How One Connects to Many: An Only Child’s Story

The Shields

By Angela Noel

April 6, 2017

“How’s your son? How’s Jackson?” Danny asks me, almost every time we meet. Danny and Jackson have something in common. They’re both “only” children. Often I’ve wished for a better way to describe my son’s lack of siblings. Being an only child has cultural baggage for both child and parent. Even the way we describe only children, as if they are by turns selfish and lonely, feels messed up to me. Particularly because my experience with the sibling-challenged has universally been positive. Several friends of mine grew up without a sibling. Each of them are among the most independent, generous, outgoing, thoughtful people I know. Danny is no exception.

Pitching in

Danny grew up watching Lifetime movies and Judge Judy after school with his indomitable grandmother. They’d share a bag of popcorn and perhaps a thuringer sandwich and sit on the couch together to watch the shows after he’d finished his homework. From her, Danny learned the importance of standing up for himself and for others. She’d tell him, “Don’t take shit from anybody.” She’s also the grandmother you call at four a.m. when you shouldn’t be driving. “She was the most loving person . . . always agreeing with me,” Danny recalls with a smile. Though, Danny admits, he still can’t watch scary movies–the kind with stalker ex-husbands and Meredith Baxter-Birney.

Danny Shields and grandma
Danny and his grandma. She passed away just a week before his college graduation in 2014.

His grandmother pitched in to watch young Danny while both his parents worked. The “pitch-in” mindset formed a core tenet of Danny’s youth. Julia Lythcott-Haims is the dean of Freshman at Stanford. In her TED Talk on how to raise successful kids–without over-parenting she references the results of a study done by the Harvard Grant Study. She says it turns out, ” . . . professional success in life comes from having done chores as a kid.” It’s a mindset that says, “I will contribute my effort to the betterment of the whole . . . that’s what gets you ahead in the workplace.”Danny, in charge of mowing the lawn, cleaning and doing the dishes–even making dinner for the family–knows all about doing his part. But contributing at home is only part of Danny’s story.

His dad, Tim, practices law and is the general counsel for the Minnesota Federated Humane Societies. Fighting for animals, and against animal cruelty, matters to the Shields. Other social issues, like the recent Women’s March in Minnesota, matter, too. A picture with mom, Barb, dad, Danny, and a protest sign, show the Shields doing more than armchair quarterbacking. An apt metaphor (if I do say so myself) considering football played a significant role in Danny’s youth.

Doing the Work

He decided he wanted to be the starting quarterback at Holy Angels. Along with encouraging his academic success, his parents supported Danny’s drive to work for what he wanted. Holy Angels had already produced one NFL player, why not another? Though without aspiring to join the big leagues, Danny chose to attend the rigorous high school program both for the academics and the athletic opportunity. He played football and baseball for the school, and went on to play baseball in college. “I compete with myself to be the best I can,” Danny says, his shoulders lifting in the tiniest shrug. Danny’s not interested in being better than anyone else. Competition is part of athletics, but it’s not about winning for Danny. It’s about doing the work, asking the question of himself, “Can I be a little bit better today?”

Danny Shields Quarterback #16 Academy of Holy Angels Minneapolis 2008 Football Highlight Tape

ยท Danny Shields Quarterback #16 Academy of Holy Angels Minneapolis 2008 Football Highlight Tape

Many of the kids he competed against in high school for spots on the team are part of his posse today. Ten or so good friends, all about the same age, having BBQs each Saturday during the summertime. “If I need them, they’d be there for me.” From all these examples, peers and parents, Danny didn’t hesitate when a recent volunteer opportunity to help a school in a lower-income neighborhood with their annual field day arose.

Connecting to Hope

Kids at Bethune Elementary have a high rate of homelessness. Too high. Food insecurity. Language barriers. These kids face challenges many of us will never know. One of the biggest issues isn’t money, or even food. It’s hope. Some of these kids are the easiest to forget. One day they’re in school. The next they’re not. But that’s not what Danny saw when he went to help the teachers and administrators run athletic events for the kids to try. The one-mile run, the obstacle course, the ball-toss–teams of students with laughter in their eyes ran and jumped across weedy grass, while volunteers and a few parents cheered them on. Danny wanted to do more than just participate on a single day.

Bethune Field Day 2016
The kids and volunteers pose for Bethune Field Day 2016. You can see Danny WAY in the back, slightly left of center in red.
“They just have this spark, you know.”

Danny’s own eyes light up when he talks about the Bethune kids. “They’re pretty amazing.” Danny made a commitment to help the kids with their homework every week. “They just need a little support, a little extra guidance. They have all the talent, they make the effort. You never know who they can grow up to be.” Danny’s delight in working with these kids, the things they teach him as he helps them read the words on the page or subtract lines of digits, radiates from him–as if he’s back on the field at Holy Angels, throwing a touchdown pass. These days, instead of aiming a ball to a wide-receiver, he’s connecting children to hope. No one could ask for more.

Danny’s nice-guy superpower comes from the many examples of his past, and his willingness to contribute the best of himself to others. Maybe some only children see themselves as the center of the universe, but not Danny Shields. The only universe that matters to him is the one where everyone, animals, children, grandmothers, and the occasional unusual sausage sandwich can sit together and enjoy the show.

If Danny can do it, so can I. So can you.

Be awesome in real life.

Your turn: What motivates you to serve others? Who have your mentors been?

I’d love to connect with you on Twitter , Facebook, or Instagram.

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

8 thoughts on “How One Connects to Many: An Only Child’s Story”

  1. Love this Angela. Such a comforting read. As a Mother of an “only” child, I’ve always hated they way the sibling-less are often portrayed by society. There has been many studies that suggest quite often only children are successful and creative because of their only child status. There’s many advantages to being an only child, I remind myself of this whenever I feel guilty that she doesn’t have a sibling. My daughter is also very close to her Grandmother, as was I. Basically, Grandmothers rock. Great post x

    1. Thanks, Haley! So glad you found value in Danny’s story that applies to your own experience. I wish that whole guilt thing would go away, but I feel it too. I’m glad there are so many awesome singles–like Danny, your daughter, and hopefully my son– and awesome parents of singles to help shift the mindset. Thank you again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  2. I grew up as an only child and every once in a while, I’d wish I had a sibling, but for the most part, I was happy on my own. I think it can foster creativity because you have to entertain your own damn self most of the time. And chores are most definitely a good thing. Well done. Danny sounds like a great guy!

    1. Hi Emily! My son wishes he had a sibling, too, sometimes. But, as you point out, what we have to work with shapes us, and being an only child has benefits. Basically, I think we all have unique opportunities–what we do with them is what counts! Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience.

  3. I love seeing how one person can make a difference in so many people’s lives. My youth club leader Pat was my mentor growing up. I’m the person I am today because of him. An amazing man

    1. That’s awesome Noelle! I do a little “guest post” series called “Love Letters.” If you ever want to write one to Pat, I’ll post it. (Not that you couldn’t do it on your own site-but I love that kind of thing.) Check out the Love Letters Category to see what others have done, if you’re interested. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thought!

  4. One of my best friends is the mother of an only child. Her son is caring, kind, comfortable around women (because he spent so much time in the company of women as a boy), funny, friendly – he’s awesome, like Danny.

    1. I’ve heard so many wonderful stories of single kids–makes me wonder where that odd stereotype ever came from in the first place! Thank you for reading and sharing your experience with another great (grown-up) kid.

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