Being Believed is Important

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s Three Little Words evoked not a few complicated thoughts, but that wasn’t all I got from it as I read.

I also learned.

I learned, for one, that being believed is important.

Ashley writes of how her little brother would crawl into bed with her and pee the bed. Her foster parents would not believe it wasn’t Ashley who had been peeing the bed. On another occasion, Ashley slipped on the poop another foster child had smeared about – but her foster parents wouldn’t believe that she wasn’t the smear-er. Later, more seriously, she attempted to tell people of the abuse she and other children were experiencing and people didn’t take her seriously.

Now, Ashley writes of the times when she was in the right, when she was telling the truth and wasn’t believed. If she’s like any child, she told her share of lies as well.

But Ashley’s story brought home the importance of believing our children – or, even if we don’t believe them, of taking them seriously and avoiding shaming or punishing when we don’t know the whole story.

Does it matter whether the bed-pee-er was Ashley or her little brother? Only inasmuch as it might indicate that Ashley needed some help (it could have indicated a urinary tract infection, for example, if she had previously been dry consistently.) The foster parents could have said, in a neutral voice: “Looks like your bed is wet this morning. Let’s get it cleaned up.” They might ask, “Are you having a hard time staying dry overnight? Sometimes that means that you’re sick and don’t realize it.” And when Ashley says that no, it was her little brother who got into bed with her, they could have responded “Okay. Well, if you ever do find yourself having a hard time holding it overnight, just let us know and maybe we could talk to a doctor about getting help.” And then they could try to pay attention to see if her brother is indeed crawling into bed with her overnight and wetting the bed.

Our older children have started lying.

I know this because I watch them do something and then tell me that they didn’t do it.

Because I’ve seen their lying in action, it’s tempting to think they’re lying every time one child comes running to tell me that “so-and-so hurt themselves” (with the unspoken being “I didn’t do it!”)

But Ashley’s story has encouraged me to rethink my approach to this.

When I know that something is a lie because I have seen otherwise, I call out the lie.

But when I don’t know what actually happened? I try to be more circumspect.

I ask myself, is it important for me to ascertain who did what in this circumstance?

In a lot of cases, it isn’t really important. Do I need to know who spilled the water on the floor? No. I just need to clean it up – and it’s not going to hurt my children to clean it up together. Do I need to know who had the toy first? No, not really. I can just put the toy in time out since it wasn’t playing nicely.

In most cases, even when my children are fighting with each other, I don’t need to arbitrate. We talk about how we ought to behave toward one another (regardless of who started the current fight). I may have to find a task for each of the children to work on with me or they might need to play in the same room as me for the next while until their current squabble has cooled down. But I don’t need to know “who did it”.

If possible, I can create an environment that disincentivizes lying – without making it my default to visibly disbelieve my children.

Because being believed is important.

Book Notes: Paranoid Parenting (Part 4)

I’m mostly writing notes to evaluate Furedi’s arguments and add my own thoughts. If you’re interested, you can check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Chapter 4: Parenting on Demand

Chapter 4 starts with a complaint about some of the hallmarks of attachment parenting (feeding on demand, cosleeping, baby wearing, and avoiding “crying it out”) – but quickly morphs into something else entirely. The bulk of the chapter deals with what Furedi perceives as new roles of parents: parents as “full-time lovers” of their children, parents as therapists and healers, and parents as teachers. In each of these roles, Furedi explains how the definition of parenting has changed in recent years. Yes, parents have always been expected to love their children, but love has been redefined into emotional attentiveness, seen especially in play and separate from caring for a child’s physical needs. Furedi speaks of the role of parents in developing a child’s “emotional intelligence” and disparages the modern trend for constant attentiveness to a child’s emotional state, which he sees as complicating a child’s feelings. He also talks about a new role of parents in “supporting a child’s learning”, looking at how much time the average parent spends helping their children with homework (which Furedi purports is more time than the official guidelines suggest children should be spending on homework.)

