Saturday, December 17, 2005

Family Ties

It's that time of year when everyone gets together for the holidays. I very much enjoy celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas with both sides of my family--they're a terrific group of people. When I lived in New York, I remember talking to a group therapy class I was in (we were learning to lead groups but for all intents and purposes, all of us should have been participants). The entire group groaned about going home for the holidays with their respective families. The group described the putdowns, insults, and general malaise they felt when being around their family members. There was not a single person in the group who liked their family but me. Okay, this was probably a select sample of misanthropic New York grad students who had run away to New York and were living alone to isolate themselves from their follow human beings, but I do have a point here.

My point is that many people do not get along with their family members for one reason or another--and it is sad. However, why not make the family friction into a learning experince for you and the kids? Dadvocate gives an example of how he no longer feels comfortable around his family because of the difference in political views which, in turn, may affect his children. This is indeed, a concern.

However, in the raising of children, perhaps it is best to expose them to different groups of thought and help them to sort out why Aunt Becky or Uncle Tom is the way he or she is and to learn to understand their differences. This does not mean buying into whatever asinine thing the relatives want to say, but rather using it as a springboard to help children understand and broaden their perspectives on how people behave. And who knows? Aunt Becky with her liberal views may be the one who pushes little Johnny into a great career in the army or little Debbie into advocating for male rights after her son is forced by feminists to be medicated for his masculine behavior. Or on the other hand, Uncle Tom's racist views may lead another child to examine his own prejudices and decide to become more aware of his own racist attitudes in daily life.

So maybe rather than becoming upset and boycotting family members, we can see them as a training tool for ourselves by learning about patience and for our children by teaching them the intricasies of human psychological functioning. After all, in our work life and in the world of everyday living, we must learn to interact with and deal with people we do not agree with or necessarily like and the sooner kids learn to do this successfully--the better.

Update: Okay, I admit defeat--the stories in the comment section are heartbreaking--I can completely understand why some of you are unable to cope with abusive, threatening and just plain obnoxious families. Thank you for sharing your stories here and I hope you will continue to post, not only about your bad experiences, but perhaps share how you overcame the dysfunctional family curse yourselves. All of us can learn from your experiences and those who have not learned to cope thus far, may learn something.

89 Comments:

Blogger jau said...

Well said. Thanks for the thoughts. I think I should send this to my children - or write my version of your post. If only we'd listen and (maybe) learn rather than hear and shut down!

10:16 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

aup,

I have always felt that it is important to get along with family members--life is very short and in the end, leaving our family members with thoughts of love rather than anger is better--regardless of our differences.

10:22 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger reader_iam said...

This is a "linker," for sure!

10:39 AM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with what you wrote and I think many people should be more tolerant with the idiosyncracies in their families.

But some people have abusive families where going home for the holidays means personal attacks and an assault on ones identity. I have a friend who was physically abused by her father and a family who didn't care. She wisely has stopped all communications with her family. I have another friend who is constantly verbally assaulted by her mother. Since her young teens her mother has been nagging her to lose weight (which she never has) and into her twenties it was to lose weight and get married. At the age of 25 her mother started telling her with some regularity "let's face it Rachel, you're never going to get married". Now in her 30's its compounded to assaults on her weight, lacking "ring" and her aging eggs. If my self-esteem had to take constant hits simply by being in the same room as my family, I'd be reticent to go home as well. And if I were Dadvocate's gay sister I would have been upset with what happened and Dadvocat's indifference.

"Allicent"

10:41 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Allicent,

Yes, I do agree that some families can be abusive but sometimes, a thick skin is in order. The physical abuse by your friend's father, if true, is obviously a very real reason not to be around someone. However, short of that, verbal abuse can sometimes be a challenge. I learned a long time ago that I did not have to be liked by everyone and that included my family. I have seen many more people who regret never having made up with a family member than I have people who say--"good thing I never talked to my family again."

10:56 AM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helen,

Yes, but not everyone has a thick skin, and I mean that in terms of DNA. Some people are born with it, as I believe you probably were. Others can work hard to toughen up a bit, but the toughening of a sensitive person is filled with pain. My second example, the woman who's mother is a misogynist, has been hurt tremendously by her mother and I believe it has caused my friend to be masochistic in terms of her dating choices and other lifestyle choices. She does see her family, and she does go home for the holidays, but she also does kvetch a lot about her mother and goes to a therapist. If I were her, I'd kvetch a lot too! Thank god my mother, a Republican who never subscribed to MS. Magazine but is a natural born feminist, never put me through that.

"Allicent"

11:08 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Allicent,

I think we are all born with certain predispositions. That said--I think we can push the envelope on some of our traits, e.g. a quiet shy person can try to learn to speak a little louder and look people in the eye--an obnoxious person can learn to tone it down and a masochistic person can learn to be a bit less sadistic to herself regardless of what others say. Maybe the mother is too much for your friend but she might be able to practice by standing up to one of her poor dating choices in a small way. Everyone, it seems, has some trait that causes them trouble and it can be a lifelong struggle to overcome it--but well worth it in the long run. High self-respect comes from doing thing that are hard that we would rather not do. Staying with the status quo in terms of our comfort is not always the solution.

11:20 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger dadvocate said...

Allicent,

My kids were using the term "gay" as a description of the person's appearance (looked kinda like Clay Aiken) not what they thought was his sexual preference (he was obviously attached to an attractive girl). "Gay" has come to have many other meanings than sexual preference. One of my co-workers just a couple of years out of college uses the term in other ways. If you pay attention to TV and radio you will find the term "gay" used in many ways.

I felt my sister's interpretation of their comments was incorrect and that discussing the mechanics of a gay relationship over they table at Cracker Barrel was not the time or place. Primarily through my actions I teach my children to treat everyone equally and respectfully. My sister is quite successful and can take care of herself. My children still need guidance and parenting but do not need to feel ganged up on by adults.

With my children my primary goal is to help them to grow up to be happy, healthy, successful, normal adults. I have 18 to 20 years to do that. It doesn't have to happen over lunch. If you're not careful you end up pushing them in the direction you don't want to. My parents are raving liberals but guess what?

11:58 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

So if you declare Aunt Becky to be the winner of a "liberal hypocrisy contest", does that count as broadening the perspectives of the children?

11:59 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

My stepfather gave me a tremendous gift this year by telling me that he no longer wanted any contact with me or any of my family. He is 87, isolated, and sad, which explains why a man of much better social skills in his prime could say such a thing, even if he thought it. He would certainly have never tried such a stunt while my mother lived.

But it was a liberation for my brother and I. We had suspected we were unwelcome for almost forty years, but had more often blamed ourselves, as children do. We had tried to please the man and had endured insult for decades, primarily to protect our mother's feelings. I don't know if that was our best choice, but it was the one we made, and it was kindly meant. We harbored hope that we might someday turn it around and impress the man.

