TIME Parenting

The Pain of Passing My Disability on to My Child

Parenting
Cecilia Cartner—Getty Images

When my daughter was six weeks old, we received official word that she had inherited my bone disorder, a condition that would likely cause her many fractures and possibly painful corrective surgeries

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

When my oldest daughter Leah was born, many people made the same observation: “Look at those fingers! So long and skinny…just like yours, Ellen.” Right after she was born, my husband went with her for a bath as I was stitched up after my c-section. When he returned, he mentioned that her eyes were a “funny color.” All of those observations, straightforward and innocent on the surface, let me know that some of my darkest fears were probably being realized.

My daughter’s long, skinny fingers and toes, the bluish color in the whites of her eyes—these were signs that Leah had inherited a scrambled gene that would wreak havoc on her skeleton. When she was six weeks old, we received official word that Leah had indeed inherited my bone disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta (OI)—a condition that would likely cause her many fractures (I had about three dozen before the age of 11) and possibly painful corrective surgeries. I clutched her fiercely against my chest and told God that he had damn well better take care of this child. That day 14 years ago was the hardest day of my life.

I have spent much of the past 10 years or so writing about genetics and disability and the choices made possible by increasingly sophisticated technologies that allow parents to choose, to some extent, what sort of child they might have. I have talked to dozens of potential parents who, like me, have some serious genetic baggage and fear putting its weight on their children’s shoulders. And I have talked to some people who wonder whether, if their child does inherit some genetic menace that wreaks havoc on that child’s health and well-being, will they regret that they took such chances with a genetic lottery stacked against them?

I tell such people that I think it’s impossible, barring extreme psychological dysfunction, to regret your own child’s existence. And I tell them about my daughter Leah, who is bearing the weight of my own genetic baggage on her fragile skeleton, who has, yes, broken a dozen bones and deeply mourned the losses that come when yet another broken bone messes with our plans. I have watched Leah sink into a place that is really dark and really sad. But I have other stories to tell about Leah, not just the dark and sad ones.

There’s this story: One Sunday morning several months ago, I slipped on some black ice when going to get our newspaper. Landing hard on my back, I broke two ribs and a shoulder bone, and partially collapsed a lung—the kind of injuries that stronger-boned people incur when they fall from trees and roofs. I managed to crawl from the frozen front walk into our entrance hall, but couldn’t go any farther. While I lay there waiting for the ambulance to arrive, as my husband reassured my two younger children and called my mom to come stay with the kids, as I struggled to breathe, Leah sat next to me on the floor. She just sat there, silent. At one point, I said to her, “You know, Leah, don’t you? You know how I’m feeling.” I wasn’t talking just about the pain, but also the crushing disappointment of a regular day ruined, the weightier knowledge of the ruined days to come. I was talking about feeling powerless in the face of something as stupidly mundane as ice, and being betrayed by the fragile body gaining the upper hand on the strong spirit. Leah nodded. Yes, she knew.

A few months later, I was heading to pick Leah up from church choir practice. I was dreading it, because I knew that Leah would be getting some bad news at the rehearsal. For Leah, singing is a passion, and when she joined our church choir about three years ago, she found another family, a community. The choirmaster was a young man called Dr. Roberts. Dr. Roberts is a talented musician but also a gifted teacher. Leah will, I’m sure, remember him for the rest of her life as the kind of teacher and mentor who changed her life. I knew that during this particular rehearsal, Dr. Roberts was planning to let the kids know that he had taken a job in New York City and would be leaving. I knew Leah would be devastated.

She came out from the church to the parking lot and with tears streaming down her face, she said, “You know Mom? This is his dream, this job he’s taking in New York. It’s good. It’s just all good.”

So it seems that, at not quite 15 years old, Leah knows what love looks like. She knows how to help carry another’s burden. She knows that sometimes an empathic presence is more helpful than words. She knows about wanting the best for someone you care about, even when their best is your worst. That she is capable of such wisdom at such a young age is proof to me that I can never regret anything about the person Leah is and is becoming, brittle bones and all.

I want to be perfectly clear, though, about what I don’t mean. I hate those clichés about how we should be grateful for the shitty stuff in our life because it teaches us so much, about how “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe that one bit.

But I’m beginning to understand that Leah’s inheritance from me is not merely a faulty gene and a fragile skeleton, but also the truest kind of compassion—the kind that arises when you know what pain looks like and feels like, and you recognize another’s need, and know just what to do.

Do I regret that Leah inherited my fragile bones? I don’t love it. I even sometimes hate it.

But while I sometimes wish I could have spared her that particular genetic fate, I’m also profoundly grateful that it was not in my power to decide what kind of kid I would get.

Because I never could have predicted, much less devised, the wounded and gracious person my daughter is becoming.

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos. Dollar also serves on a working group sponsored by the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center on Bioethics, exploring bioethical issues related to health care and people with disabilities.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Go the F-ck to Sleep Has a Sequel

You Have to F--king Eat Adam Mansbach
Akashic Books

It's called 'You Have to F-cking Eat'

The author of the bestselling humorous children’s book Go the F-ck to Sleep is back, and this time he’s tackling the treacherous minefield of kids’ insane eating habits.

Adam Mansbach’s new book, You Have to F-cking Eat is a “long-awaited sequel about the other great parental frustration: getting your little angel to eat something that even vaguely resembles a normal meal,” according to the publisher, Akashic books.

Go the F-ck to Sleep was marketed at frustrated parents trying to get their kids to sleep, and despite the profanities—or perhaps because of them—it debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide.

You Have to F-cking Eat, which is illustrated by Owen Brozman, will be available to purchase Nov. 12.

