Steubenville

“It is tempting to point fingers while ignoring some of the root causes that are much more difficult to resolve. The extent that youngsters (and some adults) spend endless hours being entertained by violence says more about lack of supervision and control as well as disengagement. It isn’t that the entertainment media are so powerful, but that other institutions — family, school, religion and community — have grown weaker. Banning violent entertainment seems like an easy fix, but would do little to avert the next mass murder.” – James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University

It is strange that I would find the most enlightening comment about the Steubenville sexual assault case on the NY Daily News website (not exactly your top journalistic contender), and not in an article about the case but in a related link about violent video games and mass shootings.

Violence is pervasive in our culture, and there is no one root cause or easy fix, as Professor Fox says. It seems that our institutions have grown weaker, and it feels like little we do will stop the next assault and ensuing social media/entertainment news circus.

Fox is also right about disengagement. With everyone having a screen in their face all the time, whether or not that screen is showing us violent images, we are disconnected. And the screen enables us to post a horrific picture online without thinking twice. This is why all those institutions, as well as our human interactions, are weakened.

One of the tenets of human interaction is seeing the consequences of our behavior on the faces of those around us. We learn how to behave with others’ approval or disapproval. When we’re staring at a screen we don’t see the person on the other end. Or the one right in front of us, for that matter.

I’d been thinking about consequences before the Steubenville case blew up. Parents today are frantic to create a world for their children that is painless, and somewhere along the line some expert told us we can have that. We’ve bought into the notion that life can truly be a bowl of cherries, and for our kids that means no consequences.

In our effort to remove everything hard or painful from our kids’ lives, we’ve also eliminated their feelings. Their natural emotions and responses are tamped down and hidden. There is no appropriate place for letting them out. We don’t play in the neighborhood. We don’t ride our bikes unless it’s on paved trails. We barely even have recess anymore.

Kids rarely have interaction without adults telling them how to behave. They need to learn with their peers, outside of the protective bubble. They need to be wild, get in scrapes, and let their friends show them what’s acceptable. They need to kill a frog and feel how downright awful it is in the pit of their stomach. They need to learn this before the teen years, when we assume they’re ready and give them more freedom. And they should be doing it without social media at their fingertips 24/7.

I want to tell my sons to never ever do anything stupid, because it will be on every kid in your school’s cell phone the next morning. You will be damaged. But never making a mistake is impossible. We all do stupid things (thank God there were no pocket videorecorders around when I was young). I’m not sure how they’re going to make it through unscathed.

The atrocities that happened in Steubenville are not just about the sexual assault – they are about the overall treatment of another human being. Not just what was done to the victim’s body, but to her emotions and well-being. With all the disengagement that Professor Fox speaks of, young people are simply not learning how to treat each other.

I teach a brain development class in which I talk about the fact that the teenage brain is often incapable of seeing the consequences of actions, and exhibits deep denial behaviors (“We’re indestructible!”). How the moral centers in the brain have not yet developed even though the emotions and hormones are churning. That teens have an adult body with all the capabilities, but are still using a child’s brain. The U.S. Department of Justice tells the scary statistics: one-third of all crime is committed by children under the age of 18.

Still, one would hope that we’ve taught our kids well enough to know when to draw the line. We hope they’ll make good choices, and the work we’ve put into that will show when it counts. But alcohol plus a bunch of kids standing around cheering always leads to one hell of a dangerous situation.

Kids need consequences from adults and each other. They need to know that everything they do isn’t the greatest thing ever to hit the planet. It’s why I spend so much of my energy railing against the cult of sports. I’ve seen eleven-year-old boys being praised to the sky because they ran down a field with a ball. From that moment on, that boy knows he has every adult in the room wrapped around his finger. And if that’s true, what can he get away with among his peers?

Steubenville can and will happen again – precisely because there are cameras in every person’s pocket. While the images were used in a horrifying way to humiliate one young girl, they’ve also shed light on the type of activity that kids are participating in. The same images also led to the consequences that these kids so desperately deserve, and I applaud the local authorities for taking action and continuing their investigation.

