My emotions about this tragic pall cast upon our country have ranged from extraordinary sadness, anger, rage and hopelessness. It has stirred in me some very visceral feelings about the role of guns and treatment of mental illness in our society, not to mention the context of religion/afterlife/god that other people have expressed in its aftermath, much of which I do not agree with. I want to write about them all, but if I chose to write about those things today, I’d likely lose some friends. That’s not what I want to do. At least not today. Instead I will take issue with a piece I read over the weekend.
Dear Professor Fox:
Living in Greater Boston, I frequent Boston.com to access news (certainly not to the exclusion of other often more informative/balanced news sites, but it is a site I visit at least daily nonetheless). Over the weekend, in the wake of the profoundly heart wrenching tragedy in Newtown, I came across this piece that you wrote, which was posted on Boston.com.
One thing that struck me about your piece was where you write:
The immediate response to deadly shootings in schools and other buildings is typically a call for enhanced physical security. In the short-term, access control and close surveillance may calm the fears of students and their parents. However, in the long run, transforming our schools into fortresses is counter-productive. Children need not be constantly reminded of their vulnerability. Besides, as we have seen in many instances, including with the newly-installed security system at Sandy Hook, access control measures fail to deter someone who is absolutely dead-set on mayhem. (emphasis in bold mine)
You then close the article by vaguely stating that aside from all that (and other things you mention in the article), it’s still better to do something rather than nothing.
With all due respect to you, Professor Fox, (and you are not alone in writing such sentiments…I’ve seen them elsewhere and even hinted at in various statements made by government officials across the nation—so my rejection is to this notion across the board and not directly solely at you), I think you’ve failed to acknowledge some very important truths.
First, let’s consider your opinion that children need not be constantly reminded of their vulnerability. How can they, much less we, as parents, not think this way in today’s often insecure world from the moment they are born? Indeed, mere seconds after my daughter was born five years ago, the hospital staff put a security anklet on her tiny little ankle. This is standard practice in almost any hospital. We all know the reason: to protect our little babies, still yet wrinkled and red, from being taken. Stolen. Like jewelry or televisions. Sure, they are not aware of the reason why this miniature plastic ring is at the end of their leg, but we, her parents, are. This is what informs our first few moments as parents. This is the kind of mind-altering reality check that confronts us the second we take on our new role.
And it never really subsides either. Car seats, helmets, knee pads, bath thermometers, safety gates, table bumpers, electrical outlet covers, and all. A constant barrage of things meant to keep our kids safe and alive.
In light of all these things, do you really think that children are not already aware of their vulnerability? The truth is, they ARE vulnerable. Five, six and seven year olds ARE vulnerable. Sure, as they get older we want to foster independence and self-confidence and common sense so that they can eventually go this world alone, but at these ages, they are vulnerable and look to us as adults to protect them as they navigate their way toward adulthood.
So, when you say that kids do not need to be reminded of their “vulnerability” by way of fortress-like measures or obvious, physical security devices (I’m assuming you mean things like metal detectors, surveillance, security personnel, and the like, though it is a bit unclear), I think you are missing the mark. Young children want to feel safe. They need adults to feel safe. They need us to be in control in order to provide that safety. The measures through which that may be accomplished may not be ideal, or cheap, or even practical, but the bottom line is that when I send my child to school, to be entrusted in the care of other adults, I want them to be fully equipped to provide that kind of safety.
The same kind of safety that I provide in my own home. With door locks and other security measures. Means by which to keep out those that I do not want in. Yes, a private residence is certainly not the same as a public school building, but its contents are: vulnerable young children. We are not talking about a city hall or the registry of motor vehicles. We are talking about a building where I am essentially required by law (homeschooling alternatives aside) to send my child once she turns five or six, as the case may be. If I have to do that, then those institutions must deliver on their end of the bargain.
