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Dear Mother Wit: My Daughter Has Picked Up Some Bad Habits From Her White Friends

My 12-year-old daughter is a great student and generally well behaved. I have to address some normal adolescent moments from time to time, but nothing unusual. We live in a wonderful suburb, where we moved for the excellent school system. But I’m worried that my daughter is starting to act too White.

Our community isn’t very diverse, though we feel welcome. And my daughter has some very good friends—two White girls her age—that she’s grown up with. They’re nice girls and I’ve worked hard to build friendly relationships with their parents. I wish we could live in more diverse community, but this is where the best schools and other family-friendly services are located.

My husband and I are both African-American professionals, college-educated, and very culturally aware. We have wonderful Black art throughout our home, we belong to an African-American church across town, we play all kinds of Black music. And we’ve gone out of our way to make sure that our daughter has had diverse books, dolls and other toys throughout her life.

I’ve sometimes wondered if she’s missing out by not having close Black girlfriends, or learning traditions like clapping games and double-dutch. But I’ve pushed those concerns to the back of my mind. What’s bothering me lately is that she’s exhibiting behaviors that aren’t appropriate in our home. We’ve spoken calmly with her from time to time, even jokingly, about how the rules that her friends live by don’t always apply to her or to us. We discuss racism in open, honest and age-appropriate ways, and she pays attention.

But lately she’s been whining when she doesn’t get her way, and talking back to her father and myself in ways that are just plain rude. She slams doors and talks at me in a tone of voice that would have gotten me slapped in the mouth by my mother. She seems to be adopting that sense of entitlement that her friends wear as part of their White identity. Even her voice changes: if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were hearing a young White girl. She’s been rejecting anything we say that suggests Black history, culture or pride lately—even putting up her hand and claiming that she “is tired of all that racial stuff.” We talk about what’s happening in the news around the country, but she just ignores us or tries to put her headphones on—even at the dinner table! When we scold her, she whines, “Well, Jillian’s parents let her do it! Why are you so unfair?”

I don’t want to be paranoid or petty, and I don’t want to get physical with her the way my mother did me, but I want to nip this problem in the bud. The world we live in isn’t going to cut her any slack for growing up in a fancy suburb. All that matters is her Blackness, not her zip code. I don’t want to make her feel limited—we’ve always told her she can be anything that she chooses, and succeed at whatever she puts her mind to. It was great being able to point to the Obamas when they were in office. But the current administration is making it clear that White is right, and I’m desperate to get my babygirl straightened out before she runs into trouble and learns the truth in some horrible way.

Dear Frustrated Suburban Mama:

Guess what? I’ve heard versions of this same story from so many parents like you. You are not alone! As Black people have been able to “move on up” and live in nice neighborhoods with wonderful schools, we’ve faced the challenge of how to balance our kids’ sense of Black identity with the whiteness of their neighborhoods, schools and social circles.

First, remember that your daughter is 12. She’s an adolescent, almost a teenager, and the one thing they are guaranteed to do is test you and work your last nerve on the regular. In your case, it sounds like she’s trying to figure out her identity in relation to her parents, her friends and her environment. She might be able to better relate to some things that we consider “White” simply because that’s what she has always lived with.

Second, while the way she’s acting and speaking to you might feel like disrespect, she probably doesn’t mean it that way. That doesn’t mean that you don’t speak to her about it, though. Just try to keep the racial part out of the discussion for a while. Explain that her tone of voice, whining, etc. is not acceptable. Encourage and praise her when she acts and talks in ways that are more normal for your household.

One thing you can discuss (when everyone is relaxed and calm) is that the world is full of different cultures (again, try to leave the Black-White aspect out of it for now). And you can give examples of how Jillian and her other friends interact with their parents, explaining that things are different in your home and that when she is there, she needs to get with the program. Don’t come down too hard on her and try not to sweat the small stuff. She might really be struggling to keep up with her friendships, and soon she’ll be wondering where she fits into the dating scene at her school. So she’s facing her own sources of racial and cultural stress on top of the normal pre-teen identity struggles.

You sound like you’re doing all the right things by demonstrating a commitment to your culture in your home, church and activities. Keep presenting those opportunities, but in a laid-back way that doesn’t make her feel you’re forcing her. I know—that can be so challenging, but it’s also part of bringing up teens, who pull away from us in a natural attempt to figure out who they are beyond their relationships with their parents and other authority figures.

Don’t ridicule or criticize her when you see her acting White. Accentuate the positive and focus on the things she’s doing right—good grades, not getting in trouble, etc. And while it might seem impossible, you also have to accept the fact that all of us are impacted by our environment in one way or another. So while you’re seeing her behavior in terms of Black and White, she’s just trying to adapt, fit in, be accepted and figure out how to move through a very different world than the one in which you grew up.

Interestingly, it’s young people who grow up in mostly White environments who often want to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Include that in the options you present when that time comes, but keep it low-key and chill.

And cut yourself some slack. Your daughter sounds like a “normal” suburban adolescent, and I’m sure you and your husband are doing a fine job of raising her. We can’t control the choices our children make when they grow up; we can only love them, nurture them, and encourage them to find their own way.

With love,

Mother Wit

Dear Mother Wit: My 3-Year-Old Is Hitting Me!

Dear Mother Wit, I have a 3-year-old son who hits me, scratches me, pulls my hair, throws things at me, punches and spits at me. Before my son was born I didn’t believe in spanking. I was never spanked. However, I was also a well-mannered child, the complete opposite of my son. I have tried every tactic to tame my son’s behavior such as reasoning with him and explaining why his behavior is unacceptable and the consequences for them, I’ve restrained him when necessary and I also use the time out method, I have been consistent with discipline, but nothing seems to work. Most times, my son tends to really hurt me. He has pulled hair out of my scalp, he has scratched the cornea of my eye and has caused me to lose most vision in that eye for a week. I just don’t know what else to do. Spanking seems to be the only option. What do you suggest?

Bruised & Confused

Dear Bruised & Confused:

Pinching, biting, scratching, and pulling hair is all normal behavior for toddlers because they haven’t learned how to control their emotions yet, they act out of a natural instinct, and children LOVE attention whether they get a positive or negative reaction.

You have a complicated situation. And you didn’t say, but I have to wonder: is your son witnessing or experiencing any kind of violence in your home or anyplace else? What I mean by that is, children who are around physical violence—especially those who see their parents or other adults fighting—grow up learning that this is normal and acceptable. I hope you’re not in any kind of abusive situation and that if you are, you get help right away.

Now let’s focus on your son. Your son is still a toddler at three years old. So when he feels angry or frustrated or even scared, he might hit, pull hair, and all that. And the worst thing you can do is spank or hit him (or do any of the things he’s doing to you) to punish him or to “show him how it feels.” Even though I know it can be tempting. You don’t want to hit and yell because you’ll be modeling for your son that this is an acceptable response to situations that make you angry.

You need stay calm and in control, and stop his behavior by removing him from the situation. If you have to, restrain his hands to protect yourself.

Some children hit their parent to get their attention and then we reward the behavior by teaching them that hitting is a good way to get it. But to get them stop this negative behavior you have to be consistent in your body language and tone. At a young age they don’t really understand a lot of talking so you have to firmly use simple words like “NO!” “We don’t hit!” “Hands are not for hitting.” Try doing this while holding their hands and counting backward slowly from 10. After doing this enough times your child will not like being confined and the message will catch on.

I noticed that you didn’t say when your son acts violently with you—are there things that make him angry, or is he doing these things randomly?