As I write this, there are three boys wrestling rather violently in my play room. I’m not stopping them. They don’t want me to. Part of this play is learning limits to how far you can go with someone else’s body. When they hurt each other, they stop and check if the hurt person is OK. Someone said, “Time out,” and the others immediately let him go sit down.

I said, “I will let you continue this if timeout is sacred,” and they all accepted that rule without me even having to explain any further. They want to push the limits, but they also want to know the rules. If everyone is safe, they know that individually they’re safe too.

I hope and pray that as the boys in my playroom venture out into the teen years, where I can’t be there to supervise, that they will remember the lessons of these wrestling matches. And the lessons they see me working on from day one in my profession: We don’t put our hands on people in a harmful way. We don’t take things from them. We don’t hurt people’s bodies. No one is allowed to do these things to anyone else. It is unacceptable. And there will be consequences.

What to Do When Sports Get Ugly

“You suck.” – Nine-year-old boy at soccer game

Wow. Yes, believe it or not, this was uttered after our last game by a kid on the winning team to someone on my son’s team. We only lost by one goal, and stayed right with them. If you didn’t count the goal where they tackled our keeper, we would’ve tied. Oh and by the way, they don’t keep score at this level. But somehow we suck.

I have learned that as a sports parent there are many games where all you can do is set a good example. It can take a serious effort to resist getting dragged down by the ugliness that’s happening around you. Many times you have to head home after the game trying to find the positive lesson for your kids.

So, like in the case of this game, a lot of those lessons are about rising above. This kind of flat-out bullying shouldn’t be accepted anywhere, but it kills me how easily people shrug it off on the playing field. It’s just part of the game!

I’m not naive, I know what kind of ugly exists out there in the world. But I’ve worked hard to put some distance between it and myself. I moved to the area I live in because we’re a happy, mellow community. I work with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. I am, as my best friend likes to say, a marshmallow.

So I really have a hard time when I see such bold aggression. I actually have a physical response – it’s probably fight or flight. I get shaky and upset when I see parents and coaches screaming their kids into submission and berating referees and anyone else in the near vicinity.

Then the kids behave the same way because that’s the example that’s being set: This is how we act when we’re playing sports. It’s ok to be a complete animal, because after the game’s over (and we’ve danced in the blood of our enemies) we can all pat each other on the back and say, “Good game.” No hard feelings. We left it all on the field.

Sometimes I think I’m just a sore loser. But I don’t mind losing to a team that plays fair. And I have to think I’m a better sport than the “You suck” kid. I do try not to write them off. I know they’re a product of their environment.

Until now I’ve been unable to think of a way to just watch the game, not get involved in the atmosphere, and enjoy seeing my kids play a sport they really love. So I googled “parenting and sports” looking for some ideas. There were a couple of good articles, like this one, in which coaching expert Bruce Brown says you should “Let your child bring the game to you if they want to.”

I love this idea. Last year we banned re-hashing the game during the ride home in the car, and it was genius. But at some point either my husband or I couldn’t resist the urge to talk about it and give our two cents. I have to accept that when the game’s over, my son might not want to talk about it at all, and that’s OK. It’s not my job (or what they want) to dissect the game, good or bad.

Many of the other articles I found were a mix of “Don’t over-do it with youth sports,” followed by “How to maximize your child’s athletic potential.” The usual bag of mixed messages. We give a lot of lip service to fairness, but secretly we know you’re just in it to get your kid into the pros.

That’s not what my kids want out of sports (which is probably why they aren’t out there trying to dominate everyone). They love the exercise, the challenge, and being with their friends. I have a feeling that many of their teammates feel the same way.

So all I can do is keep taking deep breaths and teaching my sons how to deal with idiots. The best advice I found was that when the game is over, they just want Mom. And being my best Mom means shutting my mouth and listening to what they have to say. Sometimes it means letting them be quiet and resisting the urge to invade their privacy. And no matter what, always be on their side.

