Thursday, July 28, 2016

Catching Kindness from My Children

This The Following Interview was First Published at Collecting Moments

Tells us the kindest thing you’ve ever experienced as a parent?

As we were preparing to adopt two of our children through the foster care system, friends of ours asked us if they could go through the rigorous process to provide state approved childcare for us. After becoming approved, they watched all three of our children a few times to give us a much-needed break. Each time they cared for our children, they noticed and brought to our attention that we were too exhausted to even see our own needs.

Who/what inspires you to be kind? Explain why they/it inspires you to do so.

I’m inspired to be kind when I recognize how naturally tender and empathetic my children are if I’m sensitive and kind to them. My worst regrets in life are times I could have been listening more carefully to their behavior and words, and chose rather to ignore their emotional needs for the sake of convenience.

It’s important to be kind to others, but it’s just as important to be kind to yourself. What do you do (or plan on doing) to be kind to yourself (either as a mother, as a professional, or as a woman)?

One major improvement I need to make is to schedule the predictable breaks I desperately need to lower my stress. When I’m less stressed, I’m naturally more sensitive, friendly, generous, and considerate to those I interact with each day.

It’s often said that kindness is easier said than done. As a parent, what valuable advice can you give for showing kindness to others (especially to those who may not seem like they want or deserve it)?

Because I’m continually learning valuable lessons as a parent, it’s becoming more natural for me to see others in the same way that I see my children. My children do the best they can do with the skills they currently have in their toolbox. When they aren’t doing well, they typically need rest, food, or for me to teach them how to do better in any given struggle.

When I remind myself to give others the same grace I give my children, I am more kind. Often as a result, my children see grace modeled and learn to be grace-givers.

As a parent, what does kindness mean to you?

Being a parent, I’m constantly aware of how my actions and responses directly impact people who are developing their own worldviews. When I’m impatient with one of my children, I watch him crumble. When I respond by listening to my child’s words and behavior and patiently taking the time to meet his unique needs, I watch his confidence grow.

What lesson do you want your kids to learn about kindness?

One day, I hope my children will realize that being kind is about their own character and not about the person offending them. As they learn to seize those moments of betrayal as opportunities to give grace, I expect their hearts will smile and the world around them will be brighter as a result. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fear or Love

Fear is powerful.

But not as powerful as love.

Fear builds walls.

Love builds bridges.

Fear must create “others” in order to define self

and dismiss others to approve of self.

Love makes unexpected friendships

-being completely unaware of self.

Fear is against.

Love is too busy standing for and with to have her attention diverted.

Fear survives.

Love thrives.

As I scroll through my Facebook feed, I'm met with fear-filled posts that are dismissive to strategically created "others." As I read, I'm reminded that those who are defensive are currently submitting to fear and, therefore, momentarily, incapable of love 

                                               - just as I am incapable of love when I'm a slave to fear. 

And I recall  treasured words I memorized as a child- words I still believe and cling to...

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Let's Be Brave, White Parents of Future Black Men

My husband, Matt, is an excellent story teller. He comes alive in every detail of each moment in such a way that his stories can often be longer than the event they’re describing. He’s engaging and people hang on his every word.

However, there is one story I despise hearing from him- the story of how he and his friend Ryan were roughed up by police officers outside of Chicago.

Matt and Ryan were driving in Matt’s swanky 1988 Ford Taurus and were pulled over because Matt didn’t use his blinker correctly. During their drive, they had been listening to a lecture by one of their college professors on a handheld mini-recorder. Seeing the flashing lights behind them, Ryan suggested they record their interaction with the officers on the recorder. Matt thought the idea was hilarious and Ryan crossed his arms and positioned the mini recorder so that it was pointing out from under his left arm.

As the officer approached Matt’s window and looked into the car, he suddenly jumped back and ran back to his vehicle because- as the black men reading this have realized all along- the end of the recorder resembles the barrel of a handgun.

