You’re in big trouble, mister.

9 09 2013

Children are great. I mean, they are the future. They’re made of sugar and spice and shit. They give your life meaning. At least, that’s what people tell 29 year olds who haven’t gotten around to procreating yet.

Kids are delightful, and adorable. But they’re also difficult. You have to teach them eeeeeverything. They always get it wrong at first. This might sound harsh, but it’s true. Potty training, shoe tying, not leaving Lego on the floor…honestly it takes forever. But eventually they get it, and you both get to feel an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment that the childless can only dream of.

Then the kid smacks you in the face and laughs.

Discipline. It’s not easy. But there are ways to not be terrible at it.

There are more than two options, for starters. From what I hear from lots of people, you are either whipping your child with an extension cord while she kneels on rice (I’m sorry, I know it’s “cultural,” but that is sadistic and a waste of a good starch) or letting them run the streets, pick their own bedtime, and asking them if they need a timeout for doing heroin at the kitchen table.

You are allowed to discipline your kids. You’re even allowed to spank your kids. Parents have given their toddlers a swat on the butt while I was in the room, even. It’s ok. If you’re resorting to spanking when the kid is a teenager, something’s gone wrong, and you’ll find it not working and pretty weird, but still.

You are allowed to discipline your kids. You’re not allowed to beat your kids with objects. You’re not allowed to leave marks and bruises. I’ve said this before, but I’m saying it again because it never seems to get through and I will get at least one comment complaining about how you’re not allowed to discipline your kids. You’re allowed to discipline your kids.

A lot of the parents I work with got hit as kids. When they’re really honest, they acknowledge that it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, or particularly effective. But they usually say it was just what they needed. “I was running the streets at 14, fighting and getting arrested, so yeah my mother beat me.” Good point. But she’d been beating you since you were two, and this behavior didn’t stop until you were 23, so…

Parents we work with usually recognize that they need to stop hitting their kids. Because it’s gotten out of control, because the kids have outgrown it, because they don’t want another case, whatever. Learning new ways isn’t easy, though.

Before you ask, no, I don’t have kids. But outside perspective is valuable. Sometime you get so caught up in the day to day battles (we’re all picking those battles, right?) that you need a reminder. Also one taken groups of fifteen to twenty adolescents to the mall and the zoo, by myself, and never lost one. So I do know some things. And sometimes, people just have to be open to common sense.

I work with teenagers who have been “grounded” for months. It either starts out way too harsh–you came home at 4:15 instead of 4? No leaving the house for two months!–or it starts out reasonable and time gets added on. “Oh, you rolled your eyes at me? That’s three more weeks!” It gets to a point where the kid an the parent can’t remember what the kid did wrong. It’s just the status quo–this person is only allowed to go to school and come home. At that point, this is not an adolescent, it’s a maximum security prisoner with nothing left to lose. Parents ask me all the time, “well, she’s already not allowed to do anything, so what am I supposed to take away?” Hmmm…perhaps this is the problem?

Time outs and sticker charts get a shitty reputation. A time out is “soft.” It’s not real discipline! Who cares about sitting in a chair for a few minutes? People who say this, of course, have never seen a three year old attempt to sit for THREE WHOLE MINUTES.

The thing that really gets me, though, is that parents try to get too creative. There’s usually a reason you tell your kids to do something. Leave your sidewalk chalk outside? Yeah, it probably won’t be in good shape tomorrow. Insist on fighting sleep? Ok, you’re gone be hella tired when I still get you up on time for school tomorrow. Refuse your coat? Oh yeah, it IS cold out now that you mention it. You want to lay on the sidewalk and have a fit instead of walking with us? Ok, bye! My my my, but you caught up quick.

Obviously this doesn’t work with lessons like staying out of the street, or that Windex is not as delicious as it looks, but natural consequences go a long way.

So does treating kids like functioning humans. If you want to do something, you have to earn it. It’s a valuable skill to teach your kids. A friend at a 30th birthday said out loud, “I’m going to eat some salad, that way I can have chips.” Don’t you think it all the time? “I’ll clean the bathroom, then I can watch Orange is the New Black before everyone on Twitter reveals all.”

No, your social worker doesn’t know all. There’s no magic discipline cookbook, or everyone would follow it and we would bake a cake out of rainbows and smiles. You know your kid best. But if what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s best to at least be open to suggestion. Sometimes we make sense, even if we don’t have kids.

“Take my kids, please!” “For the last time, NO!”