A footnote to this post: In response to reading it, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video, which has been making the rounds this weekend. I don’t want to spoil it so please just watch – it’s well worth the three minutes. Everyone in that gym was a better person for what they saw. If only…

Christmas is Hard and Kids Know It

There are plenty of mournful versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” many of which are on my iPod and I’ve been hearing in Christmas rotation this month. There’s the Jerry Vale department store version, a heartbreaking Rosemary Clooney, the great and tragic Judy Garland’s, even James Taylor got in on the act a few years ago. And Lou Rawls’ sexy and fun version always makes me smile.

But far and away this one is my favorite:


Simple, straightforward, true. I’ve written before about how this Christmas album gets to me more than any other.

But I think the magic of Jim Henson, and why I loved the Muppets so much and why that has stayed with me all this time, was that he never talked down to kids. He just said it like it is, and Rolf always felt to me like that little bit of reality. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s been run down by life. He’s OK, and he plays the blues in bars for a living, and he’s not happy, and he’s not destroyed either. He’s just out there. And he tells it like it is too.

Ironically I’ve been teaching and writing lately about just that. Many people tend to discount kid’s opinions, fears, even their ability to understand what’s going on around them. Jim Henson never did that. He knew that kids know what’s up. They understand so much more than we give them credit for.

When you watched the Muppets there were monsters, divas, cranky old men, stoners, nerds, weirdos, and a neurotic but capable frog trying to hold them all together. It was a true vision of life, not polished to hide away anything that might be unpleasant.

So much of what we offer kids today is just that. Turn on any kid’s show and everyone is happy and excited and speaking in a very high and fast voice! Life is good! You are a genius indigo child! You will someday rule the world if you just follow along with our hyperactive movements because someone told us that you learn more if you move at the same time and we’re also trying to make sure you don’t get fat watching our tv show and sue us to pay the medical bills for your early onset diabetes!

Oh my Lord, it’s constant screeching. When I dig out old videos to show the kids it’s all the cartoons that offended people somewhere along the line (i.e. Bugs Bunny and the Simpsons), with crankiness and conflict and real life.

My sister mentioned there was a group of parents in NYC trying to ban the Peanuts Christmas special because it depicted too much bullying. My first response (besides mocking them) was that bullying is a part of life, and that’s just the dumbest thing I’ve heard anyway. But today’s parents are trying to deny bullying or anything less than pleasant so their kids will have the most enchanted life possible.

When in fact, their child would probably identify with Charlie Brown, as we all did at some point. We feel depressed when we’re supposed to be happy and left out and rejected when others are having fun, and sometimes feel like the holidays aren’t really living up to what they’re supposed to be. And our friends pull us through, just like Charlie Brown’s.

Plus no one should ever be denied the coolest Christmas soundtrack ever and Linus’s awe-inspiring speech.

Someone asked me, why do these Christmas shows endure? That’s easy – we identify with the protagonist – it’s the basis for every story ever told. “Rudolph” is appalling in how horrifically every adult in the story treats him (and Kermie). But when you’re Rudolph, or a kid who has felt like Rudolph, what else can you do but go on? And isn’t it nice to know you’re not the only one who feels this way?

Kids who are watching learn that life is sometimes hard (Egad! No! Don’t tell them that!). People can be jerks and you will feel beat down. But you do your own thing, there’s always tomorrow, you’ll find your way. Even if it’s with a pack of misfits (which is exactly how I would describe most of my life).

And Rolf is there too, with his piano, howlin the blues, letting us know we’re not alone.

Parenting is Not for the Squeamish

A friend of mine said that to me recently and he was so right. Lovely summer is coming to an end and all of us have been feeling the stress of going back to school. It’s been a rough week. Just when you think things are getting really good, everything changes and it’s all hard again.

It makes me reflect on how hard, how truly hard and challenging and never-ending it is to be a parent.

Another friend and I were talking about how tough 3rd grade was for both of our sons. She told me it was gut-wrenching for her to do what he needed to get through the year. I asked her how she did it and she said, “I had to be someone I’m not to push him through, on a daily basis. It was brutal.”

Being a parent forces you to change who you are. I’m not talking about simply giving up the freedom to go out to dinner with your spouse any time you want. I’m talking about a deep soul work kind of thing.