It was better to wait for him to do the rejecting, cutting us off. Had we made the break, we would have had residual suspicions that we had not done enough to patch up differences. But with his veneer worn away by sad circumstance, our consciences and our self-picture are both clear. He wanted a pretty young wife, and we were baggage. We did what we could and far more than what was fair. Training in that hard school made me a better father.

The mild sting of open rejection was a far lesser price to pay than the one we had been paying. In personality development, the bad news is sometimes good news.

12:12 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Greg,

Yes, I would say that children would be exposed to a different point of view than they normally might hear from a liberal hypocrisy contest. Since they are fed a steady diet from the schools and tv about how to be a liberal--if you disagree--try checking out Linda Ellerbee's little programs on Nickelodeon--a different point of view might be just what they need.

AVI--at least you have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried. You were honoring your mother in doing so--though I would think that she would not want you to be insulted and upset on her behalf. Thankfully, the decision was made for you. Sounds like your stepfather's loss.

12:29 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

I agree with you Dr. Helen and with most of your commenters.

I've always thought that getting along with relatives who hold different political views or moral values than I do is good practice for dealing with people in my day-to-day life. If I eliminate contact with every family member who disagrees with me, I will be tempted to do the same in my everyday life. I don't want all my friends and acquaintances to be just like me, and I hope that my children feel the same way.

12:47 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger David said...

Interesting thoughts on this by Chesterton: "The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique.."

More of the Chesterton passage, and my thoughts on it, here.

12:56 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

If you hold a "liberal hypocrisy contest", the message to children is that they should stick cotton in their ears and never listen to liberals. It teaches children to narrow their perspective, not broaden it, when they see people who disagree with their parents.

Also, my children aren't fed any diet from television, liberal or otherwise. We don't have a TV.

1:00 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My kids are older, and I think that this article is absolutely right. Over the years my children got to see how unattractive sibling bickering was, especially when it continues to adulthood. They got to see how ugly racist jokes were, how obnoxious militant vegans are to share a meal with, and how ineffective a proselytizing tool mean-spirited criticism of another's religious belief is. I always had plenty to give positive reinforcement to my kids about on the way home. My children were better behaved than the adults. I didn't even have to specifically call the bad behavior to their attention; they recognized it and usually commented on it after we left.

My husband's family always gave us lots of "teaching opportunities" at holiday gatherings. And one of the things they learned is that you don't always have to tell a jerk that he is one; everyone can see it.

1:20 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Allicent: I have to say that it rubs me the wrong way when someone labels her mother a "misogynist". I said before that feminists can be men or women. I consider myself a feminist: I believe in equal status for men and women in society. But I don't like a certain brand of feminism, practiced by certain women, that is devoted to the rights of only one woman.

Anyway, for the holidays I hope people find genuine respect for their relatives. Don't try to square the circle if relations are bad. Don't hold politically hypocrisy contests. Be close if you can, or keep your distance if you have to, but try to find some real respect either way.

1:24 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Greg,

On your comment to Allicent--if you do not like the brand of feminism practiced by certain women devoted to the rights of only one woman--than you must not like the militant feminists like Catherine Mackinnon or feminists who do not like Condi Rice, for they only have the rights of one kind of woman in mind--also, a woman can be a misogynist. A person who hates women can be female. I have known quite a few of them.

1:29 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helen:

Your most mature post to date.

dadvocate:

By "gay", your children meant effeminate not homosexual? I'm sorry, the distinction seems specious. If you have modeled for your children so well, it seems they would have realized that using that term in a pejorative sense in the precense of their gay aunt was rude. Sure, your sister could have let is slide. You could be letting it slide now too. If you really feel your family should keep their opinions to themselves and their pieholes shut, then by all means, don't take your children around the family anymore. But that would mean you're the one with the problem, not them. If your children meant "effeminate", your sister's point is still well-taken--what is the point of your criticism, my precious niece? Sounds like a good old-fashioned, conservative lesson to me--kids, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. I think you're ugly, but I don't feel the need to talk about it.

1:40 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most kids use "gay" as a general term not related to sexuality or sexual characteristics, and usually not even thinking about the connotations until you call it to their attention and explain it to them.

I had to correct this in my own children fifteen or more years ago. They picked it up at school. But you don't dress down a child publicly at the dinner table for a minor verbal faux pas. This is a discussion for the parent take them aside and talk about privately, perhaps suggesting that they apologize. The sister was out of line. If she was offended, she should have talked privately to her brother about it and not attacked that child publicly.

1:50 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Helen: I didn't mean the rights of just one kind of woman, I meant the rights of just one woman. Feminism for Numero Uno only. Feminism for only one kind of woman is a disappointment too, but it's not nearly as bad as solipsistic feminism.

I don't particularly care for Catherine MacKinnon. In fact there are two different Catherine MacKinnons and I don't like either one of them. I don't like the real Catherine MacKinnon, the neglected one who garnered exactly hits in Google News today (although she has a namesake in Roy Bridge, Scotland). And I don't like the fake Catherine MacKinnon, the verbal punching bag with hundreds of hits in the Google Blog Search.

As for Condi Rice, I don't think that she's so terrible. Her biggest problem is that she shows no independence from her male mentor and patron. For some reason she called him her husband once. But this is not mainly a feminist issue, in my view. If Rice ran for president, I probably wouldn't vote for her, but I would still applaud her for running.

1:50 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Whatever Condi does seems to be wrong, eh? She's one of the superintelligent cabal propping up George Bush, and she's also his ventriloquist's dummy.

I don't mean to jump especially on greg, who seems a generally reasonable person. But these contradictory criticisms seem to adhere to her with some regularity.

Kudos on the no-TV policy, BTW. The average SAT verbal in our house was 780, and that's part of the reason why.

2:06 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Condi Rice is not part of any superintelligent cabal propping up George Bush. She does prop him up, but it isn't either superintelligent or a cabal. You have a fair point that her lack of independence from him is not as simple as ventriloquy. She is a bright enough woman. The problem is more a matter of instinct, that neither she nor Bush want any political daylight between them.

If I may expand on this from a feminist angle, I think that Condi Rice, George Bush, and Laura Bush make an ironic ménage à trois. Condi Rice really has played the role of George Bush's intelligent, respected wife. Laura Bush has been the subservient minder. At a dinner party, Condi could complete George Bush's sentences when he talks policy. Laura Bush could pour the coffee and dust off his jacket.

Maybe if Condi Rice had her own husband to stand behind her, then she would finally be a truly independent woman, and not just a competent viceroy for her boss.