5 01 2012

The baby-snatcher is one of the most enduring social worker stereotypes. The assumption that we steal children away first, ask questions later, is one that most of us confront fairly regularly. Some social workers are able to explain that they don’t even work with kids. Some, like me, try to make people understand that, although we work with families, we’re not authorized to remove children, and this would be kidnapping, whether or not we used a van. Still others have to explain that, while removal might be a part of their job, it’s a bit more nuanced than people tend to think.

You would think that hearing, “I’m not here to take your kids!” would be a comfort to everyone, especially the parents. And it often is. But then there are the parents of teenagers.

I most often get this from mothers of teen girls, but it happens with boys at times as well. These parents come in, sometimes self-referred due to struggling with their teenager in the home, or referred by ACS for “educational neglect.” (This term, when applied to young children, means that the parent is being negligent in getting the child to school. When applied to teens, it means the kid is truant due to 1) unmet special needs 2) problems in the home or 3) being a lazy jerk. These are all technical terms, do try to keep up.)

A lot of parents come in and are fed up. I think we all get that. Teens are exhausting. I work with them, and I was one. Sometimes I wonder why my parents still talk to me. I’ve also had a couple…let’s say, free-spirited youngsters, in my family. So it’s not that I don’t understand how someone could feel like they’re at the end of their rope.

That’s not to say I agree with the desperate “take my kids, please!”

Parents regularly come to us, wanting their teenagers removed from the home. Not forever, mind you. They want them to come home fixed.

I blame Sally Jesse Raphael. Remember that show? Overwhelmed mothers would bring their out of control, swearing, skanky teens on the show. The audience would boo them, get sassy with the teens in question (“Yo momma brought you into this world, she can take you out!” Really? Murder?) and then a “drill sergeant” (sorry, putting on fatigues doesn’t make you a drill sergeant) would yell and make them run through tires. They would cry and hug their moms, happy to be home after a harrowing afternoon. Problem solved.

I sincerely doubt that this works. But hey, television is a powerful medium. People very often believe what they see, especially when they’re feeling desperate.

People who really want help don’t seek it on TV. If you genuinely want to meet someone to spend your life with, or find out who the father of your child is, you don’t do it on The Bachelor or Maury. Unless you are seeking attention, or a complete idiot.

Mom: “She’s out of control. Can’t you send her to one of those boot camps?”
SJ: “What boot camp? You want her to enlist?”
Mom: “No, those programs for bad kids, like on the talk shows.”
SJ: “I think those are rather expensive.”
Mom: “Well, the city can pay for it!”
SJ: “The city doesn’t do that.”
Mom: “Why not?”
SJ: “I don’t know. We can write a letter. This isn’t helping right now.”

Get this kid out of my house, she can come back when she’s ready to listen. (Note: I don’t want to be the one to make her listen.)

I’m not talking about the parents of children with mental illness, looking for residential treatment. I’m talking about parents who have, for lack of a better term, let their kids run wild. Little kids “acting bad” is generally regarded as cute. They swear, they get sassy, and everyone laughs. Then they’re teenagers, bigger than their parents, and it isn’t so cute anymore.

The common thread here is wanting the kids sent away. Wanting someone else to come in and fix things. These are most often the parents who send their kid in for counseling, but refuse to participate themselves, saying they’re not the ones who have the problem. They are genuinely shocked and appalled that they are expected to do some hard work and make changes. “Why won’t you whisk him away to the Good Teen Factory?!”

Like I said, I get it. I understand being overwhelmed, being depressed, or not having supports to turn to. I understand feeling undermined as a parent by systems that you don’t want in your life. But I don’t understand feeling like your child is someone else’s responsibility.

I was raised with a pretty strict, “You made this mess, you clean it up.” If Rudy Huxtable was responsible for cleaning the kitchen when she tried to make jelly in the blender (so cute) then you can at the very least participate in getting your teenager’s life back on track.

I’m always being told by these parents that they have reached out for help, so if we don’t “fix” the child in question, and that child gets arrested or hurt, they’re going to sue.

Seriously. People say this. Constantly.

First of all, if your kid is hurt, dead, or in jail, and your first thought is, “Who is paying me for this?!” just go fuck yourself. This is not a social worky, strengths based statement, but I do think it’s accurate.

Second of all, fine. Bring all the law suits you want. But this kid is your responsibility. First and last. I will never understand a mindset that contradicts this.

I don’t like lamenting a lack of personal responsibility. It makes me feel like a Republican, which isn’t good, because I can’t shower at work. But I need to be honest.

Challenging this mindset is a huge part of my job. And complaining about it on the internet seems to be a huge part of keeping me at it.

