Over the many years I’ve worked with children and teenagers who have serious behavior issues, I’ve found one common denominator among most of them: a lack of good parenting. Often, there was no father or father figure in the picture, but if there was, he was either weak and ineffectual or emotionally and/or physically abusive.
But, abandonment by their mothers, the ultimate rejection, seemed to cause the most serious issues – issues that would take years of therapy and/or medications if they were to be overcome. The young people I worked with whose mothers had abandoned them were extremely angry and didn’t know why. So, they lashed out randomly, with little provocation and often ended up in trouble.
The first place I encountered these situations was in the girls’ unit at a juvenile detention facility in Akron, Ohio. There, I saw the results of no fathers and/or mothers who didn’t care enough to know where their children were, what time they came home, or what they were doing out on the streets. Even if there was no abuse, that neglect left them without loving guidance.
Most of the time, the kids had no idea why they acted the way they did. The only time I heard a child specify why she was always in trouble was when I sat down with a girl who’d been placed in solitary confinement for fighting with other girls. I heard her crying, so I knocked on the cell door and I asked her if she wanted to talk. She said “Yes,” so I went in and listened.
“If my mom cared where I went and what time I got home, I’d never be here,” she said. Then she told me that her mother always had men at the house at night, and the only place she had to go was on the streets where she got into fights. I can’t remember what else she talked about, but she seemed relieved to have someone who listened.
After we spent years on our farms in Minnesota, we moved to Wisconsin where my first job was working with middle school students who had serous behavior issues. Most of them were boys, again with no meaningful father figures, who were often living with grandmothers or mothers who worked two or more jobs and weren’t home most of the time. They were too out of control to be in the school full-time, so they were placed off-campus. Some of them could attend some classes, where we’d accompany them, then return them to the special education facility for the rest of the day.
They responded to discipline after they learned we were there to help them succeed and stay out of trouble. To my knowledge, only one of them, whose mother had abandoned him, went on to commit a serious crime. He’s now serving a life-sentence for murder. The strange part is that he was never aggressive during his time with us. He was whiny and lazy, but he was also afraid of the bigger and more aggressive students, so didn’t act out.
In the years I worked there, and in more recent years when I worked in the schools with children who have special needs, I’ve seen many who were angry because they didn’t have parents who cared enough to discipline them or care about what they did. Either that, or their parent or parents were addicted to alcohol or drugs and unable to care for themselves, let alone their children. Therefore, the kids got attention the only way they knew – by raising a ruckus. To them, any attention was preferable to none.
Nobody ever said effective parenting is easy. All parents make some mistakes because we’re never taught how to do it. All we have to go on is how we were parented. If we were lucky, as I was, we were raised by two, loving and caring people who, although not perfect, let us know we were loved enough to be disciplined along with giving us the feeling we were cherished, supported and respected as individuals.
The results of good and bad parenting are easily observed. People who were loved and valued grow up to contribute positively to their own families, communities and the country. People who were not loved or were abandoned as children carry that lack and anger into adulthood and often end up in destructive or abusive relationships and/or in mental health facilities or prison.
That’s why I respect Planned Parenthood where people who can’t afford good medical care learn the importance of effective parenting, or how to prevent pregnancies if they’re not ready or willing to provide it. Closing places like that doesn’t benefit society.
Pat Nash has lived in the Baraboo area, off and on, for more than 35 years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.