Friday, December 5, 2014

Hands Up, Don't Shoot

We're taught to believe the law operates as an adversarial process. We, the public, are to be encouraged by the fact that we have prosecutors who will vigorously seek justice for those who were wronged and by the fact that those who are accused will receive a vigorous defense. 

The problem I, and many others, have today is that we are presented with a system in which prosecutors are asked to vigorously seek justice for those who they may perceive as criminals against those who are very often their own colleagues. Perhaps we are asking too much; perhaps what we need is a fundamental change to the way we seek justice when citizens are killed by those who are sworn to protect them. 

Much of my professional career has involved protecting information and securing data from the prying eyes of those who would use it maliciously. Were I involved in a data breach I don't believe anyone would be satisfied by a review from my co-workers that found my hands clean and completely exonerated me. If a young woman accused me of abusing her while in my role as a minister I don't think anyone would be satisfied by a report from my church administrators that cleared me of wrong doing. As a father I don't think anyone would accept a statement from my partner that the bruises on my child's face were simply an accident. We should not and most of us would not accept the results of these "investigations." 

But this is what we're faced with time and time again when a citizen winds up dead after coming into contact with police. We need to fundamentally change the way we do things. We need a prosecutor who will vigorously seek justice for a citizen who is gunned down in the street, who is tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed while protesting, who is strangled to death on a sidewalk. I'm not saying the police are the problem - I know many fine officers who do their absolute best to serve and protect. But I won't accept that young black men are the problem either. We, as citizens, deserve to be reassured in the light of day that those we pin a badge on are acting in our own best interest. And every young black man deserves to know that their safety is our concern. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why I Spank My Kids

There's been an awful lot of talk lately about spanking kids. There has been one voice that has been suspiciously absent despite (what I know to be) a significant percentage of the population: progressive/liberal parents who spank their kids. Of course, you'll say, liberal/progressive minded people don't spank their kids! Bullshit. I know quite a few people who are incredibly modern in their parenting philosophy but still administer corporal punishment on occasion. Let me begin my story by sharing, at least historically, in your disbelief. Before I was a parent, even as I began my journey as a foster parent I was firmly in the "spankings are child abuse" camp. We had a foster parent class we attended and one of the fathers was absolutely in disbelief that you couldn't spank a foster kid. I was mortified - what was wrong with this psycho? "Just wait till you learn the proper parenting techniques," I thought to myself, " and thank goodness you're required to take this class!" As we continued our journey through the foster care system we had a lot of children come into our care. Some for very short periods of time (days) and others for many years. As a parent of more than 20 children I came to realize one thing that I think is too often ignored when talking about parenting; every kid needs their own unique kind of discipline. What works for one kid, and by works I mean helps that child become a happy, healthy, well-adjusted member of society, almost certainly does not work for another. Children have different life experiences, different personalities, different strengths, and different weaknesses. What I found during my time as a foster parent was that some of our modern, progressive ideas about parenting just don't work on some kids. As a foster parent, even with a long term placement, there were times we had to just come to the understanding that some kids were not going to respond to any of the techniques we had available to us. Writing sentences, extra homework, sitting in timeout, redirecting, standing in the corner, praise for good behavior, loss of privilege: you name it and we tried it. Well, we tried everything other than a spanking.

What really bothers me about what I'm seeing in media lately (what we always see in the media lately) is that we're presented with caricatures of parents that present this issue as some great divide separating two very different styles. One one side, you see the hippy-dippy parenting-magazine helicopter-parent that wants to have a heartfelt conversation with their child about why they shouldn't walk into a fire pit and then negotiate an experience that allows the child to learn right behavior based on their own feelings and personal experience. On the other side there's the 1950s-era alcoholic father who flies off the handle in a fit of rage as he channels Bill Cosby, "The beatings will now begin!" As usual this is a gross mischaracterization, in my opinion, that leaves normal people wondering which archetype they fall into. I'm here to tell you there is no archetype. We, parents, are just trying to do the best we can with the time, talents, and resources we have available to us.