I remember when I first opened my child care I wasn’t very teacher-y. I was the kind of parent who felt that we speak to our children in a grownup way and do not talk down to them. I did the same thing with my day care kids. You can imagine the results I got.

I now have a teacher voice, and a teacher persona, and a preternatural teacher calm that sometimes amazes even me. But I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to get here. I literally had to force myself to behave differently with the kids.

Until then I was just being lazy, and a bit arrogant to be honest. Why should I change myself – why should I be someone I’m not, someone I don’t really want to be, just for these kids? THEY should change to match my expectations. They need to learn and I’m not going to teach them anything with baby-talk.

Well I learned pretty quickly that I had to be different if I wanted to be a child care provider. I can’t tell you, when I finally reached that point and gave in and started acting like a foolish singing clown, how much of a difference it made for my kids. How much of a better teacher I became and eventually out of that, a better parent.

Because I realized that parenting is not about forcing your kids to be what you want – it’s about altering your expectations, and what you believe to be right and true, and sometimes admitting that you are wrong. Changing yourself for the good of someone else. They don’t talk about that in the parenting magazines.

I’ve also had to be hard when I’m not, and that’s where my husband comes in. I told him there were times when he was right and I knew it. Which means I had to really listen to him (huge step right there), admit I was wrong (painful), and do it his way (are you kidding me?). This is not how humans naturally behave. We dig in our heels and fight to the death to prove we’re right. But having kids, and really wanting to make it work, REALLY wanting to do right by them, forces you to do these things.

Parenting – not for the squeamish.

On an episode of “Louie” the main character was bullied by a teenager, followed the kid home, and confronted the parents. The parents immediately started beating him and Louie defended the kid, saying “How do you think he turned out like this? You teach him to just hit people – what was he gonna be but a stupid bully? You never gave him a chance.” I envisioned a beating and bloodshed but instead the father admitted to Louie that he just didn’t know what else to do.

So here’s what you do. Re-set yourself. Look at your child as another person, a human being separate from you. You cannot control them. You must teach everything it means to be a good person: manners, empathy, responsibility, tolerance, honesty, patience.

You must accept that they are their own person, and while you do teach them all of the above, they are still going to make their own choices. They are human, and they will make mistakes. They are not perfect and they will need help along the way. But they are also beautiful people who deserve respect.

And the process of changing yourself goes on and on. It doesn’t end when the kids get to kindergarten, or past elementary school, or become what you think will be teenagers capable of putting dirty laundry in the laundry pile.

You are responsible for getting them through life until age 18. At that point they need to be ready to face the world, and that’s kind of on what you did for the the last 18 years of hard work so remember that too. But along the way, step back and take a good hard look at things every once in a while. When they’re not going right, you might have to be the one to make an adjustment.

Bike Path: Kill or Be Killed

After a week of riding the (gorgeous, incomparable) bike trails on Cape Cod, I’ve learned alot about human nature. First there are the types of people you will find using the trails:

1. The Tour de France’rs

They have their bodysuits, their space-age helmets, their front-arm-leaning handlebars, fanny packs and camelbaks, and feet cemented to the pedals, so they AIN’T stoppin. Just stay out of the way because the peloton is coming through, and you will die if you get in front of it.

2. The Neurotic Parents

They want to teach their kids to ride, but maybe they should’ve thought about doing that at home, before they got on the biking superhighway. Sometimes they have to stop and lecture their children about “how angry it makes me when you do that.” Often accompanied by grandparents pushing empty strollers. Occasionally you see a variation of this with three or more adults pulled over to the side of the trail, all fussing over one crying child in a bike trailer.

3. Walkers, Joggers, and Dog-walkers

They have every right to be on the bike trail. It’s supposed to be a safe haven for people trying to enjoy a walk or run without having to risk their lives on summer-traffic-filled roads. But I’m not sure they’re any safer with the bikes than they are with the cars.

4. Teenagers, Old Folks, and European Tourists

Lesser seen, but still present. Teens will be surly and/or dangerous-looking. So will the old folks. Europeans will be half-naked and stopped on the side of the trail eating berries.

5. Rollerbladers

Really?