TIME Parenting

Cut Parents Who Overshare on Facebook a Break

Courtesy of Taryn Charles

I struggle with the unspoken rules of social media parent behavior. People post pictures of their morning muesli on Instagram, but I'm supposed to be tight-lipped about two babies coming out of my body?

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

Up until about a year ago I would heartily roll my eyes and snigger whenever a cutesie photo of my husband’s sister’s boss’s baby would pop up on my Facebook feed. I’d exclaim with annoyance while scrolling past yet another indistinguishable ultrasound picture. “Who would post that? Nobody cares what your baby looks like in utero!”

Basically I was the definition of STFU Parents’ target demographic — mid-20s, bored, cynical and dismissive of the totally average children of my acquaintances. But all that changed when I got pregnant with twins and had to fight the urge to Instagram my caesarean pictures.

STFU Parents is a hugely popular blog that parodies the oversharing, mommy-jacking, placenta-picture-posting parents of Facebook. It’s become a cultural phenomenon in the five years it’s been around. The levels of snark on the blog and comment sections are unparalleled, remarkable and often venomous. From mocking babies with “yoonique” names to defending the rights of people to make trite “I’m Pregnant” April Fools’ Day jokes, no parenting behaviour on social media goes unchecked and ultimately ridiculed. Everybody is a potential target, and the threat of appearing on the blog hovers over new parents, silently policing our Facebook statuses before we even post them.

Countless gallons of digital ink have been spilled on mommy blogs about how hard parenting is, about how much it changes you and about how inconceivable the experience is. At the risk of adding to that ink, it’s all true. In my three decades I have never experienced anything more wholly transformative than giving birth and becoming a parent. Certainly, the experience of having twins was probably a bit more intense than most. But becoming a parent felt like, after never seeing water before, I’d been dropped in the middle of the ocean and told to swim away from the circling sharks.

It’s hard to explain just how extreme this transformation is. You know it’s going to be tough going, but it’s the relentlessness that really surprises. The newborn phase is rough. It felt almost menial. I’d gone from attending events where Chelsea Clinton spoke about gender rights in June, to attending to somebody’s dirty diapers in January. My life became a 24/7 cycle of feeding and cleaning. I also had to get used to having my whole day dictated by these two tiny babies — how they felt determined how I felt. I could be well rested and happy but if my babies refused a nap, that good mood was lost in a matter of minutes.

Somebody once asked me why I was still stressed out when my babies were now sleeping through the night and the best way I could put it was that it was like I had misplaced my “off” switch. From the time those babies came into my life, I have been “on.” After I’ve put them to bed and cleaned up after them and made dinner and cleaned up dinner and prepared their food for the next day and expressed milk and finally put myself to bed, I’m lying in the dark waiting for that cry on the baby monitor. I’m worrying that I’ve run out of baby rice for their breakfast. I’m feeling guilty about moving them to their own room before the SIDS safe recommendation of 12 months. I’m doing anything but sleeping. Because I can’t turn that damn switch “off.”

And then the loneliness creeps in. Mothers’ groups can be great, but in those early days of engorged breasts, hormones run amok and two babies who just wouldn’t sleep, the thought of having to put my best foot forward to a group of single-babied strangers was a bit too much for me.

While we were incredibly lucky to have our families come from overseas to help for many months, they had to leave eventually. When they did, the little temporary village I had constructed around myself crumbled. So I turned to the one village that is accessible to anybody with an Internet connection — Facebook.

I’ve struggled with the unspoken rules of social media parent behaviour from the beginning. When you’re part of a generation that’s come of age posting pictures of our morning muesli on Instagram, having to be tight-lipped about two babies coming out of my body was the most surreal and repressive feeling.

I’m now a pretty active member of parenting groups on Facebook, in particular ones for multiple births and parents of premature babies. They’ve provided endless comfort, reassurance and wisdom for me, from people who understand what this road is like. These are people who I would never have met without the aid of Facebook. But it took me a long time to even join these groups because I’ve been so afraid that my friends would see me contribute there and label me an “STFU Parent.”

While I don’t doubt the title “STFU Parent” is well deserved for people who post pictures of their baby’s poop, it’s important to see the ripple effect its had on standard, non-over-sharing parents who are struggling but are too afraid to say anything. In a world where we are becoming more individualistic and isolated, and standards of parenting are becoming more and more rigorous and unattainable, a blog like STFU Parents can serve to just reinforce that solitude and those unfair standards. We’re already pretty alone, now we can’t use social media to reach out? We can’t share certain kinds of pictures, we can’t share pictures too frequently, and we can’t name our children certain things. Add this to the other myriad expectations we already face around breastfeeding, sleeping, baby-wearing, vaccinations, introducing solids, meeting milestones, discipline and countless other things, and modern parenting looks more and more impossible.

So this is a plea to give us a break from time to time. We might be a tad insufferable, but we’re trying our hardest to navigate parenthood and to do our very best for these little humans we created and love so dearly. Sometimes we’re oversharing because we’re struggling and we need help and reassurance. Sometimes we’re oversharing because we’d like advice. Sometimes we’re oversharing because we’re proud of our survival. As my dad tells me every time I roll my eyes at a My Family car sticker, loving, proud families are far from a bad thing.

Taryn Charles is a crème brûlée connoisseur who lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband, two daughters and two cats.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

There’s Nothing Wrong with the Mommy Track

mother daughter
Crezalyn Nerona Uratsuji—Getty Images

Our culture sings in only two keys about how successful women manage motherhood and work: either you’re driving a hard line to the C-suite, parking the crib in your corner office, or you’re shredding the Mommy track. What about a third way?

Before I became a parent, I was a bestselling author and speaker pounding up the escalators of a different airport every week. I worked insatiably, sometimes meeting three different contacts for a drink, dinner and dessert. When my daughter was born, I was thrilled — and anxious. I had heard the old adage, “You can have it all – just not at once.” On my first day back after maternity leave, I packed up my breast pump and parking meter quarters. I was ready for my life to change.

