Parenting In Fear

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Last week I read a news story that really disturbed me. It was about a woman who was arrested after leaving her kids in a vehicle while she shopped for a phone. The story is really short (you can read it here), and there aren’t many details given. But here were the things that I thought as I read it:

1. She obviously didn’t go anywhere out of sight of the kids, because the story says as soon as the officers approached the car she came out.

2. In April in Connecticut, it is unlikely to be dangerously hot in a car.

Perhaps there is more to the story. She was reported to be “uncooperative.” Maybe she was belligerent and if she’d been rational and calm, they wouldn’t have arrested her. Maybe in the course of the confrontation, she revealed other things that showed her to be an unfit parent. I don’t know. But purely on what was reported, this story disturbs me.

I’ve debated for a week whether to blog about it because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I say publicly, “This is an overreaction. This is not child endangerment. What did this woman do to deserve being arrested and having her children taken away from her?” that it puts me at risk of having someone knock on my door and say, “If that’s how you feel, maybe we need to take your kids from you.”

And this, at heart, is what I find so disturbing. I shouldn’t have to live with that fear.

We live in a society that is becoming steadily more judgmental about parenting decisions. In the back of our minds, we’re always aware that if we misstep in public, or if someone disagrees with a choice we make, we could be reported to the authorities. There’s always that threat of having our children taken away. Case in point: a blog reader told me once that she let her child play outside with another kid, and DFS came by and did an investigation because they thought she was endangering/neglecting her child.

Making parenting choices based on the fear of what other people think is not a recipe for good parenting.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think child protective services are the enemy. There are a lot of children who need much more and better than what they’re given. And there is such a thing as endangering a child by leaving them in the car. But there’s got to be room to weigh individual circumstance. There’s a big difference between someone who runs an errand at a strip mall, within sight of the car, for ten minutes when it’s 50 degrees outside, and someone who goes into the Mall of America for an hour or three when it’s 85 or 90.

Most parents weigh their decisions carefully, taking into account a wide range of factors unknown to anyone on the outside.

It makes sense to me that police officers would come up to a car when they realized there were kids in it and no adult. It does not make sense to me that when the mother immediately appeared–making it clear that she did have her eye on the children–they would arrest her for not having her eye on them.

Like I said, there could be more to the story. But this is what has been bothering me for the last week. What do you think? Have you ever made a parenting choice based not on what you thought was the right thing, but on the fear of being judged unfit by others?

Child Abuse, Part 2: Personal Defense

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SEX ED

SEX ED (Photo credit: 707d3k)

One of the comments on yesterday’s post took issue with the idea that teaching children about their dignity as human beings, and in particular the dignity of the body, can be any protection against predators. I’d like to address that as a starting point today.

Realistically, there is no foolproof way to protect our children from any of the dangers they may face. But to me it seems self-evident that whatever defenses we can arm them with are wise investments. I do believe that young women and men who truly understand their value and dignity as human beings are more likely to be capable of protest when they are pressured, either by peers or by authority figures, to do things that violate that dignity. It’s no guarantee, but it’s another tool in the arsenal.

I used to believe young children should be shielded from all references to sexuality, because it would sully their innocence. But this implies that sexuality is a) not innocent, and b) something separate from personhood, when the truth is that the two are braided together so tightly that separating them leads to dysfunction.

I am now convinced that lessons about sexuality cannot be imparted in a single conversation upon the onset of puberty, but must, MUST be introduced a bit at a time. You don’t dump Pi r squared on a student without laying the foundations first; they’ll never, ever understand it. They might be able to plug in numbers to a formula, but they won’t understand. The same is true of sexuality. A child’s psyche isn’t prepared to deal with so much earthy, bodily frankness if it’s never been introduced before.

So in our family we start in early childhood by laying foundations.

1. The key concept is this: the body is holy because it is the dwelling place of God. God lives in the soul, and the soul is housed in the body. Our bodies were given to us in order to make the world a better place. A place that looks more like what God’s vision for it.

2. Because of this, we take care of our bodies. We don’t play with them as if they’re toys, and certain parts of us are not meant to be touched by anyone other than a parent or perhaps a doctor in an examination, and beyond a certain age, not even by a parent. We care for our bodies by keeping them clean, well-nourished (healthy eating and exercise are part of this lesson) and well rested.

3. We call body parts by their proper names. Euphemisms and slang imply that there’s something that needs to be hidden because it’s bad to talk about. The kids are comfortable with words like breast and penis and labia and scrotum. (More comfortable than we are, to be honest.)

