Monday, September 30, 2013

Parenting, Bullying, Sex and You

I've been thinking about this post for a while now.  I've gone back and forth about if I should write it or not. What I would say, how I would say it? I have been feeling weighed down by social media lately. That there is no portrayal of the good.  That there is too much emphasis on the bad. People posting horrible news reports, statistics, pictures of strangers who cut them off in traffic, etc. I don't want to start an argument. I don't want to sound naive or like Pollyanna. But I feel like being true to myself would require me to say something.  So here we go...

I know that there is a lot of garbage in the world.  I know that there are a lot of people seeking to harm others.  I know about bullies, pedophiles, kidnappers, pornography, etc., etc., etc. I know that I have to teach my kids to be smart and safe and to stand up for themselves. But I also know that there is a lot of good in the world. I know there are people who help others, who teach others.  People who have suffered abuse and have overcome and healed.  I know that if I want my children to be happy in this life I have to teach them about good, not just how to avoid the bad.

The media-driven world we live in has a tendency to paint the world as a horrible, dark and tough place, void of love or compassion. But, whether you believe in God or not, most people believe in some source of good or light. Hopefully all of us have felt a sense of peace from within (even if it was fleeting), have been helped by someone else, or have had moments of contentment between storms. I know that I can think of hundreds of stories of people helping me unload my shopping cart, or picking up something I dropped, or sending me an anonymous gift card in the mail, or cleaning my house, or making me dinner.  And I know other people have those experiences too but they maybe aren't as entertaining to put on Facebook as "let me tell you about the jerk I met in Target today...". And because today's population spends so time on Facebook it might start to feel like we've experienced more bad than good...simply because we've read about more bad than good.

As more and more articles make their way through my Facebook feed about protecting our children from pedophiles, immodesty, bullies, and pornography, I'm starting to feel like there are too many things to combat, that the world is too far gone, and that my children are never going to be able to turn out happy. I know it's not true based on my experience of good, but based upon the articles I read online I can see how someone might reach the conclusion that the world's headed down the crapper. So the question then has to be asked: how much time are we spending "experiencing" life, and how much of our time are we spending on social media? Are we giving equal value and time to our real life relationships as we are to what we read on Facebook, the news, etc.?

Now those who know me know that I read a lot of articles.  I love to read. I love to discuss. Parenting tips, self help, child birth, economy, health care, you name it.  I have an opinion and I'm willing to talk your ear off about it!  But here's the thing: experience trumps what I've read every time.  Sometimes my experience shows me that what I've read is correct, solidifying my position. But sometimes my experience will vary from what I've read (childbirth). At that point my experience (epidurals are awesome) trumps what I've read (if you have an epidural your baby will never find love and may become a serial killer).  So even though everyone else might be telling you this is the only way to raise your kid, or this is the article that will protect your family, or here's the “answer to life, the universe, and everything” you don't have to accept it as truth.  Because you might have to figure it out for yourself: what worked for them might not work for you, or they might just be a whackadoo. You never can tell. We've got to start learning from our experiences and the experiences of people we trust and stop putting all of our faith in things we read on the internet, even if they are written by people with Ph.D.’s.  My sister has a Ph.D. and she's awesome but sometimes she's just wrong...and I as the older sister must point that out from time to time ;) You're welcome! Anyway, to all of us, keep studying and learning but don't forget to talk with others, learn from them, and learn from our own experiences.

I understand the feeling of wanting to know everything that is out there to harm our children. I don't want my kids to be bullied, or abused, or see graphic images. I also don't want them to always walk around waiting to be attacked.  I think it's a balance.  Are we spending as much time telling our children about the joys of life as we are telling them about the dangers? I worry that in an attempt to better prepare our children for the cold, hard world we are actually turning them into cold and hard souls. That we are so worried about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses that we're actually making it impossible for our kids to see any joy at all. A great quote from L.R. Knost says: “It's not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It's our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” And so with that in mind...here are some problems with modern parenting that I've been pondering lately.

