Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"Bad Kids" and "Bad Parents:" Or, Why Each is Everyone's Problem

Anastasia’s post on the nature and consequences of anti-child rhetoric got me all fired up! The post really didn’t do it, but rather some of the uninformed comments led me to respond here.

I'd go further than what most people seem to be saying in the comments, which is that "it's not the kids’ fault, it's the parents’." What everyone seems to be forgetting is that parenting is a learned behavior. It is *not* 100% "instinctual" or "natural." One learns how to parent in a variety of ways, including learning from ones own parents, media images, popular culture, "expert" literature, etc.

After working at an outpatient mental health clinic, which catered to youth and family services, I learned firsthand that some people never learned how to parent. They never had loving, nurturing parents, and thsu they continue a cycle in which they parent according to what they've seen or experienced in their own childhood. Only *after* things had gone wrong (juvenile crime, substance abuse, child abuse, for example), and their children were taken from the home or in detention, were these parents actually ordered by the court to complete Parenting Classes. Unfortunately, in some cases it was too late. But in others, I saw parents who literally learned - for the first time - how to be affectionate with their children, or how to effectively discipline their children (without yelling or hitting), or how to provide proper guidance and boundaries for their children. These are learned skills, and the parents should not be blamed. Why not? Because of their lack of exposure to any form of positive parenting, they had no idea they were even doing anything wrong. They were simply repeating a cycle, unaware of the consequences.

In addition to this, the fact that our culture doesn’t value the services offered at youth and family clinics like the one I mention points to a larger problem: this is not how most people want their tax money spent. These clinics are non-profit, and they have to beg, borrow, and go through extensive hoop-jumping to get every dollar they can out of the state and federal governments. (Example: The Child Abuse Prevention funding in my home state offered a mere $2,000 a year to the clinic where I worked. Know any social worker willing to work for that?] People in this country are very quick to either a) blame a child for bad behavior or b) blame and judge the parent for not teaching him/her how to behave appropriately, but our culture doesn’t want to take any initiative to help parents learn how to parent. And I’m not talking about all parents. I’m not talking about parents who’ve been raised by responsible parents or family, or parents who are conscious of their role and responsibility in raising a child. I’m talking about parents who – as children – never had the chance to learn how to be a loving, responsible adult, much less a caring and conscientious parent. The cycle has to be broken at some point in order to affect positive change, but it rarely happens from inside the cycle. There are occasional exceptions (i.e. the abused child who eventually learns that abuse isn’t normal and later breaks the cycle), but such exceptions are almost always made possible with the help of others: teachers, loving foster families, and mentors.

So people can sit around and bitch about rude kids all day long (never mind the fact that there are just as many rude adults who have no damn excuse!). Or, they can do something to help with the larger cultural problem: the undervaluing of social services designed to improve the lives of families. As part of this country – this culture – you can be part of the problem or part of the solution, but one has to live with the consequences either way.

1 comment:

wwwmama said...

Thank you for this post. I've been mulling over Anastasia's post and all the related posts but haven't been able to sort through my reactions (hey, what's wrong with having some kids-free public spaces 'cos I'd be the first to go there VS. I'm a mom and I can't stand it when people hate on kids). But you're framing this issue well and showing how we all need to be invested in this issue, and that's a separate and much more important one than any discussion on how we categorize public spaces.
One thing I wonder about is if or how the nanny-reality shows will eventually feed into public views of parenting. The way the shows get advertised and marketed is annoying because it's based on that annoying reality show principle whereby we're only supposed to watch the shows because we want to see the WORST ('this week, the kids will actually spit on the nanny!') But if you get past that and watch several episodes, you can see a clear and, for the most part, effective and loving approach to disciplining and relating to one's children. If this is the best way we have of educating everyparent in America, that's a sad comment on where we're at culturally, but on the other hand, I'm glad it's out there because it does provide a basic template of what to do (set clear guidelines, follow through, talk to your children) and what not to do (hit your child, yell at them, make them fear you, let them roam the streets).