Trayvon Martin

(Note: Most of these posts began as reflections during my first 10 years with the boys. Clearly, and sadly, there have been many incidents of racial violence towards black males—not to mention the Charleston massacre—that I could use as starting points for this topic. But the specific case of Trayvon Martin—who was guilty of nothing more than being a young black male wearing a hoodie walking in a neighborhood where he had a home—has a particular resonance for me.

At the same time, writing about a race-related topic makes me nervous. Although I have black sons, live in a black neighborhood, and count a number of black people among my closest friends, I never want to come across as if I know about the black experience. I don’t know. But these incidents touch me deeply, and I feel an emotional imperative to try to frame and process them for and with my sons. This post expresses one such meager attempt.)

It may be presumptuous for a Caucasian gay man to claim to feel terrified and heartsick at the shooting of Trayvon Martin. But upon hearing the news that day in 2012, this is exactly how I felt.

There is nothing fair about what happened in that situation, just as many would argue there is nothing fair about growing up black in America. Whatever the legalities of George Zimmerman using a gun to “stand his ground” if he felt his life was threatened, the simple truth is that he chose—against the direction of law enforcement, whom he contacted for support—to follow an African-American male who had every right to be walking those neighborhood streets, however “thug” he might appear.

When Daveon was in the fourth grade, he used to complain that his teacher—who was not black—used to discipline him for talking when “everyone else was talking just as much” as he was, without her saying anything.

We talked about what might be going on:

  • Daveon actually was talking more than the other students, even though he thought he was not.
  • He was talking the same as the other students, but maybe his voice was louder than theirs*, so the teacher heard him and not the others.
  • The teacher was—consciously or unconsciously—targeting him because he is black.

(*An issue that has come up multiple times when either boy is the only African-American in a room full of other kids.)

From there, we discussed how he might respond:

  • Talk to the teacher. Explain he felt he was being singled out unfairly, and see if they could work something out.
  • Keep doing what he was doing, and accept the consequences.
  • Try to be quieter than the other students in order to “appear” equal.

This specific conversation became a template for many others I’ve had with both Daveon and Mark about being young black men in America. In some people’s eyes, you are not going to be seen as “the same.” You will be assumed to be a potential troublemaker, a threat. There is nothing fair, or right, or just about this—it just is.

So, if you feel like you are being treated unfairly, you can:

  • Try to speak to the person in question to address the situation.
  • Keep doing what you are doing based on the principle of “I’m not doing anything wrong, so there’s nothing I need to change,” and let the chips fall where they might.
  • Try to act “better” than the people around you to be seen as equal.

If this sounds like putting a lot of work on the shoulders of those who are the recipients, rather than the causes, of the problem, I would say, “Yes, it is.” And then I would repeat: There is nothing fair, or right, or just about this—it just is.

None of these approaches is the “right” answer, but I want to arm my kids with them anyway—along with all the standard tips about avoiding certain neighborhoods at certain times, not associating with people whose association can lead you to trouble, making smart choices if you are pursued by a stranger or stopped by the police, and so on—to at least give them the sense that they have some choice, some say, in how they respond to unjust profiling.

In a city where a black male is gunned down on average more than once per week, I can only hope these strategies will be enough to see my kids through.

Next: Warm, Cool

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Lesson

(Note: I’m posting this on Father’s Day. As my gift to myself, it’s shorter than usual [not really—it just turned out that way]. Happy Belated to all the fathers out there, gay, single, adoptive, and otherwise!)

One thing I’ve learned about parenthood, is that pretty much daily you can count on your kids to do something that completes this sentence: They will __________ your heart.

Break, melt, warm, burst, fill, flood, wound … you name it. If there’s any way your heart can be impacted positively or negatively, your kids will find a way to do it.

Sometimes in multiple ways, in the same sentence.

One day early in our time together, I lit into Mark pretty badly. As you might expect if you’ve been reading these posts for awhile, I can’t even remember what he did. What I do remember is that I threw everything I had from the “bad parent discipline” book at him: yelling, screaming, probably an insult or two, maybe even some snide put-downs/name-calling.

I am very grown up at all times.

After my tirade, I stormed upstairs, leaving him curled on his bed a huddled, crying mess. Keep in mind, he couldn’t have been more the 6, 7 at the time.

A few minutes later, he appeared in the kitchen. I didn’t know what to expect when I saw him: Our first (but certainly not last) “I hate you!”? Something (preferably a stuffed animal) thrown at my head? A kick?

Whatever it was, I certainly didn’t expect this:

“Can I have a hug?”

A hug. Asking for a hug from the lunatic who just raged at, spewed at, belittled you not five minutes ago. I learned so much in that moment about both my son’s capacity for love and our bond (as my heart was breaking—melting—ballooning), and I have used it as a reference point ever since.

One of the ongoing messages of adoptive parent recruiting and training is, “You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be good enough.” Even at my worst, Mark made a point to let me I was good enough … and I am eternally grateful for the lesson.