What followed was forty-five minutes of being surrounded by twelve squad cars, listening to screaming obscenities over a megaphone, being ripped out of the car, slammed and pinned on the ground, cuffed by S.W.A.T. team members with guns drawn, and, Ryan, having a gun pushed into his ribs (as the officer said, “If you make one move, you’ll be breathing through your chest.”)

Every time I hear the story, all I can think of is how close to death Matt was.

Still, when Matt tells the story he's clear that even though the incident was physically excruciating and terrifying, the officers acted appropriately considering the situation.

And I’m quickly reminded of how two of my children would never have survived the same ordeal.

Matt and his friend Ryan evoked fear in the officers because they appeared to be armed and ready to fire.

As two of my sons grow up they will elicit fear because of the color of their skin.

They are so innocent.

Yet, we’re raising them in a culture where they will one day be guilty until proven innocent.

We have to learn how to better parent them so they can be the safest they can be in a world that sees them as a threat.

We Need to Listen

When it comes to racism, we can learn concepts, but we will never have the opportunity to learn from experience. We live in an age where it is easy to find voices to listen to. We need to listen to black men and women. We need to listen to mothers of black men and women. We need to listen to grandmothers of black men and women.

We need to listen to the angriest voices. We need to listen to the voices that make us most uncomfortable.

We cannot pick and choose. Every black person has a perspective and that perspective is influenced by his or her experience and every experience shared is a gift as it’s an opportunity for us to learn so we can become better parents and community members.

With adoption, it is particularly important that we listen to transracial adoptee voices. Once I heard an adoptee speak about how different her life was as a black woman once she went to college because she was no longer experiencing the umbrella of white privilege she had by being her parents’ daughter.

It was the first time I realized my black children experience white privilege.

It was the first time I realized one day they won’t.

Unfortunately, many of us adoptive parents didn’t realize the impact of racism before adopting black sons, and now, we aren’t immersed fully enough in communities of color.

We Need to Humbly Seek and Engage in Community

We need community to raise our children well and our children need role models who look like them.

I couldn’t agree with him more. Furthermore, as white parents of black children we need to embrace humility so our black friends know they can directly confront us on the parenting of our children. We need to invite their criticism.

Beyond that, my sons need to have safe men to look up to who look like them. My children shouldn’t be responsible for finding everyday role models on their own.

If I want my sons to respond to racism safely, bravely, and in a way that evokes respect, I must raise them in relationships with people who experience racism.

We Need to Take What We Learn and Teach our Sons the Rules

Often, with adoption and children with a history of trauma, routine is better accepted than rules. Yet, if we as parents are unaware of the rules black men follow to stay as safe as possible, we’re unable to start the right routines- routines that may keep our sons alive.

Due to some special needs in our family, we started many routines long before our friends began teaching their same-age, black sons simple rules, such as “how to wear a hoodie." We always narrate the “why” behind the routines in a developmentally appropriate way, and yet, we know our children may not yet trust us enough to believe us. They DO come to trust routines though. Routines feel safe.

Informed routines could lead to their increased physical safety as well.

We Need to Correct Our White Community

When we’re in community with folks who honestly believe we can either be loyal to black men or law enforcement, we need to lovingly call them out.

When our friends or family members use offensive and outdated language to refer to our black children, we need to lovingly educate them.

When our community members make broad brush racist statements, we need to lovingly speak up.

When opportunities present for us to lovingly point out racist behavior in others who are not in community with people of color, we need to seize those opportunities. .

This goes beyond being an ally.

This is first about being parents.

Parents willing to take risks to love our children well.

We Need to Be Willing to Cut Ties

I’m going to be honest with you, being unfriended is a gift. At least you don’t have to initiate the conversation when you’re unfriended.

Also, we can no longer associate with some people who used to be friends. When we initiate brave conversations and the response from a friend is hateful or dismissive, we need to veer our path from theirs.

Please hear me. Of course, we still care about former friends as human beings. We hurt for them. We love them. Our children learn compassion as we love those who are incapable of loving us back.

But, if a relationship with a friend is a threat to my child’s trust in me as a compassionate human being, the friendship must end.

