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Archive for September, 2014

I’ve read a couple of articles lately that have reminded me just how tough it is to parent these days. And not in the ways you might think.

First, I read a great column about one woman’s experience, When kids were unbreakable, remembering her “dangerous” childhood and giving her kids some more opportunities for freer play. I think most of us who are in our 40s and up fondly recall hours of free play when we were growing up. I was particularly lucky to live “out in the country” most of the time before I turned 10, after which point I was more in neighborhoods. In both living situations, though, I was away from my house (and my watching mom) for hours at a time, playing in the dirt and in creeks, exploring the woods, walking along dirt roads, riding bikes along suburban streets or cutting through unfenced yards to walk to friends’ houses. I rode my bike with no hands a number of times, and once I ended up needing stitches in my elbow because of it (and I didn’t do it again). I don’t remember a lot of other dangerous things I must have done, just that I had lots of fun, was mostly smart about it, and paid attention to what was going on around me. Dad taught me to shoot a rifle in the backyard a few times (in the country); Mom taught me how to use a knife (and lots of other tools) in the kitchen.

The short story is this: my mom and dad didn’t watch my every move. I wasn’t penned inside my house; I wasn’t watching TV or any other screens very much. I ran and played. I breathed fresh air. I invented all kinds of fun games by myself and with friends and (if forced 🙂 ) my younger siblings. I made something fun out of “nothing,” the materials at hand. My mom felt fine — and was a perfectly great parent — letting me go outside her supervision for those hours.

Today, things are far different. We live in a hyper-vigilant society, in which we have 24-hour news coming at us from TV and the Internet and smartphones. Every instance of bad things happening to kids is reported to us. We fear strangers and are sure if we aren’t watching our kids every moment, that someone will likely snatch them. We live in a time when we are told to know the signs of child abuse. This is a good thing; abuse is not pushed under the rug as much and is better reported. But it’s made us all wary of being the kinds of parents who let our kids have free creative time to explore and imagine and play, without being within 10 yards of them at all moments. We fear that our kids might get kidnapped and/or abused. We fear that we’re not being “engaged” with our kids, providing them lots of fun play options. We fear we’re not good enough. I’m fairly sure that these weren’t concerns for our parents.

Which brings me to the second, and very disturbing but not surprising, article, Woman Calls CPS After Seeing Kid Play Outside. It upsets me to read it because I’ve been in a similar position. When my first two were only 2 years old and a few months old, I was reported (anonymously, though I was able to piece together who it was because I knew her personality and modus operandi) to CPS because someone was concerned they were undernourished and one had a raw, chapped rash between her lips and her nose. Here’s what the circumstances were: my kids were and still are, many years later, petite. The infant had Down syndrome, and many people don’t realize that children with Down’s have their own growth chart. My pediatrician measured her growth against other DS kids. She was fine and perfectly healthy. In fact, we’ve always been blessed that she’s been remarkably healthy, with no heart problems, no digestive problems, almost no ear infections, even. But she looked, to one too-sensitive observer, to be “too small.” My 2-year-old just had a bad (and difficult to break) habit of licking above her lips and that small area was for a fairly short period of time just red and chapped, and I did everything I could think of to make it better. This apparently also made me an object of concern.

A case worker came out to our house and questioned me and looked at the kids, and I was lucky enough that that was the end of it. My kids also were too young to know anything was going on. But it was extremely upsetting for me. I was scared and just sick to my stomach. Raising my kids was hard, and I was always grateful for a break and me-time, but I certainly didn’t want them taken from me!

It was also my introduction to the brave new world of Big Brother: everyone is watching you. And they are given the power over your life to call a number and anonymously report the possibility of you being a Bad Parent. Then you are thrown into what I have discovered is not just a flawed system, but one that’s in some places openly hostile and dangerous to normal, good parents. I don’t have space to tell all the stories, but I could relate a number of them, of good and loving parents who have ended up having to take time-consuming and unnecessary parenting classes, hire attorneys, and be in genuine fear for their parenting and working lives because someone misconstrued something they did in public. It is terrifying.

We have become a nation of helicopter parents, it’s true. And we’ve become a nation of people who are quick to jump to conclusions, who are quick to call “the authorities” on the basis of a tiny possibility of a problem, who don’t know their neighbors from Adam, who have no idea of any context of the lives of the people they’re reporting on. If we knew each other better, knew that our neighbors were good parents who love their kids, whose parenting styles assuredly are different from ours but are NOT BAD, who support their kids and teach them and are making them into responsible adults, we’d be far less likely to go straight to the government with a concern rather than talk to our neighbors first, if we do anything. But we don’t. We are very connected with disembodied people via smartphones and tablets and computer screens, and with talking heads on the news, but not truly interconnected with a community of real, living, breathing people. We’re taking a quick way out to call the authorities and assuage some kind of guilty conscience (for not being better involved, for not knowing Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their two kids next door) or to pat ourselves on the back for “doing the right thing,” as the government and news outlets repeatedly tell us.

