By Clare Gervasi
“It’s not my fault.”
“I didn’t do it.”
These are phrases I often hear from my own five year old child as well as the preschool children that I work with. I hear this when someone starts crying and another kid is standing nearby. I hear it when the leg breaks on a table. I hear it when a jar of colored pencils gets knocked over. I hear it when someone falls down. I hear it dozens of times per week when something unexpected, desctructive, and/or unfortunate happens.
I respond with this: “It doesn’t matter.”
It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, my dear. It doesn’t matter who did it. What matters is how we can help; how we can support the situation to restore peace and community.
I instinctively, automatically counter their protest of “not I.” Why? I mean, it’s probably not their fault; most of the time, the explanation for an unfortunate event is that “accidents happen,” at least on the playground (if not in the world at large). The reason I negate their protests is not because I want to accuse them or assign blame somewhere; it’s because I want to push back against this idea that someone has to have a direct role in an unfortunate event in order to feel any responsibility toward it or involvement in it.
Why do children even invoke the cry of “not I” when chaos erupts? It is because they are already internalizing once of the most destructive myths undergirding the American Dream: the myth of meritocracy.
Meritocracy is an ideal political system in which the distribution of goods and, by extension justice, is meted out according to ability. All rewards (and punishments) are earned; talent, skills and merit are rewarded accordingly. In such a conceptualization of human agency, we must assign culpability to an individual person in order for justice to be served. But this cultural need to assign individual blame is just one way of conceptualizing justice. And its logic is strong in a child’s developing sense of fairness--because it’s even stronger in our culture at large.
American cultural and political narratives--both the progressive and the conservative versions--include elements of meritocracy, or the idea that we earn what we have, where we are in life, and by extension, what happens to us. Overall, “If you work hard, you will have everything you need,” or that “No one gets ahead without work” are ideas that powerfully dictate so many of the emotional reactions Americans have to various situations. These narratives are supported by the underlying assumption that our actions cause an equal amount of reaction, and also that all things that happen to us are in fact reactions to things we have done. For adults, our reactions to politics are often filtered through this narrative; for children, their reactions to interpersonal conflicts or accidents are filtered through it.
“It’s not my fault!” or “I didn’t do it!” are an extension of the logic of meritocracy. I earn my victories; therefore I also earn my misfortunes. Likewise, if I did not directly cause an action, that action has nothing to do with me and I should be neither blamed nor praised for it.
In such an envisioning of the world, causality is completely in the hands of the individual. Fate and grace have no role; everything that happens to me, I create through my own work, whether good or bad.
This narrative seems natural to us (especially those of us who are able-bodied, white, cis gender, heterosexual, educated, middle class, US citizens, etc), but it is not the only way to conceptualize work, causality or parenting. Children defend themselves when something unfortunate happens before anything has even been said, because they learn to anticipate the assignment of blame, which always must fall on some individual person or people. If it’s not your fault, it’s your brother’s. Somebody “has to” get in trouble for knocking over the vase.
I suggest that you do not, in fact, have to assign blame, even in cases where a child has purposefully done something unexpected. Because it doesn’t matter who can be blamed; what matters is how a child can contribute in order to right the situation. I mean to reassure children (not call them out) when I say, “It doesn’t matter.” I don’t care if you did it; I care if you can help now. Because there is more than justice; there is mercy. There is more than equality; there is fairness.
When we teach children that what’s equal is what’s fair, and that they have to earn whatever they get, not only are we lying to children (and they know it--they know they do not earn absolutely everything they have), but we are reproducing a harmful story wherein children (and adults) must believe that the conditions of their life are a product of their own effort and no one else’s, which only breeds a narrow and selfish worldview in which a person is motivated only by how it affects them directly. It also pathologizes people who are marginalized and oppressed by structural violence, by blaming them for their own oppression (Santa didn’t bring you any toys this year? It must be because you’re a terrible child; not because your once-stay-at-home mom ran away from her abusive husband with her three kids and is living in the shelter this Christmas, unemployed and afraid because her husband locked her out of all the bank accounts when she left. Yeah, it’s not that. You’re definitely just naughty and Santa knows.) Furthermore, it encourages unwarranted self-criticism when larger structural forces affect our ability to take care of ourselves.
So why do we respond to children that “It doesn’t matter” when children say, “It’s not my fault,” if we grown ups live and die by the story of meritocracy and blame? It is because we know, despite years of acculturation to that destructive narrative, that there is more than direct causality. We know there is more than will. There is structural violence; there is poverty and discrimination and racism and bad air quality and food deserts. There are natural disasters and congenital conditions and the whims of immigration.
And, there is also mercy. There is kindness, and there is helpfulness.
After we say, “It doesn’t matter,” what we should say to children, to other grown-ups, and to ourselves is, “If you can help, you should.” That is the refrain of grown-ups everywhere who know deep in their hearts (and on the surface of it too) that fair and equal aren’t the same. That we all can help when someone is hurt or something isn’t working, even if we can’t fix it.
