Archive for July, 2010

posted by Amy on Jul 24

In my department at the Children’s Defense Fund there are three other interns, all African American, and all young enough to be my children. One day we got to talking about child rearing, and I said, “when you have kids, please don’t hit them; kids can be controlled without violence.” They all said that “spanking” is not violence.

A lively discussion ensued. They said it’s a cultural thing. They said strict discipline was a matter of survival for African American families. I listened, and I appreciated knowing their point of view, but as the only person in the group who had actually raised children, I still maintained that you don’t have to beat kids. I quoted the author of one of my favorite books ever (the hilarious and touching, The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love,) “If you can’t control yourself, how can you control a child?”

“Disciple” means “student,” and “discipline” means “teach.” Do we really want to teach our children that being in authority means someone has the right to do physical or emotional harm to helpless, weak, dependent people? Do we really think that won’t do any psychological damage? Do we really think we’re wise and smart and self-controlled enough always to use that tool only when it’s justified and necessary, and only to an appropriate degree?

I agree that punishment, administered fairly and judiciously, can be a training tool. But it’s very difficult, as a human being, always to be fair, just, self-controlled, and sure that the child deserves the punishment that’s being administered. I also agree that there are worse forms of abuse than the occasional, judiciously-administered whack on the behind. Belittling, nagging, guilt-tripping, and other forms of verbal abuse are also wrong. Parents who don’t take the time to set boundaries and enforce them are failing in their duty as parents. Children need both nurture and structure, administered more or less consistently. Failing to correct children and teach them is wrong, and it damages them. But I still say you don’t have to hit them.

The interesting part of the discussion was when they asked me how I would handle certain situations. What would I do if a teenager mouthed off to me? I don’t know. I can honestly say it didn’t happen. My teenagers respected me, and they didn’t mouth off. I had not insulted them or been sarcastic, dismissive, or nasty, and they did not treat me that way. We had disagreements. We sometimes had hurt feelings and strong words. But they didn’t “mouth off,” so I didn’t have to do anything about that. Since they felt free to tell me what they thought, they sometimes said things I didn’t especially want to hear, but I appreciated their honesty, and I always learned from it. For example, one time a teenager told me I was acting like a “raving lunatic.” She was right about that, and I needed to hear it. I never thought that just because I was the mother and they were the children I was always right and they were always wrong. I’m human and I make mistakes. Don’t you? It didn’t mean I gave up my authority. They respected me more for being willing to admit when I had messed up.

The other interns also assumed that I was saying kids should be allowed to run wild. I didn’t do that either. I didn’t take things away. I did very little grounding. I didn’t use time out. I let them make choices, and let them deal with the consequences of their choices. Sometimes the natural consequence was the best one. Other times, I would impose a consequence, which was as logical and proportional as I could devise. The goal was to give them lots of practice making choices, making mistakes, and solving their own problems. Underlying it all was sincere, heartfelt love and empathy. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone screws up. The best kind of message about that is not, “Now you’re going to get it!” but, “What are you going to do about it?” (I learned about this from Foster Cline and Jim Fay, who devised “Love and Logic” for parents and for educators. I highly recommend learning how to do this. I’ve added a link to their website to my blog. You can also access it  here.)

Last week I attended the 16th annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee. (For more information, click here.) In one workshop a young African American woman told of having been in an abusive relationship with a man, and said that there is an epidemic of domestic violence in the black community. In a workshop on ending zero-tolerance school discipline policies an older African American woman complained of parents’ and teachers’ hands being tied by laws and rules against beating children. She said that if her child disobeyed her she’d “give him some new dental work,” and that if he did it again she’d “rearrange his face.” Those didn’t seem like loving statements.

So–violent child rearing is “cultural,” and interpersonal violence in adult relationships is “epidemic,” and street violence is pervasive. Does anybody else see a connection?