When I read your thoughts on this particular point, I could not help immediately think of three situations where extreme security measures have become routine. First, the measures which we must all endure to board a plane. Is it a hassle? Certainly. And a costly and somewhat less-than-perfect one too. Nobody truly *has* to fly, yet our children do have to go to school. I can assure you that I think my child deserves at least the same amount of safety sitting in school as does the businessman flying to San Francisco. Second, the fact that virtually almost all colleges give entry cards for their students to access their dorms. These are individuals near or in adulthood, and yet they have more control about who goes in or out of a building than children a fraction of their age who are sitting idle in a classroom trying to figure out whether yellow and blue make green and hoping their mom or dad packed their favorite lunch. And you know what? Even if someone gets in the dorm that shouldn’t be there, those able-bodied college kids can use any number of means to seek law enforcement assistance. Elementary school kids, on the other hand, rely on the adults in charge to filter and prevent errant individuals. Third, my husband, who works for a large company, has to “badge in” before he is able to enter his work building. And there is also a security guard (in each of the multiple buildings on campus) sitting right there notwithstanding that the door will not open if my husband or any other employee forgets his badge. Given the work that his company does, I imagine that these measures are done more to protect proprietary information and tangible assets than the employees inside. Yet nobody batted an eyelash to install these measures. What’s even better is that the second that an employee is no longer part of the company (read: someone who is not supposed to be there anymore), that badge is deactivated. Why not something like this for students and/or their parents who want to freely access schools?
Our lives are nothing but security measures anymore. PIN numbers. Surveillance cameras in a grocery store. Security tag detectors at the department store. Home alarm systems. Car alarms. Passwords for iPhones and email. We take more effort to protect our stuff than our kids. Efforts that our kids are already aware of and accept as a way of life from the moment they are born. Surely you cannot be serious when you suggest that by adding more physical measures around schools that kids are somehow going to be more aware of their vulnerability? And you know what I say to that notion anyway? So what. My prospective six year old wants to feel safe at school. I don’t think certain kinds of measures are conducive to fostering the thoughts of vulnerability with which you seem so preoccupied. Instead, by not taking such steps, are we not sending the message to our kids that all of those other things are more important and worth protecting?
I refuse to accept that premise, and quite frankly I am getting very tired of hearing this cop out as more and more school violence takes place. Especially when my daughter is just nine months shy of sitting in the same kind of classroom that all of those beloved, and now dead, children were sitting. No, we need to deliver on our promise of protecting our kids because it is that kind of trust upon which their love is based.
Copyright (c) 2012 Kristen M. Ploetz
I remember when M was just about a year old, maybe even a bit after that, she started to become attached to one or two of her “loveys”. Initially, it was “Blue Kitty” and “Pink Bunny”. Blue Kitty is a stuffed knit striped, light blue cat, and Pink Bunny is one of those fleecy head on a handkerchief kinds of thing that is geared toward babies. The connection between M and her loveys was certainly gradual and later than some of her peers. OK, maybe even a bit forced on my part as I tried to get her to have something to cling to as I left her behind at daycare crying.
But eventually, she consistently sought them out, took them to daycare and slept with them at night, particularly more so after M started the night off in her own bed rather than ours. By some stroke of luck, we only managed to leave the loveys at school overnight one time. When you leave a lovey behind and cannot get to it until the next day, you quickly learn not to do it again!
Then, for the past year or so, up until around when M turned five, she “adopted” a few more animals from within her menagerie. They had always been around since she was crawling, but were not really ones she took a shine to. Then, almost as if for no apparent reason, she decided that “Jello” (which is the name she gave a Nut Brown Hare bunny she owned since she was an infant) was in, and Blue Kitty was out. Pink Bunny always seemed to hold top
dog bunny status, and was the first thing she asked for when the tears began.
I never worried about whether she’d end up like Kenny in Mr. Mom with his Woobie. I figured that she’d end the attachment when the time was right, or never at all (I remember some college friends bringing their “woobies” to the dorm life!). It just always made me happy that she could at least feel somewhat secure with those stuffed blobs of love when we were apart or my hugs were not enough.
But it dawned on me the other day that they’re no longer the ones she turns to. Not in bed with her. Not what she brings to preschool. Not even what she asks for when something’s got her distressed.
When did that happen? And, more importantly, why? This I wonder about. Yes, at the age of five, emotions tend to be a little more manageable (for both of us!), if not even-keeled, so the actual need for loveys has probably diminished somewhat. I haven’t really paid attention to the lovey status of her peers, so is it something that is age-appropriate? Is she afraid of feeling like a “baby”? Part of me secretly wishes, no.
What I don’t wonder about, however, is what has taken the place of these fleecy remnants of her babyhood. That answer is easy: Lily.
