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Child Watch® Column: "A Child Without Dreams"

Release Date: April 26, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

Every day four children in America are killed by abuse or neglect.  More than 750,000 children are abused or neglected each year.  Even when children survive or after physical scars heal, the emotional damage left by child abuse and neglect can last a lifetime just as the post traumatic stress left by gun violence leaves deep scars in countless children.

Joseph Miles has essentially been on his own since he was 13 years old—the year his mother tried to kill him.  Until then, he would say, he cried for love.  After that he gave up on hoping ever to find it.  Today Joseph is in his forties and has been incarcerated since he was 28.  When he came to prison he couldn’t read or write. It was only recently that Joseph realized he missed out on something crucial besides love in early childhood:  he didn’t even know he should have had dreams until it was much too late.   Listen to Joseph’s words:

“I never had dreams as a child, a teenager, or as a young adult.  Until 2010, I had never sat in a room and heard people talk about their dreams for the future.

I did not come from a loving, nurturing family.  ‘Motherf***er, you little ugly mother***er.’  I could go on telling you how I was spoken to as a child but the words will remain the same.

There was no one in my life who could have talked to me about dreaming about my future.  As I got older, my inner pains turned to anger and that anger turned to rage.

In 2006, I got serious about education and just before I got my GED in 2008, I started dreaming about my future—at the age of 41.  That was the first time I had ever had a dream about my future.

In 2010, I was part of an undergraduate Inside Out college class . . . This class had seven young students from Vanderbilt University, two from American Baptist College (an African American college), and ten inmates.  We referred to ourselves as insiders and outsiders.

This day our opening circle was to tell the class what you dreamed of being when you grew up.  The first person spoke and, always going to the left, the next person spoke, and so on.  It got to me and I had to tell the class that I never had a dream of becoming anything in my life.  My childhood was spent wanting my parents to love me, crying because I was hungry, or crying because one of them had hurt me and my feelings.  At the age of 13 my mother tried to beat me to death.  Those years were spent learning how to fight so I would never have to endure another beating like that by anyone.

Dream?  I could not dream; my pain had turned to anger, and in my twenties that anger turned to rage.  I could not dream because I chased death.  Knowing what I know today, the only reason I did not die is because God would not let death take me.

That class was the first time in my life I had ever been around people talking about what they dreamed would happen for them in life.  What they wanted to do when they were done with school.  I lived each day of life surviving.  Dream?  How could a human being like me dream when no one ever trained me how to use my mind to think?  I was so impressed with these young people from the outside and the dreams they had for their future.

Even though I had that first dream in 2008, I like to think these young people gave me permission to dream.  After our class was over that night and the outsiders were gone, I lay in that cell and went to that place I always tried to stay away from since being introduced to education:  the place of what if.  What if someone would have helped me with education when I was young?  What if I would have known how to think and dream?  What if I could have experienced the love that was so obvious in those young people’s conversation?  The love from family and friends that allowed them to dream.  What if I had a dream?  ‘What if’ is a painful place to be!

Today, in 2013, at the age of 45, I dream.  I dream of telling young people about the dreams I never had and why it’s important for them to dream.  And hopefully I can keep them away from that place called ‘what if.’

Today I do wish someone would have taught that child, that teenager, that young man in his twenties to dream.  Who knows?  Maybe my life would have been different.

Dreams!  So important for the future of our children.  I know this from experience. Now I dream.”

How many millions of children who were hurt or neglected themselves grow up hopeless, hate-filled, and continue the cycle of hurting others?  No child deserves to grow up feeling hated and abandoned instead of safe, cared for, and loved.  And all children deserve to be allowed and encouraged to dream by the adults around them in their homes, schools, and communities. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the great president of Morehouse College and mentor to me and thousands of Black college students, told us: “It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal.  The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.  It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.  It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture.  It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for.  Not failure, but low aim is sin.”

Every child needs a dream. Dr. King had a dream and our nation has a dream we must continue to struggle to honor for every child and adult in America during this month dedicated to preventing child abuse and every month going forth.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by tess at: May 6, 2013
I pains me to know that there are people who don't have a dream in life and it is because of their experience during childhood. I was once in your shoes but I didn't stop hoping and dreaming for a better tomorrow. Thank God answer our prayers. Lets just be patient and struggle for what we believe is right. Keep praying.. let us stop this violence against children.

Submitted by Rashad Smith at: May 3, 2013
Extraordinary post. I'm amazed at how the Miles is using his gift, his purpose, to give back to young America. As an educator (not certified but called) I'm always astonished at how people can turn their struggle's into stories of success for others. Just like Miles, so many of our children go through the same things. We must step up and take action, best as possible, to those who seem like their dealing with burdens, We must go the extra mile .

Submitted by Chaz at: April 30, 2013
Had Joseph Miles not confronted the pain of hope, he most likely wouldn't have felt anything positive in his life. I felt so sad for the injustice he has endured. I am happy that he now has hope, and can dream of a future. Without hope, we have nothing. My heart goes out to Joseph, as do my good wishes and hope for self realization.