I remember talking to one of my sons about corporal punishment. He said that all of his classmates who had been “spanked” at home had anger management issues, had problems with authority, and, as a result, had difficulties in school. My son is a high-energy, intense person. He was an intelligent, inquisitive, busy, persistent child. A preschool he attended interpreted that as misbehavior. It got so he was frequently in time-out when I came to pick him up at the end of the day. Instead of siding with the school without inquiry, I tried to find out what was going on. After talking with the director of the school, I determined that they simply didn’t have the ability to meet his needs, and found a different school program for him. No other school or teacher ever thought he had any behavior problems, though his first grade teacher figured out that he had a learning disability, and got him special help for that. How many school discipline issues are because of the way the school is structured, not because there’s something wrong with the kid?

Many adults say things like, “My parents hit me, and I turned out alright,” or, “It’s the way I was raised.” They buy the story that good parents hit, and that it’s for the child’s own good, and that it hurts the parent more than it hurts the child. Nonsense. My mother used to preface a beating by saying “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” (In cases where she used her bare hand, and it became red from spanking me, that might actually have been true.) I took her word for it because she was my mother and I trusted her, but when I had kids I just didn’t get it. I looked at those beautiful, trusting little people and I could not imagine battering or bullying them. I just knew there had to be a better way.

There is. If we want to raise children who respect others, who talk through problems and solve them rationally, who control their baser impulses, who make choices based on an inner moral compass and not on fear of being found out, who love themselves and take good care of themselves, then we have to treat them with respect and make sure they can trust us not to injure them. Any behavior that would get you arrested and charged with assault and battery if you did it to an adult is also assault and battery if you do it to your own child, only worse, because your child depends on you to keep her safe and to teach her right from wrong.

OK–so that’s how you were raised, eh? Are you completely satisfied with the way you turned out? No problems with procrastination, compulsiveness, addiction, overeating, depression? No fears or phobias? No trouble controlling your temper? No rage? No PTSD? If you have any of those things, you can heal from them, with appropriate treatment. And if your children develop any of those things, it won’t necessarily be because of something you did or did not do. But why not do the very best you can to raise loving, trusting, empathetic, responsible children?

One of the speakers at the conference spoke about turning his life around after growing up on the streets, engaging in a violent life, and being incarcerated. He said he had healed to the point where his past was no longer in his way. He can function despite the early damage. But, he said, he will never be completely free. It’s off to the side, but it will always be with him. I know what he means. That’s also true for me.

posted by Amy on Jul 1

Two years ago, shortly before I left for seminary, a friend of mine invited me out to breakfast. She said there were other people, especially fellow Baby Boomers, who could benefit from knowing about my new life. She said, “Not everyone has your gift for verbal expression. If you write about it, you could light their paths.” Not long after that, the senior pastor at my home church in Denver asked me to talk to the congregation about my call to ministry. He said other people might be wrestling with some kind of calling, and hearing my story might light their paths. Until then I had not thought very much about that aspect of what I was doing, but I realize now that other people inspired me or gave me insights about myself that led to my decision to go to seminary. Just as I needed them, others might need me.

I’m different from all the other Children’s Defense Fund interns. I am the only seminarian, and one of only two interns of my generation. I think I am adding value, and some of that value undoubtedly comes from my life experience–as someone who raised five children and sent them to urban public schools, as a lawyer in private practice, and as a seminarian.  CDF is not an explicitly faith-based organization, but Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and guiding light, is the daughter of a Baptist minster and makes no effort to hide the Christian underpinnings for everything she does. Several of the other interns are in law school now, or are thinking about going to law school. (For photos and brief bios of this summer’s crop of CDF interns, click here.) For a mundane, but telling, example of how my life experience has been advantageous, I helped two coworkers fax a form to another CDF office. They had never faxed anything before.

All of the CDF interns are exceptional. They are the best and the brightest. I enjoy talking to them and getting to know them. As the only “elder” in the group, I stand out, but I don’t feel odd or out of place. Many of the interns want to be lawyers, and I walked away from a legal career. That is a conversation point. One young woman told me yesterday that she is interested in studying theology. At least one other intern is a “preacher’s kid.” Our lives are intersecting for this brief moment in time, but we all stand to gain from it.