But here’s what I didn’t count on: feeling ashamed because I refused to put work above all else. Because I yearned to spend quality time with my daughter. Because I wanted actual work-life balance.

Instead of shutting down my laptop at 7 or 8 pm, I now relieved my sitter at 4:30. I rarely logged on after bedtime, or on weekends. But as I played with the baby on the floor, I was miles away in my head. Would my clients and colleagues write me off if I didn’t produce at the same pace? What would my next big project be? I read my daughter books in a toneless, distant voice, ruminating furiously.

I had plowed through a pile of work that month – finishing a grant, giving speeches, writing an advice column, teaching 60 high school students, answering countless emails – yet I still felt like a slacker. It never occurred to me that I was working, and working hard. Why?

Our culture sings in only two keys about how successful women manage motherhood and work: either you’re driving a hard line to the C-suite, parking the crib in your corner office, or you’re shredding the Mommy track.

But what about those of us who are still working hard, and who live and work somewhere between the two? I love being a mom, and I also love (and can’t afford not to) work.

So why do we speak in such crude terms about the nuanced, ever-changing dance of work-life balance? To begin with, the choices are rigged. To hear popular media tell it, the alternative to leaning in seems like a thinly veiled insult: the words “opt out” or “mommy track” suggest that the “in” – the standard of true success– is paid work.

In our million-mile-an-hour culture of never enough, working less is interpreted as working less well. This isn’t always the case. Parents quickly become expert at doing more work in less time, redirecting chit-chat and out-for-lunch hours toward getting the job done faster. Yet it’s mothers, far more than fathers, who are judged critically.

Perhaps even more galling, the suggestion that women can either elect to work harder or opt out demeans the nearly 50 million working mothers who maybe can’t afford the choice.

Brown University Professor Yael Chatav Schoenbrun knew she wouldn’t fit the mold. “I made a decision,” she wrote in the New York Times, “to back down, but not bail out.” She would work hard, just not as hard as she did before parenthood. Recalling her angst over choosing her own path, she shared a puzzling conclusion. “The real problem,” she wrote, “was me.”

But was it really? This kind of self-blame comes so easily to women. It recalls the self-flagellating angst of a generation that Betty Friedan profiled in The Feminine Mystique. The reality is more complex. New research has confirmed what many have suspected for a long time: moms are less likely to be hired for jobs, perceived as competent, or be paid as much as equally qualified male colleagues. But for men, having kids helps their careers. Dads are more likely to be hired than childless men and are more likely to earn more after they have kids.

Doesn’t some responsibility lie, too, with a culture that insists on pigeonholing its women into two extreme, unattainable ways of being? It is a familiar trope: We are to be nice, and liked by everyone; or else we are labeled aggressive. We’re humble or conceited; compliant, good girls or sluts. Rarely are women offered a middle road, one that imagines them as real, complex, dynamic beings.

When we frame women’s choices in terms of extreme work or extreme mothering, women think they have to define themselves in terms of a single goal, everything else be damned. Instead of having the chance to succeed in either realm, women committed to both work and mothering end up feeling inadequate in both. Mommy wars are the sad by-product of the drive to prove one’s worth in a contest where no one ever gets to feel like they are enough as they are.

Working mothers who feel inadequate, even as they continue to work hard, may suffer from what Brene Brown, author of the bestseller Daring Greatly, calls the “never enough” problem: a persistent, self-defeating belief that we will not be worthy or lovable until we are richer, thinner, more powerful, more successful, and so on. We are made to feel, she writes, “that an ordinary life is a meaningless life.”

Perhaps this is why working women are inducted into motherhood being warned that we will never feel like good enough moms or good enough professionals. Ruthless perfectionists that we are, we drink this kool-aid without question.

But what if it’s precisely that juicy, flawed mix of experiences that adds up to a life well-lived? What if by trading in the fruitless drive to be perfect, we inherit a richly textured self?

Besides, the endless diaper changes and tantrums give way, soon enough, to the first day of kindergarten – and a lot more time to devote to a career.

I have spent my life in fear of being average. But the joy I experience as a parent is driving me to face that fear in a way I never thought possible. As I bumble through paving my own third way, I am learning to lower my standards when I need to: to prep last minute; to write bullet points instead of full paragraphs; to say no. At first, I was sure the bottom would literally fall out of my career – and therefore my world. Slowly, I saw that no one really cared. They may not have even noticed. (It’s often said that we are our own worst judges. In some cases, we may also be our only worst judges.)

Waves of anxiety about my career still find me, often in the middle of the night. It is an ongoing struggle to remember that I am enough as I am. But now, when I sit on the floor with my daughter, I see our time as anything but a detour from my ambition. She is the passion project I was waiting for.

 

TIME

Tiger Mom, Hold That Growl

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David Jakle—Getty Images/

A new study debunks the idea that punitive, Tiger Mom-style parenting is superior.

Yale professor Amy Chua wrote “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in 2011, introducing the phrase “Tiger Mom” into popular culture and celebrating her strict parenting style. But in China, the birthplace of tiger parenting, kids whose parents control their lives with cheerless demands for perfection are becoming a problem.

Researchers from UC Riverside published a new study this week, based on data from nearly 600 middle- and high-school students in Hangzhou, China, debunking the idea that punitive tiger parenting is superior. It finds that less supportive parenting techniques used by some Chinese parents damages self-esteem and complicates school adjustment, while also putting kids at greater risk of depression and problem behaviors. “Our research shows that Tiger Mother type of parenting, specifically controlling, punitive, and less supportive type of parenting is really not working in this sample of Chinese adolescents,” said Cixin Wang, an assistant professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education. “It also shows that it is important for Chinese parents, who tend to be less emotionally expressive and use less praise in parenting, to show their approval, love and support for their children.”

