Category Archives: Family

The Growing Culture of Exclusion

You’re a good person: you work hard, spend quality time with your kids, keep your home up and even go to church and pray regularly. Maybe you volunteer at a local charity or donate scads of money to every cause that asks. You and your kids are popular, always surrounded by friends, neighbors and family. Life is good.

Then one day, you get a call. It’s your little angel’s school counselor. “We need to talk. Your child has been bullying.”

Congratulations! Despite your perfect life, you think, you’re a bad parent. Where did things go so wrong?

Have you ever mumbled to yourself, “Oh my goodness, I can’t stand that kid” when the odd kid in the neighborhood comes around? Have you ever rolled your eyes when your sweet little angel told you about how the “special” kid in class did something totally strange? Have you ever nodded in knowing agreement when your child told you how he didn’t like the loud kid in class, silently thinking “neither do I”?

Maybe it wasn’t even something quite so obvious. Maybe you’ve held a few backyard parties and failed to invite the single mom even though she lives right across the street, just because her kid is a little too emotional.  Maybe you’ve advised your son to just stay away from another child with whom he’s had a conflict, or stroked your daughter’s head and said “it’s okay” when she wailed about how much she hates the tall, pretty girl in class.

Subliminally, you were slowly inducting your child into a culture of exclusion, and probably never even knew it.  No matter how many times you tell your child “bullying is bad” and “don’t be mean to others,” your baby is going to learn more from what you do than what you say. If you’re excluding others from your circle, no matter what your reasons for doing so, you are raising your child to be a bully. Why? Because you are teaching him it’s okay to leave others out if being around that person makes him uncomfortable or is getting in the way of what he’s trying to achieve. And guess what: intentional exclusion IS bullying.

The biggest problem with exclusion is that kids are never subtle about it. When they’ve decided to leave someone out, they tend to make it very obvious to the kid at the other end that she’s not welcome. This is especially true of teens and pre-teens, who tend to bind exclusion with gossiping and tormenting the peer they’re trying to avoid.

As parents, we want to believe the best about our kids. After that call, you’ll probably have a chat with your little angel. “Honey, your counselor says you’ve been bullying Janie at school. Is that true?”

“No, Janie is my friend. I just got tired of playing with her. I wanted to play with my other friends.”

Probably sounds reasonable enough to believe. However, if you don’t want your child to end up at the wrong end of a weapon when her bullying goes awry, you’ll read between the lines. Your angel is tired of Janie. She wanted to play with her other friends. But not Janie. So how did she handle that? Did she run away when Janie tried to join the game? Did she tell her to go away? Did she enlist other kids to keep Janie from joining in as well?

Chances are your little angel may have been bullying Janie and thought she was doing nothing wrong, because, let’s face it, she’s seen you do the same thing. Remember that barbecue you held for everyone but the reclusive old man at the end of the street? Maybe not, but I guarantee your child does. The lesson she learned was that it’s okay to exclude others if you have a good enough reason. Maybe you left the single mom out because no one else knows her very well. I mean, she’s rarely outside when everyone else is walking dogs and working in their front yards, swapping recipes and stories between pulling weeds. And besides, she’d probably be uncomfortable being the only one there without a spouse. Right? (By the way, not true. Trust me, she’s more uncomfortable knowing her neighbors all got together and left her out than hanging out with a bunch of married people, which doesn’t bother her at all.)

Whether you’re a Christian or not, the Bible got it right when giving us the order in Matthew 22:39 to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Anytime we treat others in a way other than how we ourselves would want to be treated, we are failing as parents and as members of our communities.  The reality is, that odd kid or that reclusive neighbor likely needs our love and attention more than the people we call friends.

