In search of relative stability

April 25, 2000|By Susan Reimer

KIDS HAVE a right to expect certain things from adults. Among them: food, shelter and a loving touch.

If you asked kids what else they want from adults, they might add Nintendo, Disney World and ice cream for breakfast.

Children probably could not find a word for the other thing they need from adults, the one thing Elian Gonzalez needed most from the grown-ups around him: Stability.

There has been food, shelter and a loving touch for Elian. And, from what we have seen, Disney World and ice cream for breakfast.

But every single adult in Elian's life has failed to provide for him the sameness of daily life that sustains kids even when the food is meager and the shelter poor.

His mother conceived him in the chaos of a dissolving relationship and then spirited him away from his father, his home, his friends and family in a rickety boat so that she could join a new love in a new country.

His Miami relatives clothed him in Tommy Hilfiger and displayed him on a jungle gym as a symbol and a martyr to their anti-Castro causes, and the Cuban-American community sealed him behind a surging sea of angry humanity. He was kept away from school and classmates -- and his father -- while a propaganda war droned day and night outside his bedroom window.

The politicians? They spoke on behalf of the boy, but their self-interest was appallingly apparent. The media? They fed the chaos they reported and then profited from it.

Janet Reno became the incarnation of indecision, trapped between her nightmares of Waco and her hometown loyalties, between the best interests of the child and the rule of law. To be fair, it must have been difficult for her to move in either direction with President Clinton cowering behind her skirts.

There is a reason why kids insist that bedtime rituals be repeated, why they request the same thing for breakfast every day, why they sleep with the same blanket each night or insist on wearing the same clothes each morning.

There is a reason why young children react with fury or tears to a change in plans or a new place. There is a reason why they bond to even the most indifferent parent. It is because change frightens children.

When you are learning more about the world around you every day, it helps if that world isn't spinning out of control. Kids depend on adults in unspoken ways to keep things together. To keep the ground from moving beneath their feet. To provide a home base of bland predictability from which they can depart to explore new places and meet new people and to which they can return for a fortifying dose of comfortable sameness.

What is astonishing about the Elian Gonzalez case is that so many people have failed him so completely. Not only those closest to him, but complete strangers. Grown-ups who he didn't know existed stepped forward to behave selfishly. They grabbed the spotlight and the microphone and then in great arm-waving, chest-beating bluster, refused to let him see his father and said they did it for his own good.

Elian Gonzalez now has been reunited with that father -- who promptly presented him with a new sibling and a new mother -- and they are getting to know each other again in yet another new place -- a nondescript barracks house at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Soon, they will relocate again, possibly to a house on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where they will await decisions in the courts about where Elian will live when he wakes from this long nightmare.

Meanwhile, adults are either quietly sad or red-faced with indignation that Elian may return to Cuba and its comparative deprivations.

But I can imagine Elian thinking, like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," that there is no place like home. Comfortable, familiar, black-and-white, home.

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