Chua’s book was packed with vivid, sometimes shocking tales of her strict approach to raising her own daughters, including limiting their social lives, shaming them as punishment when they failed, and forcing them to practice music until their performances were perfect. Ultimately, Chua’s daughters became very successful, and she insists that her hard-edged, unsentimental tactics are the key. Anyone who had ever marveled at the disproportionate academic success among Asian-American kids compared with other minorities now had an intriguing, rather disturbing, explanation: These kids’ cold-hearted tiger moms were demanding perfect grades and mastery of musical instruments, and withholding praise and affection until their kids fell in line. It used to be called tough love until Chua gave it this cooler name.

Giving a parenting style a cool name is not the same as proving its worth. In the wake of Chua’s sensational claims, thoughtful research has found that high-achieving Asian-American students have parental support and put in the necessary work – just as successful students from any culture must do. The flip side, of course, is that when high standards and a strong work ethic are accompanied by emotionally unsupportive parenting, Asian-American students are more likely to suffer negative effects – just as the children of cold or distant parents from any culture are. Furthermore, it turns out that Chua’s brand of harsh parenting is not even very common among Chinese-American parents, who are more likely to be closely involved with their school-age children in a firm, encouraging, but overall positive way. Only when too much pressure to perform enters the picture do Asian-American kids suffer loss of self-esteem.

None of this is new. Chua’s colorful account seemed to make everyone forget about other research, published years earlier, which identified mundane and logical factors in Asian-American students’ high-achieving ways. As long ago as 1988, large studies of minority students found that Asian-American students were more likely to come from stable, two-parent households, to spend more time “on task,” (meaning homework or music practice), and to have better study habits, greater access to after-school lessons and activities, and more parental involvement.

Maybe our greatest chance for having successful kids is to leave behind the cultural stereotypes and focus on the best practices of all high-achieving households. Have high expectations, and communicate them clearly. Be aware of what your children are doing at school, and insist that they make their best effort on assignments and homework. Find opportunities for them to build on their curiosity in music classes, at the public library, at museums or on websites. You don’t have to pay for fancy lessons – whatever your family can afford can work. Of course, kids have different challenges and innate abilities. No one knows and loves your child the way you do, so you will know best whether he is working up to his potential. Make it clear that everyone in your family works hard at his or her job, and that is how you expect the kids to approach their studies, music lessons, sports, and other structured activities. You can set a very high bar and still come through with a hug and a word of encouragement when your child falls short of expectations—yours or his own. I have yet to see a research study that advises against this parenting style. If only I could come up with a cool name for it.

TIME Parenting

I Dumped My Friend Because She Spanked Her Kids

Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

I'm not embarrassed to admit I judged her. But I am embarrassed that I never broached the subject with her

xojane

This article originally appeared on xojane.com.

I knew something was wrong the moment he walked through the door. My husband’s footsteps, as familiar to me as fresh raindrops, mud-stained shoes, and thumbprints on refrigerators, were a backdrop to what I was doing.

We were entertaining a good friend of mine and her family. Everyone was downstairs—my friend, both of our husbands, and the slew of kids we had between us—and I was upstairs putting the final touches on dessert.

She was a new-ish friend, but the kind I wanted to keep. Funny and sweet, smart and thoughtful. Our husbands got along well and because my kids were older than hers, they got to play the coveted big kid role when we were all together.

So in short, when I saw the look in my husband’s eyes when he walked through the basement door, I matched it with one of my own that said, quite simply, Don’t ruin this.

New friends are hard to make as an adult and ones the whole family gets along with aren’t to be taken for granted. I knew he understood this, so I felt absolutely certain that whatever it was that was bothering him, we’d let it go. Of course we would.

Our conversation was paused by everyone else coming upstairs, their footsteps announcing their presence one step at a time. They must have heard me think dessert.

The night wrapped up quickly from there and after we said our goodnights and ushered our kids to bed, we did the dishes in the way that we’ve done them for more than a decade now—side-by-side, shoulders grazing, not quite out of each other’s way in a kitchen not made for two. I rinsed and he loaded as we dissected the details of the night.

“What happened in the basement?” I asked, mid-wash. My hands were soapy, wet, and slippery. My voice was even, curious, and — if I’m being really honest — skeptical.

He paused what he was doing, too, and over running water and an open dishwasher he said, “Listen to this.”

I stood with my hip pressed against the sink, my fingers laced around plates and forks and knives that I didn’t realize I had stopped washing, and I waited for his next words. What could they possibly be?

“She spanked her.”

It was as simple, and as complicated, as that. When their daughter misbehaved in our basement, my friend walked over to her, said, “No,” in a firm voice, and in front of my husband—and my three young kids—spanked her four times; once for each year she was old.

After my husband explained these details, I stilled. The faucet was running, the fork or plate or glass that I was holding was long clean, and long forgotten. I didn’t know what to say.

I was spanked a handful of times as a child. Not often and not brutally, but still, I was. I remember each and every time one of my parents’ hands met my skin. I don’t have a single recollection of what my misbehavior was any of those times, but I do remember the spank, the slap, the hit. Once was in our kitchen, several times were in my bedroom, once was outside.

While I’ve (truly) never been angry with my parents for their form of discipline, I knew that it wasn’t the way I wanted to raise my own children. And before Jason and I had kids, before we even got married, we agreed that we’d never lay (that kind of) hand on them.

I know— with every fiber of my being—that parenting young children is hard. We’re all stressed and tired and overwhelmed, and yet, as a mother, as a former teacher, and as a human being, I don’t believe that hitting our children should be an option.

That night, Jason and I discussed at length what to do about this friendship. We weren’t far enough into it to have strong, durable threads between us that could have rendered this incident unimportant. But we had spent enough time together that we couldn’t just disappear, or erase our connection.

