What would baby Match.com even be called?

9 04 2012

About six months ago, something pretty crazy happened in my family–the best baby ever was born to my brother and my sister-in-law. I know everyone feels that way about their nieces and nephews, but in this case it’s true. We can all stop looking.

Obviously, I love the kid like crazy. Therefore, I talk about her and force people to look at pictures from time to time. I try to control myself, honestly. Like I said, though–best baby ever.

I noticed something weird happens when you talk about a baby. Everyone wants to set them up on dates.

I’m sure you’re scratching your head, and I assure you, I agree. It makes no sense. But it’s an uncontrollable urge that apparently affects many. As soon as I mention my super cool adorable niece, people start saying:

“Oh, my son’s a year old, we’ll have to set them up!”
I don’t know you, and I’m sure he’s not good enough.

“She’s in day care? Any little boys got their eye on her?”
No, they can’t sit up unassisted yet.

“Oh, remind them they’re related!”
This was the grossest comment, in reference to my niece and her cousin wacking each other on the arm. I thought it was a cute moment, others thought we needed to turn a hose on the infants.

We’re going to leave the heteronormativity aside for the moment (though it would be nice to switch that up, please) and focus on the bizarre sexualization of kids. Little kids.

I’m not talking about criminal stuff. I’m talking about these weird comments that strike some unfunny people as the height of comedy. It makes sense, to some degree. The idea of babies as mini adults is kind of amusing, in the way that animals wearing hats is a bit funny. But we all remember that animals in costume is an unnatural thing that shouldn’t extend beyond a photo op. People don’t always remember this when it comes to their kids.

As soon as the girls spring forth from the womb, people tell their fathers that they should be locking them up because they’re pretty (it worked for Rapunzel’s evil witch-mom, right?) or that they shouldn’t let them date. The boys are told that they’ll be heart-breakers. Even weirder is when baby boys are called “tough guys.” Yeah, he just shit his pants and now he’s crying about it. Real tough.

I see this constantly in my work. As a youth worker at Anonymous Youth Center, I often assisted in pre-school. The teacher had to send a note home over the summer, requesting that parents not dress their girls in a “sexy style.” This is what it was called. I’m not joking.

I am not creeped out by a little kid who wants to be naked all the time, or little girls swimming topless at the beach, as there’s not anything for them to hide. But a triangle bikini with a metal ring between the “cups,” tube tops, mini skirts…where the hell did they even buy these things?

Don’t worry, it’s not just the girls. On more than one occasion I have heard a man proudly declare that he doesn’t need a DNA test, he knows that baby boy is his. “Cuz he’s well endowed, y’know?”

Actually sir, I do know. I assisted mom during a diaper change. If that infant ween reminds you of your own, I am amazed that you procreated in the first place.

One mother had the decency to tell her baby’s father, “Do not talk about my son’s package!” Normally I deduct points for use of the term “package,” but I let it go in this case.

Only moments later, though, the baby started fussing when his mother was getting his into his onesie. She assured him that they would be done in a minute. “Don’t worry, papi, almost done, you’re almost dressed, there we go, all sexy.”

Ew. What?

Yeah. Parents call their kids sexy. A lot. No one seems to object. Then the kids turn thirteen, talk constantly about dating, and everyone is confused. “You’ll have time for that when you’re older! Why are you in such a rush to act grown?” You dressed her up to go clubbing and tried your hand at matchmaking when she was eight months old. Forgive the children for getting some mixed messages. It’s funny and cute when you do it, but they’re sluts not acting their age when they imitate you? OK…

Childhood is supposed to be fun and carefree, but we all know it generally isn’t. Even if your childhood isn’t filled with abuse, neglect, gang warfare, or domestic violence, being a kid can be stressful. You don’t understand anything. Everyone tells you what to do, and your parents are constantly bringing you places and not telling you until you get there. I remember seeing my little cousin in the hospital for the first time the day he was born. I hadn’t even known my aunt was pregnant. My head kind of exploded.

Kids have enough going on. As much as we romanticize dating when we’re no longer in the scene, we should all take a moment to remember that, for the most part, it sucks. You question your every move and Facebook post, you can’t just talk to someone without wondering where it’s going, and middle aged relatives won’t stop telling you about their friends’ kid who met someone on eHarmony.

We’re not pushing our kids to file their taxes or make appointments at the DMV, so we should probably hold off on dating as well.

Nobody worry, I’m back! Please hold the confetti.

27 03 2012

I’m sure this past week you all sat at your computers, despondent and tearing your hair out due to lack of SocialJerk updates.

No? Maybe a little? I’m being told you were actually all fine. Well, all right then.

Point is, I was gone. For a week. Vacation is important for people in stressful jobs. Unfortunately, “social worker” didn’t make it onto Tina Fey’s work related stress level chart, but I think we’re somewhere between “business guys who do stuff with money” and “managing a Chili’s on a Friday night.” We need to vacate every so often, in order to maintain our sanity.

So the boyfriend and I packed it up for a few days in Orlando. That’s right, Disney, Universal Studios, Pirate’s Cove mini golf, and lots of churros. It’s not what you would necessarily call a relaxing vacation, of course. First of all, the girl who wrote this went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I saw Hagrid’s hut, drank pumpkin juice, toured Hogwart’s, and pretty much turned into Kristen Bell meeting a sloth.