Acknowledge your child’s feelings and let him know that it is okay to feel mad but hitting hurts and it is not okay. Show your child what to do instead of hitting. Show him how to touch people gently and to use appropriate words to express his frustration. (Use the helpful feelings chart below) Give him positive reinforcement when he is gentle and kind.

A helpful feelings chart,

I want you to notice when your son acts like this. Write it down—take some notes with details to see if there might be a pattern. Also take him to the pediatrician and ask your doctor if there is anything going on medically or with your son’s health that could be causing this violence.

Next, think about what your son likes to do—toys or games he likes to play with, TV shows he likes to watch, things he likes to eat, etc. Explain to your son—calmly and gently—that hitting, spitting, punching, pulling hair—those are not acceptable ways to let you know if he’s feeling angry, tired, hungry, frustrated or scared. Teach him the words for those feelings, and encourage him to use them. At his age, you might also want to try a feelings chart that the two of you can use to see how he’s feeling, and then you can talk to him about better ways to handle those feelings.

Right now, your son doesn’t have healthy or safe ways to let you know what’s he’s feeling. Talk with the doctor, and if you feel helpless, ask for help. Ask if there are books you can read, videos you can watch, even classes you can take (parenting classes can really help in tough situations). The good news is that you’re not the first mother to experience this and it doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. You just need to take control of the situation before it gets even worse.

Your son might need more gentle, affectionate, soothing touch. Find out what calms him. Hold him, rock him, and make sure he’s getting plenty of love. And he might be a child who uses his hands to express himself. Look for fun, safe ways to help him express his feelings without hurting others (or himself).

Good luck! Be sure to check back and let me know how it’s going, okay? You might learn some things that can help other parents, and that’s what this is really all about.

With love,

Mother Wit

Eight Dangerous Myths About Spanking

Myth #1. Being spanked never hurt anybody.

This makes little sense for many reasons. First, the whole idea of spanking is to inflict at least temporary pain. People who advocate spanking are well aware of this. Other spanking advocates have recommended corporal punishment severe enough to leave redness, welts, and even bruises on the child’s skin.
Since most children are spanked on the buttocks-a part of the body they have been told is “private”-they feel shame and humiliation as well, along with an uncertainty about how “private” that part of their body truly is. But even beyond the mortification and the physical hurt, there is a longer-lasting emotional pain. Among many other negative outcomes, being spanked has been linked to:

  • Low self esteem
  • Depression
  • Psychological Distress

Myth #2: I was spanked, and I’m okay.

Most smokers never develop cancer, most drunk drivers don’t get into wrecks, and most children who grow up in homes with lead paint do not suffer brain damage. But no intelligent adult would seriously advocate smoking, driving drunk, or using lead-based paint to decorate their walls.
There’s also one more thing to consider. Most people who were spanked are “okay” in the sense that they aren’t in prisons or psychiatric facilities. However, corporal punishment is handed down from one generation to the next. Compared to people who were not spanked, people who were spanked as children are more likely to spank their own kids. Let’s put that in plain English: People who were hit when they were vulnerable children are more likely to think it is acceptable-even desirable-for a fully grown adult to use painful physical force against a small child. How okay is that?

Myth #3: Some children need a good, hard spanking.

Let’s look at who really benefits from the spanking. The child?  No. Other interventions work just as well in the short term and better in the long term. Furthermore, the spanked child is put at risk for many negative consequences (see Myths 1, 5 and 8).
Rather, it’s the parent who benefits, in two ways. First, the parent achieves immediate results-results which could also be gotten through non-violent methods. Second, the physical punishment gives the parent a release of anger and tension-a kind of catharsis. Using a non-violent form of discipline such as time out or even a verbal command (“Don’t touch!”) will alter the child’s behavior just as effective.
In other words, parents continue to spank because spanking meets some of their own misguided needs. It does not benefit the child.

Myth #4: Spanking is the best way to stop dangerous behavior in toddlers.

Small children have short attention spans when it comes to long lists of rules. Spanking may stop the behavior in the moment, but not any more effectively than non-violent discipline (e.g., time-out, saying “no,” etc.). With toddlers no method of discipline, including spanking, works reliably for more than a couple of hours.

There are only two ways to keep toddlers safe. The first is adjusting the environment (for instance, keeping sharp objects locked away or out of the child’s reach, or building a fence around the back yard to provide a safe play area). The second is providing careful, loving, and nonviolent supervision.

Myth #5: Being spanked keeps children out of trouble.

Being spanked has consistently been linked with aggressive behavior, including domestic violence and cruelty to animals. Jordan Riak, who works with convicted felons, has noted that close to 99% of the men in his groups report being spanked as children.  If the goal is keeping children out of trouble, spanking is clearly not the way to go.
There is another problem as well. While spanking may teach some children to avoid certain behaviors out of fear of punishment, it does not teach the child to think about what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it teaches the child to ask, “Will I get caught?” and “Will I be punished?” Spanked children do not learn to measure their behaviors against their own moral beliefs. Rather, they rely blindly on the judgment of those in authority-those who have the power to punish. If the person in authority gives unethical orders, the results can be tragic. It is no coincidence that a society where physical punishment was the norm gave rise to the most shameful words of the twentieth century: “I was only following orders.”

Myth #6: Nothing but spanking works on some children.

First, let’s look at the child’s age. If the child is a toddler, for instance, no method of discipline, including spanking, is going to reliably curb certain behaviors for more than an hour or two at a time. The frustrated parent may get some emotional payoff from the spanking. The child will only be harmed.
Second, were the alternative methods of discipline being used correctly? I once spoke with a client who told me she “had” to spank her four-year-old daughter because the child wouldn’t stay in her time-out chair. The length of the time-out? Four hours! No child can be expected to sit still for four hours with no diversion-to demand it is abuse. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the vast number of successful non-violent methods of discipline and how to use them, many parenting websites and books do just that. A quick search of the internet or the local library will provide dozens of effective alternatives to spanking.
Finally, some parents misperceive the actual value of spanking. They may, for instance, spank their child repeatedly for the same misbehavior, but declare time-out or some other non-violent means of discipline a failure when it does not stop the problem behavior after only one trial. The research, meanwhile, is clear: even in the very short term, spanking does not work any better than non-violent means of discipline such as explanation, time out, or verbal command.  There is no reason to strike a child. Ever.

Myth #7: Spanking isn’t hitting or violence-it’s discipline.

Imagine this scenario: an aide at a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients discovers an elderly woman poking at an electrical outlet. The aide immediately slaps the woman hard across the buttocks several times, reducing the woman to tears.
Has the woman been hit? Most of us would agree that she has. Has she been a victim of violence? Most of us would agree to that, also. Furthermore, even though there is no permanent injury to her physical being, every state in the United States would define what happened to the woman as abuse. The aide would certainly lose her job and might face criminal charges as well; the facility would be in danger of losing its license.
But substitute “two-year-old” for “elderly woman” and “parent” for “nursing home aide” and all of a sudden, our perceptions change. The hitting and the violence become a “spanking” and even some of the most dedicated child rights activists start referring to the incident as “sub-abusive.” Why? The two-year-old is equally hurt and humiliated by the blows; he or she is no better able to defend against them; and he or she is not more likely to get any benefit from them.
The fact that our society has arbitrarily decided to offer protection to one victim and withhold it from the other does not alter the truth: spanking is hitting and it is violent.

Myth #8: Spanking is not harmful if it’s done by loving, supportive parents.

