Sunday, August 15, 2010

How Dare You

Recently, a friend of mine, and an amazing thinker and writer, Joan Morgan, posted a link on her facebook page to a blog post written by a young woman who was concerned about how best to speak out for children who are often harshly, physically disciplined. She talked about the acceptance in the Black community for various forms of physical punishment. That it seemed, far too often, we talk about our own beatings as children with a kind of humorous nostalgia and frequently uphold the practice of hitting our kids as distinctly Black and a sign of superior parenting.

She gave the example of her God-sister being hit by various family members and how it was breaking the child’s spirit, how the child herself was aware that it was harming her. And the writer looked for ways to advocate for this child, for other children.

One thing that stood out in her desire to advocate for children was that she looked at the other side of it as well. She recognized that too often, Black parenthood, Black motherhood in particular is held under a microscope that has a lens warped to magnify the negative. She expressed a desire to advocate for children while not demonizing the people who may be misguidedly handing out a discipline that damages more than it corrects.

This is an issue I have thought about often. It has never been a difficult decision for me to not hit my children. It was a decision that was made for me in my own upbringing. Amazingly, my very young parents - my father was 21 and my mother 17 when I was born - who agreed on very little, came together on one thing, no spanking. I was raised without physical violence as a form of discipline so it never occurred to me that it could be a valid approach to raising my own kids.
This has often, clearly, set me apart from my parenting peers. I have frequently found myself outside the circle of camaraderie when the conversation turns to discipline and parents talk about giving their child a “pop” or a smack or a “pow pow.” This happens even when the parents don’t know about my own no-hit policy. I tend to fall silent, to shrink back from the conversation, to find something else to do at that moment.

Not that I am a complete coward. There are times when I speak up. When I share my own upbringing and ideas and experiences both as a parent and a child with discipline without hitting. There is always a moment when everyone’s eyes turn on me and their expressions turn to disbelief and sometimes disgust. You can almost see some parents thinking, “Uh huh, her kids seem ok now, but watch them turn into little devils when they realize they can get away with anything without a beating.” That look hasn’t changed even though my oldest is now 11 and still one of the most obedient, thoughtful, considerate kids I’ve ever known. Those who know my practices, love to tease me, to jump on the times when I struggle with my kids’ behavior (as all parents do, regardless of discipline practices) as an opportunity to tell me that if I would just give them a beating, they’d know their place and stop acting up.

I take it all in stride. I’ve developed enough of a thick skin and a healthy self-confidence in my parenting to be able to take some sideways glances and a bit of ribbing without letting it get under my skin. But I often wish that there were ways that I could make other parents understand that hitting their children doesn’t make them better parents or their children better behaved. I struggle with watching people I love and respect resort to physical violence when it’s so unnecessary. And I fight with myself in my never-ending battle of trying not to judge.

I have a severe aversion to making judgments of other people. I think that we all try to do the things we think are right. We try to do our best, not just in parenting, but in all things. Often we make decisions that we know are wrong, often we make decisions we believe are right, and later discover were wrong. Sometimes we think things are right, and never discover for ourselves that they are wrong. That’s life. We approach our life’s decisions out of our own experiences and personalities and it’s too often impossible to really understand the choices others make because we have not walked in their shoes, haven’t been shaped by the things that shaped them. I don’t believe it’s my place to judge others based on my experiences, my ideals, the ways I’ve been shaped. That is true for the decision to hit as a form of discipline as well.

I recognize that most parents, good parents, look at their own upbringing and sort out what worked and what didn’t when they approach raising their own children. For people who were raised with spankings they frequently see that as the way they learned the rules of the world, so when they go to teach their own children those rules, they use the method they learned by and have a hard time seeing there is any other way. I don’t always think it is my place to judge their parenting skills based on this. Certainly, I am not the perfect parent. Certainly there are things that I do as a parent, sometimes consistently, that aren’t the best parenting practices. I try to balance those things with love and attention, and thoughtfulness.

I have to admit that, to a certain extent, I am a yeller. While my parents chose not to spank me, my mother yelled a lot. And, in many ways, this is how I learned the rules of the world - by being yelled at when I didn’t adhere to them. For the most part, I realize that yelling isn’t the best way to get things across. Sugar has taught me that. She doesn’t like to be yelled at. Actually she doesn’t like yelling at all - even when she’s not the focus of it. I have had to learn, over the years, better ways of getting my point across.