As for Laura Bush, I understand that being a mother and a housewife is hard work. She is entitled to her life choices. But I think that it is an antiquated role model for American girls today.

2:28 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger jau said...

I'm not sure how this thread degenerated from discussing family visits and attending to others' points of view . . . to the familiar old diatribes against Condi, Laura and George. Sure seems like someone is demonstrating what often happens when family members assemble in and start talking about a variety of topics. Or is it just impossible to resist saying something nasty about George and/or Laura whenever there's a keyboard present?

And, Greg, by the way, being polite and well-mannered doesn't have to mean being neither independent nor smart. Do you know that Laura taught school? Have you ever listened to her talk? Under what circumstances would you acknowledge her intelligence?

2:38 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

Assistant Village Idiot -

Re: the SAT and TVs:

If you eliminate our autistic child, in our house the average SAT verbal is 750 and SAT math is 740, and we watch TV all the time. I was an only child, and I watched TV as much as I wanted. In addition, because our oldest son was very sick, our pediatrician encouraged us to let him watch TV all the time since he couldn't play with other children.

The pediatrician's advice surpised me because he was a very PC pediatrician who consistently urged parents to severely restrict TV watching, but he said TV was a good socializer for disabled children. If that's true, and my limited experience suggests it is, then it should be true for all children. TV can open a world to children they could never see in their own backyards. Of course, we parents need to make sure the child gets adequate exercise, social interaction with real people, and learns self-discipline - including how to self-limit watching TV. But these are skills that all children need to learn, regardless of whether they watch TV or not.

Of course, it's possible that our family SAT scores would have been higher if we had not watched TV, but I'm not convinced either way. I think it is more complicated than that.

2:39 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

Greg K -

Your "analysis" of George Bush, Laura Bush, and Condi Rice sounds like psychobabble to me. Or wishful thinking on your part.

What happened to the liberal notion that people should be judged for themselves and for their actions? By their actions, George Bush and Condi Rice liberated millions of people in Iraq and are working to protect millions more in America. Clearly, you don't think they are doing a good job and that's your prerogative, but why drag Laura Bush into this?

2:44 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

DRJ: I mentioned Laura Bush because the original question was whether feminists like Condi Rice. I think that Laura Bush is integral to that question, for one reason because of Condi Rice's ironic reference to George Bush as her "husband". I am a feminist and I think that Condi Rice is a century more modern than Laura Bush. Condi Rice can be faulted for her lack of independence from George Bush, but that is on a much higher plane than anything that Laura Bush is doing.

I do judge George Bush and Condi Rice for their actions. I can see that they have a great loyalty to the Iraqi people. If I were Iraqi, I would vote for them. But I would be in the minority: Most Iraqis resent the American occupation as an alien intrusion. I am all for charity to strangers, but some people go far overboard with it, usually not because they are saints, but to save face in some way. I think that spending $10,000 for every man, woman, and child in Iraq on their liberation and well-being is a classic example. Think of how much it would cost if they scaled it up to India.

On the other hand, I do not think that Bush and Rice are protecting Americans. I know that they have worked hard at it and I can even believe that they have helped in some ways, but in total they have done more harm than good.

3:20 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

greg, I realize your view is shared by many, but that doesn't make it any more sensible. I am not sure what you are expecting of Laura Bush that would be more appropriate, for example. And why a Secretary of State should be expected to be independent of the president who hired her to do the job eludes me.

"Most Iraquis resent the American occupation as an alien intrusion." I think that is often claimed, but never justified. The many polls of what the Iraqi people think about the Americans reveal ambivalence. A minority -- 15 - 25% -- unambiguously support what the Americans have done. A smaller, but still significant group 5 - 10% -- are unalterably opposed. In between there are shadings of people who think things are better, but wish it didn't have to happen that way, or think things are about the same but might get better, or dislike the American presence but acknowledge some positives.

As we cannot either ignore nor attack a billion Muslims, some other strategy for safety from their extremists was necessary. Changing those societies from within seems a less bad approach than our other attempts, which were abject failures.

The scale-up argument about cost seems irrelevant to me, as decisions are not made on that basis in actuality. If we were in danger from India, we would need different tactics.

4:18 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

AVI: Anyone in the Cabinet should be independent enough to at least resent it when his or her wisdom is ignored. Colin Powell did resent it, as Bob Woodward's book makes clear. He was loyal in the sense that he supported Bush to the best of his own judgment. That made him a good Secretary of State. Powell did not willingly synchronize his judgment to exactly match Bush's judgment. (With his UN speech he was all but forced to do this, but he sorely regretted it.) That is what I see Condi Rice doing, and frankly I think that it weakens her.

My current source of information about Iraqi public opinion is here. In particular you can look at question six: "From today’s perspective and all things considered, was it absolutely right, somewhat right, somewhat wrong or absolutely wrong that US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq in spring 2003?" 33% of Iraqis said that it was "absolutely wrong" for the US to invade Iraq. So the level of vehement opposition is not 5-10% as you say, it's 33%. 17% more say that it was "somewhat wrong", and that is already half of their public opinion. After $200 billion has gone by, including $20 billion in direct reconstruction aid, the United States is at less than half support. ($250 billion has been appropriated so far; this is the basis for my $10,000 per person.) That reflects the sentiment of question 19g: 55% of Iraqis have "no" confidence in US and UK occupation forces; another 23% have "not much". As I said, most Iraqis, to be precise 78%, resent the presence of American troops.

You could argue that India is not the perfect example of scaling up the lopsided American investment in Iraq. However, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea are all greater threats to American security than Iraq is. Nonetheless Iraq gets the lion's share of attention and money from the Bush Administration. They could not possibly spend $10,000 per person in three years on these other countries, or even $1,000. The occupation of Iraq is an expensive attempt to save face.

5:08 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous 1:50

i didn't at all get the impression that the aunt "dressed down" the child. she asked what difference his sexuality made, rephrased the comment when the child didn't understand, and then never said another word about it. that hardly implies dressing down.

and i must say, i don't get it. you refer to the child's remark as a "minor faux pas" but the sister was "out of line"? it's this sort of apologism for young people that results in the rude, self-absorbed, hyper-senstive generation of young people we're all suffering from now.

5:13 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anjali said...

I'll just point out that my brother and I both scored above 700 in both the math and verbal sections of the SAT and we (horrors!) grew up watching television AND playing video games.

Moderation is the key.

6:03 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

anjali,

I don't think tv is as bad as they say--some shows can actually be beneficial for certain kids and video games--hey violent juvenile crime has gone down since Duke Nukem and Doom came out in the early 90's. Let's hear it for video games.

6:15 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

anonymous 5:13 said (to anonymous 1:50): "and i must say, i don't get it. you refer to the child's remark as a 'minor faux pas' but the sister was "out of line"? it's this sort of apologism for young people that results in the rude, self-absorbed, hyper-senstive generation of young people we're all suffering from now."

