Last night I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches elementary school and many of these children are living in poverty. We were discussing the writing of Ruby Payne who Bart blogged about at one point and that he and I have discussed several times before. He had made several really good connections that made sense in helping us parent our children.
But last night I was thinking about the idea of parentified children. I had often thought of Kyle as parentified becuase he had been responsible for his younger siblings. For this reason, the term seemed to fit. But in the conversation I had last night, we discussed how many children living in poverty are parentified, even if they do not have younger siblings. THey are often made to be responsible for their birthparents. In some situations, the children are literate and their parents are not, making them have a role reversal. In other situations, the children are bilingual and parents are not, leaving the children in a role of translating for their parents. With these things happening it is obvious that the parent/child relationship is much different than the traditional situation that we are accustomed to.
The key, my friend the teacher mentioned, is not using a parental manner or voice with children in poverty, but responding to them as equals. This is not, of course, because the adult is equal to the child, but because the barriers that are erected by the child when they are talked to from that standpoint will stop all effective communication.
I see the situation of a child coming into the home of new parents or foster parents out of a life of poverty as being similar to a person moving to a new country. It has happened many many times in the history of the United States and is happening today. A very educated and intelligent person who has had a successful career as a doctor, attorney, or teacher comes to the U.S. and because of their limited English, they are forced to do other kinds of jobs. And they are treated as though they are unintelligent and incapable simply because of the language barrier.
When a child comes into our home having been the most responsible person in the family system for years, they are immediately placed into a position as "just one of the kids." Their voice is no longer considered to be the voice of the expert or to be the wisest in the family system. They are not viewed now as even equals to the parents, but suddenly instead of making all the decisions, they are in a normal family system where children's views may be valued, but where it is certainly not a democracy. The dynamic that follows is a constant struggle for the child to become accustomed to their new role.
Looking back, my insistence in being a parental figure and cracking the whip was NOT the right approach for very many of our children. In fact, it still isn't. Salinda for example, at age six, though not the oldest in her family system, has always been the one who carried the emotional responsibility for her parents and siblings. Is it any surprise that as an adolescent she asserted the independence that she had learned as a four year old and rebelled against our dictates?
So I have had an "aha" moment today. Too bad it is so many years into this journey. But what would have happened had I realized this when some of my children moved in and approached them as equals, giving them more opportunity to express opinions, guiding them with suggestions instead of forcing rules, walking along side them instead of ahead of them yelling for them to catch up, or behind cracking a whip?
Maybe things wouldn't have looked that much different, but I wonder if they might have. And even if the outcome would have been the same, I am convinced I would have been happier during the journey.