Plus there are crowds, heat, lines, and children. Some moments make you think, “aw, doing this with kids would be so fun!” But more make you think, “thank Jesus we’re the weird adults waiting way too long for the Peter Pan ride.”

You see a lot of sweet family moments, and a lot of nominees for the Terrible Parenting Hall of Fame. (It’s located in Cleveland.) Your two year old is having a tantrum after spending a fourteen hour day in direct sunlight with no nap? Why, that’s practically unheard of! You’re encouraging your seven year old to stomp on adult’s feet to cut to the front of the line at the Haunted Mansion? I can’t identify a single bad lesson there, good work!

But through all the exhaustion, all of the instances of wishing people wouldn’t try to sneak their kids onto rides they’re too little for, there’s one think you have to love–kids are enthusiastic. Whether it was the nine year old next to me on the Test Track at Epcot, yelling, “Now that’s what I call a roller coaster!” or the six year old next to me on the Tower of Terror gleefully informing me that she didn’t scream at all (I could not say the same) kids enjoy things to the fullest and let you know what they’ve achieved. They’re not worried about looking dumb.

It stops at some point. They become cool. Or at least, they want to be. And there’s nothing worse than a child trying to be cool. At one point, in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, I looked to my left and saw a four year old dressed in a full Buzz Lightyear costume. He was in heaven and thought he looked amazing. Directly in front of me were three overindulged pre-teens, saying to their father, “Oh my God, this is just birds talking? Can we go? Whose idea was this?”

Yeah, it’s birds talking. It’s awesome, kid, and you’ll do better to enjoy it.

Because taking a vacation from thinking about work would actually make my brain explode, of course I had to relate it back. This probably most accurately sums up what I love about working with children, before they get prematurely interested in dating and therefore way too concerned about looking cool. They just think they’re good at everything. We always talk about what a person’s strengths are in social work. Ask an eight year old what they’re good at. I hope you have a while. All five year olds are good at drawing. Maybe two of my friends will say they are. Singing, dancing, acting, playing the kazoo, training dogs, doing imitations of cartoon voices? All viable career options for the under ten year olds I work with, based on their stunning talents.

Then I ask my teenagers. As much as I love them, the answers of what they’re good at are decidedly different. (Unless they’re trying to be brash and obnoxious, but you can tell they don’t really mean it.) “Um, I don’t know. What do you mean, what am I good at?” “Nothing, not really.” “I guess I do well in school?”

So, some of my favorites, in no particular order.

1.) Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I had the five to nine year olds out on the playground. A seven year old boy came up to me, unprovoked, to let me know, “I’m really good at running backwards. See, like this.”

He then proceeded to run. Backwards. I’ll be honest, it was mediocre. Because no one is good at running backwards. But he was thrilled to pieces and way proud of himself.

2.) More recently, at Anonymous Agency, one of my eight year old girls started talking about her dreams from the future after a counseling session. “Do you want to hear me sing? I want to be professional. Like, on The Voice.”

As we walked through the office, back to the waiting room where her mom was, past all of my coworkers whom she had never met, she sang something I now unfortunately know to be “Baby” by Justin Bieber. (I’m not linking to it. You’re welcome.) This kid sang with one finger on her ear, because that’s how Christina Aguilera does it.

3.) A six year old girl, when I was an intern, told me, “I think I want to be an archaeologist and a chef and a ballet dancer. But also, I should be an artist, because I’m the best at drawing.”

She owed it to the world.

4.) A nine year old boy insisted on reciting his times tables to me, because he was the only one who had memorized all the way up to twelve. It took a long time, but I was pretty damn impressed.

5.) “Breakdancing? I’m really good at breakdancing!” A ten year old boy, who of course got down on the ground to dance in the waiting room. He was undeterred by the fact that no one had mentioned breakdancing.

My social work advice for the week? If you’re feeling down and bored, try for a minute to look at the world and yourself through the eyes of a latency age child. There’s probably something to get excited about.

If not, find a child to laugh at. That should work too.

The monster at the end of this blog

2 03 2012

When I mention that I work in child welfare, there are a couple of questions that people instantly have. One is how I afford to live in New York on that pathetic salary. Well, I managed to afford not one, not two, but THREE awesome pairs of Chuck Ts, so there you go. The next is how I manage to work with those monstrous parents.

I think this is one of the greatest misconceptions of what we do. When I talk about working with parents, utilizing their strengths, and helping them to find their own solutions, people often get a bit tetchy. “Do you really think they deserve that?” “They’re abusive, their children should just be taken away!” Sometimes they throw in an eye roll and condescension, free of charge! “Yeah, I’m sure thinking about what they’ve done and getting in touch with their feelings will fix everything.”

I blame television.

The fact of the matter is, most people do not wake up and plot to torture their children throughout the day. It happens.  There are terrible people in the world. When it happens, you typically hear about it on the news. Years later, you see a special on Dr. Phil, now that Oprah is no longer with the daytime viewers. It’s a big deal because it’s so rare. Commonplace stuff we all deal with doesn’t make it to the box. “Today, you’ll see a family squabble momentarily over what cereal to buy, before realizing that Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios are actually both on sale.” Chilling.