Tough Love–not just the greatest show in the history of VH1

17 08 2011

People love to simplify complicated problems. Too much unemployment? Um, clearly our president is an idiot. You’re in your 20s and single? You must have never heard of speed dating. The kids you social work are misbehaving? Break out the tough love.

Tough love. It’s what I’m always hearing my clients need. You see, I’m told by people who have never met these kids, that the problem isn’t that they’re not getting enough love and assurance. It’s that they’re coddled. Spoiled, really. Until someone is willing to really make those kids, or parents, face some consequences, things are never going to change.

And it sounds great. It’s kind of hard to argue with. I think it was popularized by Sally Jesse and Maury, who spent much of the 90s marching wild pre-teens across their stages, having them sass their parents and the audience, and then sending them off with a “drill sargeant” (who I maintain was just a body builder in fatigues) to be screamed at. Sometimes they even left the premises for a few hours and ran through tires. At the end of the day, they were fixed. Forever. Problem solved.

Something tells me they didn’t do too much follow up.

The thing about “tough love” in its many incarnations–boot camp, scared straight, locking kids out when they miss curfew, having large men with questionable qualifications yell at them on day time talk shows–is that they’re satisfying. This kid thinks she can swear at me, ignore my rules, embarass me in front of other people? I’ll show her! He thinks he’s got it bad here? Wait until he hears those prison doors lock behind him at Scared Straight!

I see it with one particularly overwhelmed parent I work with. Her twelve year old daughter is being a real pain in the ass. She’s ungrateful, she won’t do chores, and she’s got quite a mouth on her. So mom is trying her best to be “tough.” The problem, she thinks, is that she was too much of a friend to her daughter. (We’re off to a good start.) So she needs to work on setting some boundaries and establishing herself as a parent. (We are so on the right track! This is awesome.) Therefore, mom doesn’t speak to her daughter for days at a time and is refusing to buy her school supplies. (Abort! Abort! This has veered horribly off track!)

Withholding necessities, including love, is not an acceptable punishment. I’d like to skywrite this all over. Mostly over the Bronx, because that’s my catchment area. What exactly will your kid be working for? You being a little bit less of a dick? It’s really not much incentive.

All right then, what about boot camps, or scared straight? I think a lot of people would be shocked to hear how many parents want these programs for their kids. I get asked about them constantly. One of my thirteen year olds was arrested for fighting recently, and so impressed the police officers with her attempts to pick open her handcuffs with a bobby pin, as well as her knowledge of swear words, that they instantly signed her up for Scared Straight. (I’m so proud.)

For anyone unfamiliar, Scared Straight is a program that brings at-risk youth into adult prisons, has prisoners yell at them, allows them to experience life in cells, to scare them…straight. Show them potential consequences, see what they could become.

The problem is, there’s no data to prove that these programs work. Another problem is, who is going to pay for this? The city won’t. You have a much better chance of getting your child shipped off to a residential treatment center.

Wearing uniforms in school, having to call adults, “ma’am” and “sir,” also tend to sound pretty good. People like the look of these things. But again, there’s no hard data. People act like this is common sense, but nothing is proven. Essentially, it looks good. And that’s not the best reason to create policy. (Possibly it’s the worst.)

This also extends to adults. So many of my clients have had their benefits cut off, because they supposedly missed some appointment. The purpose of the appointment is essentially to show the client the importance of keeping appointments. One family is in the process of being moved to a far-away, extremely undesirable shelter, because the mother missed curfew too many times.

I firmly believe that if city agencies could get away with smacking people on the nose with newspaper, they would do it.

I’m also told that I should just be more honest with people. Have the balls to tell them, hey, you’re being a bad parent. And then work with them on improving their parenting over the course of the next year. That should totally work, right?

Very recently, I both read and saw The Help. (If you haven’t already done so, I really suggest it.) One of the maids asks her employer for a $75 loan, to help send her twin boys to college. The employer refuses, saying that good Christians don’t give handouts to the able-bodied, and that the maid will learn from this experience.

Did I mention that this employer was a real bitch?

I get it. People need consequences. Kids especially. And I want to hand them out, especially when I’m constantly being told that I need to understand people–understand why they hit their children, why he abandoned his family, why she refuses to take responsibility for her life. I can understand the reasons, but at some point there aren’t excuses. But telling someone they’re a bad mother, cutting off their benefits, shipping them off to brat camp, is about you feeling good about yourself. Hell yeah, I told her. And where are we now?