I should know: After fifteen years, I suddenly found myself single and raising a child on my own. Before that, I had plenty of friends, was active in my church and my community. I thought they would all be there for me, and for a while some were. Realistically though, the air of rejection and judgment that surrounded me was palpable. I began to notice all of my neighbors inviting each other over, but not me and my daughter. My neighbors disliked me over issues that were left in my lap that I could not control. My yard went from the best in the neighborhood to barely acceptable because I couldn’t afford to pay for much more with all the surprise debt I inherited. I worked constantly, desperately trying to keep my head above water after having to find a new, lower paying job that accommodated the added responsibilities of raising a child completely alone. After a couple of frightening incidents, I bought a scary-looking but sweet American Bulldog puppy to keep me and my little girl safe from a very real and present danger. My neighbors clearly weren’t thrilled, made evident by their habit of crossing the street or turning and walking the other way when we came near. My formerly popular child, once the “must” on every birthday party and playdate invitation list, was left spending most weekends alone (with me) because she sometimes broke down and cried at school. Her peers didn’t understand why she was being such a baby but chose to torment her rather than help her through her difficulties.

You see, everyone who knew us “before” assumed the break-up was my fault. I must have done something wrong or there was something wrong with me. My ex was a great guy loved by everyone. Mr. Life of the Party. Of course, no one else knew about the alcohol and drug addiction that lead to an endless cycle of emotional and, occasionally, physical abuse. By the time my ex left, my daughter and I were shell-shocked, alone and afraid. The abuse didn’t end after the relationship – he continued to torture us from afar for several years, but no one wanted to believe it because of the lies he spread about me to hide his addiction. It only ended when he was recently forced into rehabilitation after a second run-in with the law. Sadly, I think he may have even believed the things he made up about me and my daughter, which made his stories that much more believable for those who heard them.

At first, my circle dwindled to my three closest friends. Over the past six months, all but one family has phased us out of their lives. You see, my daughter has ADHD and the emotional stress we’ve been through, along with a couple of episodes of bullying by kids we once knew well and loved, only make her symptoms worse. The continual exclusion she is subjected to by children she once called friends has dimmed the light that once shone in her eyes. So many nights she’s cried herself to sleep in my arms over being treated like she’s invisible.  (It happened again at church today. What happened to me felt just as bad, though I had to hide it from her.) Unfortunately, the parents see nothing wrong with allowing their kids to leave her out because, well, she’s kind of loud and emotional sometimes. I truly doubt they know it’s done so blatantly as to ensure she gets the message that she’s not wanted. But the message has been delivered loud and clear. I got it, too.

You see, even good people can raise bullies. Kids you’ve known since they were in diapers can succumb to the temptation right under the noses of well-meaning parents. Why do good parents let their kids get away with it? Because to them, it’s okay to avoid hanging out with the weird kid if you don’t like to be around them.  It’s okay to leave out the single mom if she doesn’t have a husband to entertain the other men or doesn’t keep her yard as nice as everyone else. It’s okay to avoid the strange family that homeschools their kids because they make everyone feel awkward at parties.  And it’s okay to let your child do what makes him feel good, regardless of whether or not it destroys the spirit of the kid whose only true friend has been ripped away from him in the process of leaving him out just because he doesn’t play football, too.

No matter what we want to believe or who we want to blame, bullying starts at home. We are responsible for teaching our children that bullying is more than just being mean. When we leave out one neighbor, condone avoiding even one child, no matter how obnoxious or strange, we are raising a bully who will be doomed to a life of short-lived, shallow relationships and a continual belief that life revolves around him.

Do your kids a favor: bake a plate of cookies, grab your child and take him to visit the family you forgot to invite over during the last neighborhood gathering. Let your child hear you apologize for leaving them out. Get to know your neighbor. Maybe he or she is like me: not reclusive but overwhelmed and alone, in need of a friend. You might find you’ve accidentally excluded someone truly worth your time. And who knows? That weird kid could turn out to be the next Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie. (Both once victims of bullies, too.)  You never know who that person you’re leaving out might turn out to be…

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” – Matthew 25:42-43

Just don’t let your child be responsible for driving that kid to make headlines for much more tragic reasons. Remember, almost every school shooting, starting with Columbine, was the result of unchecked bullying. And the bullies were inevitably the first victims.

Let’s not allow that to happen in our neighborhoods, to our kids. We can put an end to this growing culture of exclusion. It starts with you and me. And maybe a simple plate of cookies.

