Tuesday, November 3, 2009

when in doubt, blame the parents

Why is it that when a child misbehaves it is automatically a result of faulty parenting? When did people forget that children are not automated extensions of their parents? That they are their own little people with their own little brains? Brains that are not fully formed and can therefore make the occasional bad decision regardless of how present the parents in question might be?

Listen, nobody is debating that there are some crap parents out there. I think we can all agree that some parents don't deserve the kids they have. But as far as I know, there is no perfect parent out there anywhere and I truly believe that those "crap parents" are in the minority. Every one of us has made a mistake at some point (or will). We just all have to hope that the mistakes we make are small in the grand scheme of things. Or that we can fix a problem that arises when we make an error in judgment.

However. I don't think that it is reasonable to automatically assume that a kid has horrible parents (or that the mistake itself stems directly from "bad" parenting) if he makes one mistake. Even if it is a HUGE mistake. It also isn't reasonable to assume that the kid in question is a "bad egg" on the basis of one mistake. Obviously there are varying levels of responsibility here. For instance, a 6-year-old child who takes his new Cub Scout tool to school is not going to fall under the same umbrella as a high school student who brings a loaded gun to school. At least it shouldn't in my opinion. If you disagree then we're probably not going to be able to come to terms here.

I still think that the best way to deal with a child-related problem is directly. Is there a bully picking on your kid? Try to tell your kid some non-violent ways to deal with the problem. Explain to them that ignoring a bully will often solve the problem. If it doesn't then you go from there. If the bullying is taking place at school, involve the school. If it's taking place at a playgroup or the local playground then approach the parents. For the love of all that is good, approach the parents! Demonizing the parents of a kid who has made a mistake is not going to get you anywhere productive.

I offer this next story as an example of why direct approach in all things is best. Direct approach, first and foremost, before you start involving your family and friends and random internet strangers. You just never know what the other side of the situation is. I think it's also a cautionary tell for those who give advice without knowing both sides of a situation.

Two years ago we started having a problem with one of the kids on Sam's bus. He would trip him, punch him, yank on his backpack...generally anything he could do to harass him, he would do. After letting Sam attempt to deal with it on his own for a little bit (maybe a week), Jason approached the kid's dad.

Apparently this kid (we'll call him Hank) had a little sister (we'll call her Peggy). Peggy was 5 or 6. She developed a little bit of a crush on Sam which led her to follow him around and bug the tar out of him. In dealing with Peggy, Sam called her a name (not a "bad word" or anything...I honestly don't remember what it was but it was along the lines of "pest") and repeatedly told her to shut up. This hurt her feelings (understandably) and she told her dad.

What Jason and I would have done at this point is already detailed above. If Peggy had been our daughter we would have counseled her to ignore him. I would have told her that if a boy was talking to her like that it meant he wasn't worth her time anyway. If it had continued we would have gone to the parents or to the bus office through the school. I think we would have tried the parents first because that is what we did with Hank. In reacting this way we would be hopeful that first, the kid would quit messing with our daughter and second, that our daughter would see that just because a person makes a mistake doesn't make them a bad person. That forgiveness is possible when someone is honestly sorry about a mistake. (I am assuming, of course, that the kid would be sorry. I think most would be.)

If they had come to us we most certainly would have told Sam that he was in the wrong. He would have been made to apologize. We would have explained to him that sometimes little girls develop crushes on older boys and that it is important that he never take advantage of that and that he always treat her with kindness and respect. That yes, while she might be a little annoying that she is little and just doesn't know any better. We would have responded that way because we are responsible and caring parents who truly do want the best for our kids...even when they act like a bonehead.

What did this dad do instead of coming to Sam's parents? He told his 14-year-old son to "get back" at the kid that was bullying Peggy. (Might I remind you that Sam would have been 10 at the time.) This dad was belligerent and hateful because his little girl had her feelings hurt. He was convinced that he was in the right because his little girl was "wronged" first. Even when Jason let him know that we would discuss the situation with Sam he still was aggressive and nasty. The situation with the father escalated to the point that we had to involve the school to get the kids put on separate buses. Luckily this is an option in our village. Who knows what mess it would have caused if it wasn't. When he tried to get physical with Jason, Jason let him know that any further aggression from anyone in the family would result in the MPs being called. That was the last problem we had with them. I am relieved to be able to tell you that the family has since moved.

I could easily twist this situation to make us look like the hapless victims. If I asked you to look at it from our perspective you do see an unapproachable parent. Who would want to subject themselves to that? It's the "posterchild" case for avoiding parental confrontation at all costs. But we know far more kids who have reasonable parents. I think it's more likely that parents will behave as we know that our friends would, rather than Hank and Peggy's dad. I think he is the exception, not the rule. So here's what I want you to do. Imagine, if you will, what this scenario would look like from the other parents' perspective. I'm willing to bet that they had family and friends supporting them in their approach to this problem. I've seen the mob mentality that develops when opinions are formed in a vacuum. Our child, as the original "aggressor", is the one that gets the bad reputation...but is that really the reality of the situation? Did Sam behave in a way that was unusual for a 10-year-old boy in the same situation? Was he right to behave the way he did? No! But to demonize him (and Jason and I), as these parents did, was much worse.

Do you automatically believe that kids who cause trouble are lacking something in the parenting department? Have you been on either side of a similar situation? What did you do?

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