Next: Trayvon Martin

Straight People

Before I had kids, I considered myself a pretty “equal opportunity” gay guy. Some of my best friends were, and are, straight!

What parenthood taught me is that, as far as the straight world goes, I had a lot to learn.

In my usual “wing it” fashion, I hadn’t at all thought about how being a dad would put me into a world that is overwhelmingly—almost exclusively—straight. (This might come as a surprise to you, but most parents are straight.)

For the most part, this has been fine. A lot of straight people are really nice! And genuine, thoughtful, caring, funny, etc. But—and this is based just on my own experience, so take it for what it’s worth—what I found is, a lot of them have this … way. It’s a bit hard to describe, but it has to do with accepting certain statements or perspectives as givens, but without ever questioning where this perspective comes from.

An example from my own childhood: As a high school senior, I applied to eight colleges, and was accepted to all of them. (Yes, I was one of those kids.) A few of these colleges were Ivy League. When my parents and I met with my high school college counselor, he said: “Of course, you will go to one of the Ivies.” We—not exactly the most college-savvy trio—all nodded our heads, in tacit agreement. Of course.

No one—least of all myself—bothered to ask about that “of course.” Why was that a given? I’m sure there are a million good reasons for attending an Ivy League school, but, for any given student, maybe a non-Ivy was as good a—or even a better—fit. And you know how I feel about fit.

That kind of thing has come up with my dealings with the straight people—teachers, coaches, other parents—in my kids’ lives all the time. That (implicit or explicit) “of course” attached to many issues around schooling, discipline, developmentally appropriate behavior, extracurricular activities, etc. etc. etc.:

  • “Of course teenage boys act this way.”
  • “Of course you don’t want to send them to X high school.” (shades of my Ivy conversation)
  • “Of course it’s preferable for kids to be raised by a mom and a dad.” (yes, someone actually said this to me)

I’m pretty sure I’ve even had a few “of course” conversations about which kinds of snacks the kids should eat, and what brand of shoes to buy. Thanks for this.

This was all somewhat confusing—not to mention off-putting—to me, until the day a wise (non-straight) friend of mine explained it this way: Society has developed a million and one conventions. Both the developers, and the beneficiaries, of these conventions are straight people. Therefore, a straight person—especially a straight white person, and super especially a straight white male—growing up in our society never needs to challenge these conventions. In fact, for the most part, this group isn’t even aware that the conventions exist, so there’s nothing to call into question. The best parallel I can think of is living on a planet where there is only one language is spoken. If you lived on that planet, it would never occur to you that there is such as a thing as a “language,” and that maybe there are other ways to describe a dog, a cloud, or a chair.

For the non-straight—and non-white and non-male, etc.—person, forming one’s identity is all about recognizing, questioning, and then accepting/rejecting/customizing society’s conventions. Because many of them don’t “work” for us, we can spot a convention a mile away—and often run screaming (not that I speak from personal experience). Many if not most of us form a more idiosyncratic approach to life.

I like to think this is part of the reason the boys and I have bonded as well as we have. They have clearly not grown up according to the dominant conventions, and have from the earliest days been forced to adopt their own viewpoints—to call into question pretty much everything that the majority takes as a given. So landing with a dad who, in a very different way, has gone—and continues to go—through the same process has created a unit of like-minded souls.

Of course.

Next: Lesson

Spanking

Closing out this section on “Good Ideas and Bad Ones” is a topic I’m definitely not proud of, and yet I’m not sure I can say I’m ashamed of.

I have, indeed, spanked my kids.

One of the most—maybe the most—inviolable rules of the fost-adopt training, was: As a foster parent, no corporal punishment. Period. This was “We’re not joking, we’ll have Child Protective Services come and take them away” serious. Not that I minded. Being a hippie/pacifist at heart, I always figured that logical and compassionate reward/consequence systems would take care of most behavioral problems. (Also, my father was a belt man. And you know what? Neither my sisters nor I put that on the list of “things we recall fondly about dad.”)

So for our first year together—when my kids were still legally foster kids—we made use of a variety of non-physical behavior strategies, many of them described elsewhere on this blog. Like most things, these strategies worked pretty well most of the time, except when they didn’t. And by the time we finalized the adoption in court that November—at which point all foster-related restrictions were off—I had gotten so used to “no spank” parenting that it didn’t enter the picture for a very long time.

Until it did. You would think I would have a clear memory of the monstrous crime, the tremendous calamity, that cause me to put my son over my knee and connect palm to rear.

You would be wrong. I have no idea which action, or which kid, caused the first move into physical territory. I do remember they must have been at least 8 and 10, maybe even 9 and 11, which means we had been together at least three years by that time. As I pointed out to them, these were ridiculous ages for them to start getting spankings, since that was around the time most kids were stopping getting them.

Never let it be said that my kids aren’t sometimes a step or two behind their peers.

In any case, here’s what I do remember about spankings. One, they lasted for a period or two or three years—maybe a bit longer for Mark—and the total number for both kids combined can’t be more than a dozen. So, for what it’s worth, the house didn’t turn into a regular smack factory.

