Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Life Lessons on Holiday

Holiday breaks are a great time for me to learn new things about parenting. As an introvert who has crafted her life to include working at home with no other companion but the dog and the occasional lunch or coffee date if I feel like it, having my kids and my husband home all day every day for two weeks feels a bit overwhelming.  Add Bubba's family to that for one of those two weeks and you can be sure to find me 'meditating' at the sink as I do dishes a few times a day. It's the one place where I know my kids won't come near me for fear of being asked to help clean up after fourteen hungry family members.

I won't bore you with the details, but here are a couple tidbits I picked up over this year's break thus far:

1. The use of superlatives is altogether unhelpful.  In particular, I am referring to the words "always," "never," "everyone," and "nobody." I am just as guilty as anyone else of using those words to make a point, but the problem with them is that they are rarely true and they serve to escalate the emotional intensity of any situation rapidly.  When my kids come to me claiming that "nobody ever includes me in ________," or some such notion, my first tendency is to dispute the claim and point out all of the other times that she has been asked to join in the fun. It may be true, but it certainly isn't helpful. Generally the best thing I can do in that situation is to acknowledge hurt feelings or frustration and ask what their preferred solution might be.  

Those words also have the added effect of convincing us that things are worse than they actually are. In my case, when my kids tell me "everyone hates me," I have little else to go on. While I think it is highly unlikely that each and every single person around them wishes them ill, I don't honestly know if it's true, or even if my kid really believes that it is. But sometimes, if I'm not fully paying attention, I take them at their word and then I get all wound up in the belief that it's true. The more I react to those kinds of statements, the more I reinforce for my kids that I believe what they're saying and that's how destructive patterns get laid down. When we all start buying into the always/never/everyone/nobody stories, it's a dangerous time.

And so, I have asked my kids not to use those words about each other or their friends or family, especially when emotions are running high. It gets me wound up, it winds them up, and we all go down the path of darkness and gloom on a false belief.  They agreed to do their best. And then they busted me when I did it the next day, whining that NOBODY EVER offers to help with the kitchen clean-up after dinner. I guess they took the new rule to heart.

2. The use of apologies, especially parental ones, is incredibly important when it comes to trust-building. I don't recall the parental apology being a thing in my childhood and I have yet to talk to anyone from my generation who does. When my dad was dying, he told me several times how sorry he was for certain things that he did or said when I was a kid and I can't even begin to say how important and meaningful that was to me.  That said, I often wonder how different all our lives might have been if we had learned to apologize to each other early and often.

I was in my thirties before I fully realized that my parents were human beings and always had been. During my childhood, they subscribed to the school of thought that said you didn't back down to your kids, didn't show a chink in your armor, didn't let 'em see you sweat. While I often questioned my parents' wisdom and choices, I never thought of them as fully fallible human beings who might be unsure of themselves as parents. It never occurred to me that they weren't 100% sure of what they were doing. It certainly occurred to me from time to time that they were evil or hated me or were hell-bent on making my life miserable, but I never considered that they could be just making mistakes along the way. Until I had kids. Then that reality hit me full force.

I started letting my girls know from the beginning that I am human, mostly for selfish reasons. I didn't  want them to expect too much from me, so I made sure they knew I was doing my best, but would be mistake-prone until I figured things out.  The best way to let them know I was fallible was by apologizing when I really messed up. When I freaked out disproportionately and screamed at them, I came back later to say I was sorry and tell them how I wished I had dealt with the situation. After falsely accusing them or punishing them without all the facts, I would later admit my mistake and ask for redemption. Now that they are teens, this policy is paying off with trust. Not only do my girls know it's okay for them to mess up and lose their cool, but they know how to apologize for it as well.  I know parents who balk at admitting their mistakes to their children and I understand how hard it is, but I have to tell you that there are not many more powerful ways to connect with your child on a truly authentic level than to let them know you're sorry for hurting them. Even if I feel like my girls have over-reacted to something emotionally, the fact is that perception is reality and if they don't trust me to empathize and acknowledge their feelings, they aren't likely to come to me with other emotionally charged topics.  Apologizing is a small price to pay for keeping the lines of communication open. And, fortunately or unfortunately, I've had enough fights with my kids to have had lots of practice saying I'm sorry.  I can tell you that it gets easier with time and rarely (I can't say "never" anymore) has there been a time where they didn't apologize right back.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Absurdity of Violence

I have so many sad thoughts running through my brain after yesterday’s attack on a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Most of them are surface thoughts, mourning for the loss of life and the feeling of fear that must be in the air for families, for children going to school, for teachers who put their lives in danger by just going to work. The deeper thoughts run to the absurdity of war, of “conflict,” of targeted attacks and drones and the ongoing back-and-forth in so many parts of the world.