When I was a teacher my school had just started their anti-bully campaign.  It was interesting to me that the more the counselor came in to talk about bullies...the more my students seem to think they were being bullied.  Numberless fingers were pointed at one another, "you bully" became the new putdown, and every disagreement was a sign that bullies were taking over the school. So for the 5th graders, the take home message for them was: "Bullies are everywhere.  Anyone who disagrees with you is a bully. You will be bullied".  The other thing was that the leaders never addressed not being a bully yourself.  So my students would all get into arguments and assume that they were the one standing up to a bully.  It never occurred to them that they might be the bully in the argument! Same with the parents.  They'd all get together to talk about the anti-bully campaign but they would talk about the "bully" like there was some oversized orphan who hiked in from the train station just to bully their kids instead of stopping to realize that if there was a bully problem in our class then it meant one of their kids was being a bully. And they also weren't stopping to consider the fact that it wasn't just black and white.  They were thinking that you either are all the way a bully or all the way innocent. Very rarely, in my experience, was there just one giant thug who was a bully all of the time.  It was more a case of everyone taking a turn being a bully about different things.

So I'm not saying that we shouldn't teach our kids about bullying but I am saying that the method we are using doesn't work. Instead of trying to teach them all the horrible things a bully might do, why don’t we teach them what bully would not do. Teach them what a good citizen looks like so that they can see people for what they really are and know what they should be striving for. So that they can think “Is Johnny really a bully, or is he just having a bad day?"  When we only teach them what a bully acts like they tend to think everyone is a bully. Then they grow up to think that everyone is out to get them. I know people like that and their happiness is limited and their progression is stopped because they feel held down by others. They give away their power to others who they believe are doing them harm.  I don't want that for my children.  I want them to look for the good in people too.  So that when they do come across a bully they know how to handle the situation, they know that their reaction is more important than the other person’s action, and that no matter what other people may do to them…they are loved by someone! I want them to know that there are more people willing to build them up than rip them down.

I was also constantly amazed at what my students already knew about and were talking about.  Garbage video games where they were blowing people away.  Pornography they had found on their parents computer.  It was truly scary. I know that we have to talk to our children about these things so that they can hear it from us first and not from their peers.  But there is a lot of specifics about pornography that I don't even know about, let alone want my kids to know about.  And this might sound naive, but I really don't think that just because some kids in the class know all the specific terminology for this garbage that we need to teach all the kids that terminology.  I’ve lived a pretty healthy and happy life not knowing it and I think my kids can too. I know that there are a lot of websites and images out there dedicated to dehumanizing men and women.  There is a lot of cruelty out there. But instead of trying to protect our kids by telling them all the specific horrible ways that sex can be manipulated and ruined, isn't it more effective to teach them about what healthy sex and relationships are like? Then when/if someone wants them to do or watch something that isn't healthy they will know it is wrong.

It just doesn't make sense to me that we would introduce our kids to filthy words and ideas just so that we don't have to worry about other people introducing those words and ideas to our kids. Since we don’t know which one they might be introduced to we are going to fill their head with all of the hundreds of things it might be. So once again, I'm not saying we shouldn't warn them about the evils that are out there, I just think we need to spend equal time talking about the good side of things too.  So that they feel empowered to make correct decisions for themselves and they don't walk away from the conversation thinking sex is a horrible, dirty thing, because it isn't.  Also by talking openly and often about things, and speaking without fear, we can keep lines of communication open between our children and ourselves.  So that when one of their peers teaches them some disgusting word we never thought of they will be comfortable enough to come and ask us what it means instead of being scared that we are going to launch into a whole giant speech about other filthy words that they might also hear. Don't go to dark places in an effort to keep your kids away from them.  Stand clearly in the light and let your children follow you there.