Two, spanking was always a second-line response. It usually looked like this: Kid does something. Dad responds with consequence/lecture/etc. Kid gets mouthy and belligerent. Dad tells kid to simmer down. Kid does not respond in kind. Dad warns kid that the options now are a) go along with the original consequence/lecture, quietly, or b) if the belligerence/mouthiness continues, get a spanking. And on those dozen or so occasions over those few years, option b) occasionally won out. And Dad and his hand responded in kind. (And in case you’re wondering: No, in practice, this didn’t play out anywhere near as calm as it sounds on the page.)

Three: The majority of spankings went to Mark. This is where Daveon’s headiness came to his assistance: When he started spiraling, he (usually) was still able to process the a/b options and come up with the solution that worked to his advantage. Mark, who is much more a gut-level player, generally has no such filter. When the spiral starts, it just keeps on keeping on. I often felt like spanking Mark was equivalent to those scenes in the movies where person A starts to get hysterical, person B gives person A a sharp slap across the cheek, and person B, now fully calm, says, “Thanks, I needed that.”

Believe it or not, Mark has never thanked me for spanking him. On the other hand, it certainly did calm him down. One therapist, while not condoning the practice, did say that for some kids, that kind of physical response can cut through and break things down in a way that words or other behaviors don’t. So there’s that.

I am not trying to justify the spanking years, which—to the great relief of my hand, my kids, and their butts—ended quite a while ago. But it would feel like “keeping secrets” if I didn’t come clean about piece of our family puzzle.

And now that I’ve gotten that off my chest … on to something more fun!

Next: Straight People

Time-Ins and Tantrums

As we get close to the end of the “good ideas and bad ones” section of this blog, I’d like to share two good behavior strategies I’ve picked up over the years. One I learned from parents far more experienced and wiser than me, and the other one I’m pretty sure I made up.

Note: If you read the second one and think, “You didn’t make that up. I told you,” please don’t take it personally. I have a lousy memory. Also, please don’t sue me.

The strategy I learned from my betters is the time-in. This is a variation of the famous time-out, or, as those of us of a certain age might remember it, “Go to your room.” (Or, as Dennis the Menace remembers it, “Go sit in the corner.”) For those of you raised by peaceniks or spankers, the time-out concept is simple: If you keep jumping off the couch or teasing the dog or hitting your sister, etc. after being told to stop—usually after a warning or two—you take a time-out. This usually involves going to your room, or the corner, or a separate room and sitting in a designated space for a designated time—one minute, 5 minutes, the rest of the day. For kids of a certain age, sitting for 5 minutes feels like the rest of their life, so you have to gauge accordingly.

Both during my AASK trainings and in dealing with a few child therapists, the recommendation was instead for a time-in. A time-in works exactly the same as a time-out, except instead of sending the kid out to another room, you have him or her sit in the room with you. The theory makes sense: Foster/adoptive kids usually suffer from a sense of abandonment, so you don’t want to do anything that creates a feeling of isolation. You need to work extra hard to communicate, “There is a consequence for ripping Snakey’s eyes out when I told you to leave your brother’s stuffed animals alone. And, I’m still here, I still love you, and we’re still together.”

Plus, what could be more effective than having your kid continue to see his victimized sibling continue to play—in plain sight—while he needs to sit in a chair?

Not to mention: In an era where every kid has his or her own phone and/or tablet, a game console, and a TV, “go to your room” is about as harsh a consequence as “go spend a weekend in Vegas.” Not exactly fear-inducing.

Meanwhile, the strategy I will claim to have invented: the structured tantrum. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but bear with me.

Being a big believer in the “let it all out” approach to dealing with feelings—in another life I was probably Yoko Ono—I am all about tantrums. Also crying, moaning, sobbing, laughing hysterically, and other outbursts. I believe they are good for the soul. The only problem is, unlike with those other forms of expressions, tantrums can break things. And hurt people.

So we had a tantrum rule: If you get really mad, have a tantrum. Go all out—make the neighbors worry for our safety.

But do it in your room. Ideally, on your bed. Where punching, kicking, and throwing are involved, limit it to soft things: pillows, mattresses, covers. Within those soft constraints, the sky’s the limit—easier to replace a pillowcase than a shattered vase, not to mention your brother’s head.

You might not be surprised to hear which of my kids was the tantrum-thrower. (Hint: I used to encourage Daveon to throw more tantrums, which is pretty weird on one level, but makes a little more sense if you think about it in terms of trying to get a heady person a bit outside of his head.) For Mark the structured tantrum approach worked surprisingly well. When he would start to get steamed about—well, he used to get steamed about a lot of things—the cue “If you want to throw a tantrum, hit the bed” was successful almost all the time. And he would inevitably feel better after getting it all out—the whole point of a tantrum, after all. So it was a win for all of us—him, his feelings, the vases, and his brother’s bones.

Next: Spanking