“We want them to feel our pain,” said one Taliban commander as a justification for the attack.

Well of course you do. Regardless of your politics or religious beliefs, you are human and you feel pain. And the relentless attacks on North Waziristan have most likely caused much collateral damage.

Instead of contemplating that statement (which I only heard on one news outlet one time despite the nearly constant coverage of this incident), the Pakistani government – no doubt with a significant amount of support from our country – retaliated almost immediately, sending air strikes to Taliban strongholds.

Rather than answering for the innocent women and children they have killed and the “tens of thousands” they have displaced, the Pakistan military decided to take it up a notch.

Let me be clear. Nobody is right here. This continued escalation of violence with no nod whatsoever to the loss of life, the impotence of the entire endeavor, the impossibility of the stated goal (Pakistani Prime Minister has said that they will keep fighting until “terrorism is rooted from our land”) can only serve to further entrench both sides. There is no weapon that can secure peace. I know that there is no simple solution, but I do know that this is no solution at all. It feels to me like two teenage boys punching each other in the arm.

“Take that!”

“Oh, yeah? Well I can punch harder than that. Take that!”

“That’s nothing. Here, how does that feel?”

Eventually, one of them will get tired of the one-upmanship or too hurt to go on, but if they’re mad enough, they might come back with a different weapon later on. And what has been proven? The one with the most might is not necessarily the one who is right.  Continued escalation of violence, state-sanctioned or not, falls under the definition of insanity as far as I’m concerned. How long will we continue to take this same approach to no avail before we acknowledge that it isn’t working? And how many more people have to die during the learning curve? War is a failure of imagination, of creativity, of willingness to find other solutions. We can’t lose much more by stopping the violent attacks and trying something else than we already are by escalating things.


In the meantime, I will continue to breathe in suffering and breathe out compassion. I will feel their pain, the suffering on all sides of this issue. Someone has to.

Monday, December 08, 2014

When That Publication Wasn't What You Thought it Was

I just had to go and check whether my essay had been published yet.
I couldn't email the editor or wait for her to email me. I had to visit the site and see it.

I submitted a piece to an online parenting magazine after multiple rejections from other places at the urging of a Facebook writers group. I didn't know much about the ezine and I did a cursory check of it before submitting to make sure it wasn't populated with articles about the Kardashians and "mom-jeans." I figured since other writers I know from the group had published their work there that it was probably fine, and so I didn't dig too deeply.

Last week when the editor emailed me with a few suggested changes, I was pleased. Her ideas were great and, in one case, she said she thought I should cut something because she thought it was victim-blaming. When I pushed back a little, she explained further and I saw that she was right. After I thanked her for her perspective, she said she was just looking out for me - that their commenters are pretty smart and can be murder on a writer.  I was tremendously grateful.

Today when I went to the site to see whether the piece was up or not, something caught my eye; namely, an essay with the word "Anti-Vaxxers" in the title. My heart sank. I read the article to the end, the bile rising in my throat with every word. As if that weren't enough, I chose to read the comments. I'm not sure what I was hoping for - perhaps one or two voices that took the author to task for being nasty, for reducing the issue to black-and-white, some sort of intelligent conversation? I wanted to see that this was a community of parents who were thoughtful and compassionate, educated and nonjudgmental. Unfortunately, that isn't what I saw. I saw eighty-plus comments from women cheering each other on for their choice to vaccinate their children for everything under the sun, egging each other on as they characterized anyone who wouldn't do the same as "stupid" or "pro-death." I saw not one comment defending a decision not to vaccinate (even against the flu). I saw not one compassionate response that called for an understanding of the difficulty of the issue.  In fact, at one point, the comment thread devolved into vilifying families for choosing organic food or avoiding GMOs.

Sigh.