Abusive monsters exist. So do serial killers. (I swear there’s a parallel, so bear with me.) If you get your information on the topic of crime from Law & Order, Criminal Minds, Bones, and their ilk, you would think that 90% of murders are committed by a brilliant, deranged longer who has a secret room wallpapered with pictures of women, with lots of pins in them, leading a team of equally brilliant, extremely good looking federal agents in a game of cat and mouse.

But when we look at what actually happens, that doesn’t reflect reality. Most people are killed by someone they know. It’s usually unplanned and involves that whole “heat of the moment” “in a rage” thing. Those criminal minds aren’t nearly so brilliant, as the initial defense is often something along the lines of, “she stabbed herself? I mean, she asked me to stab her!”

Child abuse is frequently similar. According to Law & Order: SVU and Lifetime movies, abuse often involves international intrigue, plots to sell babies, and kids being chained to radiators. The “chained to a radiator” thing just will not go away. For the amount of times I’ve heard that one, I would estimate that upwards of half of all American children have spent at least an hour of their day secured to a heating appliance.

That’s just not the case. Parents who hit their kids are most often people who were raised with physical discipline, and are using it excessively themselves, or are parents who have snapped. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Physical discipline is not illegal. You’re allowed to spank your kids. (Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, but that’s an entirely different…I won’t say “can of worms,” because that’s gross, but you know what I mean.) You’re not allowed to beat them with objects or leave marks or bruises on them. But when people are overwhelmed, stressed, don’t have realistic and developmentally appropriate expectations of their kids, and don’t have a lot of support, sometimes they lash out in an effort to make themselves feel better.

Before any righteous smartasses jump in, I’m not defending murder, child abuse, spandex, or any other horrors. As in the case of typical murderer vs. serial killer, losing one’s temper doesn’t make it OK. There are still consequences, and the injured parties are still equally hurt. But pretending that people are, in fact, monsters, just doesn’t help.

We can look at these parents as evil caricatures. It makes us feel really good about ourselves. I might make mistakes, but I’m not like those people! It often makes those who hear my touchy-feely social work talk feel quite righteous and superior to say, “Well, I think those parents should be in prison! Those children should be removed!”

Because that solves everything, right? It has to happen sometimes, of course. But it’s generally best for kids to not have to go through removal, and to not have parents in prison.

If there were some magical farm run by happy, plump grandmas, who spent the day baking cookies, reading aloud, and raising puppies, where we could send all of these children, it might be a bit different. Magical farm doesn’t exist. Believe me, I’ve checked.

When we acknowledge that these things–abuse and neglect, which unchecked and at their worse lead to the death of a child–are usually not the deliberate acts of evil individuals, they become much scarier.

I routinely have nightmares that I am somehow complicit in someone’s death. I see them drowning in Jell-O and do nothing, I drive a monster truck into a playground, I accidentally throw peanut butter at someone with a severe allergy on the bus. (Hey, I said they were dreams.) In those dream moments, I have these thoughts. “Holy shit, how did that happen?” I think it’s because I have seen, time and again, how things get out of hand.

Also, I’m addicted to Dateline.

It’s not about rationalizing or explaining away a parent’s behavior. Having the good intention of trying to potty train your toddler doesn’t mean that it’s OK that the child wound up with a dislocated shoulder. But it does make a difference in how we address it.

An evil monster doesn’t learn and change. A person with the right intentions, but few skills and poor self control, can. Often they want to. But they’re defensive. I hear it all the time. “I lost my temper and I hit her. I’m not one of those abusive parents you see on the news, though!”

I’m sure they’re not. And that’s why I got sent in, not Nancy Grace. Before we go any further, let’s all just agree that she’s bad for society. OK? Great.

Not everyone deserves a second chance. (I think we all know what singer/dancer’s direction I’m looking in.) But a lot of people do. From a practical standpoint, even if we think it’s not for the best, they’re very often getting their children back. So we need to work with them, because so often, things can get better.

And no one can work well with monsters.

Our work is serious business. Please pass the glitter.

27 02 2012

My agency does a great job of offering trainings. Most aren’t mandatory, but we do have those as well. (They sure are fun. And relevant!) As long as your supervisor approves, and you can get all your work done (numbers, numbers, numbers) you can be trained to your heart’s content.

I decided to take a play therapy training a little while back. I chose it because I felt that I needed better tools to reach my younger kids, I needed a better understanding of what techniques work best with what kids, it didn’t interfere horribly with anything else, and it would get me out of the office. Oh, and I like to play.

Play is how kids communicate. No matter how clever and verbal they are, if they’re under eleven, they need to play. If they’re over eleven, they still need to play, though there are more options at that point for talking while playing. It can be hard to remember this, if you have an eight year old tell you “I need to lay on a couch and talk. Like, real therapy” or a parent saying, “So my kid is acting like a nightmare, and you’re sitting around playing games with him?!” But we need to educate our participants about what works with kids. I tried just talking with an eight year old, back when I was an intern. Rookie mistake, SJ.

This is even true for kids who think they don’t like to play. When my kids talk about playing, they are invariably talking about playing video games. I’m not against video games, but kids need to experience play and the worlds in other ways. Older kids see art as something for children, and boys see it as something for girls. But when you get them to try it, often you can’t get them to stop.

