Thursday, December 11, 2008

Parenting Parentified Children -- An AHA moment

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.


Sheri said...

I have heard Ruby speak and it was a very powerful workshop as an educator. I hadn't thought of it in this framework either, but it makes total sense.

On a side note:
I went to a workshop recently and went to a class called Poverty-beyond Ruby Payne and thought maybe it would offer more insights. They actually bashed her thoughts. I was appalled. I should've walked out, but I couldn't keep my mouth shut and bucked them on just about everything they said. They came off as very elitist. It made me sick.

Meg an Aggie in Frisco said...

Wow Claudia... That is great insite. I will tuck that a way in the brain and hope it will resurface when the time comes!


Innocent Observer said...

That makes a great deal of sense, but what does it look like in a practical application?

Our Family said...

WOW! I love Ruby Payne because I think she hits the nail on the head when it comes to the poverty culture. I actually teach our churches here in AL about poverty with her book, "What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty"
We have a parentified son and an indulged, helpless son. The parentified son looks at us a lot of times as if we are stupid. He tried to reorganize the way the school does things by coming up with a chart of what was efficient and what was not. He is very hard to parent and have him follow rule of our house. He hates it and thinks we are stupid to have them. You made some very thought provoking points to think about.

Angela :-) said...

Your last sentence brought tears to my eyes. I, too, will take this post to heart.

Angela :-)

Torina said...

What does it look like...some examples...
Tara is our family control freak (said with love, of course). We try to make things more of a diplomacy with her. For example, we have family meetings where we discuss things (even though JB and I make the decisions, we like to make her feel like she has ownership over what heppens in our family). We also explain what both parties get out of doing, she washes her hair, she doesn't get bugs, we get to smell apples when we hug her. Win/win. Little stuff like that goes a ways with her. The other kids will just say "ok" when you ask them to do something but everything is up for a battle with Tara.

Busy Mommy said...

Great post! I wish I would have read it 3 months ago when we got our new 12 yo dd, and I trying to turn her into a child WAY to fast.