Would it be possible at this point to go back a little, to recapture the sense of community we had as neighbors, to support each other in the tough job that is parenting, and to let our kids have the space they so desperately need (as studies keep proving) for free play and imagination and learning how to navigate the world? I’m a little worried that it’s not, that we’ve gone too far. But I desperately hope we haven’t.

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If you’ve read my blog much at all, you may have noticed that I have a few passions: I care about and advocate for mental health issues, education, and other issues related to the media (content that’s suitable for families and kids, better accountability on issues like image and portrayals of women).

In the 14 years or so I’ve had kids in school, I’ve been involved in different aspects of education. At times, I’ve attended school board meetings and advisory meetings; at other times, I’ve been involved with specific organizations like the band boosters. I’ve always gone to my kids’ parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights and open houses and so on. I’ve helped out in classes sometimes and gone to activities. In all this time, I’ve observed all kinds of problems, some of which I’ve written about.

But in all I’ve done to participate, read, ask questions, and educate myself about education in the United States today, I’ve realized one thing underlies most of the problems and concerns: families aren’t playing the role they should in the development of children and their overall education.

I’ll say that again: Taken on the whole, families (i.e. parents) in this country aren’t teaching, supporting, and nurturing their kids. Why? Lots of reasons. But to be brief and try to get at a core issue, families simply aren’t “whole” anymore. I read a great overview of how there is no “average American family” anymore and it provides a few revealing statistics, taken from a new book: “Take 100 children who are representative of American life, … and 22 live in families where mom stays home and dad earns the income — the ‘typical’ family experience of 65 percent of kids in the 1950s. Another 23 live with a single mother; it’s a 50-50 proposition whether that single mom was ever married. Seven live with a cohabiting single parent and three each are being raised by a single dad or grandparent.”

If many kids are living with just one parent, and that parent has to do the job of two parents, and is necessarily away from the home working to provide for the family, it follows that those kids won’t have the level of involvement in their day-to-day lives and school lives as a household in which there are two parents. And in those households in which both parents are working (because that’s their choice or because of economic necessity), kids will have more involvement in their lives than the families with one parent around, but they simply won’t have the time dedicated to them that a family has with two parents with only one parent working outside the home. I’m not casting blame here at all; I’m simply looking at the realities of time constraints and what kind of actual QUANTITY time kids have with parents, as opposed to the oft-talked-about “quality” time.

The reality is that quality is great, but a certain amount of quantity is vital. As a stay-at-home parent (I do editing work from home on my own schedule, which is a luxury I really appreciate), I get lots of face time with my kids, who are all in formative periods of their lives. They come home from school and have questions or comments or needs, and I’m there for them. They are lucky to have a parent there to help them with needs and to do informal teaching. Kids’ learning really happens during moments they have questions and someone can answer tailored to their interests.

So with the new reality being kids living in homes with single parents who must be absent and with two parents who are both often absent (during those crucial times of afternoon into early evening), kids aren’t getting as much time for informal learning from their parents. That learning includes all kinds of topics: building character, learning to manage finances, learning about interesting topics that schools don’t necessarily provide classes in, getting opportunities for family “field trips.”

Schools are places to learn the sciences, literature, math, writing, history, etc. I was quite good in all the school subjects when I was growing up, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching advanced math or sciences to my kids; I’d rather they have teachers who specialize in each subject and who are particularly adept in those to help them learn about those topics.

I guess I sound rather old-fashioned. But the reality is that it’s not the job of schools to teach character, for instance. Schools can’t take my kids on trips very often at all to learn about different areas of our state or country. Schools can’t teach faith, and they don’t often have time to focus on basic life skills that are more easily learned informally at home.

Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn't enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.

Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn’t enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.

Time in school is finite, and as I’ve observed at a variety of meetings with other parents and educators, it’s becoming more and more difficult to fit in during a school day all the core subjects, let alone other things schools are having to teach kids because their families aren’t doing it very well or at all. In our town, elementary schools focus on a different character trait every month to teach students: respect, responsibility, caring, trustworthiness, fairness, citizenship. Why? The “Character Counts” program was started to “combat youth violence, irresponsibility and dishonesty” by stressing positive character traits. This means that the community and schools were finding that kids and teens were acting badly and needed to be taught values; families weren’t doing the job.

Over the past dozen-plus years I’ve been actively participating in community education, I’ve seen all the problems that exist. I’ve also seen all the programs school systems have started or turned to to combat the problems. I’ve seen how little time and money exist for schools to be able to surmount all these issues by themselves. And the simple fact of the matter is this: no matter how much schools try to do to “raise” kids into good, contributing members of society, they simply can’t parent kids. Parents parent. And no one else can do that very challenging, intense, nonstop, VITAL job.

I’ll continue to be involved in school meetings and advisory panels and so on. I’ll continue to give ideas on how better to teach and support all kids, mine and everyone else’s. But nothing I or the schools can do will take the place of the home. The solution is to support families and homes. Our nation, our communities, absolutely must find ways to strengthen families. In the article I mentioned earlier, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says this: “Kids raised by their own intact, married parents are more likely to flourish. Given that, public policy should help strengthen both the economic and the married foundations of family life for kids in the United States.”

Until we change our attitudes about marriage and family life, our children (including their education) will continue to suffer.

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