Once these foundational concepts are worked into life, it’s not such a stretch to talk about where babies come from. God puts the baby in the mommy’s tummy, but you know the child is going to ask how. It would be easy to punt and say something lame and evasive, but I think that’s shortsighted. Kids need to understand that something holy and miraculous happens in the sexual act, and that they have a part to play–that their choices and their dignity are relevant.

So I tell the kids that mommies and daddies have a special hug they give each other, and sometimes when they do, God takes something from the mommy and something from the daddy and makes it into a baby that grows inside the mommy.

Alex has probed further, and I have had to say, “You don’t need to know that yet.” I think of Corrie Ten Boom’s story about the suitcase a lot.

Now, when we need to address abuse by authority figures or even something Alex sees in the movies that doesn’t add up, we aren’t constructing elaborate evasions in a misguided attempt to preserve his innocence. This weekend we were watching Superman Returns and Alex, puzzled by the complicated relationship between Lois, Superman and Richard, and how that boy could be Superman’s kid, asked, “So…are they married?”

“Alex,” I said, “the thing you have to understand is that the special hug is meant to be given by people who are married to each other, because that special hug makes babies, and every baby has a right to grow up in a family with a mom and a dad who are married to each other. But the hug can be done by people who aren’t married. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, but sometimes people do.”

What I’m trying to get at is that the issues of sexuality are all tied together. You can’t just address child abuse in a vacuum. Because then, yes, it does destroy a child’s innocence. But if you give them a vision of their own dignity as human beings, that facilitates those other, more difficult, conversations. It gives them one more ring of defense in case, God forbid, they do face a situation you can’t protect them from. And in the long run, it should help them live an integrated, holistic life, too. This is my theory. I’m the first to admit it’s unproven, but it’s in the testing phase, and so far the indications look good.

Child Abuse in the Church: A Parent’s Response, Part 1

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Rhodes - What light through yonder window .....

Rhodes – What light through yonder window ….. (Photo credit: BR0WSER)

When I was twelve years old, a teenage kid working the ticket booth at the movie theater told me I could pass for seventeen. I developed early and I had the curves to attract attention. But although I may have looked older than some of my peers, emotionally I was far behind them. I was sheltered and dreamy and utterly naive. I was in a dangerous place, but I didn’t know it. I could have become a target for anyone with a twisted sense of morality, or just a raging case of hormones.

Fortunately for me, I had protective parents. The distance between their farm and the town didn’t hurt, either.

Not all kids are so lucky. During the thick of the sex abuse scandal in the Church, I was working as a liturgy director. As one who worked closely with schoolchildren, I went through the training that was put into place in our diocese. Volunteers, staff–everyone has to take it. We use Protecting God’s Children, or Virtus. I went to a two-hour training session, and every week thereafter I was expected to read a lesson that came via email, along with a test question at the end. They tracked compliance.

Most of the time (I’ll be honest) I was impatient with it, because the lesson imparted was common sense. But now I think maybe that’s the point. If we take time to think about issues related to the safety of our children, most of it is common sense. The trouble comes when we get distracted or complacent and aren’t aware. The point of the training is awareness.

In the long run, the most important thing the Virtus training did for me was to sensitize me to the issue. The fact is that if there is a pedophile around, he (or she) will find a way to subvert the procedures put into place to protect our children. That means the impetus is on me as a parent to teach my children about their inherent dignity as a human being, especially where matters of sexuality are concerned, in such a way that they recognize threats to that dignity, and have the confidence and courage to respond.

The lessons of sex I learned as a child dealt with the danger of premarital sex and the value of chastity, but I don’t remember really learning why. Maybe this is because I was a rule follower, so if you told me to do something, that was all I needed; any other information given might well have gone in the “useless information” file.

In adulthood, though, outing the damage and dysfunction caused by obsession with unrestricted, no-strings-attached sex has become my passion. When even Catholics resist making the connections between the dysfunction in the culture and the birth control they depend on, I’m very aware that my kids are besieged. They’re not going to get a holistic vision of the human person unless I give it to them. And they’ve got to have the whole picture; they’ve got to know why, or there’s no chance that they’re going to resist a cultural paradigm that pushes so hard in the opposite direction.

Until recently I always thought of this in terms of peer relationships–hookup culture, pre-marital sex, etc.–but recently I realized that the lesson is just as important in helping prevent abuse by authority. Because when you know the incredible dignity of this body you inhabit, you are much less likely to allow someone else to do something to damage that dignity.

I planned to write a single post on this topic. I woke up at 2 a.m. this morning and, unable to sleep, pounded out almost 1200 words on it. In the light of day, fleshing it out, I’m about halfway through it. So I’m going to hit “pause” for today and beg you to come back tomorrow, when I’ll talk about what we are doing with our kids.