We Need to Consider Trauma and Trust

With adoption and trauma, we often have to be so much more sensitive in our conversations with our children because if our words overwhelm them, they can go into fight, flight, or freeze.

We know that our children's fight, flight, or freeze responses often look scary (or guilty) and generate fear in those around them- making them targets for the very violence we hope they can avoid.

Adoptive parents, many of you get this. At times, it will be a challenge because people of color who do not have extensive experience with early childhood trauma will disagree with how you’re raising your black sons.

Still, we must be brave and be faithful with the wisdom shared with us by those who've experienced racism while considering our children’s already complicated experiences.

It won’t be easy.

I’m reminded of a beautiful evening Matt and I had about a month before our sons came home. We were surrounded by friends who came to our house to pray for us and for our sons. Matt and I were the only white people present.

As my friend Regine prayed, she wept over our bravery to choose to raise black sons. Over how scary and heart wrenching the journey would be. About how, as white people, we could have avoided the vulnerability and the risk we were actively seeking by becoming parents of our sons.

After she prayed, I noticed most everyone else in the room was nervously shifting and avoiding eye-contact with us as if they were all wondering if we had any idea about the weight of raising black sons.

I was also wondering if we had a clue. We’d heard stories. We knew facts. We knew statistics. But we did not know what it felt like to be the mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle to a black male. Neither of us knew what it was like to grow up black.

Neither of us were yet weeping specifically over the weight of raising black sons.

And we’ll never know the weight in the same way the other people in our living room that night knew as we can’t change our past experiences or the privilege our skin color affords us.

Which is why we know we need help.

Many of us didn’t adopt knowing how high the stakes were for our black sons.  

But now that we know more, we need to be responsible with our knowledge.

Let’s be brave.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” - Maya Angelou

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Foster Care & Urban Education

Update 7/3/18: The school clearly no longer wants to even begin to meet our son's special needs. In fact, our experience leads us to believe they intentionally don't staff competent special educators for students in the fourth grade and beyond. It also seems the special educator assigned to our son in the fourth grade made it her job to be certain his academic, social, and emotional needs were not met so he would eventually be excluded either by subsequent behaviors (due to frustration) or because our family wouldn't put up with the continual school's negligence and disrespect for our son.

Update (2/25/2018): Our experiences have changed dramatically over the past few months. At this point, we can't be certain if the school is unwilling to support our son because he tested poorly in the third grade, because they made some major mistakes and they would prefer for our family to leave rather than do the repair work that is needed, or if the culture has been slowly changing over the years and the result is to greatly limit parents' insight into their children's education. In any event, below was our experience through the 2016/17 school year and I hope to have great reasons to remove this update after our son's next IEP meeting. (I mentioned the price our son paid for his school's negligence, briefly, here.)

Many of you know I’m currently raising our four boys in the city.

Every time I read that sentence I want to laugh out loud because I grew up in a town that had an ancient sign stating our population was 250.

The population may have been 250 if one were counting the stray cats, dogs, piglets, and the occasional loose hog. (During the latter instances, our neighbors would utilize an informal phone tree to be certain all children were locked indoors. The phone tree was quick since, in 1988, one only had to dial four digits to reach anyone in town. Also, these were the only times I recall anyone in town (other than my mom) locking anything.)

Given my childhood, you might not be surprised at how steep my learning curve has been raising children in the city.

For one, I had no idea about public school lotteries. I learned about these lotteries a couple months before our children came home through adoption. Both of our children were at prime ages to enter the lottery (Prekindergarten and Kindergarten). This seemed fortuitous until I called the district and learned there was nothing I could do to register them unless I had physical custody (something I had no control over despite my best efforts).

The result:  My children missed the opportunity to enter first round of the lottery by a mere two weeks.

This meant my son entering Kindergarten was guaranteed a slot in one of our city’s worst performing schools- something our city still promises for children being displaced due to being in foster care- compounding trauma onto trauma. The students who need the best are reserved the worst. They’re left vulnerable and unprotected because they have nobody influential to fight for them.