I questioned a friend recently about the difference between assigning a child sentences to write, knowing that their hand would cramp and their butt would ache as they sat in a hard wooden chair struggling to complete them, and having a child bend over for a spanking. "Writing sentences isn't an act of violence," he responded. It makes me wonder how he imagines a spanking in my house goes down. I can only guess that he thinks I'm at my wits end (which I usually am, admittedly) and I rage-beat my kids because I can't think of anything else to do. Poor kids. That's not what happens at all. If you will indulge me, let me explain how discipline happens in my house. There are 5 children ranging from 3 to 12. When someone breaks a rule (and someone is always breaking a rule) they are forced to stand in front of me and look me in the eye and tell me what they did wrong. If they hit/touched/kicked/pulled hair/smacked/bumped into/tripped (You have no idea how long this list goes on unless you are a parent) another kid then they both have to come stand in front of me and they both get to share their side of the story. Most of the time they have to apologize and hug each other and we move on with our day. Sometimes they won't apologize. Sometimes they aren't sorry. Sometimes they won't come tell me what happened. Sometimes they do it over and over and over again. Sometimes I get a call from their teacher. The law of the land is telling the truth. You can do anything you want in our house as long as you're willing to fess up to it and suffer the consequences.

Most of the time the consequence is sitting in timeout. Sometimes it's cleaning up a mess, sometimes it's losing a favorite toy or a privilege like watching TV. Sometimes, very rarely, it's bad enough that they have to write sentences (à la Bart Simpson) or get grounded to their room. We run a tight ship in our household, you have to with 5 kids. Discipline is handled fairly (in my opinion) and quickly. Different kids react differently to different consequences. One of the twins melts down like it's the end of the world if they have to stand in the corner, the other could care less and would stand there for hours. Take her iPad time away, however, and she falls apart. The 12 year old breaks down in tears anytime she does anything wrong and oftentimes just having to admit she did something that was against the rules is enough to set her straight. Sometimes she loses her iPod for a few days. The 3 year old (my only boy) gets sent to bed because, honestly, he usually only does something wrong when he's too tired. He hates going to bed more than anything in the world. The 9 year old, however, is a soldier with few weaknesses. She can sit in timeout for 5 hours a day for weeks on end and she won't cave - no apologies or admission of guilt. She once sat in timeout for hours scratching HER OWN NAME into the banister of the staircase and her only response was to scratch up the side of the piano. Over the years we've tried rewarding her, praising her, shaming her (yes, I'm not proud), taking away privileges, assigning her task - I can't even remember all of the techniques we tried on this kid. But the fact of the matter is she is a very difficult child.

Some kids are easy, for the most part, and some kids are difficult. My 9 year old has an excuse - she was abandoned to the foster care system at a very early age and has deep scars from the experience. I don't blame her for being difficult - my job isn't to judge her. My job is to do everything I can to help her grow into a successful member of society and to help her become the bright and shining star that I know she has the potential to be. You know what we found worked wonders for this kid? Getting spanked. After we adopted her we decided to try spanking her when she lied to us (her biggest problem was lying and that's the only thing that warrants a spanking in our house). Can I tell you something? Spanking this kid changed her life. You wouldn't recognize her if you had known her before. That's just what it took to get through to her. Well, that's what it took for us to get through to her - there may have been other techniques; something may have eventually worked. Unfortunately she has to share our parenting time with 4 other kids. It sucks to say that but at the end of the day you play with the cards you're dealt.