In the meantime I’d like to know what your dioceses and/or parishes are doing to guard their young from predators. If you can, please leave comments here rather than on Facebook (even if you do so anonymously), so that everyone can see.

Part 2 is here.

Waiting

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Waiting..........

Waiting………. (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

“Mommy, get me some dessert!”

Nicholas stood at my right elbow. I looked pointedly at the pizza in my hand and back at him, but my coming-up-on-five-year-old is blissfully (or perhaps willfully) immune to messages sent via body language. Time for plan B.

“First of all,” I said, “that’s not how you ask. Second, am I still eating my dinner?”

“Yes.”

“Is Daddy still eating his dinner?”

“Yes.”

“Then you have to wait until we’re done. Sometimes you just have to wait for good things. Now sit down and be patient.”

He sat down, but patience was beyond him. As I returned to my pizza, he wiggled in place and then asked again.

In one way, I can sympathize. Waiting for good things is hard for anyone, and even more so for kids, who don’t have much practice at it. And yet at the same time, it’s a bit exasperating. It’s not as if there’s any question of him getting what he wants, after all. He knows very well that dessert is going to be served after dinner. It’s not like, for instance, the novel query process, where the outcome is far from certain.

Then again, waiting is hard for everyone who anticipates something good. The proof of that just passed us, in the form of Black Friday. I mean, Black Thanksgiving Thursday. All Black Friday’s Eve. Or something.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this annual ritual. Actually, scratch that. My feelings about the nonsense that is Black Friday/Black Friday’s Eve are pretty unequivocal. And yet, for the last couple of years, Christian has actually gone out as early as the stores offer their blockbuster sales, because the system forces the issue:

1. Sales start at a given time and there are limited quantities.

2. If you don’t get there early, i.e. during the Thanksgiving evening hours, the sale price may be valid, but there won’t be any stock to buy.

The choices are, then: go shopping with the madhouse despite the gnashing of teeth caused by your conscience telling you this encroachment on holiday is just wrong; or stick to your conscience and accept that you will pay a lot more for the item you were going to buy anyway, if you can find it at all.

We should wait. But we don’t.

These are good avenues of thought to pursue on the second day of Advent. This is a season given to us to pause and take stock of the state of our lives. Where are we out of balance? What opportunities for rest and quiet are we barreling past with the radio at full volume? And what things desperately needed for our mental and emotional well-being are we losing as a result?

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A Stream Of Consciousness Rant About Pop Music

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Katy Perry dancing with others at the Buda Cas...

Katy Perry dancing with others at the Buda Castle with fireworks bursting from them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Katy Perry was singing on the radio when Nicholas popped out with, “Is this song called ‘Tiger Rahr’?” I chuckled inwardly at the way his brain changed “roar” into “rahr,” and then suddenly chuckled at myself, because all our kids yell “rahr” instead of “roar” as a result of being chased them around the house by me, growling thusly on all fours before tackling them to tickle and chew. And why, it occurs to me, do we say “roar” in the first place? After all, it does sound more like “rahr.”

Pop music has been on my mind lately. From the time I entered college in 1992 until about a year ago, I had only the most tenuous connection with the contents of the radio stations. I spent a long, long time immersed in classical music to the exclusion of all else, and when I poked my head up it was in the presence of a boyfriend/fiance/husband who preferred country. When I started Jazzercise last year, the instructors were always shouting “who is this singing?” like a pop quiz I was doomed to fail.

I started paying attention, because there were quite a few songs I really liked. And these days it’s a matter of mood, whether I put on pop or the classical/NPR station. I keep a list of songs I want to download until I have enough to burn a CD. (No, I do not have an iPod. I don’t need music with me anywhere there isn’t a CD player, and I can’t even keep track of my wallet and sunglasses; I don’t need one more thing I’m worried about losing.)

Yet at the same time, I get really frustrated, because some of my favorite music ends up being on the list of things I can’t buy because of the lyrics.

Example A: Enrique Iglesias. Man! Some of the most creative music out there, and such filthy lyrics. That example isn’t one of the worst, but you notice I didn’t embed the video. As one of the Jazzercise instructors said, “Whatever happened to all that ‘I wanna be your hero’?”

Example B: Pit Bull. Okay, so rap is all the rage, and Pit Bull cameos on approximately a billion other people’s songs. I’m not a rap fan, but that song that goes with the Fiat commercial is actually a really good song. Except what’s up with that repeating lyric “sexy people”? I can’t play that in front of my kids. These people have got to be interested in picking up the next generation of fans; why make that lyric so prominent? It’s not even what the song is about, for all that it’s the title. In fact, that song seems to have three lyric strands that are only slightly connected: the beautiful love song about Sorrento, stuff about immigrants, and this befuddling “Sexy people”, implying, I suppose, that all immigrants are sexy? I don’t know…maybe I’m missing something.

