Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Parenting: Old School - New School

I am a mandated reporter, like many professionals, therapists, teachers, medical doctors...we are by law, required to report any incident of neglect or abuse reported to us. We do not determine whether neglect or abuse has indeed happened, that is the job of the Protective Services Unit. It is never pleasant to make such a report. Most of the reports are made by workers in community agencies, not private practice. That is because the agencies provide more accountability, they have their own licenses to maintain, their own protocol. Supervisors in these agencies are expected to monitor the risks involved in workers' cases and ensure that protocol is carried out. If and when reports are made to the Child Abuse hotline depends on the severity of the situation, as well as the particular protocol of the agency. If the abuse is mild or moderate and the parent seems amenable to participating in therapy to learn other ways of discipline, some will delay reports of abuse. I believe in that. Still, there are times when I have to report a parent of suspected abuse or neglect. Most of the time, the suspected abuse is not severe enough to warrant removal of the child. Still, understandably, parents abhor the entry of child protective services into their lives. They resent that their authority can be questioned or deemed inappropriate by outsiders.

I often think there has to be a better way to help parents face the reality that unlike in the past, there are limits to what parents can do to their children in the name of discipline.

Old school is the parenting strategy that says parents have the power to do what they feel necessary to get the behavior they wish to see from their children. Sayings like "spare the rod, spoil the child," and "children should be seen and not heard," reflect this philosophy. The child, because of his or her age, has the right to basic needs being met, but beyond that silent obedience to the rule of the parent is expected. The parent's power is absolute, and no evidence of the child's displeasure is tolerated. No rolling of the eyes, no pouting, no sucking of the teeth. Spankings, whippings, beatings are considered the parents' prerogative, in the name of getting compliance.

It is oppressive, though parents who practice this method do not see it that way. They see it as raising well-mannered, obedient children, children who will do well in life. I was raised by an old-school parent. She never left marks when she spanked me with a glass hairbrush, but for most old school parents welts are an acceptable part of punishment.

Men being the "king of their castle" is old school too. They had the right to do what they wanted with their wives, their property, so to speak. Most mothers now see that this old school position was abusive in regard to women, but many still do not make the same leap with regard to children.

Children are little people, but they are people, and like all of us they need to have some voice, some sense of agency over their lives, it is part of their feeling valued. It is possible to set limits and discipline, something children definitely need, without squashing their sense of person-hood, without "beating" or "whipping" them. New school says children are entitled to their own boundaries, as are adults. Striking an adult can constitute an assault and charges can be brought. New school says that striking a child in a way that injures, including welts, which are bruises, or that is severe, like punching, kicking, or sexually violating, is not a parental right.

Some have suggested that in the case of African-Americans and African-Caribbeans, whippings are a re-creation of our experience under slavery. I do not know, but it is worth considering.

What I do know is that not every tradition is worth holding onto. As someone who has sought to learn about and value my African heritage, I have long realized that I cannot take a knee-jerk position on this. Sankofa, the Adinkra symbol and bird, tell us to take what is valuable from the past. That means, we leave the rest behind.

Old school does have some valuable aspects, like the importance of respecting elders, and the sense of community in which parenting is a communal responsibility and not an individual one.

When they were old enough to appreciate the humor and the seriousness of it, I used to enjoy saying to my children "parents are people too." We have feelings and vulnerabilities, and we are not infallible. The same is true of children. Respect is a two way street. Limits can be set with children in respectful ways.

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