We can all help. We can and so we should. And when we need help, hopefully someone else feels the same about us. In other words, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Resources for further reading:
By Randi Skaggs, PSJ Member
Bio: Randi Skaggs is a storyteller, playwright, middle school language arts teacher, and mother of two wonderful kids. She keeps a parenting blog (Bluegrass Baby Momma) and is addicted to performing in the Moth StorySLAM. She now lives in Louisville, KY after spending twelve lovely post-college years in New York. You can follow her storytelling adventures on Facebook.
by Clare Gervasi, PSJ Member
It must have been during my training as a doula, before I had a child of my own, that I first read the adage that “Peace on Earth begins at home.” The simple quote resonated with my deepest sense of what I know to be true and was only reinforced through my research into conception, pregnancy and birth, through such books as Birth Without Violence by Frederick Leboyer or Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin.
I know it is true that “Peace on Earth begins at home,” because I’m living proof of it. I grew up in an urban intentional community of social activists in the 1980s who lived together in a low income neighborhood and worked on a local and global scale to help people suffering different forms of oppression. It was a tight-knit, post-Vatican II/liberation theology Catholic community of mostly white, mostly educated hippyish folks from all over the country who bought up real estate in a run-down neighborhood of Cincinnati and planted a church there. I grew up feeling a sense of belonging to an entire tribe of people. All the kids played in the neighborhood together, while all the adults had prayer meetings and potlucks and drum circles. My friends’ parents’ rules and words carried almost as much weight as my own parents’, and I felt comforted and cared for by all the adults equally.
The community was called New Jerusalem, and while it was a religiously based self-organization of people, the principles I internalized from that childhood experience extend far beyond the ideals of liberation theology. As I grew up into my own spirituality and politics, that sense of belonging, of community, has never left me. From my unique experience of growing up for a time outside of the cisheterosexist nuclear family model of “one dad, one mom, and 2.5 biologically related children,” I was able to see the possibility for life beyond white American, middle class expectations of family, despite being raised in the midwestern United States. Understanding how family can be different helped me be able to imagine that other things could be different in our world too. From there, it was only a hop, skip and a jump for me to begin identifying with anti-capitalist politics. Its values of autonomy, cooperation, self-organization, consent and mutual aid aren’t just ideals for me; I’ve seen them work in my own life. And I’ve seen them reproduced in my own life as a parent.
When I became a mother, I came to understand the meaning of community from the other (grown-up) side. The utter necessity of it, not just in raising a child, but in raising a mother. Creating family requires community. “It takes a village” applies as much to raising parents as it does to raising children. I doubt I would have given up on parenting altogether, but I am sure my child’s quality of life would be worse, and the quality of our relationship would less rich.
Normative societal scripts in white, middle class America indicate that parents should look at their children and see themselves reflected back. This is possibly some ridiculous, cruel cloning fantasy, or at the very least a manifestation of a biodeterminist, patriarchal, nuclear model of kinship. However, when I look at my child, I don’t see a mini-me. I don’t congratulate myself on how great he is (as if I could take responsibility for his actions, not to mention his inherent, individual nature); on the contrary, when I look at him, I see the fruits of the labor of so many hundreds of people who have poured their time, effort, money, attention, and love into him. He is so loved. And so am I. I see the support others have shown--beyond support: some kind of collective desire to see us succeed--reflected in his twinkling eyes, in his smile, in his healthy body, his strong voice, his quick wit. By trusting in community to take care of me, I am able to take care of my kid. When I was a child, I thought all the adults took care of all the children. Now that I am a mother, I understand that all the adults take care of each other, and thus the children thrive.
In other words, now that I am a parent, “Peace on Earth begins at home” has taken on a new meaning. It doesn’t mean that it’s my responsibility as a mother to condense all the peacefulness and somehow pour it into my little tabula rasa so that magically, or mechanically, a peaceful person is produced. No. Rather, it means that in accepting and welcoming community in our lives, our homes become peaceful. Mutual aid and support breed peace in parents’ hearts, and our children feel that peace, safety and love.
By Mandy Zoeller Olivam, PSJ Member
This morning, I stood cradling my warm, sleepy one-year-old as I spoke aloud Gynnya McMillen's name. Tears caught in my throat sharing her story as I felt the stirrings of my second child in my womb. The weight of my two, living, breathing sons, held close and carefully, gave physical dimension to the grief and loss I feel, knowing we all have lost a daughter in Gynnya.
This was the first (and last) time Gynnya was taken into custody. There should have been no reason for her visit to this detention center to be her last journey anywhere. Yet, after the domestic dispute in her home, the response of our system was to offer discipline and detention.
Would Gynnya still be alive if we had opened a door for dialogue instead?
As a community, we must mourn the tragic death of a daughter who passed too young and under circumstances far too cold and careless. Even so, her immediate family carries a pain far greater than those of us lighting candles or offering prayers - their bodies viscerally hold her memory. She was their baby, abandoned in isolation. She died alone, away from their care. Their despair and cries for justice must disturb our hearts to ask challenging questions.
What does Gynnya's memory ask of us from behind the veil? In an eternally silent plea, what does she hope our hearts will hear in her story?