This comment raises an issue that I think is important. Specifically, it relates to how American society views and treats children. I am over 50, and when I grew up it was commonplace to find adults who protected, nurtured, and disciplined children. Children were not equals to adults but they were given special protections and benefits. It is apparent that recent generations treat children as little adults, with all the rights and responsibilities that accompany adulthood. I think we are doing a huge disservice to children by treating them as adults and expecting adult behavior.

While I certainly don't enjoy it when children are rude, self-absorbed, and hyper-sensitive, they are children and they often are all of those things. To expect otherwise is not realistic. (Please note that I do not believe Dadvocate's children were rude, self-absorbed, or hyper-sensitive. To expect pre-teen children to understand and accomodate the highly-charged issues of gay and lesbian politics is unrealistic and unfair.)

The original civil rights and feminist movements should be applauded for opening doors for people who had been denied equal opportunities. The corresponding "children's movement" that treats children as adults is, in my opinion, disastrous for children and dangerous for society.

6:26 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

The problem that I have with DADvocate's posting is not the specifics of the encounter that his children had with his gay sister. I wasn't there, so I don't know what really happened. My problem with it is his consistent conclusion about whose fault it is that he doesn't get along with his relatives: theirs. He is as nice to them as they deserve; they keep falling off the wagon.

This is really not the point of seeing relatives at holidays, or at any other time. The point is to respect them, not to win a blame game. Of course there are a lot of fractured families in the world and you can't always avoid blame games. But it's just sad to define your relatives in your own mind by blame. Surely there is a way to see the good in your own kin.

For that matter, if you don't respect your relatives, even the most mannered comments can seem rude. Insincerity is usually as plain as day. DADvocate's main conclusion about his gay sister is that she's a thin-skinned liberal. He sees no need for any apologies. This is not really a "respectful manner" and it would be difficult not to communicate such contempt to children. It's just not the best way for children to think about their aunts and uncles.

7:23 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

I agree that TV is fine in moderation. One way to moderate the television, not necessarily the only way but certainly one way, is not to own one. It's not as if my children get no whiff of television. Their friends have television and their relatives have television. Their schools are full of talk about television. Somehow they know things about TV shows that they have never seen.

My children also see movies. They see movies at movie theaters, and at summer camp, and a friends' houses. And at our house: we have a widescreen TV display and a subscription to Netflix. The TV just doesn't have reception. We may miss a few things on TV that are decent enough, but I don't think that we miss anything essential.

7:31 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

Greg K -

I'm interested in how you children learn about news and current events without access to a TV at home. Obviously, your children's ages affect this topic quite a bit and I don't want you to post that information on the internet. But, in general terms, can you discuss this further?

I assume they learn about events from parents, school/teachers, and friends. Maybe radio and what they pick up in movies, magazines, etc. Do you find that they are more or less interested in and/or informed about politics than their peers?

7:40 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

DRJ: They can go to news web sites on the Internet any time that they want. Which is to say, almost never :-). But when they are older, they will know exactly how. They are clearly heading in that direction because of other currents of politics: literary fiction (which they consume in great quantities), their parents' interest, school homework, and school gossip between children.

I really enjoy explaining political context to my kids. I like to emphasize that they should know the facts and stay away from name-calling and wild distortions. They can be as partisan as they please, but only by sound reasoning. They should also know about big things that aren't explained in school in their grade, like the Cold War. I was particularly incensed when I read about a poll finding that only 1/7 of young American adults could identify Iraq on a world map on the eve of the invasion. I made sure that they knew that and a lot more.

8:00 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger dadvocate said...

I don't see this a "broadening the perspective of children." My children were asked, "What difference does it make who someone has sex with?" Seeing as they are 9 and 12 years old I don't think this was an appropriate topic at the time especially. Many people like to indroctinate (broaden the perspective of) children because they are easily influenced and also tend to be intimidated by adults.

I remember a civility and respect that people showed to others even those with whom they had strong disagreements. I have contempt for few, primarily for people like Greg who speak of what they know not.

I have and have had close friendships with gay people. Indeed I treasure these friendships as the friendships with male gays are not burdened with the "macho" posturing you sometimes get with straight men and the ones with lesbians are free from the usual male/female games.

My sister is a tenured professor at a southern university. As part if an assignment she had students go complete job applications. Two girls, one black and one white, went to a national fastfood franchise. The black girl went in first and was told they weren't taking applications. The white girl then went in and they gave her an application. When my sister was told of this she asked the black girl if she wanted to report this to the chains' headquarter or OEO. The girl said "No" and my sister let it drop. When my sister told me the story, I emailed the headquarter of the chain as this had impact on others beyond that one girl, alhtough not knowing the exact restaurant, I could only give the town which might have had 2 or 3 locations.

Did my sister have contempt? No. As I said earlier, I teach my kids to treat everyone equally and with respect. In reading through blogs, etc. I understand that many find that hard to do. Maybe so hard that they don't believe it can be done. But it's called diplomacy and civility.

When I visit my family, I carefully avoid politics and the sort. I know where they stand on virtually every issue. I would rather not be at a birthday party and have someone blurt out, "What are we going to do about Bush?" right in the middle of it. But it happens. I suppose it's Allicient's friend's fault that her mother is emotionally abusive, too.

I'm not a civil rights activist. I don't pretend to be perfect or to have precise mathematical logic but I do have frustrations and, at times, enjoy expressing them. And I also enjoy reading these comments as it does give me things to consider. Patrick Armstrong at Hurricane_Radio actuallly changed my mind on an issue once.

"There is no man so good, who, were he to submit all his thoughts and actions to the laws, would not deserve hanging 10 times in his life."
Michel de Montaigne

8:03 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

My point is more about harboring respect for relatives than showing it. Insincere etiquette may be a good idea for a job interview, but it just doesn't work well on Christmas day.

I understand that there are a lot of overbearing mothers in the world. My point in that thread is that "overbearing" is not the same as "misogynist". That's politicizing the personal.

8:22 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I will just quickly touch my other disagreement, Greg: there are other polls, and even in this poll there are results which would give a different impression. As to Condi, I think she has done exactly what you say she should in terms of independence. I don't get any doormat sense from her.

As to the original question, there is a piece that I haven't seen go by that I think important. There are several questions embedded here. Should someone else's children be corrected at all, in the presence of their parents? I would say yes, but seldom, as that is in itself a rudeness, and should only be done to prevent a greater infraction. I don't believe I have ever corrected a niece or nephew unless I was entrusted with their care, and I have been insulted when a relative corrected my children. I am also uncomfortable with the aunt zeroing in on the sexual aspect with latency-aged children. Better, perhaps, to have asked "Are you sure you know what that word means?" and make somewhat vague references to it being sexual when pressed. She may resent that the word has a different meaning to the next generation than it does to her, but it does, and she knows it. Language changes, especially high-impact words: they lose their power and become more generic. "Suck" is merely impolite and vernacular now. It used to be obscene. This is not a deterioration of current society, but what happens to language all the time.

