Monday, August 23, 2010

Middle Class Getting Socked; Divore Rate Dipping?

The Great Recession, as they now call it, continues to bash the middle class and adversely affect family well being. A recent piece by Judith Warner in the NY Times, is as usual, excellent. Some of the highlights:

"Economists may assert that we’re in the early stages of a recovery, but surveys continue to show that the impact of the Great Recession on American families is deep, widespread and grim. A Pew Research poll published last month indicated that more than half of all adults in the U.S. labor force had experienced some “work-related hardship” — a period of unemployment, a pay cut, a reduction in work hours or an involuntary move to part-time employment — since the recession began in December 2007."

"The poor are getting poorer, and the rich, despite stock-market setbacks, are still comparatively rich. The most devastating losses in household wealth over the past two years have been suffered by the middle class. And families are fraying at the seams. The Pew poll showed nearly half of people who had been unemployed for more than six months saying their family relationships had become strained, and a New York Times/CBS poll of unemployed adults last winter found about 40 percent saying they believed their joblessness was causing behavioral change in their children."

"Parents who have jobs are working longer hours than ever. Mothers are taking shorter maternity leaves. The birth rate is on the decline. The divorce rate is declining, too — it’s too expensive for people to break up their households — but that’s not necessarily a family-friendly thing, as a report from the Council on Contemporary Families noted in April: “We know from the experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s that divorce rates can fall while family conflict and domestic violence rates rise.”

Endnote: Our President has much on his plate. I hope (and pray) that he keeps the astronomical unemployment rate at the very top of his domestic agenda until this nightmare is in our rear-view mirror.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Schools Must Diligently Filter Personal Information

Here is my monthly parenting column in the Home News Tribune

What responsibility does a school have in filtering personal family matters that a child might innocently offer in a public display?

This question occurred to me after reading about one mother’s hurt feelings when her daughter’s publicly displayed essay listed Dad as her role model in life and not Mom. I wondered why the daughter wasn’t approached by her teacher who might have suggested that she warn her mother about the essay which would be posted, and discuss why she picked her dad over her mom. This may have softened the blow.

Rather than trying to hypothesize about where free speech ends and where school censorship begins, I contacted my friend Philip who has been the associate principal of a large elementary school in South Jersey for over twenty years. Right off the bat he declared, “It always comes down to common sense, and unfortunately that’s hard to bottle.”

“Our teachers know that essays, computer postings and year-book entries all have to be read carefully while letting children have free speech. But they do not have the right to gratuitously insult people in a school setting. We will not provide students with a forum to be hurtful.”

When I described the essay that caught my attention Philip responded, “When a student says that her role model is her father, that’s not gratuitously insulting to the mother, even if it is a bit hurtful. Maybe the child wants to be a musician like her dad, and not a biochemist like her mom.”

Philip believes that the school should seek out the offended parent and accept some part of the responsibility together with the student. “I would tell that parent that we didn’t intend the essay to be hurtful. It did not appear blatantly hurtful, but since you have expressed that you are hurt, we are sorry.”

He wants students in his school to know that free speech exists, but the school, as an institution, has standards and will not support hurtful speech. Philip expects his students to be sensitive to that. Philip gave an example of an essay that a child wrote about a teacher who he really liked. “Mr. Smith is a great teacher who explains things thoroughly unlike Mr. Jones, who always leaves me confused.” Philip brought the student to his office and explained, “You need to rethink the way you are complimenting person X and simultaneously hurting person Y, so think of a better way to do it.” Philip correctly refers to these discussions as an educational opportunity which is part of their mission as a school.

Providing another example from his school, Philip described a young boy who, in an essay about family life, went into great detail about his parents’ divorce and how the non-custodial parent just picked up and left town. The child was expressing the hurt that he felt, but it was totally inappropriate to display publicly. The teacher grasped the teaching opportunity and the child was able to redirect the essay without the anger. “The teacher brought the student with his corrected essay, to the Principal of the school who complimented his maturity and sensitivity.”

Philip appreciates when parents preemptively share problems at home (in confidence) with a teacher and administrator, so that educators can be on the lookout for behavioral or academic fluctuations. “If a parent fails to warn the school about family matters, be they emotional or health-related, and the school calls home describing behavioral problems, we have already made errors in the classrooms that may have exacerbated the situation.”

In closing Philip urged, “These children are precious souls. Adults have armor to protect themselves from hurt, not children. Anything we can do to make the child’s environment in the school healthy and positive, we are required to do. If we can avoid a situation because we are sensitized by some extra information, we must do it.” To all of you who are students, have a wonderful and safe summer.

Be Counted columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a Marriage Therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column via his website