It’s Easier To Build Strong Children Than To Repair Broken Men

All things truly wicked start from innocence.

Author, easier to build strong child than repair broken men Courtesy Of Author

The first thing that drew my attention was their laughter. I was seated on a nearby bench in “The District,” an outdoor plaza of shops and restaurants near my home. I go there sometimes with my rangefinder camera to capture candid images of daily life. People’s expressions reveal a great deal, especially when they think no one is observing — faces of happiness, sadness, distraction, defeat, hope, and more.


This is why I enjoy street photography — because one can capture real life. Not the phony, posed, curated images we see on social media feeds. Or the photoshopped faces of celebrities and stars that adorn the magazines in our grocery store check-out aisles. Candid street photographs freeze and memorialize real life. And they sometimes inspire stories for me to write.

Just as the cheerful school kids turned the corner by my bench, I was able to discreetly photograph them. They were laughing, giggling, and having fun. Not a care in the world. At least not at that moment. Their levity called up memories of my teenage exploits with friends. Back when every day was an adventure, and life felt less serious and carefree.


Cheerful school kids All photos by John P. Weiss

“There’s nothing more contagious than the laughter of young children; it doesn’t even have to matter what they’re laughing about.” — Criss Jami, Killosophy

Those giggling kids uplifted me. Made me feel more hopeful. But then, shortly after they disappeared into the many shops, I overheard a man and woman arguing. I couldn’t make out what they were arguing about, but the man rode off angrily on his bicycle and the woman began strolling towards me, rolling her bicycle alongside. I kept my camera on my lap and tilted it up ever slightly to snap a few silent shots.


Woman walking her bicycle

At first, I thought the woman noticed this, but then it became apparent she was oblivious to me, lost in anguished thoughts. And the sad, almost haunted expression on her face, summoned memories of so many mistreated, afraid, and lonely women I helped in my long law enforcement career. The woman’s expression brought back a memory from my days as a juvenile officer in the police department. It was a sad memory of a little girl I befriended early in my career, and then again near the end of my career. And it was apparent that over the years life had not been kind to her. She was still broken.

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I taught an anti-drug/alcohol abuse program in our community’s 5th-grade classrooms, and during recess and lunch periods, I went out on the playground to interact with the kids and build rapport. There was a little girl who walked up to me near the water faucets by the playground. She was carrying a stuffed toy rabbit. I’d seen her before and noticed that she was always shy and withdrawn. But today she seemed a bit braver. She tapped my left arm and when I looked down she held up her stuffed rabbit.


“Hello there,” I said, adding, “Who’s your friend?”

“Bunny,” she said, as the wind swept her wispy brown bangs over her eyes. The yellow t-shirt she wore was a bit tattered, with a faded unicorn image on the front. Her jeans were also faded, with a hole around one knee, and one of her sneakers was missing laces.

“Nice to meet you, Bunny,” I said with a smile. “What do you like to eat, Bunny?” “Cheerios,” the girl said for Bunny. “Ah, Cheerios are the best,” I said. “And tell me, Bunny, what’s your friend’s name?”

The little girl spied me for a second as if evaluating how much goodness I possessed. And then, before turning and walking away, she said, “I’m Annie.”


I would learn from the school teachers that Annie came from a broken home. The details were unclear, but there was something about an alcoholic parent, little money, and mistreatment. At school, some of Annie’s classmates were mean to her. Probably because Annie talked with a slight lisp, and her withdrawn countenance was the kind of thing that bullies and cruel children are drawn to.

“All things truly wicked start from innocence.” — Ernest Hemingway

So I tried to spend more time with Annie on those lunch and recess breaks. Because she needed a friend. And I knew that wounded children become broken adults. I learned that Annie’s world was hard and that she escaped into her love of animals. At home, her family had dogs and cats, and Annie talked lovingly about them all. Animals were her safe space. Because animals love unconditionally.

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When I was traveling in Italy, I photographed a kid outside a candy shop staring longingly at the captivating treats inside.

Kid outside of an Italian candy store

This reminded me of a middle-school-aged girl I dealt with in my law enforcement career. The girl had come home late from school and told her angry parents that a man tried to entice her into his van, so she ran away to a friend’s house. Stunned by this news, the parents immediately drove their daughter to the police station to report the incident.

A police report was taken and a press release was issued to alert the community of the van and the suspect’s description. A local television reporter and crew came to the police department to cover the incident. A trained composite sketch artist, I was assigned to meet with the girl and create a drawing of the suspect. The day we met in the police department detective’s office, I noticed the girl eyeing a bowl of candy on the desk, not unlike the kid in Italy staring at the candy shop. I offered the girl the bowl, and she plucked several pieces of candy.