Us vs. Them – What Ferguson Teaches Us About Our Culture Today

Recent events around the country leave no doubt that the concept of “us vs. them” is alive and well in the United States. A young man sadly gets himself shot in the course of what was likely a drug-influenced mini-crime spree and his death, by all logical measures, was a reasonably expected outcome of his attack on a police officer. The knee-jerk reaction of local citizens and uninformed-but-opinionated celebrities is to blame it on the color of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson’s skin without the slightest regard for the completely different story told by the actual evidence. (It didn’t help that the distorted version of the incident originally tweeted by a “witness” who never saw the event and later recanted were retweeted ad naseam without a single thought toward their validity.) A 12-year-old boy waving a toy gun at police is immediately gunned down. It seems reasonable to believe his death was likely a combination of his bad judgment, a dispatcher’s failure to communicate a crucial detail and the color of his skin. But why? An entire community stands up and accuses the police nation-wide of excessive use of lethal force toward their race alone, when the greatest percentage of deaths caused by police arrest activity actually occur among 19 to 40 year-old white males based upon the last comprehensive study on the topic. There actually is currently no statistical evidence to support that any one race gets killed by police at a disproportionate rate, yet the media and hate-mongers have latched onto this theory like a barnacle on the bottom of a metal ship.

So why, in this day and age of enlightenment, equal opportunity laws and powerful diversity programs designed to bridge the gap, do so many still see the culture, the economy, and the enforcement of law a matter of whites vs. “minorities?”

I blame the government. More specifically, politicians and their handlers.

Not a day goes by that I don’t see some headline describing yet another battle between liberals vs. conservatives, Republicans vs. Democrats. Congress can’t seem to make a decision on a simple matter without drawing a dark red line between the two primary parties. A simple oil pipeline decision which should have been made based upon the overall benefit to the country and the expected impact on the environment became the focus of a hot debate pitting liberals against conservatives. Leaders on either side of the fence hurled insults and belittling remarks at the other side, while in the background the very people who were opposing the pipeline found it to have no likely impact on the environment. It was certainly not expected to be as damaging as transporting the oil over ground or sea via leaky gas-powered tankers, yet the vote on this decision became, yet again, a party-line decision. Ridiculous. And guess what? Dig into it and you’ll find that the ACTUAL motivation that drove the loud mouths to proclaim their stance and rally the troops was that, if it was approved, royalty owners would improve their income, rejected, and those with interests in the shipping companies currently transporting the oil continued their revenue stream. The fight was never about what was best for the environment nor the American people. It was purely about money, plain and simple.

The same could be said about almost every policy decision: budgetary, immigration, health care, energy. You name it, there is a party stance that must be strictly adhered to AND well-communicated to the American citizens who align with that party. We can’t watch a single major news network and get a balanced perspective on any issue. If, for whatever moment of brilliance, we Americans fail to fall in line, then some major issue is manufactured and we’re dragged into the fight. At the root of it all, the leaders of those fights are literally banking on our compliance.

In my opinion, this extremist political behavior has driven a mentality of hate-spewing “us vs. them” from the west coast to the east, northern border to the south. You are no longer an American citizen: you are a statistic and our government, or at least the career politicians who serve in it, want you to know that and behave accordingly. If it behooves their position, they drive Americans to align young vs. old, black vs. white, natural-born vs. immigrant, rich vs. poor. Our current administration continues to not-so-quietly foster the worst culture of intolerance to exist in this country since the 1960’s, and it’s a disturbing trend latched onto by every media outlet from sea to shining sea.

This truly saddens me. We HAD come so far and were making progress toward a culture of inclusion. But the divisive behavior of our President and the Democratic members of Congress toward their Republican “opponents” and vice versa has become the hallmark of a childish, power-hungry culture that will stop at nothing to keep that power in their hands. The American people no longer matter to them. We are simply tools to help them achieve their selfish aspirations toward greater power and the inevitable riches that follow.