The trainer got me on board immediately when she said that she refused to use the Talking, Feeling, & Doing Game.

If you’ve never used it, it’s a board game in which you collect chips for responding to different cards. You either answer a question, share your feelings on something, or do a little something. I’m sure some of you love it. I just happen to find it quite tedious. I don’t feel like it really gets me anywhere. Also, I was once going through the cards, and one of the “doing” cards asked the person to pretend that they were looking at a magazine with naked pictures of men and women.

Um, no, I don’t want to!

Point is, it’s not for me. We have to be genuine in our work. I can’t feign enthusiasm or belief in that game. But there are many other games and activities that are genuinely awesome.

This trainer reminded us all of the importance of keeping things simple. We don’t need cutting edge therapeutic toys. It’s OK if you don’t have multiracial, anatomically correct puppets and a dollhouse. Doing things with parents and children that they can replicate at home is very powerful, and effective.

This is especially good because our playroom sucks. It is clearly filled with discarded toys that some kind soul donated, so that they can torture another generation. Most of them make noise. Great for counseling, and for the people working around us! The rest are in shambles and missing pieces. Playing Candyland with Sorry pieces and these people.

Here are my go-tos:

Ah, checkers. A real classic. Easy to set up (not like Mousetrap. Anyone else ever have that game? It almost drove my father to self-harm.) and not too hard to keep pieces together. Like with most low-key, traditional games, we can see and help kids to take turns, learn patience, follow rules–you know, all that crap that lets them be a part of society.

It’s just like checkers, but vertical! I have kind of an unnatural love for this game. As in, even in my personal life. It’s great for almost all ages, and it’s quick, so even if you destroy the kid the first time around, they’ll have another chance.

Kids love Uno. Why wouldn’t they? It’s awesome. It’s one of those games that they never feel too old for. It’s huge amongst my teenagers, they all play it at lunch. You can see pretty easily if a child is insecure when you’re playing–are they refusing to throw down a draw four, because they think you won’t like them? Time for a chat!

Regular playing cards are also great. They’re cheap, and often given out for free, so they’re easy to send families home with. It’s pretty awesome to teach a family Spit, Rob the Pack, Rummy, even Texas Hold’em (which I swear was a one time thing) and hear them talk about their game nights the next week.

My Lego bin is one of my most prized possessions. Legos are great. They’re a creative medium and they get kids engaged. (Boys and girls, both. Honestly.)

Crayola is my best friend. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to art supplies I just am. There’s really no comparison. Don’t come at me with your White Rose. Watercolors are great, because you can totally finger paint if you want to, and they’re perfectly washable. It’s great for those parents (and kids) who get so worked up about the kids staying pristine and their clothes being unstained. Kids can be kids, no one will get hurt.

Of course, my number one favorite is Play-Doh. It’s tactile and great for aggressive or hyper kids to manipulate. Playing with it can easily be broken down into steps, which is great for kids who tend to get a little ahead of themselves. The weekly process of “What are we going to make? OK, which colors do we need? What do we make first?” was incredibly effective on a six year old with severe ADHD. And even more fun than laying on a couch.

I recently Tweeted this picture as an example of why I love my job. People never believe me when I tell them social work is fun, and I get that. But social work is fun. This is my desk drawer, containing a small example of my work supplies. As hard as the job can get, helping kids cope by playing with them is a pretty sweet way to spend the day.

Real men wear pink

13 04 2011

Guys, you are not going to believe this. I hope everyone is sitting down.

Fox News published an offensive, ill-informed article.

I know, right?

A psychiatrist wrote this report about a truly horrifying photo of a mother in a J. Crew catalogue painting her little boy’s toenails. She was painting them pink.

Oh wait, that’s not a big deal? No one fucking cares? It has no effect on this child, indicates nothing about his personality, and we should think it’s nice that he and his mother spend time together and not read anything into it? OK, cool.

I can’t believe we even have to have this discussion. It’s just so silly. Adults, not these children, make it an issue. Frequently, these adults are not even the people most involved in the child’s life. (Beautifully pointed out in this article.) But this is a social work issue.

So often parents come to us, wanting to know if their children are “normal.”

“She’s eating paste…do they all do that?”
“He talks to himself. And he answers.”
“She only answers to the name Twilight Sparkle.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had a parent come in, concerned because their young child eschews gender norms. I worked with an eight year old girl who only wanted Spiderman toys. I agreed that this was lame, because Batman is so much cooler, but then I realized something. Mom was concerned that her daughter was a lesbian.

It’s not like the kid wanted a Wonder Woman action figure.

Child development is kind of our thing. We understand that sex and gender are not fixed as a permanent concept in children until around age six. We can help nervous parents to understand a few important things:

  1. Your little boy having a tea party or your baby girl wanting to be a race car driver does not indicate anything about their sexuality.
  2. Whatever your child’s sexuality, you better just accept it, because there’s nothing you can do about it.
  3. Whatever your child’s sexuality, you shouldn’t want to do anything about it. It is a part of who he or she is. One identity is not superior to another

Acceptance, treating people with unconditional positive regard, and seeing the worth and dignity in every person are all important parts of our ethical code as social workers. This includes children. And it includes helping their parents to accept them, rather than want to change them.