So here's how you get spanked in my house. You lie. Repeatedly. You get caught and you're given a chance to fess up. You're confronted with the evidence but you still lie. Sometimes it's even as blunt as, "I know you did XYZ. I'm going to have to spank you if you don't admit to doing it." Still they lie. so we sit down and I explain that in our house we don't lie to each other. I ask them if they know what happens when they lie. They know. It's inexplicable that they can see a spanking coming and they still hang on to the lie. I can't tell you how often I second guess myself, "are they really lying? Who would hang onto it this long?" But I can't back down; the rules are the rules. They're asked to lay down over my knees and I ask them one last time if they're sure they don't want to tell the truth. They're usually already crying at this point and most of the time I start to cry a little too. Three or four swats on their bottom and its over. I once worried about how hard I smacked them but then I realized that it had nothing to do with how it felt physically. The discipline was emotional. It was embarrassing for them, most of the time, and they often felt like they disappointed me. Its no different, in my opinion, than writing sentences or sitting alone in a quiet bedroom. There's a sharp sting instead of a cramped hand but they both get filed away as a "very bad thing" and for the most part it pretty well serves to stop things dead in their tracks. My 9 year old got to the point where she would ask if she could just get a spanking instead of writing sentences; sometimes I even agreed because, frankly, it is exhausting watching someone write sentences for hours at a time. I should add that most of my children have never been spanked and I haven't spanked anyone in years.

This is terribly long and I'm sure no one is still reading but let me just address one last point. My friend, the one that described my spankings as an act of violence, posted a quote from a recent CNN article, "The only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child." It's a great attention grabbing line and, sort of, accurate. My response is, "so what." The only person who you can legally strip naked and throw in a bathtub is a child too. You're pretty much only allowed to wipe shit off of one person's butt in this country too. There's also only one person you're legally responsible for in this country - your child. You're responsible for keeping them from getting run over by a car, for avoiding a fire pit, for getting fed, for taking a bath, for not having shit on their ass, and for not robbing, assaulting, or violating another person. Kids are different than everyone else because you're legally and morally responsible for everything that happens to them and everything they do. So yeah, you're legally allowed to "hit" your own kid (hyperbole aside) in order to help raise them the best way you see fit. There are rules about how hard you can hit and what happens to you if you hurt them. Adrian Peterson? He's probably a child abuser. Because he took a switch to his kid? No; because he wounded him and left marks of violence. That's illegal no matter what your opinion is of spanking. Calling anyone who spanks their child an abuser is no different than calling a woman who has an abortion a murderer. It's unnecessary and not fitting for the level of discourse we should expect in this country.

The link to the CNN article:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Depression. Suicide. Nanu Nanu.

I'm writing this after a long day of work and a tiring night with the kids. This afternoon the world learned that Robin Williams was dead and it's believed he took his own life. Dammit all to hell, but that's a kick in the gut. When I was young I loved Mork from Ork, even more so after finding out that we shared the same last name*. I always wondered if we were secretly related (I was young and had no idea how common Williams was as a last name) and hoped that somewhere, sometime I'd find out that he was my crazy uncle twice-removed or some such thing. Anyway, today is a tough day for a lot of people. Mr. Williams touched a lot of hearts in his relatively short life and almost everyone you meet has a favorite performance or a bit that never fails to make them smile. It absolutely rips me apart to think about his loneliness at the end, to imagine the way his heart felt before he decided he'd had enough. Damn. Just Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

Well, here goes. I'm not sure I believe in coincidence but I'm compelled tonight to share a story I can't seem to shake free and let go. I haven't talked about suicide in . . . ever, really . . . and this past week it's been the topic of conversation more than once in my circle of friends. Just the other night, a Tuesday, I had a rare moment completely free from all responsibility: no children, no friends, no appointments, no schedule. It had been so long since I was truly alone with my thoughts I almost didn't know what to do. I went for a walk. Then I went for a drive. I meandered through the aisles of the Goodwill. I wound up buying myself a nice bottle of scotch; thinking perhaps I would sit at home and listen to some jazz and enjoy the hell out of drinking alone. I stopped to get some dinner and  as I sat there eating a chicken bowl from Panda Express I started to rethink my plan to sip myself into a slow stupor. More about this in a bit.

Robin Williams, suicide at age 63. Sobering as all hell. This is a pretty difficult thing to admit and I feel like I can only do it because so many people are talking about it today. I am exhausted and want to stop writing and go to sleep but I'm afraid if I wait until tomorrow I'll never share this.