So, the next time you feel that twinge of hate and consider flying to your social media account to let “THEM” know how you feel about them, remember this: we’re all equally victims of manipulation by a group of people bent upon controlling us through our hate. Stop, take a breath, get the facts. Use that large, complex organ sitting atop your neck to think it through for yourself. Is the party line REALLY in the best interest of the people? Is that loud-mouthed media monger telling you to blame an entire class of people for the behavior of one person likely to benefit from your indignity? Are they asking you to throw good judgment out the window to join their bandwagon? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then turn your hate toward the manipulator, not those that person or entity is trying to tell you to hate. Remember who the REAL enemy is. I assure you, it is NOT your neighbor who differs from you in some minor, cosmetic fashion, but likely that person trying to get his or her 15 minutes of fame by aligning you against your neighbor.

Oh, and if ANYONE tries to tell you “they’re all out to get us because they’re ________________” (fill in the blank with any group you choose), chances are that nut job is either paranoid or stands to benefit financially from the issue.

In the end, the violence and destruction in Ferguson could easily have been averted if representatives of the community had simply been honest and kept the best interests of the residents in mind before standing up in front of the cameras. I assure you, those people appearing on the nightly news talking about how a “white officer shot an unarmed black teen” ARE lining their pockets with the spoils of a community in pain. If they REALLY cared about the people of Ferguson, they would have focused on fostering tolerance and improved relationships between the police and citizens, yet have done the opposite. They would have held their tongues until all the evidence had been presented and worked quietly with the family to help them through this difficult time. And they would certainly not have spread misinformation to continue their cause, which is EXACTLY what is still going on today. To those reporters who perpetuate the hate in the interest of drawing readers/watchers by repeating the white vs. black theme: shame on you! You are a blight on your profession and should find something more useful to do with your time.

Hey, and I know many of you are going to accuse me of forming an opinion based upon my skin color. Know this: I am of mixed descent. I have long been a public diversity champion because I personally know the pain of belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I am also educated and well-equipped to read the court documents and evidence for myself and come to a logical conclusion, removing my emotions from the equation though my heart goes out to the families (Brown and Wilson) affected by that tragedy. Please do the same before you vilify me online. I welcome intelligent disagreement, but the one thing I won’t tolerate is intolerance, so save your hate speech for a website that is happy to make money from it. This is not that forum.

For now, if you want things to change, stop being a part of the problem. As long as you view ANY situation from an “us vs. them” perspective, you ARE part of the problem. Don’t be a puppet. Honor your culture, honor your country, and honor the fallen by being a member of the HUMAN race, nothing more, nothing less. Treat others equally and most will respond in kind. Those who don’t simply aren’t worth your time. And remember, hate will get you nowhere. Most of the people hurt by the hate-driven violence in Ferguson are members of that community. Black members of that community. They deserve better, and so do you.

Boston, Bombs, Breaking News and Kids

We live in a terrifying world.  Since the days man walked the earth with monster-sized beasts bent on devouring us, something has always lurked in the dark corners and shadows of our minds reminding us of our mortality and the fragility of life.  For children, those monsters usually hide under their beds or in their closets at night.  But in the daylight, public places filled with people and the protection of policemen – those places are safe.

Then, in the middle of a favorite TV show, a sour-faced news anchor breaks in and lets us know that one of the three casualties of the bombs in Boston was an eight-year-old boy.  The monster is out of the closet and staring at us in 65 inches of 1080p high contrast color.  HD images of people scattering, smoke billowing, and bloody limbs on gurneys suddenly supply vivid detail to what the monster is capable of doing.  And, by the way, if it is a terrorist, the monster could be visiting your town next week when the next big athletic event in the U.S. kicks off just around the corner.

Naturally, my eight-year-old was suddenly very concerned, and asking questions no child should ever have to ask.  What’s a terrorist?  Why would someone want to blow up trash cans?  Are we safe?

It would be so easy to tell her that Boston is a long, long way away and nothing like that could ever happen here.  But she’s a smart kid and would figure out soon enough that the “breaking news” about how security was being beefed up around the country and was likely to be tight for the kick off of the MS 150 coming up meant this was possible close to home.  Instead, we talked truthfully, though carefully, about how some people in this world seek attention by hurting others.  And that’s wrong.

She asked if anything like that ever happened here in Texas.  “No, honey, I don’t remember anything like that ever happening here.”