However, because yelling is ingrained in me, there are times when I still do it, for better or worse. And I do reserve the right to yell under certain circumstances. I believe that it’s important for children to learn that their actions affect others. That there are consequences to the things they do. I don’t always let my children see my anger. Most times I work very hard to remain calm, even in the light of some of their worst behavior. Still, sometimes I let myself express the full range of the emotions they elicit in me - from the sheer joy and love I feel at the wonderful things they do, to the anger and sadness that their misbehavior causes - particularly when they’re being hurtful. This is a conscious decision on my part, and as a good, thoughtful parent I consider it my right - something I never expect to be questioned on.

Recently, I had the misfortune of having that behavior not only questioned, but attacked and it both frightened and angered me. It made me even more determined to put myself in check when I unwittingly make judgments about other people’s parenting practices - especially when it’s people I don’t know - when I witness a moment out of their lives in public.

I was taking Sugar to one of her many activities and she had done something particularly irresponsible and was compounding the problem by whining and being fairly belligerent and hurtful in her responses to my questions.

We sat in the car, half a block from the building her activity was in. It was a warm day and the car windows were open. I struggled to keep my composure despite her increasingly disrespectful and whiney tone. And then she said one of the most hurtful things that has ever come out of her mouth. “I’m still sad about Saint Aunt and you don’t do anything to help me.”

I had one of those moments when a thousand different thoughts goes through your head at once and you can see the possible outcomes of each potential action. Instantly I considered not answering, only expressing my concern at her pain, getting out of the car and walking away, putting her out of the car and sending her to class without further discussion, just silence, and finally, expressing all that I felt at that moment.

Ultimately, I knew that while my child did still struggle with the loss of our beloved aunt, she chose to mention it at this moment as a way of lashing out at me. I knew that to not acknowledge that she was intentionally doing something hurtful and mean would condone it and would set me up for more of this behavior in the future. Now, certainly there are those who would disagree with me, who would say that maybe all of the behavior that day was the result of her pain at losing someone who was so integral to her life 5 months earlier. I would say to them that I know my child and I know the situation better than they ever could, if they spent a hundred years talking to us and watching a movie of our lives they couldn’t know what went on and how she felt about it better than I do. So I reacted in the way I thought best fitted the situation - I yelled.

“How dare you!” I screamed, “How DARE you say such a thing to me!” I went on to tell her all the ways I had helped her, how I continued to help her, to be there for her, to comfort and strengthen her through this hard time, every single day. And as I said all of this, I let all the hurt and anger her words had caused me strengthen my voice. She would understand that when you say hurtful things to people they react out of the pain you cause them.

Before I could finish, I heard a voice speaking behind me, outside of the car. I stopped, I turned. A tall, White man in a suit stood beside my car, peering in suspiciously. “Is everything, OK?” he asked. I was immediately embarrassed, realizing that with the windows open my voice was carrying, disturbing people in the upscale, Upper East Side neighborhood we were parked in. I looked around and noticed a doorman across the street staring our way and I felt my embarrassment deepen.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, “I lost my temper for a moment. Everything is OK.” The man asked me if I was OK, did I need help, the police perhaps. I assured him I was fine, that everything was fine. Then he peered deeper into the car and asked if there was a child with me and I began to understand…he wasn’t asking if I needed the police, he was suggesting that he needed to call the police on me.

I took a deep breath, realizing that nothing would be served by telling this man exactly what I thought of his interference. I brought my voice down, took on the calm composure I reserve for professional situations and dealing with difficult people. I spoke to him rationally, without emotion, even as he continued to berate me and tell me I was abusing my child by yelling at her, even as he continued to threaten to call the police, even pulling out his cell phone, showing it to me as though it were a weapon he could use against me at any moment. Inside I was shaking with anger and not a little bit of fear for what this man stranger could do to my world in a moment. Outside, I continued to speak to him slowly, methodically, and yes, even with some of the deference I knew he believed he was entitled to.

He finally walked away, convinced that I was put in my place by him. I turned to Sugar, who looked at me wide-eyed and frightened. “Why would he say he was going to call the police?” she asked. I explained to her that the man thought I was abusing her and that when people think a child is being abused, they will call the police to ensure it stops.

