The day a baby is born is one of the happiest days of most people’s lives. Months of anticipation and hope coupled with hours of fear and pain culminates in the arrival of a precious baby. This tiny human is a Tabula Rasa, clean slate. In this child rests the future for mom and dad. This child is guiltless and unencumbered with pride or envy or anger. This child is wholly dependent on its parents yet it is a living breathing sentient being. This child represents every opportunity and dream that life offers.
Soon comes the crying and smells and the sleepless nights. Schedules are centered on this small person and even though pride is not an issue, a baby is, by design, self-centered. There is nothing more important to a small child than being comfortable and fed and rested. Some parents know this going in and are prepared to forfeit sleep and curb social activities and spend money and make their baby the center of their life. Some are not.
As the child grows, many will do so without a father. Far too many children are growing up without a father in their lives. As long as any father is leaving, it is too many children growing up without a father. This means that mom has to pull double duty and that can lead to exhaustion at best-- and at worst, resentment. It also means that young boys are growing up without the influence of a man to show them how they should treat women and how they should act as a gentlemen. It also means that young girls are growing up in homes where there is no father to show them how a husband treats his wife and how a woman should expect to be treated with love, dignity, and passion. Far too many kids are growing up without a man to show them what a Dad and husband should be and how a woman should expect to be treated. This means that the role of the man in the family is often being defined as absent and even worthless. With no worth comes no accountability.
For the kids whose dad is there, far too many are growing up with dads who would rather not be bothered by the schedule and the expense and the burden of being a husband and father. Far too many men are too immature and self-centered to realize that their wives should be their top priority and their children a very close second. Far too many children are growing up watching their dads react emotionally, even physically, to inconveniences and perceived forced self-sacrifice. When dad and husband is self-centered and feels encumbered with responsibility rather than blessed with a family, the kids are left to learn that they are not worth the energy their dad is spending on them. When dad and husband reacts to inconveniences – a broken glass or a missed night out with his buddies, with anger and expressions of physical emotion, the kids are left to learn that when something doesn’t go their way their best response is to meet that obstacle with anger and even physical emotion.
The child growing up with a mom and dad who are committed to making it work, committed to putting their children above their own desires, committed to putting each other above themselves, and committed to raising their children to be contributors to life are a shrinking group of the fortunate. This doesn’t mean that these kids are growing up with in “Leave it to Beaver” land. This mom and dad will make mistakes and this mom and dad will become angry. There will be loud arguments and there will be strong differences of opinion. There will be moments of resentment and moments of bitterness but they are just moments. They pass. They are not acted upon physically nor projected onto others emotionally. There will be mistakes but these mistakes will be met with apologies. This is what so many people fail to see. There is no such thing as the perfect parent but the ability to maintain perspective and not react physically or with emotional force to issues provides an example for these lucky children. Seeing a father or a mother get angry and possibly even say something they regret and then see an apology teaches these kids a lesson. Life is not perfect but neither should it be mean. Mistakes happen but imposing your will onto someone else is not acceptable. And finally, when a mistake does happen, a sincere apology can be the glue that holds the family together.
There have been a lot of headlines lately about domestic violence.
Most of these headlines are centered on the horrible video of Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancée in an elevator. When I saw that video my first reaction was that Mr. Rice needed his tail kicked from here til next week. There is no excuse under any circumstance for a man to hit a woman in that manner. Unless a man is defending a family member or is cornered and fearful for his life there is absolutely no excuse for a man to ever hit a woman. Pride is never an excuse for violence and that video was nothing more than pride unchecked.
Next came the Adrian Peterson story of whipping his 4-year-old child with a switch. I don’t want to spend my time with you today debating corporal punishment. I grew up in a home where whippings were pretty common place. My granny made me march to a tree and pull a switch and she used it on me. I turned out ok. I will share with you that I do not whip my kids. I am a large man and it always scared me that I could hurt one of them so I did not do it. Having said that, I do believe that a young child needs to learn from immediacy. A toddler reaching for the fire on a stove needs to learn quickly not to do so and a slap on the hand is a good way to correlate reaching for the fire with pain. There are times and places for everything, but I can say unequivocally that corporal punishment administered in anger or to the point of injury is NEVER ok. Spanking a child is a discipline that should be decided by the parents, but when done in the heat of the moment or to the point of bruises or whelps it is always wrong.
This morning the headlines told me of another NFL player being arrested for domestic violence. Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for “aggravated assault causing a fracture”. In other words, a large, physically gifted man physically harmed a 27-year-old woman to the point of something breaking. Despicable. There is no excuse, nor is there a good argument that this violence was justified. Again, even if struck first or spat upon or called a name, a grown man should be capable of walking away and if not, then he should face significant consequences.
As it so often does, the media has missed the big picture with these recent events.