“Maybe that’s because Texans would never let someone do something like that,” she offered.

“Maybe.  The good thing about Texans is that our culture is to be kind and to help each other.”  It is true that Texans are notorious for being in everyone’s business and are significantly more likely to get involved if they see someone doing something wrong.  That is one thing I adore about the culture of the good ol’ South.  (You’d be an idiot to try anything too stupid in Texas.  Just ask Santa Anna.)  And the good people of Boston proved once again yesterday that the capacity to help each other in a crisis isn’t limited to the states bordering the Gulf Coast.

In the midst of the attention-mongering talking heads who repeatedly interrupted our regularly scheduled programming over the past 24 hours to tell us no one knows anything yet, the real story our kids need to hear went largely untold.  When your kids ask about the bombing, the best thing to talk about is not just how frightening this tragic event is, but how blessed we are to live in a country that repeatedly rises above.  My Texas princess was quick to explain how, if she saw someone putting something weird in a trash can or even trying to steal a purse from an old lady on the street, that she’d go ninja on them and then take them to the police.  While I nixed her first plan, I was happy to gush over what a brilliant idea it was to tell the authorities when she saw someone doing anything suspicious.

Although it may not prevent all crime, I guarantee if we all pay a little more attention to what’s going on around us and show just enough bravery to take appropriate action when we see something we know is wrong, we’ll breathe a little bit easier than most of us were on the morning of April 15th.

Global Politics and the Third Grade

My daughter has always been one of the tallest girls in her class, despite being one of the youngest.  Well, not just her class, but her grade.  Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and, of course, beautiful.  By mid-summer she looks more like Malibu Barbie than someone you’d believe I’d given birth to.  She’s always been confident, funny, and, being my child, naturally a bit over the top.  Through second grade, she was at the top of the invitation list for it seemed like every birthday party in her grade.  She knew everyone and everyone knew her.

So I was pretty incredulous when she came home complaining about being bullied by another member of her third grade class.  I’d met this child, and she was half my daughter’s height and seemed nice enough.  They shared a lot of the same interests and I thought would be fast friends.  Instead, what started out as a few insults slung in my daughter’s direction eventually grew to what seemed more like a full-scale, well-orchestrated campaign against her.  She came home crying of being relegated to lunch-time Syberia (I.e. sitting alone at the end of the cafeteria table) and heated sessions of tag that were more like a Jean Claude vanDamme movie than a typical recess game. The queen bee had declared her an enemy of the state and she was banned from all birthday parties and play dates.

We talked to a therapist.  We practiced all the recommended anti-bullying tactics at home.  She tried being nice to the bully, avoiding the bully, standing up to the bully and telling her teacher when the bully was cruel.  Nothing seemed to work and the battles seemed to escalate to an all out but very one-sided war.

Then one of the bully’s minions got caught in the act.  And it turned out the child didn’t like being part of the bullying process but didn’t know how to navigate the complex socio-politics of the third grade.  Her mother explained to her that any kind of bullying, even if it meant just excluding another child because a bully told her to, was not acceptable.  Then she talked to another of the minion’s moms.  I talked to my daughter and got a handle on the depth of the problem, then let her teacher know.

Today, my daughter made friends with the bully, who also received a lecture on the right way to treat her friends.  The two girls buried the axe and executed the equivalent of a peacetime treaty (they sat together at lunch and played together without incident).  And all it took was some of the troops standing up to the bully and saying, “no more.”

In the span of seven hours these two little girls accomplished what so many global leaders have failed to do in centuries – they worked out their problems and declared peace.  All it really took was one being brave enough to ask her enemy to be her friend, then both taking the time to get to know each other. Today, two young mortal enemies realized they’re more alike than different, and that they really do like each other after all.

Ah, what we grown-ups could learn from our grade-school aged kids!  Maybe world peace could be possible after all.  My daughter didn’t have to wield her superior strength and power to solve her problems.  She allied herself with the friends of her enemies, and together they were brave enough to initiate change by extending the olive branch and offering friendship and compromise.  No shots fired.  No casualties. Just peace.

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