Less than 24 hours before she died, Gynnya was responded to with a physically aggressive restraint...because she sat still and would not remove her sweatshirt when asked. But when she was silent during three different checks the next morning - a wake-up call, breakfast delivery, and an offer of morning snack - no one thought it appropriate to respond or reach out, agressively or kindly.
When 16-year-olds "act up," are they simply trying to speak up? What are they saying to us? Should they be held in a chokehold...or with compassion? When we suffocate a child's dignity, how can we expect them to trust they are safe?
Perhaps if the center staff had decided to engage in any way when Gynnya did not respond to morning check-ins, they would have found an unconsious girl in need of medical attention. Perhaps they would have already found her dead...but they would have found her three hours earlier in the day. At the least, they could have afforded her the due respect of one, humane extension of care in her final hours alive.
But her silent complicity, dead or alive, warranted no greater effort toward care - only in a moment of perceived defiance and resistance, nonviolent though it was, did she evoke a connection of sorts: an attack.
Now, Gynnya cannot speak for herself. There will be no chance for others to reach out and open a listening space. There will be no opportunity to understand from her perspective what happened at the "domestic incident" in her home. We cannot know if she was still suffering from the death of her father a year ago. We have lost her and her story to violence and apathy.
Gynnya is most likely dead because our system's response was to connect with agressive physicality rather than to invite a relationship honoring the complex journey of this 16-year-old child. Her death was initially said to be due to "natural causes," but the treatment she received on her final day of life was anything but natural, dignified, or humane.
Will the authorities release the video footage of Gynnya in her lonely room? What will we see?
Our hearts must awaken. Our minds must move. Our voices must raise with reverberating demands. Our eyes must open to see what we can see for Gynnya's eyes, now closed forever. The eyes of our children, dead and alive, are looking to us for response. We must carry the weight, shed our tears, and protect their right to be held, until the end, in love.
Many thanks to our guest blogger
Michele Hemenway Pullen, ECED Facutly, Ivy Tech Community College
It can be daunting to consider the legacy of Dr King even for adults. Where to start? Dr King led many lives wihtin his lifetime, as we know and understand it. History is continuing to define and redefine what his presence means to us.
For young children it is always best to provide them with action based information. Rather than fill them with lots of facts and knowledge we decide is important, it is best we celebrate this day In some simple ways that very young children can connect with in their daily lives.Over time more complex issues about his life can be added.
So, what are those things best for young children?
I would start with an understanding that Dr King was a man who cared deeply about the lives of others and DID something about it. He believed that EVERYONE could serve. Service is something young children can do in many forms. Be a “helper.” It’s that simple. Dr King was a “helper.” We talk often about fire fighters and other community helpers. Why not add activists and social justice leaders to that list? Dr King certainly would meet the standard of Community Helper. So, read books about him to young children, let them know he was a very special helper who wanted all children to have a home, enough food to eat, a fair chance and a good life.
These are simple things that young children can understand. So, that day, perhaps pack a backpack with food, other items and bring it to an agency that serves children. We don’t need to give young children grim details. We just need to say, we are also helpers, like Dr King, who want all families to have parents who have jobs, food, clothing and shelter.
We can show them photos of Dr King speaking, listen to it in the background- let them hear his thunderous voice. Explain to them he used his “Outside VOICE” to make sure everyone heard his message of love and equality.
For the very very young, just helping to do something without a lot of explanation is plenty but having images of Dr King available as we do all other cultural icons and heroes is important. A great poster of Dr King can be purchased online at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org along with other images of courageous citizens.
A Childcare facility in Chicago creates this diorama each year, studies the book pictured and then each family picks a simple service project, as described above.
Written by PSJ member Crystal Mackey Free
Recently, the Mall of St. Matthews witnessed something that has happened countless times in a multitude of ways since the dawn of time - a group of bored teenagers made a collective mistake. In response to this incident, the shopping center has instituted a rule of forced helicopter parenting of every person under the age of 18.
The rule pertaining to chaperones for teenagers is a fraught one at best. Disregarding the fact that the people in question are old enough to legally care for younger siblings, hold down a job and operate a motor vehicle, this rule is simply not feasible for many families. The assumption that all parents are available to hold hands with their teen every weekend is simply not true.
While some families are privileged with the freedom to choose whether or not to go with their high schooler to the mall, others are unable to do so.What kind of message is sent when a group of businesses cater to a particular type of family excluding those that fit outside of a 9-5, M-F work schedule? Is it fair to ban the younger members of a family from a social space simply because their parents have to work? Additionally, is it fair to judge every mall-goer under voting age based on the action of a few? The official statement from the mall was that while there were over one thousand teens on site at the time of the incident, the vast majority were not involved in any wrong doing.
The mall is a place of business - but it is more than that - it is an iconic social gathering space that allows teenagers to flex their decision making muscles without mom or dad hovering at their elbow. Taking away the ability of a parent to gauge whether or not their teen is ready to face the minor challenges of being alone with their friends in a mall is a misstep and one that could cost St. Matthews revenue and respect.