Except, that’s exactly what I ended up trying to do.

Jason and I decided that night that we would let this all go because, “who were we to judge?” We were proud of ourselves for falling on the side of non-judgement.

Then, just a few weeks later, my friend spanked her child in front of us again. We felt equally, if not more so, uncomfortable. After that night, we knew we were done. This wasn’t something we could get beyond and it was, clearly, something that was just a part of their parenting.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I judged my friend. I think this is something that we all do. We watch others and decide if their behavior is similar or different to our own. I’ve been called too strict by one friend and too loose by another. I think this is a normal part of maneuvering parenting side-by-side.

I am, however, embarrassed by one part of this story. I wasn’t mature enough at the time to broach this subject with my friend. Every time I rolled the conversation around in my mind, it just felt too awkward, too personal, too difficult.

So I chose to let the friendship fade instead of engaging in a potentially awkward conversation. I became less available, I stopped commenting on her Facebook statuses, and, eventually, I stopped responding to her texts.

I feel like too much time has passed since then to contact her now, but if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would sit down with her face to face, mom to mom, and explain why spanking makes me uncomfortable. I’m not sure if I would have changed her parenting style, but I do know that I would have had a better chance of doing so by speaking up instead of giving her the silent treatment and disappearing act I chose instead.

The second time my friend spanked one of her kids at my house, it was because her daughter hit mine. It’s hard to say if her daughter was doing what she was taught. But I do know this: The words, “We don’t hit,” were meaningless to their family, and that was—and is—something I just can’t let go of.

Galit Breen is a Minnesota writer who co-directs the Listen to Your Mother Show in the Twin Cities, and writes for allParenting, Everyday Family, Mamalode Magazine, and The Huffington Post blogs.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME sexuality

How Not to Be a Jerk to Your Child Who Is Coming Out

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Cristian Lazzari—Getty Images

Coming out is not about the parent

xojane

This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

Coming out isn’t simply one moment; it’s a process those in the LGBTQ community experience their whole lives. Regardless of how outwardly gay I am, I still have to come out occasionally.

Six months ago, I started a new job. I assume everyone who meets me knows automatically, including my new employers, but when I needed to request a day off for my girlfriend’s college graduation, I was still nervous. The truth is, I get nervous every time. There is always at least a little bit at stake. The anxiety one feels during these moments, however, is nothing compared to the terror during the moment — that first moment. That first time you look at your parents and say it.

That moment is life-defining. Eight years later, I still want to throw up when I think about coming out to my mother. Until you start coming out, your life is built on lies.

You don’t know how to talk to your peers because they’re starry-eyed over the opposite sex. You tell your parents that you don’t have a boyfriend because you’re too busy with school to think about boys. That cliche nightmare teenagers have about going to school naked — that’s what being closeted feels like. It’s a combination of feeling blatantly exposed and disconnected.

But that moment. That first time. That is when you first feel like a real person.

I collect coming out stories. I don’t pass them on to other people. They’re not trophies of mine to share, but I love hearing about when someone was first able to stop living their double life. Even an uneventful coming out story is the most raw and passionate piece of themselves a person can share.

And a lot of us wish we had or will have uneventful coming out stories, but the problem is that sometimes parents can be total dicks.

I realize many mothers don’t give birth and then immediately think “I hope this one grows up to be a flaming homosexual.” But this is not about you. So if you’re a parent, aspiring parent, or even if you hate children but there’s a possibility someday it could happen, let’s talk about how to not make your child’s coming out story a nightmare.

  1. Do not ask your newly out child about how they’re going to fare in the future.

I’ve heard this one far too many times. In fact, my friends’ parents will still occasionally ask, “Do you still want a family?”

As a lesbian, I feel like this questions secretly means “You don’t want a husband who’s going to support and take care of you?”

I don’t need a man to take care of me.

I think I do just fine on my own, thanks. If we’re really talking about an actual family of my own, sure I suppose some day I’ll want a wife and a couple of kids.

But being gay doesn’t stop us. There are a lot of different ways to have babies. We may have to do a little more work, but we’re a pretty resourceful community.

Parents will still ask this question. It seems to be a logical one, but it really just provokes a lot of guilt that we’re letting you down by not having that biblical sort of family.

Please don’t go there.

  1. Speaking of biblical, just don’t bring God into the coming out process, unless it’s to tell your child that he loves everyone.

Have you seen the video where the teenager from Georgia recorded his parents verbally and physically assaulting him because homosexuality goes against “the word of God”? The video may seem extreme, but this is a very real fear for many queer youths. If your child’s sexual orientation is such a violent contradiction to your religion, it’s time to disown your religion, not your child.

  1. Don’t tell your child that they’re too young to know their sexual orientation.

A good friend of mine was in seventh grade when he came out, but he knew a long time before that. I waited until I was 17, but my first crush was on a teacher when I was just six years old.

Generally, when we come out, we’ve been thinking about it a lot.

The words “I’m gay” didn’t just happen to fly out of my mouth as I was speaking because it was a fleeting thought I had 10 minutes ago. I agonized over my sexual orientation for years and spent weeks just wondering how I might begin to approach the topic with my parents. I spent the entire summer before my senior year sleeping with men, thinking maybe I could turn off the attraction to women.

We agonize over our coming out moments. We live in fear of our sexuality. Don’t minimize this freeing step by alluding to the idea that your child simply is too young to know.

  1. Don’t assume that your child is trying to be hip and rebellious by coming out.

No one “comes out” because they’re trying to piss off their parents.

When I was a teenager, bisexuality was trendy. Every high schooler who had more than a thousand MySpace friends was “interested in men and women.” But these weren’t the kids who struggled to sit down and have the serious sexuality discussion with their parents. If your child or teenager cares enough to begin a real conversation with you about their orientation, they’re not just gay for street cred. It’s the real deal.