My brother and I both wore pink and blue. My parents didn’t care. We watched Free to Be…You and Me, where we learned that it was a-ok if William wants a doll, and that it’s all right to cry–crying gets the sad out of you! I hated Barbies and was obsessed with Ninja Turtles. I refused to wear dresses. My brother was forced to watch and sing along to the Sound of Music more times than he cares to remember by his sister and all his female cousins. We both loved writing. We grew up with gay adults in our lives, and never thought that there was anything wrong with being gay.

And yet neither of us turned out gay.

My little cousin was captured for all time at age three, happily waving the baby doll and crib that I sent him for Christmas, crying later on when he misplaced his “dolly.” He grew up to be an enthusiastically heterosexual star athlete.

Doesn’t make sense, if we listen to the good asshole doctor in the offending Fox ‘news’ article. It’s so easy to alter someone’s sexuality! Just a nudge this way or that and it’s welcome to Gayville, population: you.

Therefore, it must be just as easy to turn someone straight.  Just slap a little nail polish on the girls, and give the boys a football. (No lesbians wear nail polish, and no gay boys like sports. It’s just science.)

We all know it doesn’t work like that. In the words of a great 21st century philosopher, you were born this way…baby.

Some idiots do believe that you can turn someone straight. The National Association of Social Workers disagrees. As does the American Medical Association. And the American Psychiatric Association. Oh, and the American Psychological Association, The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Academy of Physician Assistants…

You know. A bunch of elitists.

Parents worry about everything to do with their kids. Are they happy, are they healthy, will they be successful, will they get hurt, don’t they ever shut up?

It’s our job to help them to understand what truly constitutes a problem. To let their children know that they are loved, and that they are worth something, no matter what. We need to help parents understand that, as much influence they have over their children, there are things that can’t, and shouldn’t be, changed.

There’s enough to worry about with kids. This stuff? Let’s just help everyone accept it.

But…my mom thinks I’m special.

20 01 2011

My job does not just consist of helping people to get their lives reorganized and back together, or helping them to learn to be better parents. A lot of what I do involves helping people to believe in themselves. Letting them know that they are competent parents, they can succeed in school, and that they deserve good treatment.

A lot of what we’re trying to do is boost people’s self esteem.

You’re special. You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and dog-gone-it, people like you.

Sorry. I had to.

People like to bitch about “the self-esteem movement.” We’re obsessed with making kids feel like they’re unique and talented. Trying is just as meaningful as doing.

We all know that this doesn’t quite fly is “the real world,” as we adults have so narcissistically dubbed our own lives. I’ve tried telling my boss that I really tried to get my service plan done, but it just didn’t happen. The important thing is that I learned something, and I had a lot of fun.
She didn’t go for that. Even when I gave her my drawing of a butterfly.

We’ve all heard the complaints. Everyone gets a trophy, because everyone’s a winner. (Hint: when there are two teams, one loses.) We can’t play dodgeball, because it makes people feel bad. (When I worked at a youth center, I made the kids play. We all need to get our aggression out.) Everyone gets a chance to be Student of the Month. (That used to mean something when I won it! Right?)

We want to raise kids who can tolerate failure and disappointment. Who understand that things won’t always go their way. Who realize that talent is special, and no one has it for everything. That way, our kids don’t become those dreadful people who embarrass themselves on American Idol.

Excessive, meaningless self-esteem breeds arrogance and a sense of entitlement. We can all agree that this is bad.

I don’t deal with that much in my day to day work. Like so many of the latest child-rearing crazes, feeling overly good about oneself seems to go hand in hand with privilege.

The two teen girls’ groups I ran in the past year were focused on improving self-esteem. To hear the girls talk, you wouldn’t think this was necessary. They sounded pretty pleased with themselves.

“Miss, I know I look good.”
“If that boy don’t wanna be with me, it’s his loss.”
“I don’t play with peer pressure. I don’t care what people think.”

Wonderful! We can conclude group! Perhaps these girls can go on some kind of speaking tour, imparting their wisdom to others.

Except, as happens so often with humans, their actions don’t match their statements.

The girls talked a good game. They sounded confident. But their sense of self-worth was superficial. For all they talked about leaving guys who didn’t treat them right, they returned to those boys, or a similar one, week after week.

They don’t care what others think, until they’re the only girl in the group who thinks shoplifting does not sound like a good way to spend the afternoon. Somehow, when security shows up, she’s the one left (quite literally) holding the bag.

The self esteem movement hadn’t reached their parents and grandmothers, who were raising them. When pressed for specifics, these girls could not list one thing that they were good at. And so often, their parents were no help.

One girl’s mother had the common problem of interacting with her daughter as though they were peers.

“You’re looking fat today!”
“I swear, you are my dumbest child.”
“Why are you being such a bitch?”

It was hard to explain to this woman the damage that this kind of talk caused a fifteen year old girl.

“She shouldn’t do those things if she doesn’t want me talking about them. You hear how she talks to me?”

I do hear how she talks to you. I wonder wherever she could get it from.

Newsflash from the desk of the Obvious News Network–kids can be jerks, especially to their parents. As the person who brought them into this world, it’s your job to rise above it.

