Thought for Thursday

This past week, Melissa Harris Perry got some flack from the usual sources for her “Lean Forward” promo.  In the ad, she advocates for a shift in the way we think about the responsibility for educating children away from a private, family-centered focus and toward a more collective, community responsibility.

The collective far-right freak-out over this has been at turns hysterical and deeply frightening.  The likes of Limbaugh and Palin have weighed in, and brought with them all of the conspiracy theory-loving crazies.  In fact, I couldn’t find a youtube of the ad that wasn’t tagged with all kinds of “the damned libruls want to take your KIDS!!” ridiculousness.

Here’s the thing; she’s RIGHT.  She’s not advocating that we give our children to the state, but the fact that folks on the right can’t/won’t hear that isn’t really surprising.  Our education system is deeply, perhaps irretrievably broken, and I think that a significant underlying cause of that brokenness is the fact that we’ve utterly failed at our collective responsibility to children.

About a year or so ago, my grandfather said something to me that surprised me.  While Gramma and the girls were in the kitchen pulling chocolate chip muffins from the oven, Grampa turned to me and said something about how hard it must be for Mr. Chili and me to raise the girls.  I was kind of taken aback by this, and I pointed out that it’s really no harder for us than it was for him and Gramma to raise their two sons.  “Yes, it is,” he insisted.  “No one takes care of each other anymore.  When the boys were little, we knew that every other parent was looking out for them.  If they got in trouble or did something wrong, someone would step in.  That doesn’t happen anymore.”  He then proceeded to tell me that, when HE was a boy – “long before we had telephones in every house” – he was astounded that his mother knew about what he’d been up to before he even got home.  “I’d do something wrong,” he said, “and my friends’ mothers would take it out of me, then I’d get home and MY mother would take it out of me, though how she found out about it so fast, I’ll never know.”  His point is that our culture used to take collective responsibility for children; if you were in my orbit, you were my responsibility to both care for and discipline as the situation warranted.

Grampa’s right; we really don’t do that anymore.  Teachers are afraid of parents and, as a consequence, students don’t get the kind of structure they need – and aren’t held accountable for their behavior.  The mother of a small person I stayed with who’d wandered off in a department store gave me the wicked stink-eye when she finally found her kid (I KNOW I wrote about that scene, but I can’t seem to find the post about it).  We’re afraid of each other, and that fear keeps us from taking care of each other.

Ms. Harris-Perry penned a lovely rebuttal to her critics (and here’s where you’ll see the right-wing editorial-less version of the ad).  I think she’s on to something.  If we can start honoring one another enough to actually attend to each others’ needs, we might finally begin addressing some of our most pernicious problems and start healing as a culture.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Thought for Thursday

  1. I grew up like that. The block of streets we played within was as safe as any playpen, because everyone was looking out for everyone else’s kids, and communicating with each other.

  2. I think she has a point but it’s also far more complex than just staying with a kid who is lost. Most of us (I hope) would stay with a scared kid and endure the stink eye and be fine with it. But look at Grampa’s phrasing. His friend’s mother “took it out of him” and then his mom did. There’s a much wider variety of parenting (let’s call them) styles in even the smaller communities now. There are parents who still spank and parents who would never. There are parents who allow swearing and those who don’t. There are parents who demand a certain form of address for elders and those who don’t. So if a parent who doesn’t allow swearing tears a strip off a kid (literally or figuratively) of a kid whose parents do allow it then a huge big deal ensues. And just imagine if a parent who spanks used that technique on a kid whose parents don’t! On the one hand it’s proof of diversity, on the other hand it’s a lot harder to navigate.

  3. I’ve been following this discussion online, and there’s a lot I want to weigh in on, but I’m doing conferences today and my time is not really my own. Kizz brings up an important angle in the issue, though, and so I’ll just say that the tension in her scenarios is not around the diversity of parenting styles, it’s in the lack of communication. By not taking the time to be clear with each other as grownups around our own expectations and wishes around “community discipline”, we can’t even begin to work together to help kids learn how to navigate the world. The same is true for teachers in their work with parents. If the only relationship they have is adversarial, the student will never be well supported.

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