  1. Don’t punish them. Like seriously, at all.

You can cry. That’s OK. Your child will understand. He or she will probably cry too. Any negative reaction that extends beyond that is unacceptable and a total dick move.

Coming out presents this newly found freedom, and your child will never want to return to the closet. Severe punishments and restrictions will only force them to rebel. You’ll create liars out of kids who were once model students simply because they’re avoiding the prison that was the closet. Your children will continue to be gay whether or not you allow it, but they would much rather be upfront and honest with you about it.

Coming out is not about the parent.

You didn’t make any mistakes to make your child gay. The most important way to not be a dick to your child when they come out is just to let them do it. Tell them you love them, and then move on with your lives. A gay child shouldn’t change anything in a familial relationship. We’re not asking you to hang a rainbow flag or go to a Pride parade with us.

Just be our mom, our dad, our family, our parents. That’s all we ever need you to be.

Biz Hurst is a graduate of the University of Michigan.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Parenting

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Not Everyone in the Village Is Worthy of Raising a Child

Minnesota Viking v Tennessee Titans
Running back Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings looks on during a preseason game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on Aug. 28, 2014 in Nashville. Ronald C. Modra—Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

The five most destructive words to our village are 'That’s how I was raised'

We’re constantly told that it takes a village to raise a child. But when I look at the recent epidemic of domestic-violence charges against NFL players, I’m convinced we need to take another look at those in our village whom we allow to help raise our children. Not just at those who commit these terrible acts but also those apologists in the media and sports industry who, through fuzzy logic or a desperate need to pander to their demographics, perpetuate a permissive attitude toward domestic violence.

First, we need to look at Ray Rice, Jonathan Dwyer, Adrian Peterson and other professional athletes who have recently been caught engaging in illegal and unacceptable acts of violence and re-evaluate how we treat them in our village. Like it or not, professional athletes, movie stars and recording artists are role models for our youth. And being a role model translates into big bucks because kids are willing to spend money to see them perform and buy products they endorse. That’s one of the reasons they get paid so much money.

The NFL, NBA and other professional sports organizations encourage this ideal of role model by touting their players’ charitable and community activities, which often seems like part of a branding campaign rather than a sincere drive to contribute. I don’t think entertainers (which is what professional athletes are) should be promoted as role models for our children because many of them don’t have the maturity, self-control, desire or training to accept that responsibility. Athletes should be models of how to play their sport and nothing more. The exceptions would be those few who distinguish themselves by taking an active and admirable role in bettering their communities, as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali did.

Unfortunately, as long as there’s more money to be made off a role model than just an athlete, the hype will continue. And we will continue to be shocked and outraged every time an athlete is caught punching, slapping and spanking.

Maybe we should direct our outrage elsewhere:

Outrage No. 1: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other apologists claim that this whole cluster-flub at least brought awareness to the problem of domestic abuse. This is disingenuous on a couple levels. In the Ray Rice case, the NFL and the Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti did their best to (at the very least) ignore evidence of domestic abuse. And at worst, they may have covered it up so there would be no awareness. That’s like getting caught flashing people while wearing nothing but a trench coat — and then wanting credit for bringing trench coats back in fashion.

Outrage No. 2: Why does it take TMZ to bring awareness of domestic violence? The awareness should have been there all along. For years we’ve seen the statistics, the photos of bruised and battered women and children, heard their testimony of relentless abuse. We’ve had books and songs and Lifetime movies. Didn’t we learn about that from the O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and Hope Solo cases? Donald Sterling displayed racist behavior before TMZ released those tapes. Racism, class struggle and police profiling have been constant and humiliating realities long before Ferguson. Once the media furor dies down, do we just revert to our default setting of closing our eyes until the next media-ready event occurs?

Can’t we fight injustice without TMZ? By that I mean that we have to keep the pressure on even when there are no cameras rolling. The NFL has instituted changes, it tells us, with panels and experts and transparency. Before, it relied on public lethargy. A player smacked a spouse, it was reported in the news, a minor punishment followed, the public forgot. Now that the league is promising more transparency, I worry that it has more incentive to bury any incidents, hiding them completely rather than risking another protracted public inspection. While the NFL will undoubtedly assure us that this will not be the case, its past performance does not inspire confidence.

Outrage No. 3: Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson hit his 4-year-old son with a thin part of a branch and was indicted for reckless or negligent injury. This has sparked a national debate on the effectiveness and ethics of spanking. Worse, thanks to commentators like Charles Barkley, the debate has degenerated into a race issue. “I’m from the South,” Barkley explained on TV. “Whipping—we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”

The five most destructive words to our village are “That’s how I was raised.”

These words are the triumph of routine over reason, of self-delusion over self-interest, of excuses over evidence. In short, the phrase embodies the kind of muddled thinking that our culture “officially” stands against since doing something just because “that’s how I was raised” is the definition of hive mentality. It’s celebrating the joys of brainwashing over rational decisionmaking.

Most people embrace these words with great pride when it reflects their core values of being hardworking, compassionate, patriotic, religious or family-oriented. But they condemn anyone else who uses them when it goes against accepted American tradition. When a man straps on a bomb, climbs on a school bus and detonates, some would justify his behavior by saying his actions were an outgrowth of how he was raised. When a teenager drags a black man to his death behind his truck, some make the same claim. When a group of teens tie a gay boy to a fence and beat him to death, their actions reflect how they were raised.

