Looking back, I was too young to be a professor and the man enrolled in my child psychology course was too young to be at war. He was a college freshman, fresh home from Viet Nam, and I was a bright-eyed, first-year teacher. We were both eager to succeed in the classroom.

We met in the fall of the late 1960s. He was a stepparent for a five-year-old son. I was a parent as well. We were both naive, humbled and yet open to learning together.

Lani Carney with her students today. — Mark Lovewell

What was striking about Adam was his eagerness to learn, to do the right thing and to absorb all he could about child development. He had my respect. He was thirsty to find significance in his life and, who knows, perhaps also to bury the sorrow of his return to a country he had fought for, only to experience an unwelcome homecoming.

I did not bring up the subject of the war; a war I was struggling to understand. Instead, I remained determined to set an example for the class and be a deep listener when Adam spoke about his time of duty. You cannot talk of a renaissance of hope with someone when that someone is telling you of broken dreams. I urged the class to listen and we did so, genuinely.

One thing for certain, this man was a terrific humanitarian. He was authentic and deeply interested in his partner’s son. I was committed to not making the same mistake I felt academics had made in our field — offering advice.

During a lecture, I once stated: “Children are not inert, submissive stones.”

Adam quizzed me. “What does that mean?”

“Parental love means having the strength to let your child be, and to grow,” I said. “One must step back in order to learn how a child continues to develop. Positive reinforcement in conjunction with unconditional love is paramount.”

But heavily into what he knew, Adam believed in strict punishment factors.

“How is it possible to not do as was done with me?” Adam asked. “How is it possible not to spank a child?”

Adam was truly curious and at a loss. My hope was for this opening.

“Children appeal to us to think in new ways,” I said. “Perfect is not the issue. What is essential is being authentic. It is key to honor children and ourselves and that our intentions do no harm. Rigid, unwavering options, self-centeredness, lack of presence and lack of attention invariably lead to sorrow in children and youth. These behaviors create sorrow in the adult as well.”

What I wanted to convey was how thrilling it is to stand shoulder to shoulder with the children in our care, and allowing them to lead. It prompts growth.

Adam and the class stayed with me. As the course lecture came to a close, I remember urging Adam not to bypass standard ethics for a certain set of people, namely children. I remember saying, “Adam, you are an ethical human being. You will make a difference not from a stance of omnipotence, but from a role of pleasant collaboration.”

At the close of the semester, I chose to invite my students to a potluck, held at my home. As I greeted students and their families, a small child darted up to me.

“Lady, lady, are you the teacher that taught my daddy not to spank.”