of his siblings. Why did some thrive in so many ways while others stumbled? What started out as bedtime stories for the younger siblings turned into a book that yields rich insights into the enduring impact of positive and negative childhood experiences.

Menard’s parents were a study in contrasts: a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Menard never knew of a mother who did more or better for her children and did it with so little. She was a loving, spiritual woman with a beautiful singing voice and an infectious laugh. She wanted all 14 of her children and made each feel like her favorite. She taught them to love and forgive all people, including their father, for their own benefit. She believed in her children and taught them to have gratitude and hope for a better life.

For example, Menard once did a half-baked cleaning job in the basement, hoping to go swimming with his brothers. Inspecting, his mother said that she’d expect that kind of a job from a neighbor boy but not from a Menard. She continued, “I’m going to go upstairs and make you a nice lunch, and when I come back down, you will show me the type of work Michael Joseph Menard can do.” She made him feel special.

Menard dreamed of winning a trophy in a kite contest. Assuring him that he would, she labored beside him to make a beauty that turned out to be too heavy to fly. But it did earn a trophy: the overall winner for beauty and creativity.

Menard’s father, Paul, was far more complex. He was hard as nails, the Navy boxing champion in WWII, undefeated in fistfights, and known as a “badass” for miles around. Paul’s father was a mean alcoholic who regularly beat his kids. He took Paul to bars for bare-knuckle fights at age 12. By age 16, Paul was fighting and winning against full-grown men.

As an adult, Paul was cynical, mean, and always looking to even the score. Despite his intelligence, he thought of himself as a loser and thought others viewed him that way. Feeling the weight of supporting his large family, he worked three jobs and so was largely absent. Although he could fix anything, he caused sadness and pain for the children and his wife.

Paul taught his children that it was OK to steal, as long as you didn’t get caught. He actually encouraged the author to steal steaks and silverware from a restaurant whose owners had employed him and treated him with respect and trust. (His mother got wind of this and caused Menard to confess and repay the theft.) When Menard became an accomplished musician, his father volunteered to take tickets at the band’s successful performances, then betrayed his son by skimming off portions of the proceeds. Paul rationalized that he was taking care of his family.

Paul was critical of his children, who thought they couldn’t do anything right. He was hardest on the son who looked and acted the most like himself (David) and on those who seemed to most need toughening up. He told the children he’d be driving a nice car if they were not draining him dry, and he hit offending children with a heavy wooden paddle that he’d made. He severely burned David’s hand on the stove, not because David stole, but because he got caught.

Yet mixed with the wrong that Paul lived and taught was some brilliance and some valuable lessons:

  • Avoid and never provoke a fight, but if you must fight, strike first, strike hard, and ensure your opponent will never want to fight you again. You don’t have to tolerate bullies. Stand up to them, and you’ll fear no man.
  • Anger is the enemy. One with rage swings wildly while you calmly sidestep and deliver combinations.
  • Be tenacious, work hard, be tough, and do things the right way.

Outcomes for the Menard Children

Most of the Menard children had winning personalities, intelligence, and extraordinary success. They became superstar salesmen, nurses, physician assistants, occupational therapists, entrepreneurs, and leaders. They were well-liked and respected.

Understandably, however, there were also medical and mental health challenges in adulthood. For example, David, despite great outward success, had a sadness about him. Two of the children died of drug overdoses. Another found healing through trauma therapy later in life. Some divorced but later remarried successfully.

Stories With a Purpose

Bryant Gill wrote: “Your struggle is your strength. If you can resist becoming negative, bitter, or hopeless, in time, your struggles will give you everything.”

It’s said that life is a race between liberation and catastrophe. Over time, most of the Menard children learned to incorporate the valuable lessons of their parents while discarding their father’s negative examples. Unfortunately, some lost the race.

Consistent with research on children in difficult environments, some of the children remained competent and caring throughout their lives. Some stumbled but righted their ship in adulthood. A few stumbled, fell, and never recovered, including two who died of drug overdoses.

In part, we can explain outcomes by parenting styles. The mother and father contrast is evident. Yet even children in the same family are parented differently. For example, Paul was hardest on three of the children and was least available for the middle children when the demands on him were greatest.

In part, these outcomes can be explained by personality differences. Each child is born with different vulnerabilities, strengths, intelligence, and needs. Some of the Menard children gleaned what they needed. Most, but not all, were able to extract vital lessons from the good and bad examples of parents and siblings.

Overall, the May Avenue stories teach that unconditional love, hope, and a strong spine can overcome the most difficult circumstances, that suffering and circumstances don’t define who we are, and that suffering can help us develop the tools and confidence that serve us well in life. The stories also teach us to be aware of the needs of children who are struggling, to parent the children we have (not the ones we wish we had), and to take action as adults to heal unresolved hidden wounds.

Note: Mr. Menard is establishing a foundation to facilitate recovery from childhood trauma, with the ultimate goal of providing free trauma counseling.


Menard, M. J. (2024). The Kite That Couldn’t Fly: And Other May Avenue Stories. Thompsons Station, TN: Burning Soul Press.

Schiraldi, G. R. (2021). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

More from Glenn R. Schiraldi Ph.D.
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