Last week, I was among dozens of proud family members watching our beautiful niece walk down the aisle as a bride. It was hard to believe it's been 29 years since she walked down the aisle as the flower girl at my own wedding.
So much growth and development is packed in between flower girl years and bride years. From diapers to diplomas, princess costumes to prom dresses, crayons to computers, and tricycles to Toyotas, each stage of our little flower girl's life has been filled with its own joys and its own challenges. She is now much wiser and more worldly, but every bit as sweet, charming, and loving as when she was a toddler tossing petals. Her new husband is another sign of her good judgment: He's a gem, and loves sports even more than I do.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the passing years have not brought about a safer, kinder, more peaceful world. Today is scarier for us as parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles than it was a generation ago. Schools are scarier, travel is scarier, movie theaters and shopping malls are scarier. I was asked this week to provide opinions for an article being written about childhood safety—when is it safe for a child to walk to school alone, for example? I declined because I don't know the answers anymore. And it's not just safety that's declined. Poverty, hunger, crime, addiction, homelessness, and hopelessness despoil our neighborhoods and our society. Does every generation fret like this, feeling powerless to stop everything that's going in the wrong direction? Or am I just getting to that age of reflection and remorse?
There's a Talmudic saying, "It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to ignore it." Last week, there were two adorable little flower girls at our niece's wedding, cousins of the groom. I watched as they walked down the aisle and something more than the expected warm and fuzzy feeling fell over me. I felt empowered and energized. As the bride and groom were making their vows, I made a vow, as well, and here it is: By the time those flower girls become brides, I and my children, and my niece and new nephew will have made a difference. A generation from now, we will experience the wedding days of last week's flower girls with a feeling of accomplishment for having put a dent into the problems we face, locally and globally. We will have become advocates for those in need and activists for just causes. We will covet less and donate more, praise more and gossip less. Blame less, forgive more. We will support those who protect us, protect those who need us, and give more of ourselves than we ever have. We will notice suffering and work to ease it. We will volunteer and teach our kids to volunteer. We will help heal the world. We may not finish the work, but we will no longer ignore it.
So, to you parents of young children everywhere, join me in making a vow on behalf of your generation so your flower girls and ring bearers will become brides and grooms someday in a world that is better because of who you've been and what you've done.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting; a Parents advisor; and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com.