PRINCIPLE THREE: EMPOWERMENT

MODELING EMPOWERMENT WITH AUTHORITY

When my daughter was in high school, she had a friend who came from a very difficult home. She had been abused early in life, and her mother took hard drugs. This girl, I’ll call her Josey, spent a lot of time at our house, and I tried to mother her as best I could. Her envy of my child’s good parents and apparently wealthy lifestyle eventually became obsessive, and when my daughter expanded her circle of friends, Josey became enraged and turned on her. At the same time, Josey began taking drugs and got into dark music that my daughter didn’t like much. Joey became obsessed with the serial killer Charles Manson. Her room became almost a shrine to him. Because of her jealousy, her entire junior year of high school became focused on torturing and ostracizing my daughter, who would come home from school in tears from being tripped, slammed, and insulted by Josey.

Josey had a loud mouth and aggressive demeanor, and no one at this small-town, rural high school could stand up to her. My daughter — already a little different because she was from somewhere else, she was small and quiet, and a vegetarian — had no chance against this girl’s onslaughts. I watched her self-esteem plummet as the year went on. We talked a lot, and I tried to  help her keep her head up, to ignore Josey, and to concentrate on her own life. But in such a fishbowl environment, it was a hard test for her.

Just before spring break, Josey trapped my daughter in the girls’ bathroom at school and beat her up. She came home with a black eye and scratches all over her body, and with a note she had found in her locker containing a disgusting poem, basically threatening her life. Naturally, the lioness in me wanted to go and beat some sense into that girl and her no-good mother to boot. I called the school officials, who had to pull Josey off my daughter, and their reply was that it was “just one of those girl fights, it happens all the time.” I told them no, it had been part of a months-long systematic harassment of my daughter and if something wasn’t done I would get the law involved.

I photocopied the nasty poem and wrote several carefully worded letters, which were not excessively angry, but clear and to the point about the fact that I would go as far as necessary, under the law, to protect my daughter. I enclosed photocopied portions of the school board policy on violence and the poem, and sent these letters to the girl’s mother, the school officials, and the county prosecutor. I made it clear to the girl’s mother that if her daughter should even touch my daughter again, I would take her to court for stalking, harassment, assault, and whatever else I could think of.

In the meantime, I contacted the county prosecutor and informed him of the situation. I got a clear understanding of what our rights were. All along I told my daughter everything. She didn’t really want me to get involved at first (at that age, it is embarrassing for parents to step in) but I told her, “I’m really sorry, I’d like to go by your wishes, but since I’m an adult I can see the bigger picture. We’ve tried ignoring it, going to school officials, and going to her family. Now the situation is dangerous, and it’s my job as your mother to sep in and set limits if no one else will. We aren’t bullies, but we Don’t let bullies get their way with us either. I need to teach you how to deal with these situations now.”

I enlisted her agreement and support. I knew that the most powerful way to act in a situation like this is with calm perseverance, knowing your rights, and following through on your warnings. Emotionally, I’d have liked to do any number of vengeful things. But we couldn’t let ourselves be ruled by emotion or we would have become just like the bullies.

The girl’s mother was mortified; she called me and begged me not to go to the authorities. I empathized, saying it must be very embarrassing for her and I couldn’t imagine as a mother she would ever approve of such behavior. I didn’t mention what I knew of her own drug use. I let her know that if the behavior did not stop, I would have no choice bu to have her daughter arrested.

Then Josey called, crying, and apologized. I calmly explained how disappointed I was in her after I had taken her into my heart and home. I recommended that she get counseling and find out if any “medication” she may be taking could be affecting her personality so badly. Then I said I was sorry, but I could not allow her in our home again. Finally, in my lowest, most powerful voice — with “sinking power” rooted in the earth — I said, “Josey, if you even so much as look at my daughter again, I will have you arrested faster than you  can take a breath. I have spoken to the county prosecutor, and he is ready. Do you understand me?”

She sniffled, “Yes…” I said, “Please try to straighten yourself out. You are a good girl with a lot of potential and a lot of life to live. But you have to do it yourself, nobody will do it for you.” My daughter never had any trouble from her again. She was able to see how adults can work through difficult situations without resorting to violence or childishness. It was a great lesson in empowerment for us all.

© 2015 Vimala McClure

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THREE WAYS TO MAINTAIN CHILDRENS’ EMPOWERMENT WHEN USING “DISCIPLINE”

1. Discipline

How do we discipline our kids? There are plenty of violent prisoners in penitentiaries who were disciplined as children with spankings, beatings, screaming and neglect. Though I had my children take “time out” sometimes, now I question the popular use of that as a disciplinary technique because it links quiet time alone with punishment.