I can’t say that I know what will work. I know enough to realize that there isn’t one answer for everyone. I think most people need family counseling, mentoring programs, school issues to be addressed, as well as early (as possible) interventions. Tough love will probably work for some people. But acting like there’s a one size fits all solution just shows ignorance of reality.

Reality is much messier. With room for actual love.

…or SocialJerk will give you something to cry about!

8 08 2011

Spanking is a hot topic in my field.

Typing that made me feel a little gross. So let me just say now, some of you may have been directed here by search terms, when you were in fact looking for something a bit different. It happens. The boyfriend and I debated this very topic at a restaurant once, and the waitress definitely did not believe we were talking about child welfare. Please be on your way if this is the case.

It can be a difficult topic to discuss. People have strong feelings about physical discipline. They love it or they hate it. It’s one of those times when we feel the need to defend our parents. “My father never laid a hand on his children!” “Well, my parents spanked me, and I turned out just fine.”

I know lots of people on both sides. Plenty of them didn’t turn out fine, despite their claims to the contrary. But that might just be misanthropic SocialJerk talking.

Just because something went all right in your life, it doesn’t mean that it’s OK. My parents thought bike helmets were silly and unnecessary when we were kids. My brother and I never had them, but we never got into a horrific accident that involved our brains being splattered across the Brooklyn sidewalk. So they’re stupid, right? I mean, I just proved it!

No. This doesn’t mean that if I ever have children, I won’t buy them helmets. It means that I acknowledge that my parents did the best they could, with the knowledge available at the time, and that we were lucky not to be hurt. It’s not going against Mr. and Ms. Jerk to buy my hypothetical kids bike helmets. It’s learning from additional experience and advancements.

So we’re leaving that behind. If you’re going to tell me, “My parents did it!” save yourself the time. I’m not interested.

We often get families referred to us by ACS due to “excessive corporal punishment.” ACS tells the family that they are not allowed to hit the children with an object, and they are not allowed to leave marks or bruises. I guess this is an OK guideline. It doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, but we need some type of cut off.

Most of the parents I work with come to me seeing their options as corporal punishment, or letting the kids do as they damn please. Working with parents to develop other methods of discipline is a huge part of my job. Explaining that half-assedly trying something for a day does not mean that you’ve exhausted that strategies potential. Showing them that behavior charts are not bribery. Talking about how they felt when they got hit as children–angry, ashamed, aggressive.

One particularly honest parent got  into detail with me about spanking her children. We talked about the feelings she experienced when she spanked her kids. She told me that she spanked her ten year old son (on the butt, with an open hand, therefore ACS approved) one day, because he wasn’t listening. The mom told me that she thought this would get his attention. And it did. He behaved for the rest of the day. He was scared, and embarrassed, and wouldn’t look at his mother, but he behaved.

Success story? Mom went on to explain why she really spanked her son, beyond thinking that she had tried everything else. “I was so frustrated. I was angry. I didn’t really do it because I thought it was what he needed. I thought it would make me feel better.”


This woman changed the way I talk about discipline. Discipline is about getting your child to listen, to do what they need to do, so that when they grow up they can make good decisions, be a productive citizen, and be able to take care of themselves.

It’s not to get your frustrations out. It’s not an outlet, no matter how much of a nightmare little pain in the ass your child is being.

I do, despite not having kids, get how an adult could get that frustrated. When I worked in a neighborhood youth center, there were days that those little jerks (not the good kind) brought me to tears. When they wouldn’t listen, when they were blatantly disrespectful, when they were thoroughly ungrateful, when they fought, cursed, broke rules, ran off, and laughed about how angry I got.

But it still wasn’t about me.

Because of that incredibly honest mother, I approach discipline with my families by telling them they have to be ready for it. They need to have those consequences in their back pocket. If the consequence is a spanking, then fine. That’s their right to run their home that way if they choose. Personally, I don’t agree with it, but that doesn’t matter. But it can’t be delivered in a fit of rage or frustration.

“Because my dad did it” or “because my mom said so” is a fine reason to do things until age twelve. As we get older, we think for ourselves. We learn from what our parents did well. We also learn from what they royally fucked up could have done better.

“Because he pissed me off” is an acceptable reason to punch your third grade classmate, or flip off a cabbie. (Not that I have ever done either of those things.) But it’s not a very good reason to change your disciplinary strategy.

Parents all make mistakes, and that’s fine. Kids are resilient, they get over things. (Seriously.) But we do a great disservice to ourselves and our children if we aren’t honest with why we do the things we do, why we make the choices we make, and don’t acknowledge that we make mistakes.