If anything, it may be even more distressing for a child to feel loved and supported by the very people who perpetrate violence against him or her. The child could learn to confuse love with violence, or to believe that it is okay to use force in the context of close, loving relationships. Or, the child could begin to feel worthless and believe he or she deserves physical violence.
Not surprisingly, the research shows that the negative effects of spanking persist, even among loving and supportive families. The negative effects that have been studied in the context of family support include antisocial behavior and conduct problems, teen dating violence, masochism, and psychological distress.
The research is clear and has been for some time: Spanking causes harm. No matter how or why it is administered, it is not benign or beneficial. It is physical violence. And, like any other type of physical violence, spanking scars its victims emotionally.
We have spent too many years ignoring the research and accepting the myths about spanking without bothering to investigate them fully. The time has come to confront these myths and stop finding excuses to hit children.

Excerpted From
Debra L. Stang, LCSW
Project NoSpank at

A Foster Teen’s Testimony

“I was chosen to represent The Children’s Home at the New Jersey Regional Youth Summit at Rutgers University on June 23, 2009. The summit was all about how to involve youth in their court proceedings. It was about giving youth more opportunity to participate in important legal decisions that affect our lives. I saw a lot of kids in situations like mine who needed help to have a better future. Everyone had the chance to express themselves and it was helpful to hear other kids’ stories.The main speaker and workshop leader, Stacey Patton, shared her personal story with us. She told us about her abuse and problems in foster care and adoption. Hearing stories like that makes us feel that we’re not alone in our problems and makes me feel hopeful. I went to her workshop and learned how to express myself through story and art. She autographed a book for me that says ‘never fear the power of your own voice.’”

Thomas, Age 15

Hearing stories like that makes us feel that we’re not alone in our problems and makes me feel hopeful.

How Black Parents ‘Love’ Their Children the Way Racist America ‘Loves’ Us

dissBy Dr. Stacey Patton

It’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month again and so I’m getting down to work.  The more I do anti-spanking activism in Black communities, I keep hearing a constant refrain: “We whoop our children out of love,” and “We whoop our children to keep them out of prison.” 

I understand that parents are doing the best they can with the tools and resources at their disposal and so I’m learning to practice loving kindness and greater empathy in my work.  But it is clear to me that far too many Black parents “love” their children the way that America “loves” us.  And the ways in which we treat our children’s bodies MUST be understood within the social and political context of white supremacy.  Meaning that white supremacy REQUIRES black people to participate in the dehumanization process of their children.

And we’ve been doing a great job.

We are a group that has adopted and fiercely defended a hurtful tactic that is meant to protect our children, not savage them.  I understand that whooping children has long functioned as a kind of defense mechanism, but it is also a function of a parent’s own rage and self-hatred at being forced to endure living in a society that questions your humanity from the womb to the grave.

But when we hurt our children’s bodies, what kind of message does that send to them and to those people in the world who fundamentally hate them?  It says to them – “I have no right to bodily integrity,” “My voice doesn’t matter,” “My experience doesn’t matter,” “I should expect violence,” “I should expect people to hurt me,” “I am a problem,” “I am feared,” “I am hated.”

“I whoop you because I love you” was a constant refrain I heard out of the mouth of my own adoptive mother and elders in the community where I grew up.  Now that I’m an adult and I continue to do the hard work of emotional and spiritual healing, I’ve come to realize that all those whoopings I received as a child may have been administered by my adoptive mother, but they did not originate with her. 

That kind of painful punishment originated with white supremacy, a history of cultural and physical violence that devaluated black life at every turn.  From slavery through Jim Crow, from the school-to-prison pipeline to racial profiling, the innocence of black children has always been a dream deferred.  Childhood has been one of many things denied to black kids and this message has surely entered into black homes.  So has the yearning to protect our young from the pernicious impact of racism.  The intensity of this fear and the focus on insulating black children from the dangers of racism is part and parcel to the history of blacks in America.

As for those who argue that whooping a child will keep him or her out of jail . . . Welp, let’s see how effective that parenting strategy has been for black folks since the post-emancipation period and the rise of the carceral state.  Consider the following facts:

We keep whooping our children while people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population and account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.

We keep whooping our children even as 1 in every 9 black men is incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.

We keep whooping our children even as, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 3 black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.

We keep whooping our children even as individuals of color have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem.  

We keep whooping our children even as the Department of Justice found that blacks are approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists, and blacks are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

We keep whooping our children even though municipalities like Ferguson, Missouri target black communities with traffic stops, court fines, arrests and harrassment for low-level offenses to raise revenue.

We keep whooping our children even as students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated.

We keep whooping our children even though they represent more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement, and make up two-fifths of confined youth today.

We keep whooping our children even though recent data by the Department of Education shows that African American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates, making up more than 70 percent of arrested or referred students.

We keep whooping our children as harsh school punishments, from suspensions to arrests, lead to high numbers of youth of color coming into contact with the juvenile-justice system and at an early age are sent to adult prisons.

We keep whooping our children even as the number of women incarcerated has increased by 800 percent over the last three decades, and women of color have been disproportionately represented, with African American women being three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.

We keep whooping our children even as the war on drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses even though they are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests.

We keep whooping our children even as they remain overrepresented in the nation’s foster care system, which has become a breeding ground for the juvenile justice and adult prison system.  In some states, like California, nearly 70 percent of adult prisoners have had contact with the foster care system as a result of child abuse.

The abuse and control and mass incarceration of black bodies in America is tied to this country’s racist roots, which is tied to profiting from the sweat and muscle of black bodies.  The fact is, black people are worth more in prison than free.  It is absurd to think that all these disparities I mentioned above persist because black people don’t whoop their children enough.

Irrespective of the reasons – rage induced by racism, a desire to save children from the streets and a jail cell, a yearning to ward off black death, a responsibility to protect – the abuse hurts!  Not to mention, “bad parenting” is used to justify mass incarceration, schools suspensions, splitting apart of families by child welfare professionals, and yet the abuse that purportedly protects inadvertently exacerbates the pernicious harms of racism.


In America, Black Children Don’t Get To Be Children

This piece was originally published in The Washington Post on November 26, 2014.

by Stacey Patton

Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive — in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.

America does not extend the fundamental elements of childhood to black boys and girls. Black childhood is considered innately inferior, dangerous and indistinguishable from black adulthood. Black children are not afforded the same presumption of innocence as white children, especially in life-or-death situations.

Note officer Darren Wilson’s description of his confrontation with Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo. In his grand jury testimony, Wilson described Brown as a “demon,” “aggressive,” and said that Brown had taunted him by saying, “You are too much of a p—- to shoot me.” (Similarly, George Zimmerman told police that teenager Trayvon Martin threatened him during their fight: “You’re gonna die tonight.”)

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson told the jury, “I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. . . . That’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” Wilson claimed that Brown charged at him through a hail of bullets before he shot him in the head. The official history of that night paints Wilson as an innocent white child was so threatened by a big, black beast that his only option was to use lethal force.

In announcing the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, prosecuting attorney Robert P. McCulloch assaulted Brown’s character and recalled, in morbid detail, conflicting accounts of how Brown’s body reacted to being shot. One unnamed witnesses testified that Brown was in “a full charge,” with his fists clenched or at his sides.

Such descriptions, so similar to 19th-century defenses of lynching, are invoked each time a black child is gunned down in America.