All that said, the children should certainly be told by someone that the comment was hurtful and rude, and they are NOT to repeat the performance. Whew.

I think Greg is generally right about the TV. Yes, there are a few wonderful things there. Certainly, there are intelligent and wise children who grow up in families where the TV is on frequently. But we cannot do everything, and must make choices. A conscious choice to read-aloud is usually going to pay dividends.

I will warn you though, Greg, that life has its ironies. My second son, my most prolific reader, is graduating as a film studies major at Asbury this year. So all the TV energy went not only into books, but into drama and film as well.

9:10 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greg,

Misogyny can be on many levels. If a husband treated his wife in a way that led her to believe that her only value lay in her level of physical beauty, her status as "wife" and her baby making abilities, I would find that husband misogynistic. I don't thing "overbearing" would quite cut it for me as a description. However, society tends to go crazy when we attack the almight mother figure, who supposedly sacrifices and gives eternally through the act of child bearing. And a reality is, far too many mothers treat their girls as "meat" - objects to seduce men and produce children and worthless if the daughter does not have those qualities. Another friend of mine was told at the age of 8 by her mother that she was not sexy and if she didn't start acting sexy, she would never land a husband. When out, she would point out other 8 year old girls who did have "sex appeal" and told her to be more like them. I find this treatment of young girls to be a level of emotional abuse. Of course I don't think this is O.J. level misogyny or Taliban level misogyny, but I do think it is a more subtle form of misogyny.

Also, I don't understand your point on feminism for "one woman". I don't see the logic.

"Allicent"

9:34 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dadvocate,

I don't think you are anti-gay by any means. But I can see how your sister was offended. I agree with the many who understand that kids lack subtlety and that we can't overreact to what kids say. But our jobs as parents is to teach them subtlety, and to teach them when they may offend someone.

"Allicent"

9:38 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Allicent: Misogyny means hating women. I think that there must be very few women who hate women as a class. If they hate women, is it that they don't hate men? Or is it that they are misanthropes who hate everybody?

But I will grant you that there are women, including many insufferable mothers, who cater to old-fashioned sexism, even if it is not exactly misogyny. I agree that this is a pathetic and outmoded mindset in modern America, but I can still see where it came from.

Consider the moneyed world described in the tedious book, "The Millionaire Next Door". In this world there are millionaires and there are wives of millionaires. If you are a woman, it would be unusual for you to become a millionaire in this world; the more likely path would be to marry one. You can see the same difference between Condi Rice and Laura Bush. Condi Rice is a millionaire. Laura Bush is not a millionaire, only the wife of one.

So if a woman or her mother envisions that kind of life trajectory, it only stands to reason that she would learn to primp at an early age. The goal is to grow up to be the most attractive possible trophy wife of some millionaire.

But, "The Millionaire Next Door" reminds women, don't forget to clip coupons. You have to prove to your husband that you won't blow his wad. Actually the book is ridiculous and outmoded. (Just like primping-obsessed mothering is outmoded.) The authors have so much starch in their shirts that they are stiffer than raw spaghetti.

10:57 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

"Allicent: But our jobs as parents is to teach them subtlety, and to teach them when they may offend someone."

It's also to teach them to embrace values and stand up for those values in our everyday lives, even if someone else doesn't agree with those values. The problem comes when we go overboard with too much subtlety and/or values. I think we are all struggling to find that middle ground.

Greg K - Thanks for your response about how your children learn about current events. As a parent, I identify with your approach and it's given me common ground with you that I didn't realize existed.

10:58 PM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Gina said...

Helen , I agree with you 100 % , I also do love being with my family members around teh holidays particularly christmas , my brother is married to a jewish woman and they enjoy both holidays and visit with both sides of their families which is great , they havent let religion get in their way of enjoying their life . meanwhile our other favorite time of the year is also Easter , we all get together and wow are we a big Greek Family that enjoys cooking a full lamb on a spit sometimes 2 lambs , with more than 50 family members and not counting friends that drop by on that day , we look forward to all of us getting together , and sometimes we all do not have the same point of views but we still manage to have a great time ...

11:38 PM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Teresa said...

I'm not very happy to go family visiting at Christmas... for all the years the kids were young we spent Christmas with the grandparents - dashing back and forth between houses for a week (the families don't really care for each other - so we're the only intermediaries).

The things my kids learned...
- no matter how Grandma and Grandpa talk about other people (prejudice abounds) they are never to repeat that name calling at home
- even if Grandma gives them flannel pajamas every year for Christmas, they are to look delighted and thank her! They can take them home and put them in the Goodwill if they so wish.
- even if they are not excited by the food - that's what there is to eat... so eat it! No faces and I'll take them to McDonalds for a treat.

Little things in life that make things run smoother when dealing in later years with people you don't really care for. If you don't learn how to do it politely you will always have friction in your life!

Maybe they learned... maybe not - but most people seem to like them and find them polite.

12:22 AM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greg, I think if a woman believes the female gender to be in some profound way lesser than the male gender, than yes, I think they are misogynists and have some level of hatred towards women. Extreme fundamentalists of many religions believe men to be superior, and the women in these religions support this.

"Allicent"

12:55 AM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Kathy said...

Greg: They can go to news web sites on the Internet any time that they want. Which is to say, almost never :-). But when they are older, they will know exactly how.

I don't find TV to be a useful source of news for myself, so like Greg I don't expect my kids to either. There are news magazines for children that would be one option besides the internet.

We are blessed with family members who are easy to get along with. I'm sure we're at least as obnoxious as they are.

5:20 AM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger jw said...

I'm not at all sure about my own family. There are times, when I think back, that I wish I never gave up my job running a hunting & fishing lodge in the middle of nowhere. I was a lone father. My kids, at the lodge, did not have to put up with my family's contempt for men who dared to raise kids. My sons did not have to deal with contempt for boys. At the lodge, my boys were free and happy. Although I must admit my youngest (two when we left) was terrified of the outhouse.

My mother never forgave me for taking custody. She upped the anty in the 1980's when I spent three years doing fulltime advocacy for fathers with custody: THAT, that she truely hated. She has never forgiven me for my "crimes."

All these years later, her actions show in my now grown boys. They have nothing to do with her or my siblings who all share my mother's viewpoint. Neither of my boys went to my father's funeral as he refused to take any stand. My youngest, now a Mountie, burns unopened anything from my mother or his mother (that's a whole other story).

