Friday, December 12, 2014

The Rally Cry for Respect

In these last months there has been a great hue and cry about the importance of showing respect, especially to law enforcement officers. I am in 100% agreement with this injunction. Law enforcement officers deserve our respect and admiration for a myriad of reasons. So do teachers and cashiers and pharmacists (my sister could tell you some stories! Whew!)

I’ve loved the two football teams for which my son has played, and one reason is because several of the volunteer coaches are police officers. Several times a shift has run late and they’ve come to practice in their uniforms. My son has the uncanny ability to suss out the power dynamic in a situation faster than any kid I’ve ever met. (And the hubris to step into any perceived power gap and take the reins of control for himself.) But when a large, muscular football coach in full police gear commands this bitty baller to drop and give ten, it’s clear who holds the power. There is no other response than, “Yes, sir!”

My kid being told to "guard the corner and stop getting sucked in!"
Both the coach and the chain crew are law enforcement officers. 

This builds respect. Because it also builds relationship. And here’s where I see the mandate that “people should teach their kids respect” breaking down. 

‘Cuz, y’all, can I just get a witness that it’s a daily, consistent, difficult battle teaching my child respect, and I’m living in a comfortable, fair, middle class world and surrounded by dozens of people supporting me in that effort - from his law enforcement football coaches to his teacher and classmates to his friends and my friends and family members to the high-fiving security guards at church. We’re working the program and he still gets mouthy and defiant and doesn’t always listen to directive.

But what of those parents who can’t or won’t teach this respect by reason of generational poverty, addictions, crime, abuse, injustice or fear? 

According to Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy, “We know that our biology predisposes us to mirror the actions of those we see around us... These facts are wonderful when what we are considering repeating is loving and nurturing, but they are frankly terrifying when we think about the violence and the increasing number of simulations of violence that surround us and our children.” He continues, “The mirroring systems of our social brains make behaviors contagious. And again, this is wonderful when what you are practicing is sports or piano or kindness, but not so great when what’s being repeated is impulsive, aggressive responses to threat.”

So what are we to do? Are we to shake our heads at the Michael Browns of the world and tsk, tsk their fate because, well, they should have learned respect.

How are they to learn?

This seems a pivotal moment for those of us carrying the banner of respect - a moment either to make a different or to shake our heads. What if all those believers who shout, “Yes! People should learn respect!” step in to mentor youth? To model and teach respect?

Organizations like: Big Brothers Big Sisters, Every1Reads, (seriously, y'all, teachers are on the front line in this directive), Kentucky Refugee Ministries, UspiritusOrphan Care Alliance,  Boys' and Girls' Club, Portland Promise Center, just to name a few that come immediately to mind, are all desperate for volunteers and financing. They could all benefit from our desire that children learn respect. Respect comes from relationship. Who better to build those relationships than believers? Who better to stand in the gap for oppressed and downtrodden youth? Who better to build bridges and create relationships for “such a time as this”?

This is too big a moment to just talk the talk and lament the state of society today. If we want children to learn respect, then we need to show the way.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

This Thing We Do in Elementary School

I work as a guidance counselor at an elementary school with nearly 600 students - some of the most amazing students you would ever want to meet. But as amazing as they are they are also, as it happens, only 7, 8, 9, 10 years old or so, and sometimes they have conflicts with one another. Usually the classroom teachers, who are fabulous, handle these conflicts without much of a hiccup in the day, but sometimes things get heated and the students are sent to my office to work it out. When this happens I do this thing I call:

Conflict Resolution

I have a poster on my wall explaining this thing, and so when I sit down with the students we read through the process and sometimes we'll get the puppets out to role play how it will go. Kids love the puppets. Even the sullen big-shot fifth graders smile and engage when I pull out the puppets. After the puppets loosen things up, the kids are ready to give it a go.

Step One: Listen without interrupting

This is perhaps the most difficult of all the steps. Listen. LISTEN. Be quiet and LISTEN. The kids want to interrupt with defense, denial, argument, blame. But if we can't get this step right then there is no hope for resolution. Sometimes a kid will have to clamp his hand over his mouth, but we don't move on until Kid B listens to what Kid A has to say.

For example, Kid A: "I'm scared and angry and hurt. I feel like I'm being unfairly targeted, like you are picking on me because of something you don't understand about me. Like you are out to get me and I don't matter. I feel like I can't breathe."

Step Two: Show understanding of the problem

This is like the testing portion to see if you've mastered step one. This is where Kid B must restate what Kid A just said. Interestingly, adults have a more difficult time with this step than do kids. Kids are more used to gathering and summarizing and being tested on information, I think.

For example, Kid B: "You don't think you are being treated fairly." (Note, Kid B often leaves out key details that may implicate him in some fault. I sometimes intercede with a follow up: "Yes, it sounds like Kid A is scared and angry because he feels picked on. He feels like he doesn't trust that he's going to be treated fairly or justly.")

This is the place where we try to build some empathy. "Can you understand why Kid A might feel that way, Kid B? How might you feel if you were the only one of all your friends singled out for punishment? The only one noticed in a negative light because of the way you look or dress? If you didn't trust that others would treat you fairly?"

Step Three: Present your point of view and explain how you feel

This is when Kid B gets to say his piece, and this is sometimes the diciest bit of the process. Because Kid B wants to defend himself - that's natural - and there are always two sides to every story, but we need to keep going with the work of LISTENING and of EMPATHY. Here's the thing with this part of the thing - they are not allowed to dismiss or deny the other's feelings (tsk, I can't believe he just said that; that's ridiculous), nor are they allowed to name call or label (thug, racist, race baiter, pig).

For example, Kid B: "I'm out there every day at recess trying to make sure everyone plays fairly and gets along, but he acts like he doesn't have to follow the rules. He argues and yells and sometimes I feel scared, too!" And here again we work toward empathy.

This is the part that may get a little heated. "But his rules aren't fair! They've NEVER been fair! They make is so only he and his friends can win! The rest of us never get a chance." "That's not true! The rules are the same for everybody! He just doesn't want to try hard enough." So we circle back around to steps 1, 2 and 3 and we try to root out where past trauma, past experiences may be wrapping their tendrils of negativity, distrust, fear.

But oddly enough, this may be also be the place where we can build common ground. You are both scared. You both want to play. You both want the game to be safe, to be fair. 

Step Four: Brainstorm possible solutions

Sometimes, as was the case today in my office, this step takes mere minutes. "I'm sorry. Do you forgive me?" "Yes, do you forgive me?" "Yes. Friends?" "Friends!"

Sometimes, though, it takes much longer. Deep hurts take time and patience to heal. Trust takes time to grow. But in those cases when the reconciliation does come it is that much sweeter, that much stronger.

Those are just some things I was thinking today, in elementary school.