Barkley may be accurate in his description of the South, and not just among African Americans. According to an ABC poll, 73% of Southerners approve of spanking children, as opposed to 60% in the rest of the country. Where he’s wrong is in justifying spanking (“We all spanked our kids”) in light of what we know today about the harmful effects of spanking:

  • Spanking may stop certain behavior, but it makes long-term behavior worse.
  • Children who are hit are more likely to use violence to resolve problems with siblings and peers.
  • The Canadian Medical Association Journal analyzed 20 years of data and concluded that spanking yields no positive outcome.
  • The journal Pediatrics said “harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence, and several personality disorders.”
  • One study concluded that frequent spanking (once a month for more than three years) resulted in children having less gray matter in certain areas of the brain “linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders.” Another found that spanking affected the brain by decreasing cognitive ability.

This is not a condemnation of those who have sparingly used light spanking in the past, before such research was available. But it’s been out there for at least a decade now, and any responsible parent wanting to use corporal punishment should at least do the research. Watching Sean Hannity beat his desk with his belt while proclaiming that being whipped with a belt by his father had not left him mentally abused should be all the proof necessary of its detrimental effects.

Additionally, watching the NFL play Twister with the truth, contorting its statements and explanations into some tortured Gordian knot of misinformation is to witness one of the standard bearers of influence on our children undermine everything it is supposed to represent: fair play, work ethic, compassion in the face of competition. That’s part of what the league sells to the American public, and therefore it is obliged to actually do something when that promise is threatened.

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child. But not everyone in the village is worthy of the task.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). He also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Fatherhood

Emma Watson Is Right—Don’t Take Potshots at Fathers

"All children (and dads) must be with an adult at all times."
"All children (and dads) must be with an adult at all times." Courtesy the author

Aaron Gouveia is a husband, father of two boys, and writes for his site The Daddy Files. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Men suffer from gender stereotyping, too. Sometimes—perhaps especially—dear old dads get the worst of it.

“I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence as a child as much as my mother’s. We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.”- Emma Watson

The famous actress and Ivy League graduate uttered those spectacular words in an address to the United Nations last week. Watson, a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, gave an impassioned speech calling on men to join women in the battle for gender equality. But in the process, she spoke about the importance of dads, the gender stereotypes that exist for men, and the reasons both sexes have to speak up for one another.

And her timing couldn’t have been better.

This weekend, I waded into unexpected controversy regarding this very topic at the unlikeliest of places – a Massachusetts apple orchard.

As my wife and two sons dutifully joined me in the most quintessential of New England activities, we paid our money and eagerly set out toward the tractor that would bring us to the honeycrisp, macoun, and gala apples we love so much. But before we could hitch our ride we had to stand in line, giving my 6-year-old – a first-grader with a voracious appetite for reading – time to show off his budding skills by reading every single sign in sight.

Except this particular sign was one I wish neither of us had seen (and not just because the font was Comic Sans). It said “All Children (And Dads) Must Be With An Adult At All Times.” My son was confused, and asked me if “daddies have to be watched like kids.” I was confused as well, wondering how a “family friendly” farm could be so tone deaf in taking an unnecessary potshot at fathers (who double as paying customers).

At that point I knew two things: 1) I was going to firmly but respectfully call them on it via their Facebook page and ask them to reconsider, and 2) I was going to get absolutely slammed by angry Internet zealots upset about “political correctness.”

“You’re a whiny [expletive]!”
“You’re such a pansy!”
“Get a sense of humor. PC people like you are what’s wrong with this country!”

And those were the polite ones that didn’t insult my physical appearance, my wife, or my children. But as someone who has tackled this topic before, I expected every bit of it.

Unfortunately, this is usually what happens when men speak out against negative and harmful stereotypes that cast dads as overgrown children and second-class parents. We’re told to “suck it up and be a man.” We’re told we should shut our mouths because there are more important issues on which to focus. We’re even told there’s a lot of truth in those old stereotypes, because many dads are like children and do need supervision.

Look, this sign is not the end of the world and it’s far from the most offensive thing I’ve ever seen. But you have to understand the mixed messages fathers get nowadays, and how negative the cumulative effect can be when the bar for dads is set so low.

Men are roundly criticized for working too much and spending too much time away from home, yet many people are suspect of stay-at-home dads and routinely stigmatize them as lazy freeloaders. People call for fathers to spend more time on the home front in an effort to be equal partners in parenting, yet dads who seek out paternity leave or flexible scheduling do so while risking their advancement and earning opportunities, because many employers believe such actions show an employee less dedicated than his counterparts.

It gets even worse in the media. Huggies thought incompetent dads were the “ultimate test” for their diapers, Clorox put dads on par with house pets, and Ray Romano’s character in “Everybody Loves Raymond” constantly had to be bailed out by his wife, making him the gold standard of what not to do if you want to be an involved dad.

On one hand we’re told we need to be more involved, but at the same time we’re routinely bombarded with messages on TV and in advertisements showing dads as bumbling morons and second class parents. And as Watson pointed out, that kind of attitude isn’t just bad for men. It’s damaging to women as well.

If dads take on more work at home, more women can choose to pursue careers. As for working moms, it allows them to get out from under the so-called “Second Shift,” in which they work and then have to come home to handle the bulk of household and childcare related tasks. The upside is children benefit from time with both parents, men start to become more equal partners in parenting, and women gain ground in the gender equality department.

To the orchard’s credit, they agreed to take the sign down. I’m positive the slight to dads was unintentional and not malicious, but I stand by the decision to address it publicly because shedding light on an issue is the only way to implement change.

It’s not whiny to offer valid criticism and it’s not effeminate to speak up for change. And if Emma Watson is brave enough to speak up even in the face 4Chan bullies* threatening to release nude pictures of her, I’m more than happy to be called a “spineless lib-tard crybaby” if it helps even a few more people break down gender stereotypes.

I genuinely hope people heed Watson’s words, because she’s right. Dads or moms, it doesn’t matter. In the end it’s the same fight, and we’re in it together.