I go to Christmas with my family. There, I limit myself to genealogy. In genealogy I am relatively safe. Any other topic will almost without doubt bring up the sexism and contempt for any male which is still the heart and soul of my mother and siblings.

I like the idea Dr. Helen puts forth. I'm not at all sure about the reality.

5:32 AM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger ronin1516 said...

Quite the discussion, eh? Well, beingthat I am Indian by ethnicity, it adds another layer of complexity in how we kids were raised, as well as the fact that a lot of traditional Indian kid-raising methods would be considered physically or emotionally abusive by American standards.
In my case, my mom was really physically abusive - 2 skull fractures, were among the imjuries I suffered. The abuse stopped when I was 17, and I was strong enough, physically and psychologically, I was able to punch out my mom and knock her down, and wrestle down my dad and choke him!! It is then that I resolved to leave, and since I landed in the USA in the fall of 1990, I have never talked to or amde any kind of contact with them. Even when I was diagnosed with brain cancer, I never contacted them.

9:20 AM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Blythe Scherrer said...

Well said, except when your dad divorces your mother and remarries a family friend 6 days after the divorce is final. Then your mother starts suffering from delusions that grocery store stock boys are romantically pursuing her against the iron fist policies of the grocery store chain. Multiple grocery store chains. Meanwhile, your dad yanks your college funding so he can plunk down 50K on a country club membership. Then, when your loving father gives you a used computer to use for your college, but he of course forgets to erase all his porno cookies, adult friend finder account information and even electronic hotel receipts from all the dozens of times he had anonymous sex with various women. Counseling your new stepmother to go get tested for genital warts is something noone should have to do.

I have MY OWN family now. A great husband and two wonderful little boys. We spend Christmas merrily tucked into our tiny little house and I am finally free to focus on being a wife and mom.

Not the daughter of a narcissistic pervert and a delusional mother.

10:45 AM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The main problem in my extended family is that with divorces, remarriages, single cousins, friends going to school nearby, the question always devolves to who should be invited to Christmas. The tug of war is between those who want a purist direct-family-only gathering and the expansive ones who want a big, inclusive gathering. One side of the family is always snippy because they have temporarily lost the battle. This year, since I'm a single, I'm thinking of making a token appearance at one event out of three possible over Christmas and being "busy with other single friends" for the others. Am I chickening out--should I broach the subject with the game players--or doing the right thing? I hate being in the middle!

11:12 AM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Jeff said...

This is GREAT! I love this thread. . .

The whole etymological debate is wonderful. I find it fascinating how sometimes all of the happiness of a word can be sucked out of it as its use evolves – how gay is that?!

(A quick defense against the thinned skinned: I have gay friends who are welcome in my house any time).

Helen, the whole video-games-are-good thing seems like a post hoc argument. Is there any research to cite here for my edification?

About misogynistic women – who said hate is so rational that someone can’t hate their own gender?

Greg, I respect your opinions about the war and disagree so wholeheartedly. Iraq may have been less of threat than other nations, but during twelve years of embargo, Saddam was taking pot shots at our planes in the no-fly zone, which constituted a renewal of hostilities. Then he was stupid enough to smack down resolution 1441 and boot the inspectors when we needed to dispel the “paper-tiger” mythos after 9/11 – that’s brinkmanship gone badly. Twenty-three resolutions later the congress authorizes what force is necessary. I think Bush made the right decision and I think we’re safer for it, and as for the polls in Iraq – feh. Who’s doing the polling and what are their politics? Polls notwithstanding – opinions change – here we have the once disempowered Iraqi people voting and being polled! That’s the ticket!

About harboring respect, isn’t civility – to a certain extent – “insincere etiquette”? This leads me to my next point…

Greg – what up with the link to nothing in your name? As least toss us a bone if you’re going to tempt us into clicking. It’s just good netiquette – sincerely.

On to Christmas:

I cherish Christmas with my family: A day with the estrogen poisoned females of my clan; children yelling and grubbing for the bounty that comes with the crass commercialism of the holiday; the ever present fear that my brother, four Christmases banished from the family for alcohol related lunacy, will crash his drunken, six foot, four inch body through the front door and spray the room with lead. Ah, Christmas! I strap an Officer’s Compact Colt .45 into a pancake holster on my hip in case the door comes off its hinges at the party, pack up my hastily purchased gifts, and I wade into this thing called Christmas. Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go?

11:13 AM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Jeff,

Thanks for your comment--as far as video game research--if you get a chance take a look at Gerard Jones's book, "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-believe Violence" at Amazon. It explains the psychological underpinnings of how video games affect children.

11:31 AM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Gabriel said...

I just stay away from my family because they are all raving mad alcoholics and I myself try to stay away from alcohol.

11:59 AM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous HeatherB said...

I didn't need the Lortabs for the pain after gallbladder surgery, but I saved those precious tablets to make it through family gatherings.

Unfortunately, most of both of our families are Irrational, some clinically and some casually.

I suppose every family has different levels of crazy, and thus different thicknesses of skin are required. Getting through holidays with my husband's family is pretty easy - garden variety racists, atheists, foul language, and sexual references and R-rated movies on the TV. Not a big deal. Getting through my family's holiday gatherings is much trickier. Luckily we have all come to the same conclusion independently and have constructed simple work-related barriers that keep us from being together very often or very long without having to be rude about it.

It works.

12:20 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father died this past february. I was closer to my father than anyone else in my family. Which in retrospect probably wasn't very close at all given his penchant for verbal abuse. In the 10 months since his death I've come to realize that I very much regret not confronting him about that. If I had the chance to do it again I would certainly confront him about his abusive ways.

So my advice to others is that you should let your family members know what you're thinking. Though keep in mind that saying something just simply to be hurtful will not solve anything. Be calm, be rational, and be ready to make your case. Don't let anyone dismiss your feelings as frivolous.

12:26 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Helen
RE: Careful

"So maybe rather than becoming upset and boycotting family members, we can see them as a training tool for ourselves by learning about patience and for our children by teaching them the intricasies of human psychological functioning." -- Dr. Helen

Someone might accuse you of using Christian ethics, based on that comment.

Merry Christmas,

Chuck(le)

12:35 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger DRJ said...

I agree with previous commenters that this has been a fascinating post and comments. Nothing hits home as much as discussions about family. I agree with Dr. Helen that, whenever possible, it's best to maintain civil connections with our extended families. However, I am saddened by the comments that describe dangerous and seriously dysfunctional families, and I think we all agree that people should not jeopardize their own or their family's safety trying to recapture some idyllic notion of a family holiday. I wonder if people who are so cavalier about high divorce rates and fatherless families would change their minds if they read stories like this all day.