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When children, even toddlers, are given explanations for rules, allowed to voice an opinion, and even to disagree, they become more skilled at exercising their power, their social “muscles,” when they relate to others and learn to cope with problems by reasoning out the right responses. It may take more time to talk than to hit, but, in the long run, the lessons you are teaching will be more far-reaching and will develop a broader range of social skills in your child. Use reasoning to help your child understand the concepts of restitution and making amends, to understand that apologies don’t automatically excuse them from out-of-control behavior and that words can hurt as much as punches. Many research studies have concluded that the use of reasoning and discussion as disciplinary tools is one of the most effective ways to foster a child’s positive moral development.

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One inventive mother went to a nature store and purchased several small rocks with words carved on them such as: sisters, brothers, family, love, kindness, peace, truth, forgive, gentle, cooperation, and so on. When one of her children misbehaved, she chose one of the rocks and gave it to the child, explaining the word and what it meant in this particular situation. She repeated the word several times, having her child repeat it back and explained its definition. The child was the led to his room or a “safe place,” and asked to think about what that word meant to him for fifteen minutes. Then his mother would retrieve him and they would discuss the word. In this way, the child was not punished, but an “intervention” took place, which allowed the child to learn values and connect those values to his behavior.

2. Learned Powerlessness

There are many ways we unknowingly teach our children to be helpless rather than empowered. Helplessness is taught by:

  • Doing things for children ins teach of teaching them, in steps, how to do it themselves.
  • Explaining poor performance in school in terms of intelligence or inability, instead of effort or motivation.
  • Explaining the cause of difficulty as internal (“You’re not good at that”) rather than external (“You can try harder next time and do better”).

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Girls are socialized to be more vulnerable to criticism and tend to interpret it as permanent and pervasive rather than temporary and external. The are more likely to explain difficulty as their fault, due to their character defects, whereas boys are socialized to attribute difficulty more to outside circumstances or temporary lapses. So with your girls be especially conscious of explaining, when disciplining, that when they’ve done something wrong it does not mean there is something wrong with them. Explain that wrong behavior is something that is temporary, related only to the subject at hand and is something that can be changed. Remember also that we all need to feel we have some control over a situation and/or our feelings about it in order to develop resilience and resistance to adversity. Helplessness robs us of resilience.

3. Reasoning

Tai Chi’s “listening power” can be used to reason with your kids at any age. In this practice, you stay with them and feed back to them in your own words what you hear them saying about something they have just done, felt, or experienced, from their point of view. Stay with them long enough to be able to act like a mirror, helping them reason their way to the conclusion that delineates right from wrong. You can help them “be their own boss,” and evaluate their own feelings and actions. You can help them see how consequences are tied to actions, and how, if they have done something wrong, they can make amends with dignity. At first you may sometimes have to take the role of teacher and guide them firmly through this process. When you do this, try to refrain from filling in silent spaces with lectures. When your feedback is wrong, they will let you know. Be patient and ask them with sincerity to explain again what they mean.

Dr. Suzette Hadin Elgin says that “Talking to a child, especially after the age of five or six, is essentially the same as talking to an adult you outrank.” They understand much more than they are given credit for. She also says, “You have to let a child choose and introduce the conversational topic. You must support that topic every few sentences. And, hardest of all, you have to listen while the child talks, with your heart, your head, and with full courteous attention.” 

When you ask your child to do a chore, be sure you include all the information he needs. For example, instead of saying, “Jack, take out the trash,” you could say, “Jack, please take out the trash right now because the garbage truck is coming at noon.” Tone is important. Try as hard as you can to use a respectful, relaxed tone that assumes your child wants to help. Along with your tone, smiling eye contact or a touch can help communicate your positive intention. If you mess u-p, apologize. Say, “I didn’t mean to sound harsh” (angry, impatient, and so on). “I’m kind of stressed out right now and could really use the help.” Be sure to thank the child when the task has been completed. At dinnertime, you could say, with an eye-contact smile, “Jack, it was a great help to have the garbage taken out on time. Thanks a lot.”

Try to be alert to whether your child is hearing what you are saying the way you want her to. If you feel a negative reaction, you can say, “I’m not sure I said that right. Let me try again.” Or, “Did I say that in a way that didn’t feel good to you?” Again, communicating respectfully with your kids help them learn respectful communication and empowers them to take responsibility for themselves and the way they communicate. You are laying a solid foundation for their future relationships, so it is definitely worth the time.

© 2015 Vimala McClure