 

Aaron Gouveia is a husband and father of two boys, and writes for his site, The Daddy Files.

 

*UPDATE: That threat turned out to be a hoax.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME feminism

How to Raise Boys Not to Be Total Jerks

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Rubberball/Nicole Hill—Brand X/Getty Images

Ever since the Ketchup Joke incident, I have been challenging my boys (and their sister) with honest conversations about gender and stereotypes

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

At some level, I’ve known since before my oldest son was born that this moment would come. But when it did, it took me utterly and completely off guard. I was driving a car chock-full of boys home from a soccer tournament when my nine-year-old son piped up from the back.

“Hey Mom! I’ve got a funny joke. I’ll ask you a question and you say, ‘Ketchup and rubber buns’.”

“I’ve heard this one,” chuckled my 12-year-old son.

Snickers all around from the soccer players.

Apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know what was coming next.

My son: “What did you have for breakfast?”

Me: “Oatmeal and ketchup and rubber buns.”

My son: “No! Mom! Just say ketchup and rubber buns. Try again. What did you have for breakfast?”

Me: “Ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did you have for lunch?” “What did you have for dinner?” Etc. etc. And then we got to the punchline:

My son: “What do you do when you see a hot chick? You CATCH UP and RUB HER BUNS!”

Peals of laughter from the boys.

To my very great credit, I did not run the car off the road. I kept driving—silent, hands gripping the wheel, looking straight ahead. It was a perfect autumn day. The sky was a brilliant blue, the late afternoon sun catching the full color of the orange and yellow leaves on the trees along the highway. It was a beautiful, perfect day outside, but inside I was angry. I was mortified. I was disappointed. And I was desperately struggling to think of what I should say to these boys.

Finally, as calmly as I could, I said, “I don’t think that joke is funny. You know, if you actually ran after a woman and touched her in an offensive way like that, it would be called ‘assault and battery’. It is a crime. You could be arrested.”

“You could be arrested for THAT?” said one of my son’s teammates.

“Yes. Plus, the woman could also sue you.”

Silence descends.

“Also, I’ve actually had that happen to me. How do you think it feels to have a stranger grab your butt?”

“WHAT? That actually happened to YOU?” they yelled in unison.

“Sure. More than once. Usually at parties.”

“This is kind of making me feel sick,” said my 12-year-old son.

More silence.

Finally, my nine-year-old said, “I remember you saying once that you didn’t like running past construction sites because the construction workers whistled and yelled things at you.”

I didn’t remember telling them that, but it’s true. When I was a teenager, I used to go way off my normal running route just to avoid running past a construction site. When you are a 14-year-old girl and grown men are yelling things about your body and what sexual things they want to do to it, it doesn’t feel like they are just some idiots being rude. It feels downright threatening.

Good, I thought. Sometimes they actually listen to me.

“So what are you going to say the next time you hear someone tell a joke like that?” I asked.

“Stop, Mom! We get it, OK?”

Teachable moment: ended. I decided just to leave it there for the time being. I knew that these kids didn’t really mean any harm. They were just repeating what was—to them—only a silly play on words. But I couldn’t blow it off as “just a joke.” If you have ever experienced sexual assault, a “joke” like this is just not funny. The reality is that almost every woman I know has experienced inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, or sexual abuse. Female friends of all ages, ethnicities and occupations have shared their stories, from a student told by her professor that she could get a higher grade in exchange for a “favor” to women in the medical profession who had patients touch them inappropriately in the examination room. Even my own young daughter has already experienced it.

Not long after this Ketchup Joke incident, my sons’ little sister was touched inappropriately several times by a boy in her second grade class. The sad truth is that these are experiences that are all too common for girls and women throughout the world.

The Ketchup Joke was a call to action for me. My sons are intelligent boys, good kids who love and respect their mom and their sister, their grandmothers, their female friends and teachers. But they, like other young Americans, are deeply impacted by the culture that they live in. Every day, children are exposed to an estimated 16,000 images through media that often portrays unhealthy and unrealistic stereotypes of both young men and women. Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Kids are also powerfully influenced by their peers. While they’ve never heard their dad tell a joke like that at home, there’s no way to control what they hear from other kids. How can all this not impact the way that my sons view girls and women?

I know I can’t change the society that we live in. I cannot raise my sons—or my daughter—in a world where sexism and misogyny do not exist. Eliminating bias completely is not even really possible; whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all biased. It is part of our human nature. But I realized that day in the car that kids don’t learn through osmosis how to evaluate and analyze gender stereotypes. It’s great to have parents who model respect for women, but it’s not enough.

I realized that, in order to raise these boys to recognize the problem of sexism in our society, my husband and I would have to try our best to make them aware of the bias and sexism in the world around them. If we could help them start seeing it, then we could help them find other ways to address it.

Ever since the Ketchup Joke incident, I have been challenging my boys (and their sister) with honest conversations about gender and stereotypes. Every example I see in a TV show, commercial, music video, or advertisement becomes a teachable moment. We talk about gender-based violence in the news, whether it is the girls kidnapped in Nigeria or domestic violence by NFL players. I have tried to share with them my own firsthand experiences with being female in a sexist society, something which hasn’t always been comfortable for me.

My sons aren’t always excited to have these conversations, so I don’t push it. But I don’t give up, either. Raising boys not to be total jerks is a long-term process. But they seem to be independently commenting on stereotypes that they see in the media more. They’ve even called me out for saying something sexist on occasion—and they were correct. So I am hopeful.

Hopeful that their generation will move us closer to a world where men and women are treated with more respect and equality. And hopeful that each of my boys will one day be men who, instead of chuckling when they hear a sexist joke, will speak up and say, “I don’t think that joke is funny.”

Jennifer Prestholdt is a human rights lawyer, wife and mother of three.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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