The Formative Years That Shape The Rest Of Our Lives

The power of what is possible: From an unlikely president to boys at an orphanage in Colombia.

A child’s early interactions with their parents and caregivers as well as their surrounding environment is what sets out the starting point for much of the behaviors and actions that eventually end up making a person. That is why there is no time that is more formative or more important than the years of life from when a person is born until they are about to begin elementary school. These years are known as early childhood years, and they are so important because of how rapidly the brain develops, but also because these years develop the foundation for future social skills, communication skills, and a child’s ability to interact with others.

What makes a child’s psyche quite unique is that their formative years are spent gathering immense information around the world around them by patternizing what they see going on around them, and trying to understand how they fit in. These are influenced by situations like growing up in a single-parent household or not having their parents involved in their lives and instead being raised by family relatives like grandparents or aunts and uncles. Similarly, children that grow up in household conditions that include domestic violence or substance dependency often end up embracing these behaviors. Such situations impact not only how a child sees themselves, but also how they see others, as well as the comfort level they exhibit around others. Simply put, exposure to chaos and trauma in early life is a mix that guarantees to have detrimental consequences on a child’s ability to reach their full developmental potential.

So let us imagine a child whose father dies a few months before that child is born. Then that child ends up getting raised by their grandparents because their mother has to travel for work as a medical worker. When their mother does return back into the child’s life, she is joined by a man who becomes a stepfather to that child. Then at the age of five, the child goes into their parent’s room after hearing a loud argument and it culminates with the stepfather firing a shot at the child’s mother, which ends up missing and going between the child and their mother. Although the stepfather is taken to jail, lesser known is that gun firing during arguments between the parents was the norm, but the stepfather had previously only fired his gun into the ceiling. Later on, it becomes clear that the stepfather struggled with substance dependency. There were other episodes of domestic violence, including one where the child’s little brother, runs to his now-teen brother yelling for help because their father was going to kill their mother with scissors. What kind of person would most people think that this child would turn into? The odds are so stacked against that child, and yet a child like that somehow managed to go on to become President of the United States of America.

The Unlikely President.

How could a child that grew up in a household where the chaos and trauma included domestic violence, weapon violence, and addiction, develop into a person that would go on to become a two-term president and someone who continues to share the single most positive message that has ever made it on the internet? That might be one of the hardest questions to answer when one learns about the formative years of President Bill Clinton. Because the stories that are embedded in ‘statistics’ tell us that the kind of life experiences that President Clinton went through as a child, make him the one of the most unlikely presidents.

When little Bill walked in on his mother and stepfather having an argument, where his stepfather pulled out a gun and fired a shot at mother, with little Bill watching, he was around five years old. The bullet ended up passing between little Bill and his mother, and the stepfather was later taken to jail. Now, consider that prior to this incident, where the bullet flew in-between little Bill and his mother, the stepfather was known to shoot his shotgun into the ceiling.

Another domestic violence incident that occurred around a decade later. Teenage Bill was hanging outside the home, he saw his little brother run outside and yell for him. His little brother was yelling how their dad was about to kill their mother with scissors. If it was not for teenage Bill being nearby and taking away the sharp weapon, who knows what could have happened.

Despite all the chaos and trauma as a result of life at home, Bill never stopped caring for his stepfather. When his stepfather required medical treatment for cancer, recently turned adult Bill worried about his family being able to afford medical treatment for cancer and he even considered putting his academic goals on hold. By some luck, university student-Bill managed to find himself a job to work for a Senator and it helped him with his financial dilemma and allowed him to continue his studies.

On the other hand, there was Bill’s younger brother Roger whose life took a different path, and who struggled with substance use himself. Roger would later open up about the devastating effect growing up in such a chaotic and traumatic environment, feeling humiliation for running to his older brother for help because he was helpless to stop his dad from hurting their mom. Roger would also go on to struggle with substances. And Bill believes that it was a mistake for their family to have gone back to living life as “normal”, and he wishes he had told his little brother how proud he was of him and how what he did was much harder than what Bill had done.

After getting voted into the White House, President Clinton never hid his early-life struggles and was open about three key identity-shaping moments of his childhood, conditions that often hold individuals back from achieving their full potential. The first was that he was deprived of a male role model. The second was that the chaos and dysfunction affected his views on family life. The third was that growing up in a dysfunctional home and it affected his ability to communicate effectively.

These formative years of President Clinton are what makes him the most unlikely president because such environments are so detrimental to the healthy development of a child. The story of President Clinton’s formative years is a story that promises to stretch the thinking involved about all that people are capable of, and that story is available in his 2004 autobiography, My Life.

The Remedy to Chaos is Structure.

Back in 2017 when I visited Colombia, I had the opportunity to spend time at a boy’s orphanage, and it was one of the most powerful experiences a person can experience. The shelter was housed boys up to fourteen years old, and all of the boys were taken from the most extreme environments. These environments included everything from engaging in substance use with their family members and trafficking drugs to carrying out weapons violence for cartel members because they were minors and would not go to jail. It is as extreme as extreme gets.

One of the boys had been recruited by a local cartel and they got him to commit gun violence against a rival cartel. The boy was around eleven years old when he first pointed a gun and pulled the trigger at the rival cartel member. The boy was ‘paid’ by the cartel members, they got a woman whom they were sex-trafficking to pay him with sex. At some point, that woman became pregnant, she was over the age of thirty, and the boy became a father around the age of twelve. In addition to becoming a father, he was also wanted by the rival cartel members. Thankfully for the boy, he was taken into an orphanage, which is where I first witnessed how the remedy for chaos was structure.

At the orphanage, the boys would be put on a strict routine, and it eliminated any sign of chaos that they may have been exposed to. They were showed attention and affection from the staff, they had a brotherhood amongst all of the boys, that ranged from as little as six up to fourteen. These boys became keen learners, they became self-sufficient, and seeing them thrive in that environment would show how much potential they had within themselves.

The common thread between every child as it relates to their formative years is that children tend to be malleable enough to be moulded into something better than their immediate conditions. Nurture gets the best of nature when it comes to overcoming childhood chaos, and it is proof that potential and talent can be found in every little soul around the world. All it takes is creating the right conditions around them to help them unleash their full potential.