Lily is a gift from M’s gramma after a 5th birthday outing to the American Girl Doll store for lunch. That means she’s only been in our lives for about 3 months now, but there are times where I feel like she’s been here forever. This is because M treats her, talks to her and talks about her like an idealistic sibling. She’s not soft and cuddly by any stretch, but there is something about Lily that has M smitten.
Incidentally, when you only have one child and that’s all you’re going to have, you tend to second guess yourself about whether the behavior your child is exhibiting is directly related to her one-ness. Is she obsessed with Lily because she’s lonely? Are we terrible for not “giving” her a sibling? Would she be this attached to a human-like plaything if she had a brother or sister around? It’s a hard habit to break, but I’m starting to let go of this unproductive thought process more and more.
But Lily really is almost like having a second child around the house. We have to remember to get her dressed in the mornings. And at night. Oh, the wrath I heard one morning when M discovered that I had forgotten to put Lily in PJ’s before bed! I think it was my lapse that motivated M to finally learn how to get Lily dressed completely all by herself. We take Lily everywhere. Much to my surprise, M’s teacher doesn’t even mind Lily coming to school, though she must stay on the shelf except during rest time (apparently there is a whole trend now with other girls bringing their version of “Lily” too…and all of them look as
bedraggled well-loved as Lily). Lily is sometimes dealt a hand in a game of Go Fish or gets a pawn in Candyland. M and Lily can spend up to two hours just playing on their own. Lily even has complicated thoughts and opinions, as told to us by M. She has given M confidence in some social situations that I think she otherwise might have turned inward and gone quiet.
It’s this particular point of M not needing the soft cuddly things or me as much either that has me feeling both happy that she’s becoming independent, yet slightly bittersweet that the apron strings have loosened a bit more. Sure she still seeks me out for affection and household companionship, but she really does look to Lily for more of these things it seems. Wisps of yarn and fleece are no longer the answer. Isn’t this what I always wanted? More time to myself? Not having to address M’s needs on an endless basis? Before Lily came along, I surely thought so. Now, it seems, I am having mixed emotions about it because of what this transition to another kind of inanimate object represents about her growing up. All normal feelings, I’m sure.
So, as I wonder about where to put Blue Kitty, Jello and Pink Bunny for safekeeping, my thoughts wander about who or what will eventually replace Lily, and when. School friends, I’m sure. That’s less than a year away. I think that will be a harder pill to swallow, when another sweet child becomes her companion and confidant, rather than Lily or me.
Copyright (c) 2012 Kristen M. Ploetz
After a good friend pointed out an inconsistency to me, I edited this post slightly to make my point in a way that does not try to single out a small handful of people I know or make inaccurate or speculative generalizations. The change is in the 4th paragraph. -KMP 12/12/12
So, as you know from this post, M switched preschools in mid-September. When we toured the school before enrolling, we were informed that the school has a very minor religious component to it once a week, comprised of the kids singing songs about Jesus and hearing stories of the overriding message of love, peace and joy that he championed. Despite our household non-religious leanings, we loved the school for its overall approach to fostering a learning and play-based environment, among other things (read: FABULOUS teachers!). So much so that we essentially overlooked the religious part. I mean, we knew what we were getting ourselves into when making the conscious decision to enroll at a school that had a portion of its curriculum at a polar opposite of our perspective. Indeed, our other options at that late stage were quite limited. Nonetheless, we were excited to enroll and hoped for the best. Besides, it’s only for one school year.
Now that M’s got a solid 3 months under her belt, I thought I’d share our experience so far.
I guess the most striking thing to me, at this point, was how much I was preoccupied and tentative about what M would be potentially hearing from the school, rather than the friends and families that also attend. To put it bluntly, I completely missed the mark at how much other folks involved at the school would openly integrate God or Jesus into conversation, or how much religion plays a part in their non-school lives.
Before enrolling here, aside from three very discrete exceptions within my circle of friends, colleagues and family, the balance of my personal exposure to people who self-identify as “religious” or some specific, faith-based equivalent (i.e. Jewish, Catholic, etc.) is that I have observed that they attend church on one or two of the major holidays (at best), and maybe participate in some of the sacraments like baptism. Moreover, this majority certainly does not weave threads of any religious participation or beliefs into conversation, and most disclose one way or another (either explicitly or implicitly) that they do not attend religious services, retreats or classes on a regular basis. Does this mean that they do not go or otherwise participate on some level? Of course not, and I don’t purport to know the ins and outs of people’s personal lives. But certainly given my leanings, it means that any daily discourse or exposure regarding religion has otherwise been nonexistent for me.
