Monday, March 25, 2013

What’s A Woman to Do?

I’m interested in all the press surrounding the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In.  She’s a high profile woman and that makes her voice important. 

I certainly agree with her concern about not having enough women in leadership roles.   It’s true that the number of top women leaders in many fields remains low.  I, too, wish that there were more women in important positions and that the impact of more women could lead to a change in the power structure of the world.    

I also support her idea of reviving consciousness groups.  She calls them” Lean In” circles and I’m for anything that encourages women to speak out and build their confidence.   I’ve had the privilege of being in a women’s group for over 15 years.   It’s been an enormously important part of my life.   It’s been a place of safety and support, and has helped me examine myself and notice places where I hold back and don’t assert myself.   So I agree that it’s important for women to examine whatever internal stops get in the way of their advancement.  Maureen Corrigan, in a review article of Sandberg’s book says, "Lean In is worth reading because, even though many of its observations about internalized sexism may be old hat to us older feminists, they're, sadly, still true. Women do denigrate themselves to be liked; they phrase assertions like questions and politely raise their hands while men grab the floor. I see it all the time in my classrooms; I still see that behavior in myself.”

So yes, women can make changes by looking inward.   But I feel that looking outward is just as important.   Society creates images of women that are either tender loving saints or aggressive controlling bitches.   Realist images of women with dimensionality are not so common.   Aninteresting article by Heather Havrilesky examined female characters on popular TV dramas.  She found that being portrayed as smart and competent carried a price.  Exceptionalism for women cames with the disqualifying characteristic of being crazy.  Here’s what she said: “Many smart and confident female characters have paraded onto the small screen over the past few years. But I’m bothered by one persistent caveat: that the more astute and capable many of  these women are, the more likely it is that they’re also completely nuts.  I don’t mean complicated, difficult, thorny or complex. I mean that these women are portrayed as volcanoes that could blow at any minute. Worse, the very abilities and skills that make them singular and interesting come coupled with some hideous psychic deficiency."

So, plain old being smart and competent doesn’t seem to be an acceptable way to portray women.  I suspect it’s too challenging to the dominate male hierarchy.  Perhaps, as Sandberg hopes, having more women in leadership positions would begin to change negative stereotypes and allow us to accept women’s competence without demeaning characteristics.   I applaud her commitment and energy towards this happening.
I think though, that the greatest impediment to women’s achievement is the lack of infrastructure that could support this.  While it’s lovely to think of sharing responsibilities with a spouse, most jobs simply don’t allow adequate family leave, flex hours or decent benefits and wages to make this a practical option for many couples.

After my first child was born, my husband and I were committed to sharing childcare and work.   Unfortunately, when he wanted to cut back his hours to do his share, he encountered resistance and was questioned about his commitment to his career.  Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient family friendly practices in the business realm, nor do we truly value caregivers.   Little seems to have changed since we tried it many years ago.  That’s sad because good childcare is so important.  We know that helping children feel securely attached, which requires attention and presence, predicts to well being and success in the future.   Children’s need for this connection is paramount.  Allowing parents the social supports to provide this attention would allow us all to make a positive social commitment to the emotional health of the next generation.  It would also allow both parents to continue in their careers and move towards leadership positions if they chose.  

Friday, March 15, 2013

Encouraging Empathy in Children

While the capacity to be empathetic is hard-wired into our nervous system, it is also dependent on learning and reinforcement.  We can have a big impact on whether it’s strengthened or weakened.    Empathy is not a simple trait, but a complex phenomenon that involves three components:  

1.     It requires being able to be self reflective and distinguish one’s own feelings from those of others. 
2.     It requires the ability to feel another’s feelings, or see the situation from his or her perspective.
3.     It requires being able to manage and modulate one’s own emotional response.

As you might guess, empathy takes a while to develop and needs coaching and support from adults. In fact, young children, without help, are not developmentally mature enough to reliably exhibit empathy.   Over time and with practice, as children grow, they can consolidate these skills and become thoughtful and caring adults. 

I've outlined some suggestions on how to strengthen the development of empathy, and their importance. 

Help children cope with negative emotions

When adults can calmly hear the negative emotions of children, without shaming them, children can feel understood and will not have to hide their anger or misdeeds. Treating negative emotions with respect teaches children that all their emotions are important and valued. When negative emotions are treated without judgment, children will be comfortable with their own negative feelings as well as the negative feelings of others.

Help children see another’s point of view

When a child acts unkind, part of your discipline can be to ask them to see how their behavior affected the other child. Saying something like,  "I know you were angry, but hitting hurts. How do you think Billy felt when you hit him?" When we ask kids to think about another’s experience, we help them hold a larger understanding of events and the perspective of others.

Reinforce acts of empathy

When you see a child do something helpful, be sure to comment on it.  “Wow, you were really helpful to your little brother when he couldn’t reach his blocks. You just walked over and got them for him.   That was really nice of you.” Knowing that we approve of thoughtful acts will encourage more of them.

