At the end of last week, I, and a number of my colleagues, attended the NYS Citizen’s Coalition for Children annual two day conference. It consists of speakers, of course, and a series of workshops that are relevant to adoptive parents, especially those adopting from the foster care system. It’s really the only opportunity most of us get to hear, in person, thinkers from across the country. These are the folks who write the books. But they aren’t ivory tower thinkers: they have experience with our kids and many got into the field via the adoptions of their own kids. You could not ask for more relevance. And they know their stuff.
Consistently over the years, I have felt something missing. I feel it at these conferences; I feel it in the books; I feel it in the case conferences of individual kids and so forth. I have said for years that those of us who haven’t gone through what our kids have gone through can never really comprehend their perspective. I know, I know….we can try. But trying doesn’t cut it for me so I can’t believe that it cuts it for them either. My solution has always been: get some of these kids past their histories and let them figure it out. In the same way, for instance, that all twelve step programs use the peers in addictions to help each other, and not the professional “helpers.” It has been an answer that made sense logically, but it doesn’t solve my issue with the “what is missing.”
Sometime last evening, the word for what’s missing hit me. It is absolutely so, that we can never be where our kids have been nor experience what they have experienced. But that was true for the white civil rights fighters from half a century ago. And it’s true right now, for example, for the straight supporters for the gay right to marry. One need not be part of a particular group to stand with those within the group.
Not “stand above.” And standing above is what I have experienced as permeating our field. Our kids are “broken”, “damaged”, “hurt”, and the newest word: “traumatized.” “Broken” as measured by where I am. “Damaged” as measured by where I am. “Hurt” as measured by where I am. And now, “traumatized” as measured by where I am. Or think I am.
And where are we? Above them. No wonder we can’t figure it out. We will never figure it out while we stand above our kids.
Standing “with” is a recognition that we would have reacted, and responded, exactly as our kids have were we weighed down with the same horrific experiences that, by the way, we as a culture did not protect them from. Standing “with” is the only true recognition that we will never get it from a position “above.”
In my last post, I talked about my first real supervisor and how abusive he was despite how good he looked. His stance was that he was better than I. He couldn’t put himself in my shoes; because he couldn’t get out of his own.
We have a rule at Family Focus that whatever we create; whatever approach we take must be one that our kids could say, at least, “Fair enough.” But preferably, would be able to say: “Thank you. Finally someone gets it.” We should be willing to go under our own knife. Is that too abstract? Let me make it concrete: we should be willing to live by our own definition of adoption: “unconditional, irrevocable, and forever final.” That means when a foster family tells a kid that they are going to adopt him and then change their mind later on, the child should be removed forthwith, in recognition of the betrayal. We should be willing to live by our very clear stance: “Adults adopt; children are adopted.” That means that we guarantee that our approaches prevent any blame from falling on the kids for adult decisions. Hell, we should even be willing to turn our case notes over to the kids (when they grow up) and stand behind those notes (fat chance.) Our transitions; our covenants; our concepts must all meet the same rule: would I be willing to be the kid experiencing these things we have created.
That is what “standing with” means. No bureaucracy can ever “stand with” in its rules and structures, although individuals within the bureaucracy can. Standing with is always personal. Martin Luther King stood with. So, I believe, did Ghandi. And thus their real power.
What is missing from our system is standing with our kids – not (take heed helping professions), standing for our kids. Not, not, not. Until we make that our stance, we will never get it. Standing for is not the same as standing with. It’s not even close. No matter our experience, our brilliance, our education, our logic, and our degrees, if we don’t stand with the kids, we will understand nothing real about them.
And standing with has a name that doesn’t apply to standing for.
It is called: solidarity.
Great post, Jack, and I know you and Family Focus did great work at the conference. I’m proud to stand in solidarity with you (and with my son, who started a new job today doing anti-fracking advocacy)!
Telling a child you stand FOR them can help them feel protected (the standard paternalistic view, not 100% invalid), but can also (particularly with older children) lead them to resentment – “Who are you to stand FOR me when you don’t really KNOW me? Only I can stand for myself!” I’ve experienced this myself with my own kids. How can you expect these children to feel the full effect – satisfaction, catharsis, triumph – of successfully dealing with their personal demons if you’ve decided for them what they need and forced it on them? But telling them you are going to stand WITH them doesn’t take away the validity of their experiences, their feelings, and their power. They have to get through this stuff, and what they don’t need is someone taking the process away from them, handing it over to the workers, doctors, judges, etc. to work it out for them, and handing it back as pre-chewed leftovers – “We’ve made all the decisions because we are the experts (read: we are ABOVE you), here’s what is left for you to do. #1… behave! #2… have productive goals…”
What a difference it could make to tell them you are not above them, but at their side, ready to assist THEM with whatever they need to figure stuff out. Imagine two doctors from a teaching hospital in surgery: when the student doctor calls for the suture, the teaching doctor hands over the suture and stands by to help if needed, s/he doesn’t say, “Get out of the way and let ME stitch up the wound, I’m the expert, you just watch.” And as you mentioned, as a gay man fighting for equal civil rights, I’ve experienced this internally. I have a problem with straight lawmakers – elected to “represent” me – who say they they are weighing options, evolving on their position, and “in favor of” rights. Why? Because other than at the polls, their decisions don’t affect them, yet they hold all the power and can make arbitrary decisions that might or might not help me. But I am grateful for straight allies who march with me in protests, or sign petitions, or appear BEFORE those lawmakers. They recognize that they can’t “know how I feel,” but they can recognize that I am in a struggle, and so they have decided that I know what is best for myself, and they want to lend their support in my achievement of it. MY achievement – their support.
It makes a big difference!
“What is missing” is solidarity in the “American judicial system” for the rights of our children. As a foster parent it shocks me to see how fiercely our honorable judges protects the rights of parents who have proven (sometimes generationally) to be horrifically abusive. Yet they get chance after chance to insure the cycle of cruelty. Where are the rights of the baby who was chemically assaulted in utero and is forever robbed of the full use of his brain. Now, if someone took that same adult and forcibly injected her with a chemical that left her brain damaged there would be no question as to the criminality of such an act and the full arm of the law would come crashing down upon the perpetrator. Where’s our righteous indignation! We need a Martin Luther, Ghandi kind of revolution to fight for the “civil rights” of our children. CHANGE THE LAWS!!!!
“You are on my side”, “Pop is on my side”, that is what I have always heard from your sons. If that isn’t solidarity, what is? So it took you 32 years to put the word with the definition. Hopefully this word will help others “get it”, but you always have.