We were still somewhat lucky. For one, my child who missed the kindergarten lottery qualified for special education services and I happened to know people who helped us get him into a better performing school. His kindergarten team was incredible! However, things went downhill from there. At one point, knowing our child was on the sibling wait list at a high performing public charter school, a district teacher pulled me aside for a private conversation. As a parent of a black male she disclosed, “THEY (the district) don’t do well with OUR (African American, male) children.”

I had previously mentioned to her that although I was absolutely dissatisfied with the fact that my child was actually regressing in his district placement, I was hesitant to put him in the charter school because I had heard charters don’t serve students with special needs well. Her wisdom gave me the encouragement I needed to pull my son out of his district school without looking back.

Our child has since completed one year homeschooling with me followed by two years in his public charter school.

I thought some of you might be interested in the differences of our experiences:

  • In his charter school our child is given the structure he needs to feel safe and therefore he presents more typical than he ever did in his district school.
  • Because there are far less distractions in his charter school, he is not constantly worried about what is going to happen so he learns and retains more information.
  • Due to the fact the charter school supports each child as they set their own personal goals, he is encouraged for being himself and his peers celebrate his unique milestones with him.
  • Because behavioral standards are clear in his charter school, he doesn’t have any more difficulty following the rules than his typical peers do.
  • Sensory overload is unusual at his charter school so he comes home with more energy to connect with family members.
  • Since the staff at his charter school are able to design and modify their own curriculum and have freedom to modify behavioral and social/emotional interventions for each individual in their classrooms, I do not have to spend all my energy fighting a system for my child to get his needs met. Where I used to spend ninety-five percent of my parenting energy arguing with a district (that was honestly telling me they would have to watch him fail a bit more and I would have to get a good attorney because they did not have what he needed, but they weren’t ready to pay for what he needed yet), I now spend that energy being on a team with his teachers and collectively meeting his needs.
  • While in his district school my child was isolated and teased consistently and the staff dismissed it, in his charter he is valued as a unique team member and is never alone on the playground.
  • In his district school he was regressing socially, academically, and emotionally and he had lost the will to even go to school, but in his charter school he is learning, making friends, and is happier than he’s ever been.

Some people who read this will see it as a political post. It is not. In fact, the politics of education reform leave me with a headache.

I just want to share my experience because I am the white mom of a black child (formerly in foster care) who was failing in our district’s schools and, being a country girl, I really didn’t see any of this coming.

I never would have expected to see a battle of the most privileged parents in our city inadvertently fighting to deny quality education to children like my son because they truly believe the lies their district is selling them that school choice is a right-wing conspiracy to privatize public education. The funny thing is many of these folks place their own children in PRIVATE schools because the district isn't good enough for their own children. Also, the implications of the aforementioned "right-wing conspiracy theory" of charter schools is disrespectful to the parents at my children’s school (98% people of color) because it implies that either we are ignorantly being duped by conservative conspirators or we have some destructive ulterior motive behind our school choice.

So, I guess the point is, I’m just learning as I go and I’m so grateful two of my children are currently in a public school that has high expectations of their students, instructs them individually, and respects them even when they’ve endured foster care. And, while there are positive and negative policies in district schools and positive and negative policies in charter schools, it’s unfortunate to see good parents fight against excelling schools- especially schools educating students that the other schools are not willing to do the hard work to educate. Reducing the education debate to good vs. evil is juvenile and distracts well-meaning people from working their hardest to ensure all of our children have access to quality education.

Fighting against quality schools is essentially fighting against the education of school children- school children who are unlikely to excel in our current district schools.

Children like my precious child.

Education Encouragement

NPR Highlights of Schools doing Incredible Work with Students in Foster Care and/or Experiencing Homelessness:

Disclaimer:  I am not a general advocate for charter schools. In fact, I doubt they make sense in any area where the district excels without cultural bias. Also, I don’t think any schools that use shaming tactics should exist. I am just a mother who was once hopeless that my specific child would be respected and learn in a classroom, and I want the best for all of our children.

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