I pulled out my sketching materials and asked the girl to describe the man who tried to lure her into his van. We went over various face sizes, shapes, and features. We settled on an approximate age and a few other details. I began drawing. After a while, I showed her the beginnings of the sketch. “What do you think about the shape of the face and the eyes?” I asked her. “It’s perfect, that’s what he looked like,” she said. “But didn’t you say the nose was big? Maybe I should adjust his nose?” I asked. “Yeah, okay,” she said.

And that’s when something didn’t feel right to me. It was all too easy. Most victims and witnesses request endless adjustments, or they’re just not sure. But this little girl seemed mostly thrilled with every bit of the drawing. I adjusted the nose, intentionally flaring the nostrils with some exaggeration. “How about now?” I said, showing her the changes. “Yeah, that’s exactly what he looked like. May I have another piece of candy?” she said.

And that’s when I confronted her. I told her that I was troubled by how easily she agreed with the sketch. How most people want far more changes. And then I asked her to go over the whole story again. How the entire incident happened. She began to cry. “Look,” I told her, “I get it. You were having fun with your friend, and you were late getting home. You didn’t want to get into trouble.” 

“Daddy can get so mad,” she told me through tears.


“The words with which a child’s heart is poisoned, whether through malice or ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul.” — Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

“So was there really a man in a van who tried to kidnap you?” I asked.

She continued crying and I reassured her that we’d work everything out. Finally, she admitted that she made the whole incident up. And even though her fabricated story wasted a lot of time and resources, I wasn’t angry with her. All I kept thinking to myself was what she said. “Daddy can get so mad.” There’s an old line written by Fyodor Dostoevsky: “The soul is healed by being with children.” But what about the souls of children? What heals them when people or life treat them unkindly?

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It wasn’t long after my juvenile detective days that my wife and I had a child of our own. Despite all the terrible things I witnessed in the early years of my police career, I still believed it was worth bringing a child into this beautiful, broken, complex world. And while I knew I couldn’t protect my baby boy from all of life’s uncertainties and challenges, I could at least provide all my love, support, and guidance.

Photo of author John P. Weiss Photo of author

“Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.” — Rabindranath Tagore


The many child abuse investigations and domestic violence calls I handled provided a deep education and understanding of how easily we can destroy children. How easily they can be wounded, and how difficult it is to repair. Also, how important it is to create a healthy home and to model the kind of positive behavior you want your child to emulate.

Fortunately, my wife and I love books. Our entire house has always contained a sizable library, and my son grew up watching us read books. We took the television out of his bedroom when he was very young and filled it with books. Before long, he was reading all the Harry Potter books and classics that my wife loved, like George Orwell’s 1984 and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don’t read for pleasure. When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parent’s rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says ‘PRIVATE — GROWNUPS KEEP OUT’: a child sprawled on the bed, reading.” — Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

The great American statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 


So much of society’s problems today can be traced back to childhoods marred by pain, neglect, abuse, and a betrayal of trust and innocence. It’s why some kids escape into the world of their stuffed bunny, or why teenage girls tell tales of attempted abductions rather than face an angry father over being late.

Near the end of my law enforcement career, I walked in uniform into a grocery store to purchase a soda. Someone tapped my shoulder at the checkout aisle, and when I turned around, a young woman was standing there. There was a familiar sadness in her eyes, but also a glint of energy and hope. “Chief Weiss, do you remember me? “ she said. “Of course I do, Annie. And how is Bunny?” “Oh, I’m afraid we buried Bunny years ago after the dog decapitated him,” she said with a giggle. “And how are you? What are you up to these days?”

She told me that she worked at a veterinary office and that she loved helping animals. She talked about her animal companions at home. No spouse or kids, she shared, but then her life was full of work, animals, and hobbies. Even in adulthood, animals were her safe space.


“If only. Those must be the two saddest words in the world.” — Mercedes Lackey

She hugged me, thanked me, and went back to shopping. And while I was glad that she seemed okay, another part of me was sad. Sad that someone or something kept Annie marooned in her childhood, where the only things she could trust and love were animals.

If only I’d gone back down the shopping aisles, found Annie, and embraced her in a long, reassuring hug. Maybe whispered in her ear, “You’re a wonderful person, Annie. I love the way you care for animals. And you deserve the very best in this life.” And maybe she would have broken down and realized that there are still good people to trust in this world. Maybe she’d finally break out of her protective shell, and risk more. Find love. Start a family of her own.

But then I thought this would be inappropriate, especially coming from the police chief. So I paid for my soda and left. And once again, someone failed Annie.


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John P. Weiss is a writer and former police chief with over twenty-six years of law enforcement experience. He is the author of What Life Should Be About: Elegant Essays on the Things That Matter and his work appears in The Guardian, Medium, Simplify Magazine, Becoming Minimalist, Good Men Project, and elsewhere online.