So–is it weird to be a “chronologically gifted” person at school or at this summer job? No, it’s not. Palmer was a good place to start, because a substantial number of my classmates were in my age group. That will be less so at BU, but it won’t be a problem. While I was at Palmer I made friends with younger students. In that context we are peers, so there really was no generation gap. One young woman and I even joked about how, since she was a year ahead of me in school, she was “senior” to me, even though I have a son her age.

It helps a lot to have a beginner’s mind. I know that I know very little about this new gig that God has me playing. I know I can learn from others, no matter where they come from or how old they are or what their background. Ever since I drove east from Denver into the unknown of life as a graduate student in Philadelphia, I have had to trust that I am in God’s hands, and am doing God’s will. I made that leap, and it has turned out very well so far. After that, other changes and adjustments have come pretty easily, and I am glad I did it.

I love studying theology. I love teaching. I love making new friends of all ages. I am fascinated by the new situations in which I find myself, and the new lessons that I am learning. I am willing to be transformed by my experiences. My primary objective is to do God’s will. If I’m pretty sure that I’m doing that, then I’m willing to let all the other things play out however they are meant to unfold. I’m just along for the ride, trying to be useful, trying to fulfill God’s call on my life.

This summer I am staying with friends who live in Northern Virginia, two miles from the Brunswick, Maryland commuter rail station, where I catch a train into D.C. every weekday morning, and to which I return 12 or more hours later. My friends are providing free room and board, which is essential, since I no longer have any income. (Almost all Washington, D.C. internships, including the one at CDF, are unpaid. I was earning a little money as a ministry intern and a writing tutor, plus I got some rent for my house. That is all gone now.) So one of the new things I am having to face is that, technically, I have no “permanent address.” My house in Denver is on the market. I don’t know yet where I’ll be living in Boston. I am relying on the kindness, not of strangers, but of dear friends I’ve known for over 30 years, but, still, I’m dependent on charity. This is new for me. I have always been the one to offer hospitality and shelter. I have always been the one who could provide a soft place for others to land. Now I’m dependent on other people. In order to put myself in this position, I had to get over my illusion of self-sufficiency, and I had to be willing to let other people be of service to me. It is hard to overstate what a radical shift in self-concept this represents. It was very  tough for me. It’s fine now. We are getting along well, and enjoying each other’s company. My friends do nothing whatever to make me feel like it’s an imposition, or that I am a burden. It is kind of nice to have people to talk to and hang out with. It’s really nice not to have rent to pay. It is changing the way I see myself, and the way I define “success.”

I hope that what I’m doing will make it easier for someone else later on. Just knowing I did it might provide the impetus for someone else to follow a dream or a vocation. In the late 80′s I briefly tried working from home so I could juggle family and work with more autonomy. Years later another lawyer told me I had inspired her to do the same thing. Really, that’s how society changes. Somebody sees things in a new light, and strikes out in a new direction. Others observe that and decide to follow suit. Eventually what seemed avant garde becomes mainstream.

Our generation is getting to the age where financial pressures are less (or could be, if we’d downsize and budget). Many of us are still physically and mentally strong. There was a time when many of us rejected the values of materialism, militarism, and individualism. Now, even though most of us went ahead and conformed to those values, we might be ready to follow our hearts again, and find ways to be more loving and to be of service to others.

To anyone reading this who feels some stirring of the soul, my advice hasn’t changed. Spend some time examining your own heart, and your values. Pray earnestly about what God wants you to do. To the old “Desiderata” statement that, “You are a child of the universe; you were meant to be here,” I would add that you need to figure out what, in your case, would be the most meaningful, life-giving and life-affirming things for you to be doing with your life on earth. You were definitely meant to be here, but not just to take up space and consume resources. You were meant to fulfill some purpose or mission. Be mindful. Be prayerful. Be faithful. Be a seeker. Then answer the call once you hear it. Now is the time to find what you really care about and live a life that shows it.

Do not fear. God is with you. Be grateful for that, and be willing to submit to God’s will for your life. When you do that, you will find yourself in situations you never imagined, doing amazing things, and having the time of your life.

Blessings on your journey.

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