The problem is, I really, really like these two songs. Or rather, I want to, and it’s frustrating to feel that I can’t actually listen to them, because–as noted above–there are little ears listening.

Of course, there are some really wonderful songs out there, too. Katy Perry seems to specialize in songs that affirm (think Firework), and this Jason Mraz was one of the first I knew I wanted to download–still one of my favorites. I suppose it’s always been this way, hasn’t it?

End rant. Time to start another crazy Tuesday.

The Balance Between Authenticity and TMI

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A caution sign used on roads made in inkscape,...

I’ve spent my writing time the last several days researching literary agents. When you Google someone’s name, you get a lot of clutter, but if you take the time, you can often get a good sense of who they are by the things they say online. For an author hoping to find someone to represent her, this is a tool you’d be foolish not to use. And for an agent considering a potential client, the same holds true. So authors are always admonished to be professional in their online presence: to be careful what they say and how they say it.

“Careful” is a hard word for me. I overthink almost everything related to what I “should” or “shouldn’t” do, and the tension between what to say and what not to sometimes creates complete logjam. I’ve been wrestling for two weeks with a query pitch for my novel, for instance, because I’m pretty sure it’s not right yet, and I’m having trouble shaking loose a fresh take on it.

Online, the tension is between stories that are mine to tell and stories that are not. Between sharing the journey and risking looking whiny. Between affirming other people’s struggles by opening up about mine and opening myself to criticism and judgment for what I did or didn’t do.

Caution sign, in parking on 5th street

Caution sign, in parking on 5th street (Photo credit: gregoirevdb)

Life is not all unicorns and rainbows, and when I run across people online pretending otherwise it really grates on my nerves. Yet I can understand why a person might whitewash (or self-censor) the tough moments, the ones where defending yourself might make you look petulant, or the ones where you don’t come off like mother of the year and it’s not funny but instead an excoriation of the soul. Your “tribe” will get it. They see you as a whole person. But they’re not the ones you have to worry about. It’s the person who’s Googling you out of nowhere. What if that moment is their introduction to you?

The balance between authenticity and TMI is something everyone who is online faces–or should be cognizant of, at any rate. I stopped Journaling when this blog took over that role, but more and more often I’m recognizing the value of an outlet where I can work through things without worrying about who’s looking over my shoulder. Now, where to find the extra half hour of time?

On to the next impossible question…

Words Matter (a primer on disability language)

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Colorado Cousins Trip 603First, I am fully aware that many people are going to look at this as splitting hairs.

I did, until my daughter came along.

How do you refer to a person with a disability? If you are like most people, you slap a label in front of the name: Julianna is a “Downs child” or a “Down syndrome girl.”

The practice encouraged by disability groups now is what we call people-first language. Re the great Wiki:

The basic idea is to impose a sentence structure that names the person first and the condition second, for example “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people”, in order to emphasize that “they are people first”. Because English syntax normally places adjectives before nouns, it becomes necessary to insert relative clauses, replacing, e.g., “asthmatic person” with “a person who has asthma.” Furthermore, the use of to be is deprecated in favor of using to have.

The speaker is thus expected to internalize the idea of a disability as a secondary attribute.

Colorado Cousins Trip 436In the case of my girly-girl: she is a child with Down syndrome, not a Down’s child, a Down syndrome daughter, etc.

This is a subtle difference, I’ll grant you, but it’s important. Aside from disabilities, there is no other medical, educational or cultural status in which we refer to the condition first. Doing so makes Down syndrome more important than the person. You don’t go around saying “that cancer guy” or “that four-eyes woman.” In the first case we would consider it insensitive; in the second, insulting. In both cases, it reduces the person to a fraction of his or her true self. So why is it okay for disability–unless we actually do subconsciously think a disability makes a person “less than”?

County Fair 050 smallJulianna’s extra chromosome is an intrinsic part of who she is, one that impacts an awful lot of life–but not all. The basic things that underlie life are the same for her as they are for all the rest of us: eat, sleep, love, learn, live. Her disability is important, but it’s not the most important thing about her. She loves music, hates dogs, loves books and carousels and horses, is terrified of thunder, needs glasses, adores babies, had heart surgery, can read, cannot speak clearly, and is capable of making connections with the crustiest person she meets. To reduce all that to a label that comes first–“Down syndrome child,” “Downs child”–is to deny her the complexity of soul and personality that we grant everyone else.

The most important thing about her is the fact that she is…just like me, you, and everyone else we meet.