6. Normal People Out for a Nice Bike Ride

Like me and my family, who were just trying to get through it all unscathed. And at least one of your party will be asking, “What’s the point again? Why are we riding bikes in a straight line for hours?”

Repeatedly.

My scariest moment was when we passed a dad and son who were pulled over, and mom was just getting back into the flow of traffic. Older Son was in the middle of the lane passing her and I was starting to make my move when I noticed there was a daughter, maybe four years old, trying to turn around and find her family. Older slowed down when he saw her swerve across the lane of traffic.

But the 65-year-old guy coming toward all of this mess didn’t. He just made a grimace like, “Oh my God! There’s a little pink Dora bike in front of me! How dare she? I’m about to crash into her! But I ain’t slowin down, dag-nabbit!”

I told Older he did the right thing. When in doubt, STOP BEFORE YOU CRASH INTO PEOPLE. It’s pretty basic.

Now. To this spicy gumbo, add cars. Every time you come to a street crossing it’s complete anarchy. By the letter of the law (we think), cars aren’t supposed to yield to bikes in crosswalks (I know, stupidest thing ever). But it makes sense if you realize that bikes are supposed to observe the same traffic rules as cars, so a rail trail crosswalk throws everything into confusion.

Cars are supposed to yield to pedestrians, so on the trail, the rule is that bikers should stop and walk their bike across the streets, hence becoming pedestrians and clearly having the right of way.

But no one ever gets off their bike. And the cars can’t always see the crossings coming. They are hidden around corners and in trees, and anyway most drivers on the Cape are in vacation mode. They’re not paying attention or they’re in a SERIOUS rush to get to some soft-serve. If they’re not familiar with the trail, they can be flying along with no clue that a person could jump out in front of their car.

As my dear old sailor dad used to say, the laws of gross tonnage apply. Motor vehicle vs. pedestrian laws don’t matter when a many-ton vehicle is flying toward your 65-pound skin-and-bones baby.

So we taught the boys to come to a COMPLETE stop at every crossing. BUT, those of us who are trying to keep our children from being flattened by cars get in the way of the peloton, who fly through, knocking you out of the way in their hurry to beat you to the entrance on the other side of the road.

Then you’ve got the people who draft off your stopped cars. You and the kids are getting across as safely as you can, when the others come up your butt because they shot out in front of the drivers who stopped for you. Now you’re on the other side trying to climb back on your bike and get….CRAP! Angry Granny!

“ON! YOUR! LEFT!!!!” They yell, annoyed at you for being in their way.

So what does all this mean? It’s simple. People need rules. I have my own problems respecting authority and I’m the first person to say, “Bah! That’s not a real law.” But if there were just some basic right-of-way guidelines (i.e. when a small child loses control of their bike and darts in front of you BY ACCIDENT – stop your damn bike instead of yelling at them and their parents), the trail would be a far less terrifying place.

Dave had a theory that it’s like the townies vs. the college kids. After a few weeks of having bikes dart out in front of their car, or being on a bike and having a car speed toward you, there’s competition between locals and tourists, drivers and bikers. The age-old story. Oh – and it’s hot. And everyone’s stuck with their cranky family.

Of course Dave also managed to get in a little parenting wisdom. Our last human behavior observation, which I’ve been saying like a broken record for years anyway, is this: kids will watch what the adults are doing and do exactly the same thing.

So when he’d had enough of all the shenanigans, Older got in on the act. As he tried to turn left to exit the crosswalk and head for a deli we’d picked for lunch, another crazy grandpa went flying by him (to pass everyone and get back on the trail first) and almost knocked him down. Older yelled, “Thanks for almost crashing into me while I was trying to make a legal and safe left-hand turn.” (We’ll have to work on brevity when it comes to his snippy remarks.)

After this event Dave told him, “If somebody’s out here yelling at people then they’re probably not a very happy person. Don’t let them ruin your day.” So we mocked him, ate sandwiches, and went back into the fray for another hour of enjoyable riding in straight lines amongst crazy people.

But please don’t let this story deter you from riding the trails. Go early or late, go on a Tuesday, go when it’s NOT summer, but get out there and see them, because as far as rail trails go, this one is world class.