Sure, our prior school was a secular/corporate one, with extended hours and geared towards families that need a variety of drop-off times/schedules, so it was a completely different animal. You barely saw other parents due to varied drop-off times, let alone had time to learn about their philosophical worldview. In hindsight, I took that ability to fit in seamlessly for granted.
Because now, even though we were told that there are some families that are not Christian at the school, I am fairly certain that I am one of the few, if not the only person, that does not believe in a god of any kind. Moreover, this assumption of a lowest common denominator (that is, that everyone at the school must at least be aligned with some sort of god-based religion even if it is not Christianity) seems to be understandably pervasive among the families. This has made some social situations sticky for me.
Here’s a recent example. I was in the parking lot with one of the other parents from M’s class and we were talking about Kindergarten for next year and what schools the girls will end up at. We are choosing to stick with the neighborhood public school for M. They live in another part of our city where their neighborhood school doesn’t quite cut the mustard and so they will be entering the school lottery, with M’s prospective school being their number one choice. I said something to the effect of “oh, well I hope that it works out that our girls are in the same school!” (they play together often during the day, and I know M would appreciate a familiar face next year given her hesitancy about the school environment to being with). Then this parent replied with something along the lines of “Well, it’s in God’s hands now. It’s his plan where she will end up.”
Now, part of me thinks to myself, that’s fine if she wants to think that is how the order of the world works. But then another (larger) part of me thinks that I should somehow be dispelling the notion that I agree with this sentiment, not because I want to pick fights or tell her I think she is wrong, but because I don’t want to lead her on or have her think that I have been lying to her all this time (we Atheists get a bad enough rap already, so I don’t want to add “liars” to the list!). I mean, we were having an otherwise pleasant conversation (which, as I talk about below, is so refreshing after where we came from) why go and inject some vitriol into it? Is it necessary? And if so, for whom? Me? Her? I haven’t really figured this out yet.
These questions play out in similar fashion when the Christmas play or a teacher/parent committee meeting begins with a prayer. I know the director of the school is aware of our point of view, and by this time, I would be surprised if the teachers haven’t heard of it through the rumor mill, but I’m fairly certain that among the flock of parents, they are still unaware that there is a wolf among them (OK, that analogy isn’t quite perfect, but you get my drift). From what I understand from my husband, some kind of similar religious overtone was also present at least at one birthday party conversation that he was part of (I did not attend that one).
I’m not sure how much effort to put into getting my side out there, and I think I just need to take each encounter as it comes. I think my approach might be different if I were going to be part of this school for more than a year (I’d probably make it known fairly early on where I stand), but then again some of these kids and their families will become part of the public school system like us. When exactly is the most appropriate time to pull the rug out? My gut tells me now, as the moment or mood may arise. But sometimes I think it will be on secular, public school ground because there might be more of “my kind” (read: safety in numbers) there, not to mention then M might not be left to deal with the possible aftermath all on her own as the grapevine heats up about us. I’ll have to report back on this one if/when it even plays out over the next few months.
In general, I haven’t said much about all of the songs that M is singing around the house (more so this month because of Christmas and the fact that they just had their Christmas school show). Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d have a child singing “risen savior” at the top of her lungs or asking us to pray to the Christmas tree with her to wish for things (for her baby cousin, of course!). So far, I haven’t commented too much about it. For M personally, I can see the allure:
1) she loves to sing,
2) there’s been much ado about “baby Jesus” this month (she LOVES baby dolls and plays with them endlessly…that’s probably even an understatement), and
3) she likes that kind of group/community feeling of doing something fun (like singing about babies) together
It’s all also triggered about a bajillion questions from her about exactly who and/or what Jesus, God, Joseph, Mary and the host of related characters and principles mean. That part, I love. I want her to ask questions. And we can see her starting to figure out, or at least sift through, all of this information and what it all might (or might not) mean. We’ve told her that she can make her own decisions, and that it can take her whole lifetime or not, that she can continue to change her mind about it or not, that she can think differently from us or not — we will love her no matter how it all shakes out for her.