In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and killed by a group of white men, one of his killers said Till “looked like a man.” I’ve found this pattern in news accounts of lynchings of black boys and girls from 1880 to the early 1950s, in which witnesses and journalists fixated on the size of victims who ranged from 8 to 19 years old. These victims were accused of sexually assaulting white girls and women, stealing, slapping white babies, poisoning their employers, fighting with their white playmates, or protecting black girls from sexual assault at the hands of white men. Or they were lynched for no reason at all.

During his closing arguments in the 2013 trial in which Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, defense attorney Mark O’Mara put a concrete slab and two life-size cardboard cutouts in front of the jury box. One cutout depicted Zimmerman, 29, who is 5-foot-7 and more than 200 pounds, and the other Martin, 17, who was 5-foot-11 and 158 pounds.

O’Mara argued that the concrete slab could be deployed as a weapon. And the cardboard cutouts helped him illustrate the size disparity between Zimmerman and Martin. He used computer animation to try to convince the jury panel that the clinically obese freelance neighborhood watchman reasonably feared for his life during his fight with the taller Martin, thus justifying Zimmerman shooting the teenager in self-defense on the night of Feb. 6, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Throughout the trial, Zimmerman’s defense portrayed Martin as a “young man.”

In his rebuttal, prosecutor John Guy repeatedly referred to Martin as a “boy” in an attempt to restore him to childhood and carve out a space for him as an innocent youth who feared for his life as he was stalked and then attacked by a grown man.

Guy asked the jury: “Isn’t that every child’s worst nightmare, to be followed on the way home in the dark by a stranger? Isn’t that every child’s worst fear?” Recall that Martin, in his last cellphone conversation with his friend Rachel Jeantel, said he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.”

That trial was not just about determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, but about determining whether Martin was a child.

This played out again in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice on Nov. 22. The boy, who was reported as being “tall for his age,” was playing outside a recreation center in Cleveland when he was seen sitting on a swing playing with a BB gun. In a 911 recording, a witness said: “The guy keeps pulling it in and out. . . . It’s probably fake, but he’s pointing it at everybody. He’s probably a juvenile.”

It’s unclear whether the dispatcher relayed to the responding officers that they might be dealing with a child playing with a BB gun. But when the officers found Tamir, they said he did not put up his hands when ordered to do so. Instead, he allegedly reached for the gun in his waistband and was shot.

The family’s attorney, Timothy Kucharski, questioned why the officers did not act with more caution. “The police have to address these things in the proper context,” he said. “This is a 12-year-old boy. This is not a grown man. I’d think you would handle situations with children differently than you would with an adult. They don’t fully understand everything that is going on.”

In that instance, “the officer had no clue he was a 12-year-old,” said Jeff Follmer, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association. “He was concentrating more on the hands than on the age.”

The overestimation of a black child’s age begins even before age 12. A study published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — which long ago published racist studies on black children — linked the higher use of force by police on black youth to the common perception that, by age 10, they are less innocent. The study also cited Department of Education data that said black students are far more likely to be harshly disciplined at school than students of other races who commit the same infractions.

Regardless of the case, the police officers’ actions in these cases are consistent and predictable: This was not a child. He was a threat. I was afraid and had to defend myself. The child, stripped of childhood, is framed as a menace that overrides probable cause.

The dangers black children face — from being profiled and targeted for arrest and incarceration — are firmly rooted in history.

After the Civil War, the establishment of political equality for millions of newly freed black people — through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — meant that a new generation of black children would become adults with equal rights. And so devaluing black children became central to maintaining racism and inequality in American life.

In the Jim Crow era, black children grew up free citizens and free laborers. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they had no memory of slavery. And so new strategies emerged to contain them, to cast doubt on their rights and intellect, and to demean the value of their labor and their very beings.

Turn-of-the-century pediatric literature features doctors describing how black children’s bodies developed differently from those of white children. According to white researchers, the black fetus had a smaller brain, a wider nose, thicker lips, and “simian” hands and feet. Psychologists tested and compared the behaviors of white and black infants and concluded that black babies  were born innately inferior and animalistic. Through brain measurements, doctors and anthropologists set out to prove that black children’s frontal lobes closed up during adolescence. And when that happened, their brains stopped learning and their genitals became over-developed and a sexual threat to whites. Some politicians openly advocated for the castration of black boys, and in North Carolina, thousands of black girls were forcibly sterilized. 

Jim Crow was far more extensive and damaging for black children than everyday encounters at segregated schools and lunch counters would suggest. As objects of experimentation by doctors or abuse by the state, babies and other children were exposed to the dehumanizing and violent logic of racial classification and domination. Black parents and educators tried to mitigate these harms and protect their young. Unfortunately, they experienced more setbacks and challenges than successes, but their efforts reveal how even parenting came under assault in the Jim Crow era — and became an important area of resistance.

If a white life cycle features innocence, growth, civility, responsibility and becoming an adult, blackness is characterized as the inversion of that. Not only are black children cast as adults but, just as perversely, black adults are stuck in a limbo of childhood, viewed as irresponsible, uncivil, criminal, innately inferior. Through the incarceration of black adults and the disproportionate placement of black children into foster care, the state acts as a parent, while simultaneously abdicating its responsibility to invest in children of color. In the Ferguson case, the state is ostensibly saying: We have no responsibility to protect your children.

When black parents read about the killings of Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Renisha McBride and so many others, they are forced to instill fear in their children — warning them about the dangers of white people and the police. Such words of caution are not enough to overcome the centuries of attitudes toward and policies behind white killing of black children.

The legions of young people protesting the Ferguson travesty in schools, on social media and in the streets are trying to ensure that children of color get to be children — and that they live to see adulthood, too.

Why You Should Never Spank Your Daughter

This piece was originally published on

by Dr. Stacey Patton

I’m not saying that you’re a bad parent if you spank your child/ren. But if you are raising a daughter, you might want to know how your decision to use physical punishment might alter the architecture of her brain and negatively impact her sexual development.

For nearly two decades, there’s been extensive research on how physical discipline, unpredictable environments, and chronic stress impacts children’s brain development. Constant hollering, belittling, threatening, and hitting your child sets off biochemical responses to stress that can change the physiology of your child’s brain and lay the groundwork for a low I.Q., a quick temper, aggressive and delinquent behavior, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, an inability to regulate impulses, dysfunctional relationships, and early intrusive sexual thoughts and activities.

Earlier this summer I presented at a two-day conference on corporal punishment hosted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine where I was introduced to the research of Dr. Leslie Seltzer, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Child Emotion Lab. Seltzer and her colleagues are part of a cohort of researchers that have been studying how stressful parent-child contact can overload a child’s body with certain hormones. One of those is cortisol, a hormone that helps the body prepare to fight, flee, or freeze in response to danger or even the threat of danger. Children who are spanked don’t have the option to flee or fight – they must submit to the pain and violence without grabbing, blocking, or defending against the assault to their body. Corporal punishment triggers the release of cortisol.

Having elevated levels of cortisol for a short period of time is okay, but if this fear response is experienced repeatedly it can damage a young brain and lead to diseased neural networks. Researchers also say that repeated elevations of cortisol can result in a child becoming sensitized to fear, making it easier for them to experience danger and pain and normalize abnormal behavior. Think about how many adults who were hit as children can’t remember the trauma and fear they actually felt at the time but say that being hit was a “good” for them because they’ve only held onto the rationalizations used to justify the violence against them.

In her lab experiments where she placed adolescent boys and girls in a stressful situation and then took samples of their saliva and urine, Seltzer surprisingly found that girls with histories of harsh physical discipline didn’t experience the cortisol rush that we would expect. Instead, that group had a huge spike of oxytocin, known as the “comfort” or “cuddle” or “love” hormone that causes people to feel emotionally bonded to each other, and acts as the body’s built-in counter to stress.