The final parenting issue I want to talk about is trust.  I have read so many parenting articles about teaching our kids not to trust anyone.  It's a concept that I have a hard time with.  Obviously we hear heartbreaking stories of children being abused by the people they should have been able to trust the most.  I know that you can't always tell who might abuse or harm your child.  But the current solution to that problem seems to be, don't trust anyone around your child! Suspect your parents, your husband, you siblings, etc.  It just seems like such a hard way to live your life. I agree we have to be careful who we can trust but at some point, in order to live a healthy life, you are going to have to connect with people enough to trust them. I know this can be hard when we've had our trust broken before, but there are people who are worthy of trust. Let your experience and intuition guide you.  Don't withhold your trust from a deserving relationship just because you read an article online telling you about someone else who should not have been trusted. And furthermore, since we can't predict what a liar looks like, wouldn't it be more effective to teach our kids what a trustworthy person acts like?  Someone who deserves our trust helps us feel calm, won’t hurt us, doesn't ask us to keep secrets, etc.  Then when they come across someone who isn't meeting those criteria they will know to tell us about it. More heartbreaking than the abuse stories are the stories of victims who didn’t think they could tell anyone. Who stayed in their abusive situation because they thought others would judge them, no one could help. Because in a lot of those cases, people would have helped them! Had they been told, had they been trusted.  If the only message they are hearing is don't trust anyone, how will they know they can trust us to help?

I obviously don't want my children to be taken advantage of, but I also don't want them to walk through life thinking they are going to be attacked at every turn.  I just think it's a balance.  For as much as we are warning our kids about "tricky" people who want to hurt them, are we teaching our kids about the trustworthy people who can help them?  There is danger in living in extremes.  We can cripple ourselves just as much by not trusting anyone as we can by being too trusting.  While not trusting anyone might keep our children safe from harm, it may also hold them back from growing, loving, and being built up.

It terrifies me that no matter how much I study, prepare, and pray I can't keep my children 100% safe 100% of the time.  I certainly can’t keep them from feeling heartbreak or knowing sadness.  I know that for every way I can think of to protect my kids there is probably someone out there who could think of 10 ways to hurt them.  I understand these realities but yet I still have hope for my children.  I believe that there are people out there who will love them, defend them, and respect them.  I want them to know that I see good in the world, so that they can see good in the world.  I'd feel horrible that if through my attempts to educate them about the evils of the world I had planted the seeds of anger and fear in their hearts.  I know there are cold hard truths that I'm going to have to explain to my kids.  I know that there are cold hard truths they will learn about through their own experiences too.  It's part of being in this world.  But I also know I've had a lot of joy in my life and that they will too.  I've had family and friends who I could trust.  They've helped me get through situations where I've been mistreated by others whom I could not trust.  They've also been there when I've hurt others through my ignorance or miscommunications.  I've been loved. I've been forgiven.  I’ve been able to forgive.  I'm still learning.  I'm excited for my kids to be able to do all of those things too.

So I'm trying to be more balanced in my parenting.  I want my children to know good from evil.  So that means I have to teach them about both! I want my daughters to know that even though there are people who might abuse them, there are also people who will love them.  Even though there are murderers, liars, deviants, perverts, and bullies there are also heroes, helpers, teachers, counselors and lovers.  For every boy who might degrade women, there is also a boy who is willing to cherish them. Even though our world may be filled with distorted pornographic images of sex, I still believe it is also filled with loving couples with healthy relationships that can withstand the storms of life.  More than what we say, our children will emulate what we do. They will see the world how we see the world. Not how we tell them to see the world. Are we looking for the good? Or are we seeking for the garbage?! Are we teaching them to seek out the virtuous, the lovely, the things of good report, the praiseworthy?

More than just turning my kids away from wrong, I want to turn them toward right.  So they can be with the right people in the right places with the right timing. So that even when I'm not there to protect them they can protect themselves.  They can make better decisions because they understand WHY they are making those decisions. Not because they are scared of the worst, but because they are hopeful for the best.

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