Comment on other people’s kindness

When someone’s been helpful, take time to comment on it. "Remember  when that lady at the store was so nice to you? She saw you fall and helped you get up before I was able to get to you. I really liked that someone was taking such good care of you." Hearing your appreciation helps children know what things you value.

Model caring behaviors

When a neighbor does a special favor for you, talk about it with your child. "When Jim trimmed his bushes the other day, he trimmed ours as well. That was so unexpected and thoughtful. I want to do something for him in return. " Talking about how to reciprocate and asking for suggestions will send a message about the importance of cooperation.

There are many empathy articles and suggestions. I've listed some of my favorite site that teach about empathy below. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hushpuppy: Can She Really Stop the Beasts of the Southern Wild?

After watching the Oscars, I was reminded of my reaction to Beasts of the Southern  Wild. It was a movie that disturbed me. I enjoyed the artistry and rich atmospheric quality that created a dreamlike blurring of reality and fantasy. I liked how it mirrored the young girl, Hushpuppy's, developmental age. It’s an age where there are still fuzzy boundaries between reality and fantasy which allow children to still believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. It’s also a time when children are fascinated by their surroundings: we see Hushpuppy with the creatures she cares for and being absorbed in this spit of land surrounded by water and sky. “Up in the dry world, they got none of what we got, “she says.  We see her sense of wonder and her awareness of being connected to all things. Yet we also hear her worries and uncertainties. While I appreciate her childlike wonder, I worried about the things that scared her and the lack of caring adults who could help her find answers and offer reassurance. 

Hushpuppy has already been abandoned by her mother and has a volatile relationship with her father, Wink.  We don’t know why but he leaves her to live alone while he lives somewhere else.  He drinks and is unreliable.  For days at a time she is left alone without food or the substitute care of another adult. He has a medical condition which he refused to tell her about and pushes her away when she asks.    Children in the best of circumstances have fears of abandonment. She is already a quasi orphan and is now being asked to manage losing her remaining parent. Yet, he is all she has, so Hushpuppy remains loyal to him.Having worked in foster care, I have seen children treated very harshly by biological parents, yet stay loyal even when they have been abused. Belonging and being attached is a biological imperative. Children need adults to care for them.   Hushpuppy is no exception. While her father attempts to teach her some survival skill or tell her she’s “the Boss,” he doesn’t give her what she most needs-- his attention and consistent care.   

He, in fact, again puts her in danger by ignoring an evacuation order and leaves her to ride out a hurricane alone. Hurricanes are frightening events and do real- not imagined- damage. Why didn’t Wink make his child’s safety a priority?  Riding out a hurricane alone is a daunting and frightening task. Although the movie portrays this as her facing down the boar- like beasts, I really wonder if a child this young can possibly feel empowered in such a situation. I would think instead they’d feel traumatized.

Perhaps children in difficult situations sometimes can manage, yet not likely without scars. We give our children small tasks of mastery, not overwhelming ones, to develop resilience and strength.  Another factor that builds resilience in children is having a reliable adult who can mentor and protect them. For some of the children I’ve seen in foster care it is often a grandmother or even an older sibling who provides a tangible experience of connection and love. I don’t think this existed for Hushpuppy.  

While the Bathtub is a tight knit community, it did not on any consistent basis seem to watch over her. One scene shows the school teacher noticing that Hushpuppy is alone after school. She asks Hushpuppy whether she’d like to come have a meal with her, but Hushpuppy declines. Certainly the teacher knows Hushpuppy’s plight.    Why wasn’t it clear that more active involvement and caretaking were needed? It does not seem that this community provided the kind of encircling support that could have acted to counter-balance to her father’s neglect or build the strength needed to fend off the beasts. I suspect she felt relief and gratitude for having survived, but I doubt that she built strength. More likely nightmares.       

One of the more heart breaking scenes for me is when Hushpuppy searches for her mother. We see the need and longing that pulls her out to the water where she says her mother swam away. The fantasy scene in the watery brothel has her dancing with someone we take to be her mother, when she says, “This is my favorite thing: being lifted.” So we are reminded of how little loving touch she has received and how much she is in need of it. Children need loving touch and tactile reassurance.   Hushpuppy has none of this.  Secure attachment is what makes children feel important and secure. It ‘s what makes the world safe and  predictable for them.  

Perhaps my reaction to his movie is so strong because I’ve seen too many adults who grew up with insecure attachment and trauma. I feel that portraying this child as resilient and able to manage against terrible odds is something of a fable.  It’s a highly unlikely scenario that too easily glosses over the real trauma Hushpuppy is forced to endure.  

I suspect I’ll see Hushpuppy in therapy in a few years. She’ll be struggling with low self esteem, symptoms of PTSD, anxiety or depression, and difficulties with relationships.