Seltzer and her colleagues discovered that when placed under a stressful situation, the oxytocin levels in girls with a history of harsh physical discipline nearly tripled from their baseline, which was already three times higher than the baseline levels of girls that had no history of harsh physical discipline. (The researchers found no differences in hormonal changes in the boys they compared.)

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that gets released into the bloodstream when you experience warm feelings like love, trust, security, attachment, comfort, and protection. Our levels of oxytocin surge when we hug, kiss, have sex, give birth, and breastfeed. A surge in this hormone known for sexual pleasure is not the sort of thing you expect to happen to a girl when she is threatened or hit by a parent or guardian. 

So how does this happen, and why is this a hormonal recipe for disaster for girls?

When you threaten or hit your daughter, her limbic system – the part of that brain that controls emotions, memories, and arousal – gets activated into a state of hyper-vigilance and readiness to respond to danger. Her amygdala gets the message that danger is coming and generates an emotional response that releases oxytocin. Over time, as her brain develops, this ripple of hormonal changes can permanently wire her brain to cope with this harsh treatment. Her nervous system will run on a continuous high because she will constantly anticipate more threats.

Hitting your daughter can not only impair her sense of trust and self-confidence, it is embarrassing, humiliating, and sends confusing messages about boundaries and her right to bodily integrity. Eventually, your daughter may experience emotional and cognitive numbing as she internalizes distress and aggression. Her self-esteem will be wounded and her spirit will be broken even as she develops a “hard” or “tough” or a so-called “strong black woman” exterior at an early age. 

Researchers have found that adolescent and teenage girls who have histories of harsh physical discipline have been found to have higher levels of intrusive sexual thoughts, consumption of porn, and masturbate more frequently. Having higher levels of oxytocin causesearly puberty and removes inhibitions around her decisions to engage in risky sexual activity. The stress of being threatened and hit has damaged her brain and so she may struggle to compartmentalize her sexual preoccupations, control her impulses, and refrain from temptation.

If you repeatedly subject your daughter to threats and hitting, she might end up coping with this stress by seeking out ways to escape it. She may find other forms of support, namely relationships which might put her at risk for engaging in risky sexual behavior, teen pregnancy, and choosing aggressive, violent partners later in life.

The irony is that so many parents whoop their kids thinking it will keep them from being “bad” and prevent these very behaviors! All children need discipline, but not the kind that rewires their physical and mental hard drives for at-risk behaviors or damages their ability to function in healthy ways.

Spare the rod. TALK with your child. LISTEN to them. Hit the keyboard and learn some things about child development so that you won’t place unreasonable expectations on your kid(s). Try to understand, even when their behavior makes you angry or scared. They’re growing up and don’t know what to do. As their parent, you are growing up with them. Hitting, cursing, yelling, and threatening damages that precious parent-child emotional bond, and potentially causes the kind of problems you’re just trying to prevent in the first place.

This article focused on girls, but hitting is equally damaging to boys. In my next piece I will discuss research that shows how boys who are hit by their mothers also experience brain alterations that put them at an increased risk of hitting their significant others later in life.

Whoop That Child, Damage That Brain. Like Yours Was.

By Stacey Patton, Ph.D.

The following piece was originally published on

“I’m gonna spank my child when he acts out. I got my butt whooped when I was a child and today I’m fine!” 

I recently heard a 40-something-year-old black woman say this during a heated debate over physical discipline of children. Let’s call her Sista A. 

Sista B responded: “Girl, please. You didn’t turn out fine. You grew up to be somebody who thinks it’s perfectly okay to hit a child. There’s something wrong with that,” she said as she gently tap, tap, tapped a finger against her own forehead.

“BOOM!” I said smiling as I gave Sista B a fist bump. 

And she’s right: scientific research over many decades overwhelmingly concludes that getting hit as a child damages the way your brain develops, messes up your mental wiring, and distorts how you remember and talk about traumatic events. 

Think about how most black Americans talk about corporal punishment for children:

  • “You have to spank them or they won’t respect you.”
  • “I whoop my child to keep him/her from going to jail. It works, because I’ve never been in trouble with the law.”
  • “The Bible says ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ God is on my side!”
  • “Spanking is discipline. It’s not the same thing as abuse.” 
  • “Spanking equals love and protection.”
  • “If I hadn’t been whooped, I’d have ended up dead or in jail.”

Over time, some people who hated and resented being spanked as children come to view it as desirable, even necessary because their brain can’t recognize being hit as a harmful act of violence. Some people joke about the pain that once made them cry. Many allow religious, cultural, and social justifications to trick them into doubting their healthy childhood belief that it was and felt wrong for them to be hit. As adults, they fervently believe that being whipped was so good for them that they will repeat this cycle with their own children. The core belief still dominant in black American culture is that hitting your child equals good, responsible parenting. 

From my own childhood experiences, I remember those phrases – “This is for your own good.” “I beat you because I love you.” “I beat you so the white man won’t beat you or kill you.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” 

One reason I might have escaped some of the brain damage and never stopped feeling that the beatings were wrong is that I was five years old when I was adopted into the abusivehome, and had never been hit prior to that time when I was in the foster care system. In other words, between the critical periods of age zero to four, my internal hard drive had already been set to process being hit as frightening and wrong.

Over the past few years I’ve grown impatient with the oft-repeated tired justifications for hitting children, especially among black Americans, given the troubling data on the number of abused black kids entering into the foster care system, parents going to jail, and the hundreds of kids who die each year as a result of child abuse. In many of these cases, the child victims were undoubtedly loved by their parents or caregivers who hit or killed them. The perpetrators had faulty wiring in their own brains that caused them to associate physical discipline with love and use violence to get their child to obey.

Let’s look at the data. In 2012, the most recent year of available data, the Administration for Children and Families reported that:

  • Black children had the highest victimization rates in the country, comprising over 140,000, or 21 percent of all abuse cases. 
  • In 2012, 403 of the 1,593 fatalities were black children, representing 32 percent of the victims. 
  • Most of the victims were under age 4.
  • The majority of the perpetrators of abuse, and murder, of black children were black women under age 44. 
  • See the 2012 report here

Let’s talk about how black women under age 44 are most likely to abuse their children. Their intentions might be good, but their reasoning is deeply flawed. But we have to stop for a moment and seriously ask: How much of that flawed reasoning is due to the rewiring of the mothers’ brains that resulted from being hit in their youth? The research shows that a parent’s warmth and nurture does not mitigate the negative impact that hitting has on the brain. 

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Martin Teicher, who studies the impact that stresses like abuse and neglect have on children’s brain development, says as a child grows, there are moments when there are regions of the brain that are particularly vulnerable to stress. 

One of the most stress sensitive areas of the brain, he says, is the hippocampus, near theamygdala in the mid-brain, which is the center for emotional management and is used for learning, storing and retrieving memories. This part of the brain continues to produce important neurons after birth and stress can suppress this function, ultimately slowing down or impairing our ability to control emotions, take in new knowledge, and think at our best. When a child is exposed to trauma and stress (including spankings that don’t leave scars or other serious physical injuries), that part of the brain increases in volume and can alter a child’s normal brain development. The effects might not be apparent for years until after puberty.

And what are those effects? 

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have found that children and adults who have been subjected to child abuse and neglect have less grey matter in their brains than those who have not been ill-treated. Medical professionals have consistently found a link between corporal punishment and increased aggression in children, low academic performance, vulnerability to depression, and antisocial behavior.