I've been suicidal.

I've cut into my arms and hoped it was deep enough that I would accidentally die. That time in my life didn't last long but it was a short, powerful period of depression that I had a really difficult time shaking. You probably wouldn't be surprised to discover it was Junior High. I remember one day after school sitting in my bathroom shower with a knife cutting criss-cross patterns into my forearms and thinking it was probably as good a time as any to see how deep I could go when my phone rang. It's the same story every kid who "almost did it" has - my friend called me and knocked me out of it and everything was all better afterwards. Was I serious? I don't know; it's hard to look back from 20+ years in the future and remember what it felt like to be a lonely 13 year old boy. My friend called me every day so the cynical part of my personality thinks I probably knew instinctively the phone call was coming. But maybe I didn't. Did God step in? I don't know. What I know is time has passed and I've managed to keep going to sleep and waking up again the next morning, every morning.

What terrifies me about this whole topic is I don't know anything about suicide. Is it like alcoholism? Is it caused by a disease that you can never cure or is it a fleeting moment that you can pass by if you manage to survive it. This is a big part of the problem for us, if you ask me - we can't talk about suicide in a way that's meaningful. As I type this tonight all I can think about is how my mom is going to feel when she reads it or the concerned phone calls I'm going to get from my friends wanting to seem super supportive and cool but secretly just afraid I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. I'm not. I love my life, I'm happy, and I love every day that passes - I look forward to every new day. But . . .

I still wonder if suicidal tendencies are like alcoholism. Am I cured? I have these brushes with paranoia when I look at a whole bottle of blood pressure medicine or I am driving down a steep mountain road or when I've got the 10" chef's knife out. Not, "I want to kill myself" but instead,"Holy shit what if I wanted to kill myself?" Do you see the difference? I could just do it and that terrifies me. It's not the desire to do it but instead the recognition that I could or the fear that I might want to.

This brings me back to the bottle of scotch I bought on Tuesday night. I was feeling a little down that night, not sure why. I bought the bottle thinking it would be a nice night to drink a few glasses and doze off with a warm belly. But on my way home I got scared, like I sometimes do, that it might be a bad night to drink. "What if I'm too depressed to drink tonight? What if I do something stupid and kill myself?" Not the desire, not even the feeling that I might do it. Simply the fear of putting myself in a position that could make me want to. What if that's all it takes for someone to kill themselves? What if it's really just about being in the wrong place at the wrong time? What if no one actually "means" to do it but they just don't catch the signs that tell them they're going to put themselves in a bad position? How can we know?

Well, this is why I braved some of my darkest fears that Tuesday night. I pulled out my phone and chatted up one of my oldest friends, one of the people you can talk to about anything. And honestly, one of the people I knew I could talk to that wouldn't call the police. I shared what I was feeling and (after the obligatory, "you're OK right?") we started talking about being depressed and having suicidal thoughts. Turns out he has had similar thoughts. We had an honest to goodness conversation about what it is to be a human being; what it means to live every day and not know what the hell you're doing. We shared our fears, we shared our self-loathing, we shared our regrets. In short, we talked about the kinds of things we're almost always too afraid to talk to other people about because we're worried they'll think we're going to hurt ourselves.

And then I had the same conversation with two other friends on Friday night. Same preface, same momentary concern expressed, same fruitful conversation. Are we all just walking around wondering whether or not we're about to swerve our cars into traffic? Are we all just 3 stiff drinks away from sliding off a bridge into a river? Why can't we talk about these dark thoughts with each other?

Well, I don't know why I'm writing this except there's some part of me down deep that thinks maybe, perhaps just maybe, I might just be the person you'd be willing to talk about suicide the one time it feels too real. I won't know how you feel but I'll listen and hopefully we can learn something from each other and find out what it will take to see another sunrise.

*I changed my last name after I turned 18 for reasons that extend beyond the scope of this blog post.

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