Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Awkward Clash of Violence & Parenting

I'm currently involved in helping a cmty wrestle with unacceptable behavior by a pre-teen, the son of a long standing member. In addition to provocative name calling, inappropriate sexual remarks, and patterned defiance in the face of attempts to rein him in when he crosses the acceptability line, in recent months his acting out has escalated to include physical violence (hitting people with fists and objects) and threats of worse (pulling knives and telling people to back off). He's one unhappy dude.

Though no one has been seriously injured so far, people are understandably nervous that this might happen. The mtgs are about trying to figure out an appropriate cmty response, doing their best to minimize the risk that someone gets hurt. Nobody wanted to be in this situation, yet here they are.

While theories about the roots of the bad behavior abound, the fact is that that's not the cmty's business. To be sure, the parents might invite others' thoughts about it, but that's their call. The cmty issue is safety, and responding effectively and nonviolently to violent behavior. This kind of dynamic can tear a cmty up, and I want to write today about two factors that predictably muddy the waters. Knowing that they are in play can help a cmty successfully wade through the morass.

Tough Factor #1: Diversity
Most cmties have a commitment to creating a supportive environment for their members. There are, however, limits to how much support a cmty can give. The well is not bottomless. At some point, members may feel they've been stretched as far as they can go and advocate for pulling the plug (because the attempt is consuming too much of the cmty’s resources; the needs require skills beyond the current members' abilities; the improvement is too meager; giving the support is too exhausting; living with the dynamic is too dangerous; or any combination of the above).

All people are not meant to live together, and you may have to ask the challenging person to leave, or to seek support elsewhere. This is an extremely awkward conversation in that it always takes place in the context of someone’s tenure in the cmty being on the line. (Imagine telling a parent—who is a long standing member—that their kid is no longer welcome in the cmty?)

It is important that the cmty be able to face this squarely and name it for what it is. Diversity has limits, and occasionally the situation demands that you define what they are (at least for this group at this time).

Tough Factor #2: When does parenting become a cmty issue?
In most groups the cmty only broadly defines acceptable boundaries of behavior (we are nonviolent: “no disciplining your kid with a tire iron”; we respect property: "no children playing with matches in the Common House"; we obey the law: "no illegal activities").

While general guidelines and good intentions can take you a long way, occasionally they aren’t enough. Such is the case with the cmty I'm working with, where the kid’s behavior got increasingly worse, to the point where everyone—including the parents—is now in agreement that the kid's actions have repeatedly been over the line and that that's intolerable. Yet when was the line first crossed? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. Many cmty members have expressed anguish that the group didn’t deal with this sooner, when the behavior wasn’t yet that bad. Unfortunately, there are a couple of common factors that predictably cloud the windshield, consistently contributing to why it's hard to see accurately into the future when observing a disturbing behavior in a child.

First, it is extremely difficult to discern whether a particular incident is an isolated occurrence or a step in the decent to hell. Child behavior is a complex phenomenon and it can be hard to tease out trends needing focus in the midst of everyday life, where demonic and angelic behaviors are commonly commingled in the same child—even in the same day.

Second, parents don’t tend to welcome others raising concerns about their kid’s behavior—especially if that’s not the norm. The initiator may be nervous about the attempt (increasing the chances that the complaint will either be overstated [to make sure it penetrates the parents' defense system] or understated [to avoid triggering defensiveness]) and the parents will tend to be protective (both on behalf of their parenting and on behalf of their kid). What is projection on the part of the commenter, and what is a blind spot on the part of the parents? If these conversations don’t go well, it will be that much harder to attempt it a second time. You’ll tend to wait until the situation is clearly worse (in the hope that your footing will be that much firmer) before bringing it up again. For most parents, criticism about their kid's behavior cuts very close to the bone. It ain't easy to bring this stuff up, and it ain't easy to hear it.

Taken all together, it's important to keep in mind that reasonable people will disagree about the point at which the kid's behavior became a cmty issue, and that it will never be an easy conversation. Try to be gentle with each other about these awkwardnesses.

• • •
Remember: It isn’t the cmty’s job to determine underlying causes; it’s the cmty’s job to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior (for adults as well as kids) and to gently, yet firmly, insist that these boundaries be respected. While the parents have primary rights in selecting appropriate consequences when their children act unacceptably, they also have primary responsibility to respond to the legitimate cmty needs for safety and respect.

In the case of the situation I’m working with, we’ll need to identify markers that indicate whether the situation is improving, deteriorating, or treading water. We’ll also need to discuss how much time the parent and child have to turn the dynamic around. While it’s definitely awkward, not talking about it as a group is worse.

1 comment:

S.L. Bond said...

This is a really interesting post. As always, I appreciate your insights. What a sticky issue.

My brother was a bit of a troublemaker when he was younger. He's overall a well-behaved, well-balanced kid, but he had a tendency to act out, loudly, for a few years there. I still remember the horrible anger I felt when others complained about his behavior -- they didn't really love or know or understand him (in my mind), so I wanted them to shut the hell up. My parents were considerably more mature than I was, of course, but I understand how hard that kind of criticism can be to deal with.

Best of luck to this community and unhappy kid.