It’s also your job to make sure that they feel good about themselves. Somewhere along the line this idea got distorted.

We’re either praising our kids every time they successfully use the potty until they reach high school, and preparing for their future in the World Cup due to their skill at three-year-old “let’s all bunch around the ball!” soccer.

Or we’re engaging in “brutal honesty,” a self-serving concept that allows people to  be mean without feeling bad about it, as they should.

Shockingly, I believe there is middle ground. Maybe there is a way to keep your kid from belting out “I Believe I Can Fly” in the school talent show, when you know it will wind up going viral on YouTube, but not for good reasons. And maybe that way does not involve, telling your child the first time he opens his mouth, “Oh no. You suck. May God have mercy on your soul.”

If nothing else, you’ll be keeping your kid off reality TV (and Maury).   And that’s good for everyone.

“Think positive!” OK, but it’s really not in my nature.

18 01 2011

Well. It certainly is a lovely day. The forecast called for a “wintry mix,” and it was fulfilled. That sounds like a charming mix of hot cocoa, marshmallows, and being in the warm bosom of one’s family. It’s actually a potentially deadly mix of sleet, ice, and the wrath of God.

I also came in to three phone calls about one woman–her mental health services were being terminated due to an insurance issue, her baby’s father was bringing her to court to pursue full custody, and an ACS case had been called in for neglect.

While returning calls to four different sources, consoling a hysterical and terrified young mother, and trying to coordinate a home visit accommodating five different schedules, my latest intake showed up. Unannounced. With her hyperactive, nonverbal three year old. I was interrupted from that meeting to sign a declaration, stating that I understand that our agency prohibits falsifying records.

So…does that mean that up until now, I was permitted to falsify records? I could have written up a note, detailing a counseling session conducted on the back of a flying dragon?

This is what we refer to as, “one of those days.”

On days like this, it might help to hear about a true rarity: a social work success story.

I’ve been working with one young mother for about a year now. I’ve written about her, and her girls (a two and a four year old) extensively in the past.

This is because they’re awesome.

The case came to us because the mother had a history of domestic violence with the girls’ fathers. She left, went into a shelter, and needed some support.

We worked together over the course of the year, and she exemplified everything I love about young mothers.

Whenever her kids start displaying new, troublesome behaviors, her first instinct is to ask me–is this normal? Do kids their age do this?

A mother who checks child development first, and formulates a plan to address the problem second, is a rare and wonderful breed.

She, and her children, have grown so much over the past year. Mom has never hit the kids. She has mastered the timeout technique. “The girls crack me up, but I know I can’t laugh in front of them, or they’ll think it’s funny.”

What’s that you say? You enjoy your children, but recognize that there must be a boundary between them and you?

Not to mention that the kids are hilarious. The two year old attempts, on a daily basis, to ride the family’s Pomeranian around the living room. The four year old, recently annoyed at the lack of attention she was getting by sulking under a blanket, attempted to sidle down the hallway, all the while “hiding” under said blanket.

In the past year, I’ve seen the oldest go from a shy toddler who refused to say my name (hey, SocialJerk can be hard to pronounce) to an exuberant  little kid, who is excited to show me her books when I visit.

The two year old has developed an amazing sense of humor, and a serious love of food. I get to see her pretend to munch on a hamburger, and hear her mother say, “This is what you use your imagination for? Eating?” And then mouth to me, “What a fatty.” (Come on, it’s all said in love.)

I’m going to have to close this family’s case soon, but for a brief period of time, I get to visit a wonderful, loving mom, a constantly hungry (though well fed) hilarious two year old, and a bright, energetic four year old.

The girls are in pre-school and day care, and their mother is returning to college. She has no more contact with her abusive former partners. And in this case, I actually believe it! Mom has put distance between herself and her own abusive mother. She’s looking forward to getting her degree, and putting it to use.

Once in a while there’s a good story. And it’s enough to get us through fifteen bad ones.

Here’s hoping.

Lesson of the day: You’re all a bunch of self-serving jerks

15 11 2010

I include myself in that. We’re all looking out for number one. Not all the time, of course. We can all be altruistic at times. Overall, though, we do things to get something out of it.

Incentives make the world go ’round. Just think of the huge bonuses those Wall Street guys collect. I don’t follow the news too carefully, but I’m assuming that the reason we keep hearing about them is that they are incredibly effective and lead to no problems.

I’m at work today to help people. (Also to get paid.) You don’t speed in order to keep your fellow motorists safe. (And to avoid a speeding ticket.) You use the potty to get a cookie. (This blog is huge with the under 3 set.)

It follows that we try this with our clients as well. Everyone does it. How do you fill a room for a new group? I hope we all know the four magic words: Refreshments. Will. Be. Provided.

Teens are coming to group late? “Those of us with perfect attendance/punctuality will get to go on a trip at the end of the year!” Difficulty getting people in for sessions? “Well, we just got a donation of new winter coats. I was hoping to give some to your kids, but…oh, you’ll be here in ten minutes? Great.” “I understand that you want your case closed, now in November. But whatever will I do with all these Christmas presents?”

We all do what we have to do. To get our numbers and contacts, to make sure that people have a reason to come see us,  to get them to give us a chance to win them over and actually get some work done.