1:39 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Margaret said...

I'm seriously thinking of making the simple statement after Christmas dinner that I humbly apologize for my harshness and cruelties as a mother due to my own weaknesses, just plain selfishness and sometimes illness and exhaustion.

We used to have an only mildly dysfuntional family, but with the addition of in-laws, esp. one who has worked to alienate our son from us and his siblings, I now hate family gatherings when once they were pure joy.

2:03 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Jeff: All right, I added a link to my home page so that you don't have to Google me. If only you revealed as much about yourself!

Your summary of the problems that the United States faced in Iraq before the invasion very clearly shows how much worse we have it now in that country. It could be better for Iraqis (depending on what course it eventually takes), but it certainly isn't better for Americans.

My point about respect for relatives is that it accomplishes little to merely pretend that you like them. At best it's just damage control. Insincere etiquette has its place, but on Christmas Day it wears thin after an hour. The important thing is to find some basis of respect for your relatives. If they are your own flesh and blood, how likely is it that they are completely worthless? If you really can't get stand to visit them, then maybe you should do that less. It is better to truly respect relatives from a distance than to pretend to like them in person. There are still ways to communicate that respect. Even a positive e-mail message can do wonders, if you really mean it.

2:52 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel like such an anomaly and have for quite a few years now.

Reading some of these comments reminds me of a "Farside" panel (I believe) I saw a long time ago. It was a convention in an auditorium with a big banner reading, "Adult Children of Normal Parents"; there were 2 people.

My family is great. Sure, some members on all sides have some problems (self included), but there was/is no abuse--physical, emotional or verbal. Political discussions, yes, but no out-and-out fighting.

I grew up on a farm in the '60-70s. It was almost a "Leave it to...The Waltons" kind of existence. We have a big extended family and love getting together with everyone, although it was and is hard to do so with all of us spread out so far and wide. At one Thanksgiving, there were 5 generations at the table.

One thing I've noticed is the decreased use of the terms aunt and uncle, with the increased informal use of first names exclusively (even some in my own family). I was brought up to say "Aunt Pat" or "Uncle Wally," and I've raised my daughter the same. I still call them that. Unless there is too close of an age difference, then they should be used, as both a sign of endearment and respect. I think we're losing something important by disregarding them.

I may be naive, and I don't mean to sound crass as some of these posts break my heart, but these make me cherish my "Rockwell" moments even more.

3:36 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dad is as mean as a snake. All 8 of his kids bear the scars and deal with them in different ways. The last time I saw him was 5 years ago at the rehearsal dinner for my younger brother's wedding. He was picking on my niece, and she not being used to that treatment slapped him in the face. I told my Dad to knock it the f--k off. He took exception and we started a fistfight in the restaurant. My dad was so bent out of shape that somebody stood up to him that he didn't show up for the wedding, and I gladly stood in for him, next to my Mom, in all of the wedding pics. ;)

Pete.

5:18 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I actively sought a Norman Rockwell existence coming out of college, and we came close in many ways. Trying to accommodate difficult relatives was part of that.

Now I have two sons from Romania, victims of a level of abuse and deprivation seldom seen in America. When we go back to visit, watching their aunt trying to guilt them into visiting those who abused them was eye-opening for me. I found myself giving my sons the advice I should have taken myself years ago.

6:07 PM, December 18, 2005  
Anonymous Mark H. said...

Against all the troubles with which He freighted the world, the Lord provided only laughter.

This comes, btw, from someone who often wonders whether the Lord moved on to more interesting universes long ago...

Laughter is powerful juju indeed. Best of all, to use it well requires relaxing, the opposite of stressing. If you really do find you can't share a laugh with someone at the Christmas table, then at least have one privately by yourself on the way home as you consider the silliness of it all. Or if all else fails, you're permitted a small smile at the thought that, in an unexpected display of symmetry in justice, the cosmos repays those who cause others unnecessary misery by condemning them to have to be them for the rest of their lives.

Heh.

Speaking of laughter, especially the kind that cuts a little too close for comfort, pick up a DVD of the movie Pieces of April, which tells the story of a New York alterna-girl who has foolishly invited her family for Thanksgiving in her (not so choice) New York walk-up. After reading the posts on this thread, I'm sure many will find its humor centered on the bullseye.

Peace, luck, and laughter to you all.

12:41 AM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Pogo said...

Helen, great post ...again!

I had always enjoyed holidays, whether spent with my 12 sibs or my in-laws. Time, tragedies, and the demands of my own clan made such get-togethers harder over time. I suspect it wasn't much different from the life my parents experienced, but they rarely spoke ill of anyone, so one had to learn to read between the lines.

A few years a go, my daughter revealed that her cousin (her mother's sister's son) had sexually abused her numerous times. For several years, she simply could not attend family functions, and she was mad at us for not confronting the parents (or him). With time and therapy, she began to see our dilemma: we knew the parents would not believe her, and would blame her. Their darling son is the favorite of another aunt, who wouldn't believe it either. So her action would not result in the his humiliation or punishment, nor cause him to apologize. He'd pretty much win.

But she understands that I have a rage against this boy, and I simply will not speak to him. She knows I entirely support her. The panic she used to feel before the few gatherings he does attend have quelled, and she knows she can always say no. But in addition to realizing that her Dad would anything to protect her, I also want her to know how to be strong in the face of such adversity. I don't want her to have to fire the whole family just because of him.

Life can be pretty ugly, and the world may be very cold at times. Helen is right: the friction is inevitable, and withdrawal only teaches kids to learn one tool: avoidance. And while solitude has its perks, the parties are pretty dull.

8:31 AM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Pogo,

Sounds like you have some good parenting skills-the most important thing for your daughter is that she feels you are supportive and will protect her. In my experience, the kids who do the best after abuse seem to be the ones whose parents believed and stood up for them and they did not feel like a victim of the perp. Frankly, attending these functions may show the cousin that your daughter is not afraid and she may want to confront him (privately) at some point. But that is her choice.

8:54 AM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Pogo said...

My main mistake in this matter was assuming she already knew I supported her. Wrong. She didn't see how I could barely stand to be in the same room with the boy, and interpreted it as indifference.

She actually seemed surprised by how angry I was at him, or that I was very near a bear-protecting-cub kind of rage about it. After I told her that, and said that whatever method of engaement she chose I'd support, she seemed to get better.

Anyway, I agree that, except for extreme pathology, learning to deal with your families is a good thing, if a hard thing, as you can't fire everyone.

Not that I haven't considered it at times.

9:50 AM, December 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though much of the preceding is a bit of a depressing and shocking read, it's nice to know I'm not alone in my exile from family violence and dysfunction.

