The excellent Open Salon article “Safe Kids, Fat Kids,” by Joanne Jacobs has stimulated me to write about a form of child abuse that is not considered such by anyone that I know of. I spent 14 years at a social service agency working primarily with Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant families. The culture the parents were raised in where individualism was frowned on and conformity and harmony were stressed clashed significantly with the individualism of American culture. While these parents love their children very much and sacrifice much so their kids can live a far better life in America, they unwittingly, seriously harm their children’s chances of succeeding.
The contrast of how I was raised in a small Montana town and the way they raise their children in the inner cities of Chicago is startling and can explain why I am making the abuse claim.
I was raised in the ‘40s in the town of Havre, Montana at a time when children were safe in the streets. As early as the age of five, I could go anywhere I wanted without supervision including the movies and favorite stores. I didn’t have to tell my parents where I was going as long as I was home for supper by 6 PM. I walked seven blocks to and from school and could even venture to the dangerous Milk River if I was so inclined. As a result, I learned that I was totally in charge of my decisions and the consequences of those decisions both in and out of school.By contrast, the immigrant children I taught in the Uptown community of Chicago, were not allowed to go anywhere on their own. I frequently saw parents of seven and eight-year-old children holding their child’s hand when crossing the street after the light turned green. Because the children were so accustomed to being controlled and having the parents make all decisions for them, they had no sense of sidewalk etiquette or safety even when walking with my after school class. They would rudely make Asian senior citizens, who were supposed to be revered and respected, make way for them leaving little room on the wide sidewalk. They would cross alleys without looking for cars. When a traffic light turned green, they would immediately rush across never thinking of a car running a red light. One nine-year -old crossing an alley walked directly into the brick building on the other side.
I would have to spend countless group sessions walking around the neighborhood practicing how to take individual responsibility for courtesy and safety. Despite those lessons and lectures, students would still have to be reminded while walking to a neighborhood destination.
To illustrate the degree of parental control, I will cite two of a myriad of examples available in my memory bank. I retired in the fall of 2006 due to a two-hour, one-way commute. The examples are burned in my memory.
While I was walking with 15 kids down the street one sunny, windless 45 degree day, an 8-year-old boy asked me if it was OK to take off his heavy coat and stocking cap because his body heat demanded it from our long walk. He would not dream of doing it without asking. His mother driving by saw him and left her car in the middle of the street, driver door open, to rush over and immediately put on his coat and cap, then yelled at him to never do such a thing again because he would catch a bad cold. She never thought of first asking him if he was cold. In the parenting workshops I held for the parents, I tried hard, usually to no avail, to convince these parents that scientific evidence proved colds came from germs not cold weather. I would note that a lot of non-immigrant parents still believe the old wives tale of how everyone gets a cold. And it is hard for someone raised in Southeast Asia to grow comfortable with winter.
On a similar early spring day after living through the severity of winter, I saw a father and son wearing short sleeved shirts come out on a porch with the son immediately in front of the father. The father basking in the sun, stretched out his arms, smiled broadly, indicating how much he was enjoying the change in weather. The son copied the father sprouting an even broader smile. The father glanced down at the son and yelled, “Hey, get back in the house and get your coat on!” The frown that appeared on the boy’s face showed amazement and considerable disappointment.
The media compounds the problems for these parents through scary news stories about crime, kidnapped children and even threatening weather. It is so bad that these parents believe getting wet is a disaster so they teach their children to fear the rain even though many raised in a rural culture felt very differently about rain as children. The lesson I used to rid the children of this fear is rather simple. Find a rainy day when there is no threat of lightening and let the kids frolic and get soaked. After overcoming the fear instilled by their parents, the kids have more fun than any expensive toy or computer game can provide. The same is true of snow. When children are shown the fun of trying to catch gently falling snow flakes with their mouths or can have snowball fights or even the unbelievable experience of making snowballs without gloves or even worse, getting wet in the snow, they learn to love all kinds of weather and the natural world.
Contrast that to my preteens in North Dakota where we went out to play hockey in minus thirty-degree weather because the wind usually didn’t howl when it was that cold. Or heading to the outhouse on my grandparents’ farm through a snow tunnel. Or sleeping in the winter with my great uncle in a wooden granary converted to sleeping quarters without insulation with the boards loosely nailed together. The Canadian wool horse blanket kept us quite warm until we had to get up and dress.
I had a great advantage from today's inner-city kids because we had no TV weather teams to scare us. We decided there was nothing we could do about the weather, but live with it.
The hampered mentality the parents and society imposes on these innocent immigrant children expresses itself worst in learning. These children are unknowingly taught that teachers are responsible for their learning, not them. Teachers are just a substitute for parents. Learning is the teacher’s job. If the students doesn’t learn it is the teacher’s fault, not theirs. As hard as it is to believe, most of the students of any ethnicity, simply do not understand their job is to learn when attending school. They figure most of their job is done just by showing up.
Teaching an anti-bias, anti-violence life skills curriculum that I developed and taught in public schools to first through eighth grade, I expected early on that immigrant Asian students would be very good at cooperative games because their home culture stressed harmony. In fact, they were the worst of any ethnic group because these children were so accustomed to being controlled and managed by the parents. They were unable to make decisions or take responsibility on their own. For some of these students all the way through college and beyond, they work very well as individuals and fail miserably when having to contribute to group efforts.
I witnessed several Asian American college educated teachers totally at a loss at our Center because they weren’t able to grasp that teaching kids involved a lot more than Xs and Os. They were unable to manage their class and soon became very disillusioned. They lacked sufficient problem solving skills to be able to treat students as individuals and teach instead of lecture or demand. I talked to them about the handicap their parents had unwittingly given them and while they would completely agree with my hypothesis, they usually were too handicapped to remain at our Center or in the teaching profession.
Joanne Jacobs talked about the importance of play in learning. The great advantage of children in childcare settings is the chance to play unencumbered from parental control. The chance to learn to interact with other children who are very honest in providing valuable feedback, is extremely important. Learning to take risks is fundamental to getting along and getting ahead. Life without risks is life hampered by indecision, too much caution, too many missed life experiences. Compounding this is the unwitting instruction that mistakes are bad and that comparing oneself to others is much more important than competing with oneself.
I’ll close with an example of what playground equipment can do for an abused, in my meaning of the word, child. A six-year-old Hispanic boy came to our class devoid of any social skills or minimal confidence because he had only experienced life with his controlling mother and an older brother. Shortly after joining us, he had abandoned our Center and was found by the police wandering on a busy street five blocks away. When we took him to a playground it seemed to be the first time he had seen one and he walked around with his head down completely separated emotionally from his classmates. After realizing how foreign he felt among all those Asian children and that scary equipment, I determined that he needed to learn the most elementary playground skills.
I started with teaching him to jump from a terrifying height of six inches. I slowly taught him how to use all the different playground equipment. As he learned these elemental skills, he started to smile and feel he was a class peer not an outsider. He eventually gained so much confidence, that one day he yelled at me, “Hey Mr. ‘S,’ look at me!” I looked over and he was standing one-legged on a six-foot post. I knew my educational project was finished. I quietly moved over to him and helped him down when he discovered he was too high to jump off.
Am I being too extreme when I use the term “abuse?” I don’t think so.