Dr. Teicher compared people who were spanked and those that were abused and found that they shared the same alterations in their brains, belying the popular myth that there’s a difference between discipline and abuse and its impact on children. He found that both groups of physically disciplined children had the same risks of developing drug and alcohol abuse, depression and aggressive behavior, decreases in I.Q., and other forms of cognitive impairment.

“We know that the brains of adults who were abused as children are different,” says Nadine Bean, an associate professor in the graduate social work department at West Chester University.

“Shrinkage in the amygdala and hippocampus impacts how one regulates strong emotion, how one processes memories, especially traumatic memories,” she says. “It may be that adults who were whooped as children actually do not remember the most horrible aspects of these experiences. What they may remember is the distorted justification of these experiences from their parent or caregiver.”

Professor Bean says this is similar to Stockholm Syndrome. “If you fear for your safety, your life, then you begin to believe to acquiesce to your abuser’s drivel,” she says.

Children who are hit by their parents can develop a very distorted view of love and attachment. As adults they don’t always know how to interpret healthy forms of love, they only understand being beaten. If you were hit as a child and grew up to be someone who hasn’t developed depression, addictions, suicidal thoughts, aggressive or other anti-social behaviors, but you’re one of those people who looks back and says that getting whooped was good for you and you vow to hit your own kid because it worked, then that is still evidence of brain damage.

“’I was beat and I turned out fine.’ I’ve heard that all of my professional social work life. They make think they are fine, but sadly aren’t,” Professor Bean says. “And, it isn’t just black people, this cut across races, ethnic groups, and socio-economic status. We have met because your child is having trouble in school or is acting aggressively within your home or neighborhood? Ok, you’re fine. Can we explore this a little further?”

Molly Castelloe, a psychology and performance expert who writes for Psychology Today hasrevealed how hitting damages the brain in other ways by teaching a child that learning occurs through punishment.

“This form of discipline pretends to be educational, but is actually a way for parents to vent their own anger. Spanking involves the learned misrecognition of injury as education,” she argues. “Figures of cultural authority, such as parents and teachers, may be construed as purveyors of sadism rather than knowledge. Corporal punishment undermines compassion for others, for oneself, and limits the mutual capacity for gaining.”

The problem is generational, Castelloe says. People parent the way they were parented. In other words, “the cause of this form of educational violence is often hidden in the repressed history of the parents. When adults do not understand the connections between their previous experiences of injury and those they actively repeat in the present, they perpetuate a destructive cycle and inflict their own suffering on their offspring.”

The result — a new generation continues to carry the damage that has been stored up in the mind and body of their ancestor. The cycle, Castelloe and others maintain, can be broken when parents and caregivers work to become consciously aware of, and honest about, their own childhood pain so they don’t transmit historical violence to their children by hitting.

My hope is that black communities will begin to shift the conversation away from the ethics of using physical violence, the radio jokes and hair salon banter, the literal interpretations of Old Testament scriptures, and focus on the science which is clearly telling us that this practice is harming our children’s brains – and our communities.

What’s Really Behind the War on (White) Women?

I’m sharing this piece that I wrote for earlier this week.  While the aim of this piece is to demonstrate how the fixation on white babies and a white future through controlling white women’s reproductive activities is connected to discrimination and amped up violence against people of color, I felt it was important to share with STK’s audience.  Parents, black or white, who are raising children of color need to understand the context under which they are raising their sons and daughters…..

By Stacey Patton

The GOP’s war on the most intimate aspects of women’s lives is undoubtedly real, but it is not being applied without discrimination. 

Let’s be clear—the primary targets of the right wing’s rhetorical and legislative attacks are, and have always been, white women. The war on white women is really a push for more white babies. And, that push goes hand in hand with amped-up racial profiling, vigilante policing, mass incarceration, school closures, hoarding of resources from communities of color, and blatant disregard for violence directed at African Americans and their children, including the unborn. 

More white people are dying than are being born, a trend that is projected to continue. Meanwhile, the birth rates for people of color remain stable or high, primarily for Latinos. The trick for the modern American situation is to prevent people from seeing that the war for more white babies and the war against people of color are related. But the two phenomena are inseparable.

What we are witnessing is not new, but rather a familiar pattern of desperate efforts to preserve white domination through strength in numbers. It is an historic fact that when radical demographic shifts take place in the United States they are accompanied by white supremacist fears of being outbred and crowded out by immigrants and people of color, and losing majority rule. 

And so here we are again. America is undergoing yet another periodic age of white fear and cradle competition. As the white population marches toward a less than majority status, the constant fear of biological extinction has infected our political discourse, policy decisions, and everyday racial interactions, whether in the comments sections of news sites or in the streets.

For those who remain skeptical about the association between fears of white race suicide and emphasis upon women’s reproductive roles, consider the words of famous and respected persons such as Teddy Roosevelt, a champion of race purity who with little embarrassment called black Americans “a perfectly stupid race that can never rise.”

Responding to the falling white birth rate, in his 1906 state of the union address Roosevelt blasted elite native-born white women for shirking their national civic duty to be mothers of the nation by engaging in “willful sterility—the one sin for which the penalty is national death, race suicide.” In his eyes, a white woman who avoided having babies was a “criminal against the race” and “the object of contemptuous abhorrence by healthy people.” 

Later, in a 1913 letter to the prominent eugenicist Charles B. Davenport he wrote: “Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind…. Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizens of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.”

Roosevelt’s declarations came at a time when more women were pursuing education, seeking careers, voting rights, greater voice in public life, and control over their own fertility. All of these factors supposedly made women physically unfit to be good wives and mothers. Doctors of the era argued that the pursuit of higher education, participation in sports and professional life diverted too much blood to women’s brains from their reproductive organs. 

Meanwhile, all this discourse was attendant by race riots, lynchings, unpunished rapes of black girls and women by white men, and other forms of genocidal violence. In 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, an angry white mob hung an 8-months pregnant Mary Turner upside down by her ankles, doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. While still alive, a man in the mob split her swollen abdomen with a hog knife, and stomped the fetus to death before the rest of the mob riddled Turner’s body with bullets. That same year a mob of whites hung Maggie and Alma Howze from a bridge near Shutaba, Mississippi. Both had been raped by the same white man and were pregnant with his children at the time of their lynching.

Consider also Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood who believed that eugenics and birth control could prevent “biological and racial mistakes.” This contradictory historical figure saw no problem with seeking funding and support from the Ku Klux Klan. The eugenics movement was about encouraging the “fittest” to reproduce and directed toward eliminating undesirables. While thousands of black females, white “degenerates” and “ morons” were legally sterilized in the early 20th century, smut suppressors like Anthony Comstock led successful campaigns to make it illegal to send birth control literature through the mail.

Flash forward to the Obama era.

Since 2011, state legislatures across the country have introduced hundreds of provisions from “heartbeat bills” and fetal pain laws, to encouraging violence against abortion doctors and reducing women’s access to birth control and abortion services. Some right-wing politicians have even sought to redefine rape in a way that would force female victims to carry the fetus to term. Their twisted rationale is that an unborn child should not have to die because of a rapists’ crime.

Last April, Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill that bans sex-selection abortions, blocks federal tax breaks for abortion providers, forbids them from giving educational talks to students, and declares that life begins “at fertilization.” 