But despite having remained relatively unspoken about my perspective (I did just lay it all out there for one other mom whom I’ve come to know a little better during some recent playdates…she was cool with it all, thankfully), I have been unable to bite my tongue completely. I choose these moments wisely because, again, there is an ultra fine line between me basically telling M what to think (i.e. the way I think) and also her being an age where she could potentially respond to her peers in a way that might come across as being disrespectful or repeating things that her parents say at home (“my mom says…”).
Here is one that I didn’t let slide so easily. One of M’s classmates told her that birthmarks are a sign that God kissed you when you were born. Hey, if that is something that other families want to tell their children to make them feel better about themselves if they have a birthmark or else to make them feel an affinity towards someone else who might have one, I wholly appreciate that approach. As parents, we all do that kind of thing occasionally on some level or another to smooth over rough patches and raise self-esteem. But this particular statement seemed like a good one to incorporate an overriding viewpoint that is based on my appreciation of science, reason and chance. (Plus, I was having a hard time understanding how, even if I was someone who believed in God, you could work this out for those who do not have birthmarks…are they not so lucky? Seems arbitrary, unfair, and also somewhat inconsistent with what is otherwise taught about God.)
Now, all of this said, I have to say that I am so entirely happy with our decision to come to this school. The level of goodwill and charitable outreach is remarkable. I don’t just mean in the sense of giving to those less fortunate, but also with each other on a daily basis. One thing I am entirely pleased by is the sense of community at this school, even among complete strangers. I think the fact that most of the kids are dropped off and picked up within the same 15 minute window (as opposed to over the course of two hours) lends itself nicely to that. At M’s old school I barely got to know more than 2 parents over the course of 4+ years because 1) everyone was always in a rush in the morning before work or after the end of a long day to pick up their kid and get home for dinner and 2) the schedules of the children were so completely varied that you often had days where you didn’t see any other drop-off/pick-up happening while you were doing yours. It doesn’t make for forming friendships, and it was something that always bothered me. Everyone was always in such a hurry. Our kids would swap spit on the teething toys but no one would stop for five minutes to get to know you.
But here, I have met so many other parents in just a short amount of time. Playdates have surfaced almost on their own, and it’s like you already know the other parents when you are hanging out at the birthday parties–no awkward small talk. And a strong majority of these are working parents or have a younger gaggle of children in tow — yet somehow they find the time to be cordial and thoughtfully engaged.
More so, the teachers and the director of this school have gone light years ahead of what my expectations were in helping us and M work out some things that she was (and, to a lesser degree, still is) going through socially and emotionally at the school. I alluded to this a bit with my last book review, and I will be sure to make it the subject of my next post. But suffice it to say that I can only hope that we find even a fraction of that level of care and commitment to young kids when we head on to Kindergarten next year.
Although I think that the power of suggestion is strong at M’s age, I don’t think this one year will have any lasting, or at least unchangeable, effects on her. Her tendency to dive deeply into what’s in front of her plays out in many other contexts as well–case in point: she had otherwise forgotten about her Max and Ruby dolls until having seen a Christmas special with them, and now, of course, that is what she wants to play with. These immersions are usually transient, and so I’m not really concerned that we will need any kind of deprogramming down the road. That said, given that the power of suggestion on such a young mind lasts for many more years before fully autonomous thinking occurs, we will likely not enroll at any other religiously affiliated schools for the foreseeable future, barring any unforeseen circumstances. While I do want her to be religiously literate in a cultural sense, it is clear to me that my initial thoughts about picking them up from various extraneous sources will not always be an elegant solution because I largely cannot control, much less really know, what is actually being said in my absence. That makes me very uncomfortable, more so than I initially thought it would when I first embraced the idea of her learning about alternative viewpoints here. Not that I think we made a mistake (because I don’t), but more so that I didn’t fully appreciate the cumulative ways that religion would ultimately come up in her school life here. As we navigate expanding her understanding of the world and everyone’s point of view, I think we need to have a different game plan that takes place closer to home.
All in all, we undoubtedly made the right choice. I say this with total confidence and peace with the decision, even if it means that our soundtrack for the remaining months is M telling it on a mountain.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
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