Submitted by church lady at: April 30, 2013
I spent my first 15 years in ministry serving in maximum men and women prison facilities. I am so on board with Stop the Pipeline to Prison. I just recently retired as the Volunteer Administrator for Booker T. Washington Community Center for at risk children. What a privilege it was to serve and love those children. They desperately need a Freedom School. That is one of my goals for them.

Submitted by Swedepie at: April 29, 2013
Very thought provoking.

Submitted by Connie at: April 29, 2013
This article made me think about a Mom holding her newborn baby in her arms and telling it "I had you so you because I had to, I don't give a damn about you. I'm going to do everything I can to make your life a living hell. You'll wind up in jail anyway." I can't imagine a Mom even thinking about imprinting an innocent baby with such hateful intentions. This article speaks to human resilience in overcoming the pain of rejection, the power of hope when others believe in you, and the transformation that happens when your spirit is liberated to learn that you have something no one else has---YOU. What a beautiful and inspiring article. I'm grateful for the people who reached out to Mr. Miles and others.

Submitted by Msreal at: April 29, 2013

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 29, 2013

Submitted by Rather at: April 29, 2013
I was heart stricken when reading this article and yet know that this is happening more often than not but also like Dr. King I too have that dream that one day all our children will be treated equal. I feel that it starts at home and yes even though it may not start there someone touching that child life on a daily basis shoul provide the love and support to help the dream come alive. Thanks for these encouraging articles.

Submitted by Sandy at: April 29, 2013
When I first began to read this story I was filled with sadness and wanted to cry but I could not. I too know the feeling of abuse and neglect but I too have changed my life around and began to dream. I'm successful in my adulthood but I still haven't got to a place where I can pat myself on the back but I'm working on it. This story was uplifting in knowing that I am not alone and there is hope for everyone of God's children. Thank you for sharing your story!

Submitted by Lainie at: April 28, 2013
Wonderfully expressed - excellent points and reminders.

Submitted by Kathy at: April 28, 2013
I was working in a teen parenting program many years ago and wanted to put in a session on 'dreams/hopes'. I was told not to as "that was not productive". I still think that was wrong.

Submitted by redd1 at: April 28, 2013
positive socialization is very important in ones wellbeing.

Submitted by Elizabeth at: April 27, 2013
Dearest Joseph. I too struggled thru a childhood of abuse and vowed i'd never raise a hand to my children - and kept that vow. I went to college & made a promise to myself never to have children until I understood why my parents mistreated us or if somehow it was genetic n i'd be just like them in the end. I figured it out & finally had 3 children(starting @ age 27). I spent my professional career being a therapist working with children, teens, and adults who'd been abused teaching them to dream, just like you, Joseph. You are an inspiration, Joseph! You have a beautiful compassionate meaningful voice - I can hear you. Inspire us Joseph as you continue healing you. Thank you young man. With love, Elizabeth

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 27, 2013
Children are our most important asset and they all need to a chance, all need to feel love and that people care.

Submitted by srme at: April 27, 2013
I pray for children who are desperate, hopeless, despairing. Not because I had a childhood like the one described here. But because although my parents loved me, I was different, knew I was different, and thought I could even be non-human. I didn't know how to love, how to respond to people, how to change. I hs figured out that I was really human by the time I was in kindergarten, and that I was probably not adopted (they'd have given me back almost immediatelly was my reasoning.) Today I think I would be diagnosed as nearly autistic, seriously deficient in social understandings and skills. I thoought of suicide at the age of 12 -- decided I really wanted to let my parents know how miserable I was, couoldn't find any other way to do it, but suicide wasn't a good answer. I also really did want to continue to learn more about the world and myself. And maybe find someone who knew about people like me (if there were any others) and get some help. That hope was one lifeline, perhaps the most important. The other was my passion for learning anything and everything. Growing up helped, and I did find therapy that helped. I've had a good life (I'm now 88) if not an ordinary one. Old age has become a wonderful time -- continuing to learn, reading science especially, continuing to help in the household, walking a young, medium sized. loving dog. I do wonder about childdren who haven't had the advantages I had -- children neglected, abused, finding no help either in or outside their home. I'm not susre how much may prayers help, but they are offering I can give.

Submitted by pianoman at: April 27, 2013
Ms. Edelman is a voice for compassion and sanity in this world, and especially on the issues affecting children.

Submitted by Worm at: April 27, 2013
"let us put our minds together and see what kind of life we can make for our children." --Sitting Bull Wake up World!

Submitted by MS. Lane at: April 26, 2013
This was a timely read. It has given me much more to think about.

Submitted by KathyE at: April 26, 2013
How sad to know that a child can grow up never knowing what love is .... such a waste of a human mind and heart. Thank God he had an opportunity, even if it was after such cruel treatment and incarceration. I pray this will change for him and the many others we do not yet know about.