But where do we draw the line? I’m cool with giving out school supplies, but I’d like to avoid paying people to come see me.

I recently had to watch a scene from the movie “Precious” again. I say “had to” because, although it’s a good film, I don’t put it in the watch it again and again category. “Clue” or “Dirty Dancing,” sure, but I can’t watch “Precious” without wanting to hunt Mo’nique down…to counsel her.

Back to the point–Mariah Carey, as the uglied up social worker, tells Precious that she’ll have to talk about her home life if she wants her check.

Then she calls Precious “sweetie.” Just to be extra bitch-tacular.

But I’m not like that. Right? I’m sure you aren’t either. Of course. We’re some of the good ones.

Incentives are tricky. At what point are we being patronizing? Participate in counseling, and you’ll surely get something out of it. “Ooh, a better relationship with my father!” Uh, maybe. I was talking about this neat eraser! It’s shaped like a leaf. You know, for autumn.

I had one client who didn’t believe in giving her daughter anything, aside from the very basics. The girl was supposed to earn privileges, but when you aren’t allowed to do anything aside from sit in front of the television, earning can be a little difficult.

The mother and I discussed a system of rewards. But, her mother said, won’t she only be working for things like being allowed to go out with her friends, or minutes on her devil machine Sidekick? She won’t behave because she knows it’s right!

Two points.

1) So what? Take what you get and be happy for a while.

2) Let me go back to my potty reference. Two year olds start using the toilet in an effort to get cookies, stickers, whatever passes for a treat these days. Then they notice other things: their parents are proud of them. They’re treated like a “big kid.” And they’re no longer social outcasts because they’re covered in shit!

Rewards, done right, become internalized. Working for one thing leads to working for something else. If that daughter was allowed to go to the movies when she successfully backed down from a fight with mom, maybe she’d notice some other things: my mom and I can talk to one another. The house is calm. My mother is happy to see me.

Offering something concrete, like help with benefits, child care, food, or clothing, can get people in the door. Then they get to see other things: this social worker isn’t so bad. I like talking to her. My, but she’s good looking.

Done improperly, incentives drive people to act all sorts of way. Reasonable people become greedy. They resent us for holding out on them, we resent them for only wanting to see us for those sweet treats. If the only reason to come to the office is to get something cool, what do we do when we don’t have anything, because budget cuts force us to choose between snacks and printer paper?

Oh delicate balances and fine lines, how I hate you!

But I need to get back to writing my notes. My supervisor promised she’d make me a cupcake if I get it done today.

Social Work Ruins Everything

12 10 2010

There, I said it. You know you were all thinking it.

I had a day off for Columbus Day yesterday. We don’t get paid terribly well, but the agency is pretty good about giving us meaningless holidays. (Or holidays that celebrate the slaughter of a people, if you want to get technical.)

I decided to finally watch “Gone With The Wind.” Somehow, I’ve never been able to sit through the four hour epic. I have family members who raved about it all my life, so I finally decided to see what the fuss was all about.

But social work ruined it.

I spent half of the movie wishing Scarlett would get into counseling. The domestic violence was shocking. Scarlett slaps everyone who will hold still long enough, and then puts up with Rhett knocking some sense into her through marital rape. (Ah, romance.)

Speaking of Scarlett and Rhett, can we say substance abuse? Those two liked their brandy, and they liked to drink alone. Not to mention the inadequate supervision that led to the death of their child. (Personally, I think naming a child “Bonnie Blue” should be grounds for terminating parental rights.)

Throw in a healthy smattering of sexism, (life is meaningless without a husband!) racism, (come on, those slaves were happy!) and the fact that I’m pretty sure Scarlett has a borderline personality, and there you have it. A social worker’s nightmare.

But it’s not just “Gone With The Wind.” Pop culture has gotten much more difficult to enjoy since getting my LMSW.

I felt left out upon noticing that my friends’ Facebook statuses were all about “Jersey Shore,” so I decided to check it out.

Big mistake. And not just due to my taking offense on behalf of the English language, and the entire east coast.

Sammi, you need DV counseling more than Scarlett. Let me call the hotline for you, they’ll pick you up and bring you to an undisclosed location. Ronnie will be upset, but he’ll get over it once he starts a new cycle of ‘roids cheats on you gets distracted by his own reflection gets into his individual counseling.

The Situation has a classic narcissistic personality disorder, and the entire house has fallen into a dangerous pattern of alcohol abuse. A visit to an open AA meeting could do these guys a world of good.

OK, so TV and movies are out. I mentioned my friends being on Facebook. That’s fun, right? Once I get beyond worrying that Mark Zuckerberg has Asperger’s, and if he could have benefitted from group therapy as a child?

No, because then my mind turns to cyber bullying. Facebook comes up a lot in sessions these days. Especially with young moms. Their baby daddy’s new girlfriend is always sending threatening messages, after my clients post incendiary photos or statuses.

My knowledge of Facebook privacy settings–limit their ability to view your profile! Block their status updates! Defriend! Defriend!–has become very important to my work.

Let’s try music. How about a concert?

Oh boy.