Between the string of NFL players committing these acts and the bungling of the whole thing by its commissioner, the focus has turned to the violence committed by professional athletes, football players in particular. I hate that this has become the focus, because the stats just don’t bear out this premise and we are losing site of the bigger picture.
We are missing a societal teaching moment.
Study after study shows that professional athletes actually have a much lower arrest rate than the average population within the same demographic. In fact, as seen in this chart, the overall arrest rate of NFL players as compared to the same demographic of the general population is only 13%. The rate of domestic violence arrests is 55.4% *. In other words, yes there are scumbags in the NFL just like there are in the NBA and on Wall Street and working at the local burger joint or gas station. Anywhere people work there is likely to be someone who is abusive. But making this an NFL issue is missing the point. Most professional athletes are educated, have people around them to keep them out of trouble, and have a lot to lose by being worthless. And most of us will never be professional athletes.
By making this issue one about athletes and entertainers and people who are wealthy, we are able to project it is an issue for someone else. It is easy to sweep it away as an entitlement problem amongst men who are coddled and live without real-world accountability. When we do this we miss the point. When we project blame we fail to look at ourselves. When we point at those on a pedestal we fail to see those of us who live each day on the ground.
That young baby that has so much promise and so much hope begins to learn the day he opens his eyes. That young baby soon becomes a toddler that will walk to the arms of the one he sees as his protector. That young toddler will first speak to the one he sees as his life teacher. That young toddler will grow to be a small child who will be held accountable for learning life’s community lessons – sharing, talking nice, not hitting or biting, controlling his anger. How does he learn these lessons from a dad who is not there, or from a father or mother who doesn’t practice these lessons themselves?
That young child will grow to be a school age child-- placed with twenty something other children of the same general age in a large room with a single adult who is charged with educating this child in both academics and social acceptability. That task is monumental when it is not supplemented and even reinforced at home. It is made nearly impossible when home goes beyond lack of reinforcement and instead teaches in the opposite direction. When that young school aged child sees daddy taking his frustrations out on momma, sees momma whipping the kids in anger, or sees emotions unchecked and displayed in physical and emotionally damaging ways... what do you think that child will do?
When that young child grows to be a preteen and hormones are introduced to the confusion of social conformity, and when young boys growing into the early stages of young manhood are threatened or laughed at or even looked at wrong, what are they going to do? When that preteen becomes a teenager and considers himself a “man” and someone defies him or he perceives a sleight, how is he going to act?
At the very beginning of this conversation I said that a baby enters this world with a Tabula Rasa. This means that baby comes in pure with a clean slate. What so many people do not realize is that the slate is written upon by that baby, that toddler, that young child, that preteen, and even that teenager. Each of those writings begins to define how that growing child is going to act in provocative situations and how he is going to control, or not control, his emotions and physicality. Let’s be blunt, home is a real problem for a lot of our nation's children, preteens, and teenagers.
I often have people write and say these situations need to be handled at home and it is none of the school’s business. That is absolutely true in the land over the rainbow. Here in the good old US of A, there are too many homes that are not filling the bill. Too many dads are missing. Too many moms are too busy and too frustrated to parent. Too many couples who are trying to parent were not raised in a manner that they understand how to parent effectively.
Should schools take the place of parenting? Absolutely not. But don’t stick your head in the sand and think that we don’t have kids whose one shot of really understanding social competency doesn’t reside in that classroom.
All of this is to say that kids are constantly learning. They are constantly storing information in their “experiential knowledge base,” the culmination of their life’s observations and experiences. Whether intentionally or purposefully, little ones to big ones are watching and listening and observing and participating in social interactions – good and bad. They are defining themselves socially by the world they see and hear and feel and they are beginning to define the place they see for themselves in that world. When a child’s value is not expressed at home and when their self worth is not developed, fostered, nurtured, and grown at home, we cannot just hope for the best and think they will be ok.
There are kids that grow up with every advantage and make stupid choices. Just like there are very privileged athletes who seem to have everything in the world that make stupid choices. These are the people whom consequences are made for. But there are also a lot of kids growing up without the benefit of life’s necessary lessons. They are growing up without the opportunity to see and hear and feel and live life as it should be. We can’t forget these kids, and we also can’t hope that reading, writing, and arithmetic will give them the life anchor necessary for social integration and self-worth. This is akin to thinking if you teach a student to read really-really well that he will do great on his math test. You can’t skip a subject and hope for the best in another. Social and emotional development is a real-life subject, and without it reading, writing, and arithmetic are long shots.
There is no such thing as a perfect home and there is no such thing as a child too far gone. Both just take work and patience and effort and purpose. There is also no such thing as a classroom replacing a home, but there can be no such thing as a classroom bereft of developing our children for the social and emotional interactions they will face in the real world. If that classroom exists, it is not teaching our children, it is simply hoping for the best.
Hope is wonderful, but preparation is even better.