I asked her if she felt abused by my yelling, if she thought the man’s reaction was warranted. She said no, and expressed concern and fear that this man could call the police on me. We talked about children who are abused, children who don’t have anyone to advocate for them, to make the abuse stop. We talked about our family, the ways in which I discipline her and express myself when she misbehaves. I reassured her that she was safe, that the man was appeased, would not do anything to disrupt our lives, to hurt me, and her through me. And, finally, we talked about our Aunt and how we both still live with the pain of losing her and how I always had been and always would be at her side, helping her handle that pain.

Finally, a little late, when we had initially arrived early, my amazing girl, composed herself and went off to her class. She needed the time there, the familiarity of doing something she knew and loved to remember that no matter what outside people did, her life could and would go on.
As I drove off, the full impact of the altercation began to wash over me. I saw myself through this man’s eyes. Saw a loud, Black (or possibly Hispanic - I’m often mistaken for such) woman sitting in her car, yelling. I saw, through his eyes, not someone thoughtful, educated, intelligent and capable. I saw, from his perspective, someone without the self-control or intelligence to handle a situation in the way he would.

And that’s what it came down to. He believed that his way was the best way. Certainly a better way than this woman with curly hair and slightly brown skin. All this man’s privilege and status in our society had taught him that he knew better, knew more, was superior to me - and that he had the right, from his position to chastise me, instruct me, and if I wasn’t sufficiently deferential, understanding and expressing my place beneath him, he believed he had the right to punish me.

And that’s what it was about, punishing me for not fitting his world view, not succumbing to his ideas. He didn’t care about the well-being and safety of my child. If he had, he would have known that to stand there, threatening to call the police on me frightened, hurt and damaged my child worse than my yelling ever could. He introduced her to the fact that our world is tenuous at best. That at anytime there are people who can turn your life upside down, invade it and change it. He stood there with his phone and his threats and his look of contempt and showed her that he had power over me, over her. That is something that will always shape her. He planted a seed of fear that I can never dig up.

All I can do is plant even more seeds of confidence to strengthen the ground he, in his arrogance, tried to weaken.

In part, because of that man, my own, natural desire to not judge is strengthened further. He combined with some rather humbling life experiences in the last two years have made me realize, more than ever, how judgments are too often false, too often arrogant, too often unenlightened.

It is easy to look at the actions of another and say they shouldn’t do this, or they should have done that. What’s hard is to see the person. REALLY see that person. To imagine there is a whole life behind the face. What’s hard is to at least realize that there is no way to have the whole story of another. No way to understand, fully, the reasons behind their decisions.
What’s exceptionally difficult is to know and accept that my way is not the only way. That no matter how right my way feels to me, it is possible that the way of another feels equally right to them. That our values, ideals, practices, decisions, opinions are all the result of our experiences, upbringing and culture. What’s almost impossible to do is to fully put ourselves in another’s place and fully understand how the blend of those things led them to the decisions and actions they make today. So if we can’t understand, what can we do…

We can accept. We can empathize and sympathize. We step out of our own arrogance and self-centeredness. We can share and we can listen. We can not judge.
I think back to that man, back to the young woman who is trying to advocate for children without demonizing their mothers. And I think to advice someone gave me a long time ago about approaching someone who you see is on edge with their children. “Don’t chastise, empathize,” I was told.

I think about how I would have felt if that man had walked up and followed his “Is everything OK?” with “Oh, somedays are hard, aren’t they. She must have said something that really got under your skin.” He could certainly have helped. Could have diffused the situation - not that I’m still certain the situation needed to be diffused. But if he had cared more about being helpful, than being right, he could have gotten the same result - that I stop yelling - without the damage of frightening my child and I.

I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to judgments. More times than I can count, I have walked past someone berating (really berating - calling names and cursing at) or spanking their kid, shaking my head and rolling my eyes. And now that I have been on the receiving end of such judgment, I have to question myself harder. What if, instead of wandering off feeling superior, I stopped and offered to help that person? I might get my ass kicked. But, then again, I might make a difference in someone’s day. I think it’s worth the risk.

I hope I have the courage, moving forward, to help more often than I judge.

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