One woman commented multiple times and seemed particularly gleeful when she was hating on "those people." She wrote that she loved this particular site because "this place is so pro-vaccine/pro-common sense/pro-community...[it is] my vaccine safe space." Oh. Well, then.

The last thing I want is to be part of a community that is one-sided. I don't want to write for a group of readers who are so convinced that they already know everything there is to know about Subject X that they refuse to think about grey areas or nuances or what someone else's life might be like. And so now that my essay hasn't yet shown up, I have the dilemma of whether or not to ask them to pull it. It isn't a subject that's terribly controversial for this particular ezine and I'm not worried that I'll get trashed in the comments (in fact, I may not even read them, after this), but I hate the idea that this particular site is known for polarization or nastiness. I don't want my writing associated with that, especially if I'm being paid for it.

When I looked at previous articles by the author of this one, I was surprised at what I found. Honestly, many of her posts were funny and/or interesting. One or two were even helpful. I guess I was struck by the passion that this particular issue can incite in what I would consider to be an otherwise reasonable person. But if there is something that I can't stand, it's reducing a complicated issue to black-and-white and then using that as an excuse to call names and make fun of other people who disagree.  And so, here I find myself, in the crux of a dilemma. I think I'll go sleep on it.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Some Thoughts on Fear

It is increasingly difficult not to feel lucky that I am white, that my children are white, that they are girls who are not likely to incite fear because of their size and their race and their gender. Somehow, it feels horrible to think that way, to feel relief that, while we may as women and girls suffer some indignities and challenges, at least we don't have to worry about an overzealous response to a real or imagined crime.

The girls and I have talked off and on in the last weeks about the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City, all of us baffled at how a group of impartial individuals could come to the decisions they did. I am careful to acknowledge that I don't have all of the details and I can't judge the  outcomes or the people without having first walked in their shoes, but it doesn't keep us from feeling despair about what these incidents are doing to our communities.

I have resisted doing much research because I don't believe it will give me any vital information that I don't already have and I suspect that if I did discover egregious errors such as are being alleged by many, especially with regard to the Ferguson case, it would only lead my heart to ache more.

I am sad that the takeaway from President Obama's response to the Ferguson grand jury decision was his encouragement of the wider use of body cameras by police officers as a way to build trust between communities and the police.  If I told my girls that I trusted them, but I was going to put video cameras in their bedrooms so that I could capture footage of them at all times, I doubt they would believe my expression of trust. I think that the president is correct in his assertion that the breakdown is the lack of trust, but in order to have a trusting relationship, there has to be a relationship and it is there where things have broken down.  If there is no sense of commonality, no investment in each other, we cannot hope to combat the fear that exists on both sides of this equation. If there is one shared goal, that is where the conversation needs to start and stay grounded. Yes, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions, and in that respect, perhaps body cameras have some place in the solution, but first there has to be serious work toward preventing altercations that result in physical violence.

In an interview with NPR, Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who works with the LAPD to overcome trust issues, Ms. Rice talked about how many of the police officers she interviewed expressed fear of black men. While she says those officers don't "experience that as a racist thought," it absolutely screams racism to many in the black community and that very real fear often translates into overzealous physical contact with black suspects.  Addressing that fear has to be the first step in relationship building. Understanding varied viewpoints and coming together around the common goal of safe communities is a much better strategy than arming police with body cameras. Especially in the case of Eric Garner, there is no guarantee that video evidence will lead to accountability or trust. In fact, if there are more cases where the video evidence seems clearly in favor of one story over the other and the decisions made fly in the face of that evidence, we risk causing even bigger rifts in our communities.

Ms. Rice cites one program that "brought LAPD officers into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people's lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities together," as being particularly effective. That is because those efforts clearly endorsed a common goal and unless we begin there, we have little hope of effecting positive change.  It is time for civic leaders and police departments to step up and talk about the fears that lead to this kind of violence. Because police officers are put in harm's way nearly every day, it is important for them to acknowledge which fears are grounded in reality and which ones are not. Because they are trained to react in a split second, they need to know which instincts to trust and how to draw on alternative methods of conflict resolution before making a decision that will have ripple effects for us all. We need to put more resources into finding common ground than we invest in body armor and cameras and the justice system. Moving forward with conversations and positive acts within the communities where there is deep mistrust of the police department will go a long way toward building bridges that we can all stand on together.
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