This chapter was difficult for me to read and analyze. Furedi’s initial complaints about attachment parenting and his later complaints about new roles of parents seem disconnected – the only similarity between attachment parenting and the other complaints is the idea that a parent should be constantly attentive to a child’s needs. At the same time, I see a distinct difference between feeding “on demand” (a philosophy that I very much espouse-although I tend to call it “per infant hunger/fullness cues”) and spending large amounts of energy trying to decode your preschooler’s emotions. Telling parents to feed their infants when they are hungry is different than telling parents that they must always be on alert lest they emotionally damage their child.

Another difficulty for me was Furedi’s discussion of parents as teachers. I was homeschooled. My parents were my teachers. I intend to homeschool my own children. I feel strongly that parents ARE teachers, regardless of whether they take on that mantle or not. That said, I have my doubts about the homework little ones are sent home with – and about how much time parents are spending doing it. What on earth are kids doing in school all day that they need to be doing 5-10 hours of homework at home on top of it? I think I spent ten hours a week doing school, period. By the time I was in third grade, I needed only minimal direction from my mom. She certainly wasn’t spending 10 hours a week helping me with schoolwork (and remember, she was my only teacher.) I think parents should be teachers, are teachers. But I wonder if maybe parents and school systems are getting a little too caught up on “schoolwork” and “learning activities” (possibly at the expense of actual learning – and to the stress of parents everywhere.)

Narratives, Nature, and Nurture

The United States has traditionally been considered a land of opportunity. Here a man can make something of himself, regardless of his background, provided he works hard. America is the land of the self-made man. Our ancestors were persecuted peasants who fled to America and became land-owners. One of our most famous presidents was born in a log cabin. We love rags to riches stories – stories of people who through hard work, pluck, and determination made something of awful circumstances. For generations, we have told our children that they can do anything – provided they work hard enough.

Increasingly, though, a new narrative has entered into American consciousness – a new narrative that is actually quite old. According to this narrative, we are a product of our birth. Born into poverty, we are destined to live in poverty, unless some benevolent rich person brings us out. We are not the actors in our stories – others are. We are victims of the fates.

The changing narrative has had a great impact on how people perceive themselves – and on the actions they take. Those who perceive themselves as successful tend to believe that their actions have power to effect change – but they frequently feel that they obtained this power unfairly. They feel a great guilt for the accidents of birth and rearing that have made them successful – and try to assuage that guilt by becoming patrons. Those who perceive themselves as unsuccessful tend to have low self-efficacy. They believe that their actions have no effect, that they are destined for the life they have – and so the best they can do is rail against the circumstances of their lives and insist that the fortunate successful work to raise their lot.

Self-efficacy. It’s an interesting word – and an interesting concept. Self-efficacy is simply ones belief that one is able to accomplish goals. Self-efficacy is strongly linked to having an internal locus of control – that is, believing that you are the primary actor in your life (as opposed to you being one who is acted upon.)

Yet I would argue that, in general, Americans are moving toward an external locus of control. Neither the successful nor the unsuccessful consider their station to be a result of their own actions. Neither the successful nor the unsuccessful have much hope for changing themselves – they consider their own lives to be determined by their pasts. But the successful and the unsuccessful tend to have vastly different ideas about their ability to change others. If we are a product of our pasts, we cannot change ourselves – but the successful may be able to use their success to change others.

Enter nature versus nurture.

Even as I think about phrase, I realize how deterministic it is. If “nature” is all there is, if genetics are fate – then we are programmed by our genes. If “nurture” is all there is, if how we are raised is fate – then we are programmed by our parents. Either way, we’re programmed. We have no control over our own lives.

Is it any surprise, then, that the parents who consider themselves successful invest so much in trying to alter the fates of their children? This is their one chance to control something about themselves. They overparent.

On the other hand, the unsuccessful parents throw their hands up. They don’t believe they have the power to affect their children, so they do nothing. They don’t believe they have anything to invest, don’t believe it’s possible to alter the fates of their children. They fail to parent.

So we end up with opposite ends of the parenting spectrum – neither of which do children any advantages.

What if, instead of being the product of nature or nurture, children were simply themselves?

Selves, capable of writing their own stories?

What if instead of trying to write our children’s stories, we tried to teach them what makes for good stories? What if instead of consigning them to the life their circumstances gave them, we tried to give them the skills – diligence and self-discipline – that help them to rise above their circumstances?

What if we taught our children that they can be successful – provided they work hard enough?