Like Jeff (11:13am), I've fretted for years the moment that either of my two (of six) crazed brothers will crack. One is a deeply depressed, self-loathing and self-pitying homosexual who can bench lift 500 lbs (yikes!). He's got a long history of pulling knives and throwing punches at different family members. The other is a raging pill- & alcohol-addicted certified asshole who never misses an opportunity to remind his family that he's a black belt (double yikes!) (I thought that black belt recipients had to pass some sort of character test?...)

The last time he reminded me of his black belt was when he goaded my pregnant wife into throwing him a karate kick or punch, so that he could demonstrate the proper response. Fortunately I wasn't in the room, nor even aware of his drunken recklessness toward my wife and unborn son (now 5 years old), or I might have ended up with broken bones or worse.

On the plus side, that incident convinced me that I had to make a choice, between honoring my parents (who will not deal with this vein of violence running through the family) and protecting my wife and children. The choice, while painful, was obvious.

Before I had children, I just put up with the constant undercurrent and threat of violence, like everyone else in my immediate family. I can take care of myself.

But I was more proactive than that.

Over the years, both to check my own sanity, and in a sincere effort to bring resolution to all the dysfunction, I have requested and suggested many times and even offered to arrange and pay for therapy for the family, or the key players.

I remember the first time I suggested family therapy. Way back when I was 10 or 12 years old, after watching my oldest brother, the black belt, late one night, repeatedly throwing my father up against a wall, slapping him and punching him, most of us leaning over and peeking through the 2nd floor balcony watching him humiliate my father in front of the whole family, me trying to intervene but being held back by my mother. After that incident I suggested that we seek counseling.

Most recently I've offered to fly out, pay for all charges, and let my mother choose the counselor of her choice, be it priest, mediator, lawyer, LSW, psychologist, psychiatrist, rabbi - whatever.

But she resolutely deflects the idea, always saying that "that's for crazy people".

I've taken this suggestion primarily to my mother because she is the center, the locus, of the family. Nothing significant happens without her blessing. Dad is a nice man, but too weak to ever have been a player.

For years I wondered, why so much turmoil and chaos in our family?

I think I finally figured out both why it exists, and why mom won't / can't deal with it.

To hear my mom tell it, her parents were not very happy. Her mother died in child birth when she was 11. Her father shipped both she and her younger brother off to a convent where they lived until adult hood. Her father visited occasionally.

Later, when my mother and father got married while pregnant with my oldest brother (the black belt), her father disowned her.

Consequently, we seven boys only met our grandfather two or three times before he passed when I was in my twenties.

Abandonment & Chaos.

Thrice Abandoned. First at 11 years old by her mother, who died in childbirth. Abandoned a second time when her father dumped her at a Catholic monastery / orphanage. (Imagine the chaos and daily fright of spending your teens in a remote orphanage, run by nuns, in the 1930s and 1940s.) And lastly, abandoned a third time when grandfather disowned her and her new husband and eventually her seven children.

These themes of abandonment and chaos run deeply through my mother's life, and, as sick as it sounds, I think that she has subconsciously, but willfully maintained these elements of chaos and abandonment in her own family.

Perhaps they offer her some comfort, or a thread back to those parts of her life that still need resolution.

It certainly explains why she refused to expel her barbaric, drug-addicted, criminal eldest son despite repeated eruptions of violence on other family members and throughout the community. It explains why she threatened divorce when my father showed a backbone and attempted to throw his eldest out among the barbarians where he belonged. And it explains why the process of appeasement and enabling was repeated with the 2nd to youngest son (the repressed gay 500lb power lifter) when he began his devolution in to family violence.

My mother always had reasons and excuses, though, for not dealing with any of this. Her best and most defensible reason for never expelling any of her children was always her promise that she would never abandon any of us.

But then she abandoned me and my wife and my three children.

Last summer we were not invited to my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. And we've had no contact with any but one of my brothers (probably the strongest, most balanced, and realistic of my six brothers) in the last two or three years. We wont' be attending Christmas with them this year nor have we for the last three years.

For my decision to stand up to protect my truly innocent children and wife, and insist upon some sort of resolution (either expulsion of the violent player, or therapy), my reward has been expulsion from the family.

So I guess my mother's refusal all these years to resolve these issues has not been due to her iron-clad resolve to never abandon her own children.

In fact her relationship with my children is exactly the same as was her father's to me and my brothers.

My youngest son (now almost two) has never met my mother or father. And my two older children have met them but a few times.

It’s all very painful and very sad and so unnecessary.

But it’s reassuring to see that I’m not alone in the drama of family dysfunction.

Thank you Dr. Helen / Mrs. Instapundit for hosting this community kvetching.

2:33 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymous 2:33,

Thanks for sharing your family history--it is quite sad and upsetting--I think you are right regarding your mom. What I find interesting in many dysfunctional family dynamics is that the violent or negative members of the family seem to be rewarded or appeased for their behavior and the "normal" or more level-headed ostracized.

I think it has to do with it being easier to strike out or ostracize the more normal as 1) more was expected of them to begin with, and when they disappoint, it is a bigger deal--the violent etc. are not thought to be able to control their behavior so it goes unnoticed or excused and 2) your mom is used to such dynamics and it feels comfortable to her to keep the status quo going--you have pointed out that changes need to be made and she does not want to do that as it would be moving out of her psychological comfort zone. By not dealing with you or your family--she does not have to be willing to change in any way. I hope that she will reach out to you one day. But I understand that your family comes first.

2:57 PM, December 19, 2005  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Chaos and abandonment -- themes of my own mom's life as well. She grew up as the oldest of three -- the middle child was severely handicapped and her mother was a second-generation (that we know of) alcoholic. She alternated between being given too much responsibility (when her mom was "sick") and being shipped off to relatives (when her mom was "well"). Yet she has made a beautiful and happy family for us. She has always been there when needed, especially when I became the fourth-generation alcoholic. I'm sober now and my loving and supportive family has a lot to do with that. I feel lucky that my mom overcame so much.

4:09 PM, December 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Helen: Thanks for the affirmation and insight. I promise I won't ask for any more free therapy, at least until the new year! ;¬)
- Anonymous 2:23

4:35 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

anonymous 2:23,

I chalk that up more to general advice than therapy--good luck.

5:23 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger PatCA said...

Re siding with the "bad" ones...recent studies have also shown that kids in school will side with a bully rather than the target in schoolyard cliques and disputes. This happens in my family as well. They want to be in the group that appears to be the winner, I think.

And people take the safe way out, hoping that the "good" person will solve the problem.

10:27 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Helen said...

patca,

Good point-I have seen those school yard bully studies. Siding with the bully seems to happen in politics too, not just in the families--it is easier to blame the person who will try to make things better than the violent or destructive ones hell bent on hurting others.

10:40 PM, December 20, 2005  
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