There are teenagers everywhere. Do we honestly think I can be surrounded by teens and avoid social working? They must all be in such conflict with their parents. Oh, identity vs identity diffusion! I hope their parents know where they are. Do any of these kids have PINS warrants? I bet some of them do. I’ll call my friend in family court, just to be safe. Hey, hey, hey, are you sexting, young lady?

This doesn’t leave much. At least the holidays are approaching, so I can spend some time with my extended family.

Shouldn’t be any opportunities for off-the-clock social working there.

Teen Moms and the Social Workers Who Love Them

27 09 2010

One thing that people love to ask me about my work is the ages of the mothers. I’ll mention seeing a six year old and his mom, and someone will inevitably pipe in with, “Oh, how old is mom, 19?” This is considered the height of comedic skill by many. It works both as a hilarious joke, and as a social commentary.

Except, it’s not really funny, and it’s not really true. I work with a lot of teen mothers, sure. I also work with women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who started out as teen mothers. I work with a couple of teen girls who almost became mothers before opting for abortion. One of my clients is a pregnant 42 year old. Honestly, I’m much more concerned about her parenting skills and ability to cope with this stress than I am concerned about my pregnant 21 year old, who already has a pre-schooler.

Most people are never really ready for parenthood. (Honestly, coming home from the hospital one day with a person for whom you are responsible, for life? Terrifying.) It’s particularly tough for teens. The responsibility almost exclusively falls on the girls. The guys put on a good show, coming to an ultrasound appointment, bragging to friends about his powers of procreation, and insisting that any boy born be a “Junior.” But when the time comes to buy Pampers, do late night feedings, or stay in on a Saturday because that’s what parents do sometimes, the young man is not quite as enthusiastic as he once was.

That being said, teen parents can thrive, with some help and support. You might not think this, considering teen pregnancy has become one of those Big Scare topics. You know, when they want you to think American is really going down the drain. “Our babies are having babies!” Poor Forever 21 just wanted to offer pregnant young women some stylish, affordable maternity gear that will fall apart in three washings, and just think of the controversy that caused. (For some reason, the solution to this teen pregnancy epidemic is to make Lifetime movies about imaginary pregnancy pacts and ensure that no one gives out condoms. Doesn’t make much sense to me, but what do I know? I’m just a social worker.)

Teen and young mothers are some of my favorite people to work with, often for the very reasons that people say they’re so terrible.

  • “They’re having a baby just so they’ll have something to love, that will love them!”
    OK, let’s pretend for a moment that 30 something women aren’t doing this as well. Is it the best reason to have a child? No. And it should be discouraged. Teenagers need to understand that raising a child isn’t all cuddles and rainbows. But my teen mothers are some of the most loving parents I know. Their kids are usually happy. A 20 year old I work with, who has a two and a four year old, can’t get through a session without one of her children running by saying, “Mommy, I like you!” or climbing into her lap. Unlike a lot of parents I know, she doesn’t get annoyed with this. She enjoys her children, more than most.
  • “They’re too young, and don’t understand anything about child development.”
    This is the usual professional line. It does present a concern. People who don’t know that a two year old can’t sit quietly and wait for mommy to get off the phone might think that their crying, antsy child is just being a brat. They might think that you can discipline an 18 month old. Again, this can also be a problem with older parents, but let’s talk about it. My teen mothers (for the record, I don’t work with any fathers) are more willing to learn than any other group I work with. They will sign up for any parenting class I suggest. They will sit and go over developmental charts with me, and they genuinely delight in identifying what milestones their children have reached.
    Sometimes, this lack of knowledge works in their favor. One of the smartest people kids I know is the child of that pregnant 21 year old I mentioned. She’s four years old, and just started school. Her teachers cannot believe that she was never in Head Start. This is because she talks like she’s about 25. One of the highlights of my career was when I walked into the waiting room, and she looked up at me and said, “Oh, you look cute today.” When it’s just mom and baby, there’s not a lot of room for baby talk. Her vocabulary is stunning. Her mother was telling me about a vacant apartment they had gone to see. The child looked up from writing her letters (practicing ‘A’s, or catching up on her correspondences, I’m not sure) to say, “Vacant means empty.” Her mom didn’t let the idea that her daughter is too young to have an extensive vocabulary, or to learn to read, hold her back. The child was able to thrive and rise to the occasion.
    Get ready, because we’ll all be working for this kid one day.
  • “Those mothers will never finish school.”
    This one is my biggest concern. Like I mentioned elsewhere, these young women need a lot of support. Not everyone can count on being an MTV reality star. It’s a lot easier to pass judgment on these girls than it is to give them the help they need. It’s especially difficult to pay for it. Yes, they need help with child care, finances, and probably some alternative school options, so that they can graduate.

With these options, and preferably some familial support, teen mothers can be successful. Teen pregnancy is not desirable, I’ll certainly tell you that. But it’s not the end of the world. It can’t be, for these women, and for their children. These young women know it better than anyone. I have never met mothers more concerned with the example they set for their children. They think about it all the time–they need to finish school, so their kids will know this is important. They need to get a job, so the kids don’t think it’s normal to live on public assistance. They need to remain single, so their daughters don’t think that it’s OK to stay with a man who treats you poorly, and their sons don’t think it’s OK to treat women this way.

This doesn’t really go with a lot of people’s ideas of “teen motherhood.” But it is, often, the reality.