What will we witness next—a new bill introduced, in a majority-white state of course, declaring that life begins when a man gets an erection? Will Republicans start citing Genesis 38:9 to criminalize men for masturbating and “spilling their seeds” to prevent conception? Okay, I’m being facetious here. But in fact, almost nothing is directed against controlling the sexual behaviors of men, including rapists, unless of course you are a black man accused of some sexual indiscretion with a white woman. But generally, the burden of sexual morality is placed on women. 

Perhaps the worse political gaffe came from Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock, who said he opposed aborting pregnancies conceived in rape because “it is something that God intended to happen.” Are these politicians and their supporters so desperate to boost the population of white babies that they’ll even take those conceived through rape?

While Republicans and Democrats debate the war on women, they have remained conspicuously silent about the intensifying war on black adults and children. If you want a demonstration of the devaluing of black children even as white women of our time are forcibly pushed towards procreation, just do a quick Google search of police assaults against pregnant black women and you’ll see what I mean. There are news stories and graphic videos of visibly pregnant women being cursed at, punched, taseredkicked, and body slammed to the ground by white police officers. 

Though most of the babies were born uninjured, 17-year-old Kwamesha Sharp wasn’t so lucky. In June 2012, Sharp lost her unborn child when a Harvey, Illinois police officer slammed her to the ground and kept his knee pressed down on her abdomen for an extended period of time. According to court documents the arresting officer, Richard M. Jones, said he didn’t care that Sharp was pregnant. In a few of the other cases, the women were arrested and charged, and the officers’ superiors backed their actions. 

new video recently surfaced on social media showing a young black mom, who may have been drugged and raped, being strapped down to a chair inside a Warren, Michigan police station, where one officer kicked her and another chopped her hair off with a pair of scissors. 

In addition to physical attacks, black mothers have been fined and jailed for “stealing” education for their children by enrolling them in safer suburban schools. Black parents have had to bury their children. Their names have made headlines: Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Kimani Gray, Darius Simmons, Jordan Davis, Renisha 

McBride. Meanwhile, mass school closures in ChicagoPhiladelphia and other urban districts across the country have disproportionately targeted and destabilized children in poor black and Latino communities.

The war on black children and teens is especially mean-spirited. A litany of examples makes me think of what civil rights doyen W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1920: “there is no place for black children in this world.”

Former Idaho executive Joe Rickey Hundley made headlines last February when he slapped a crying toddler on a Delta flight headed from Minneapolis to Atlanta. Hundley told the adopted child’s white mother to “shut that nigger baby up.”

Last September, a white Texas man shot 8-year-old Donald Maiden Jr. in the face while he played tag with other children. In November, New Mexico police officers smashed out the windows and recklessly fired shots into the fleeing minivan containing Oriana Ferrell and her five children who range from age 6 to 18. The mother said she fled the scene during the wild traffic stop because she feared for her children’s safety.

Just last month, 16-year-old straight-A high-school student Darrin Manning was on his way to play a basketball game when he was stopped and frisked by a Philadelphia cop. During the search, a female officer squeezed his genitals so hard that she ruptured his testicles, rendering him sterile.

Today’s white supremacists aren’t necessarily as inflammatory in their language about race and sex. But a century ago, as now, they have never spoke about increasing the births of nonwhites, protecting the black unborn, or setting progressive economic and social policies to make the world a safe place for them to thrive once they are born. Remember when former education secretary Bill Bennett said that aborting every black infant in America would lower crime rates? 

So here we are in 2014. The United States has already reached a tipping point in its ethnic and racial diversity. More than half of all babies born in this country are children of color. By 2018, the majority of all children nationwide are projected to belong to nonwhite groups. 

These numbers, along with enduring white supremacist fears of dying out culturally and biologically, are the real reasons behind the GOP’s so-called “war on women,” and the continuing attacks on black adults and children. When we take a step back and widen the lens we are able to see how injustice, whether it is based on gender or race, grows from the same insidious root cause. 

Why Adoptees & Foster Kids Dread The Holidays … Some Tips To Help Them Survive

I’ve always hated Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Holidays are stressful times for many people, but they are especially difficult for those of us who are adoptees or have had a history of foster care placement.

As an adoptee growing up in a huge Christian family, I couldn’t feel the joy and sense of belonging that they felt.  Instead, I was an imposter who pretended to be happy and “grateful” for being “saved” from the foster care system, for having a home and lots of gifts under the tree.  But I knew I was there to fill a void in my adoptive parents’ lives and to make them feel normal and complete.

I was surrounded by people who believed that I was only supposed to focus only on my life post adoption.  Everything that happened before wasn’t supposed to matter.  We couldn’t talk about the past because it might make somebody sitting at the table feel bad about my loss, and their own.  Somehow, the toys and holiday cheer was supposed to erase the trauma and unacknowledged grief of being separated from my biological parents.  And it was supposed to erase my adoptive parents’ inability to bring their own children into the world.

I actually resented my adoptive relatives for their privilege.  The privilege of being able to sit at the table and talk about who looks like who.  The privilege of talking about births, names, roots, memories, photos, and shared history.  The privilege of being able to celebrate how they plucked me from the foster care system and added me to their family.

“When we got Stacey.” 

 “We chose you.” 

 “Like our own.” 

Those were the simple phrases that got uttered during conversations and made me want to stuff myself head first into the cooked gut of the turkey.  And there was always a cousin or two who reminded me that I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as them.  Their whispers and giggles at holiday gatherings made me paranoid that they were talking about me, making fun of me because, as they said, “my real mama didn’t want me.”

I was the small, silent observer choking back tears, faking smiles, wondering about my “real” family, feeling guilty for wondering about my “real” family, and wishing I could be reborn into better and more authentic circumstances.  Most times I got through holiday gatherings by withdrawing to some quiet corner away from everybody.  I was that kind of girl who would rather be alone than be surrounded by a whole lot of people and still feel like an outsider.

By the time I was 12 I was right back in foster care.  I spent so many holidays in the homes of strangers.  Black people.  White people.  Christians.  Catholics.  Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In the boondocks.  In the ‘hood.  My foster parents did the best they could to include me in the day’s events.  But I often felt guilty for being this dark shadow, this fleshy burden in their homes.  I felt bad that they were obligated to keep me safe and buy me a gift so I wouldn’t feel left out.  After the dinners I stowed myself away in my borrowed room so they could be themselves without this stranger in their midst.

And then there were the holidays in the youth shelters and group homes.  Some of my foster brothers and sisters got to go home for the holidays.  For some of us it wasn’t safe.  So we stayed behind, opening donated gifts that were marked “boy” or “girl.”  The fact that the gifts were anonymous worked for me because then I didn’t feel like I owed anybody anything.

I had my first Christmas with some of my biological relatives when I was 16.  Years before that I had fantasized about how wonderful the holidays would be with them.  I thought I’d finally be surrounded by people who looked like me.  People who would create a space for me in their home and hearts.  People who would love me unconditionally.  People who would keep me this time around.

But the fact is, they believed they owed me nothing other than edited versions of the truth.  All those years separated and our divergent life trajectories had made us into different people with nothing in common accept blood and genes, and even that was debatable. 

So there I was again, an outsider at Christmas in a family with secrets.  I resented my biological relatives for their privilege.  The privilege of having stayed together while I was separated from the family.  The privilege of talking about births, names, roots, memories, photos, and shared history that I was cut off from.  And we couldn’t talk about that big elephant in the room – the painful and tragic events that led to my adoption.

Over the years many wonderful people in my life have reached out during this time of the year to invite me to their homes.  I always say thank you, but no.  I know they mean well and they’re coming from a genuinely loving place.  But there’s still the little girl in me who is grieving the loss of her parents, who still resents having been abandoned, adopted, and having spent the rest of her childhood as a ward of the state after a failed adoption.

I’m not sure if the people in my life feel bad for me or if they worry that I’m in some dark corner curled up and depressed this time of the year.  And I’m not sure if they take my declining of their invites personally.  I want them to know that sometimes I do curl up and sleep the day away.  I do grieve during the holidays.  I acknowledge my losses (and the love I’ve gained).  And I count my blessings.  But I refuse to sit at somebody else’s table and being that outsider.  Your happy moments with your family only reminds me of what I lost.  For some adoptees and foster kids, grieving that loss is a lifelong process.  It’s okay to let us take that journey and to define when and where we want to enter.

A few years ago I started what I call an “orphan party.”  Every Thanksgiving I invited people to my home who considered themselves orphans.  Some were foster kids.  Some had parents who died.  Some hated their families.  Some were outcasts because they were gay, had AIDS, or just didn’t fit in the family dynamic. 

The parties were not formal.  Some of my guests got dressed up.  Others rolled out of the bed dripping with sadness and eyes reddened from a night of drinking or getting high to numb their pain.  My kitchen was open from 4 to 10 pm.  We ate.  We laughed.  Some of us cried.  We watched “The Color Purple,” quoted scenes, laughed at painful scenes that weren’t supposed to be funny.  None of us had to pretend.

My orphan parties covered the silence and chased away the loneliness and pain of loss.  They helped me survive the holidays.  But I thought I’d share some useful tips for those of you who are helping foster youth during this time of the year.  I got these tips from one of my friends who is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) who works with foster youth. 

1. Prepare the foster youth in your care for the holidays in your home

Have a discussion with the young person about your family’s holiday customs. Do you celebrate over multiple days, or is there one “main” celebration? Are there religious customs? Will gifts be exchanged? What should they wear? Who will they meet? What preparations need to be done in advance? Will there be visitors to the home? Will they be taken on visits to the homes of other family or friends? And in all of these events, will your youth be expected to participate? Knowing what to expect will help to decrease anxiety around the holidays. Avoid surprises and you will decrease seasonal tensions.

2. Prepare friends and family before you visit

Let people know in advance about new family members in your home. Surprising a host or hostess at the door with a “new” foster youth may set up an awkward situation — such as a scramble to set an extra place at the table — making the young person feel like an imposition right from the start of the visit. Your preparation of friends should help cut down on awkward, but reasonable questions such as “who are you?” or “where did you come from?”

3. Remember confidentiality

You may receive well intended but prying questions from those you visit with over the holidays. If your young person is new to your home, it is natural that family members ask questions about your youth’s background. Understand that questions are generally not meant to be insensitive or rude, but simply come from a place of not knowing much about foster care. Think in advance about how to answer these questions while maintaining your youth’s confidentiality. Use the opportunity to educate interested family and friends. Discuss with your young person how they would like to be introduced and what is appropriate to share about their history with your family and friends. (Remember, they have no obligation to reveal their past.)

4. Arrange meeting your family in advance, if possible

The hustle and bustle of the holidays can make it particularly chaotic for your young person to participate in your family traditions. Anxiety may run high for young people already, and the stress of meeting your relatives may be a lot to deal with. If possible, you can arrange a casual “meeting” in advance of “main events.” If it is not possible or practical to meet beforehand, make a list of names of some of the people they’ll meet and their connection to you. You can also encourage a quick call from relatives you plan to visit to deliver a personal message of “we are excited to met you” so that your youth knows they will be welcome.

5. Have extra presents ready to help offset differences

It should not be expected that all relatives purchase presents for your youth. Be prepared with other small gifts and for those family members that express concern over not having brought a gift, offer one of your “backups” for them to place under the tree. Extra presents may be addressed “from Santa”, even for older youth, to help offset a larger number of gifts other children may receive at the same time. Children often keep count of the number of gifts received (right or wrong) and use it to compare with other kids, so sometimes quantity is important.

6. Facilitate visits with loved ones

The holidays can be a busy time for everyone including foster parents and caseworkers. But it is especially important during this time of year to help your young person arrange for visits with loved ones. Don’t allow busy schedules to mean the postponement of these important visits. Try to get permission for your youth to make phone calls to relatives (if long distance charges are an issue, ask if calls can be placed from the foster care agency or provide a local business or individual to “donate” by allowing the use of their phone). A youth may wish to extend holiday wishes to relatives and friends from an old neighborhood, but may need your help getting phone numbers together. Use the opportunity to help the youth develop their own address book.

7. Help them make sure their loved ones are okay

Young people may worry that their family members are struggling through the holidays. If homelessness has been a regular issue, the winter season may bring cold weather and extreme hardship. Your youth may experience guilt if they feel a loved one is struggling while they, the youth, are living in comfort. Knowing that a biological parent or sibling has shelter from the cold or has their other basic needs met may ease a young person’s mind through the always emotional holidays.

8. Extend an invitation

If it is safe and allowed by your foster care agency, consider extending an invitation to siblings or bio- parents through the holidays. It need not be an invitation to your “main” holiday event, consider a “special” dinner for your youth to celebrate with their loved ones. If this not a possibility to do within your home, consider arranging a visit at a local restaurant (ask the caseworker is it would be appropriate for the visit to be unsupervised or if your supervision would suffice). Extending an invitation to their loved ones need not signal to a young person that you support their bio-family’s lifestyle or choices — rather it tells a young person that you respect their wish to stay connected to family. You will also send a message to the youth that that aren’t being put in a position to “choose” your family over their bio-family and that it is possible to have a relationship with all the people they care about.

9. Understand and encourage your youth’s own traditions and beliefs

Encourage discussion about the holiday traditions your young person experienced prior to being in foster care, or even celebrations they liked while living with other foster families. Incorporate the traditions the youth cherishes into your own family celebration, if possible. Use the opportunity to investigate the youth’s culture and research customary traditions. If the young person holds a religious belief different from yours, or if their family did, check into the traditions customarily surrounding those beliefs.

10. Assist in purchasing or making holiday gifts or in sending cards to their family and friends  

Allow young people to purchase small gifts for their relatives, or help them craft homemade gifts. Help send holiday cards to those that they want to stay connected with. The list of people that your youth wishes to send cards and gifts to should be left completely to the youth, although precautions may be taken to ensure safety (for example, a return address may be left off the package, or use the address of the foster care agency) and compliance with any court orders.

11. Understand if they pull away

Despite your best efforts, a young person may simply withdraw during the holidays. Understand that this detachment most likely is not intended to be an insult or a reflection of how they feel about you, but rather is their own coping mechanism. Allow for “downtime” during the holidays that will allow the youth some time to themselves if they need it (although some youth would prefer to stay busy to keep their mind off other things — you will need to make a decision based on your knowledge of the young person). Be sure to fit in one-on-one time, personal time for your youth and you to talk through what they are feeling during this emotional and often confusing time of year.

12. Call youth who formerly lived with you

The holidays can be a particularly tough time for youth who have recently aged out of foster care. They may not have people to visit or a place to go for the holidays. In addition, young people commonly struggle financially when they first leave foster care. A single phone call may lift their spirits and signal that you continue to care for them and treasure their friendship. Be sure to include these youth on your own holiday card list. A small token gift or gift basket of homemade holiday goodies may be especially appreciated.

Most importantly, it is essential to let adoptees, foster children, and those who have aged out of the system know that they are not alone and they are not to blame for their losses. One of the best things I learned about being in foster care was the I could collect people along the way and create my own family.

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