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America's Children
a sermon by
Jennifer Brooks

River Road Unitarian Church
July 2, 2000

 

 

Nightwaking

by Kimberley Patton

I.

In darkness you awake—again,
Again, again: I wonder, as I wade
Through night's surf, wonder,
Clinging toes to ancient boards
That pitch like ship's decks, wonder how,
How you must construe this world—so rude,
So blaringly insistent
That you should hear,
And see, respond, reintegrate—
How you must yearn, at times,
Somehow to refold instead
Like sequined fan, anemone—
Fragile neon tidal creature,
Tentacles like tiny wires
Sweeping—searching—sifting—
Ready, ever, instantly,
Tight, tighter, to withdraw:
How you must yearn to block it out,
Return to me, your salty home,
In the place I kept you close,
Where we were two-in-one,
Ebbing, flowing, folded in,
No darkening distance to traverse,
No sob required to summon help;
When I was you and you were me.

II

In darkness I advance.
I grope to where you make
Your separate little voyage, pilgrim
On ocean breast, and founder now,
Lost, alone, bewildered: I lift you high
And pull you close
As close as I can pull you, closer;
I give my waning warmth to you
I sing you all the songs I know,
Pure paradigm am I
Of wild exhaustion: still
We rock, we rock, we rock,
We rock, lamps swinging, through the brine:
Make way, make way towards three o'clock
The midway islands of the night,
Raspberried islands of the sea.

III

The watch is over, you at rest
At last, at last:
And good thing, too, my dolphin calf,
For I have no more songs
And I have no more thoughts—
All memory a shattered lens
And I am drained of milk, of blood:
Eyeing the wasted moon,
I crawl back to my berth
Each limb quite severed from its trunk,
Regeneration hopeless—
Trapped till dawn in this, my dear,
The body of a mother
Too large for cradling, ever,
My every cell now wailing—
Unearthly yearning, back through years
For arms, for songs, for rocking,
For whispered reassurance:
For her,
For her,
For her.

Copyright Kimberley C. Patton, 1995

 

Sermon

When Scott Alexander asked me to preach this summer, he suggested that I plan sermons around a theme of my choice. For some time now, I've been thinking about the burdens that today's social life imposes on relationships, so I happily agreed to prepare two sermons on relationships. Today, in this fourth-of-July-weekend service, my topic is our relationships with children. On July 30, I'll be speaking about our relationships with adults (in a sermon entitled "Lovers and Other Strangers").

I decided to begin at the beginning, not just with childhood but with birth. Kimberley Patton's poem Nightwaking calls our attention to the shock, isolation, and fear that the newborn infant must fear on its emergence into a world of air, light, loud and startling sounds, and separation from existence in the warm, safe womb. She relates the mother's effort to calm the waking child and the exhaustion that effort provokes. In the poem's poignant conclusion, she expresses the longing that, at some level, all of us feel in the core of our beings: a longing to be held, to be rocked, to be bonded and close within the loving arms of a parent.

Patton suggests that we never lose that longing. I think she's right. I also think that the child's need for closeness with a loving adult-for the protection and "safe harbor" of adult arms and adult presence-is a basic human need that may be dangerously unfulfilled in America today.

I'd like to lay before you what I see as the sources of the problem. I'd like to consider with you the response that we, as thinking, caring adults-as Unitarian Universalists-ought to make if we agree about the neediness and isolation that grip America's children.

My concentrated thinking about the lives of children in America probably began with the shootings at Columbine High School a little over two years ago. The rash of school violence-including the more recent incidents of a six-year-old child shot and killed by a classmate and a teacher shot and killed by a seventh-grade student-has given us all cause for concern. The obvious and simple answer, that guns are far too readily available, is (it seems to me) true but not sufficient. Guns do kill people-but why?

Why are children taking guns to school and shooting teachers and classmates? The simple availability of guns is part of the problem, but it can't be the whole story. Shooting to kill is an expression of something deep in the soul-or of something lacking. The case of the 6-year-old may be explained by sheer incomprehension of the meaning of death, but certainly with the older kids there is more going on. Shooting another human being suggests not just anger but rage-rage and the unwillingness or inability to control that rage. Why would young people feel uncontrollable rage? What is happening to our children?

Violence in video games is often pointed to as a culprit. A discussion of pop culture, the media, and violence was featured in the July 1999 issue of Harper's magazine. In an article called "The Gunfire Dialogues," Thomas de Zengotita says that the point we have to grasp is that virtual reality is real. Asking the question, "Is the influence of today's media qualitatively different from yesterday's," he answers, "Obviously, yes." And yet he compares what's going on in our media culture with the influence of oral storytelling in ancient Greece. He says that the Homeric narrative-yes, those classic works "The Illiad" and the "Oddessy," had a frightening power that Plato attacked in "The Republic." The stories that made up Plato's popular culture "provided paradigms of behavior and evaluation in an essentially tribal society."

The difference between now and then, de Zengotita suggests, is not the tribalism of society (society is still tribal) but the "fusion of fact and fiction in multimedia narratives of our day." The two Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebel, made a video of the event that they would later "Enact? Perform?" De Zengotita says that a new word is needed, because the model of plan followed by action "belongs to an age when events in the real world and accounts of those events in the media were essentially separate." He suggests that inclinations and thresholds are built into human biochemistry, but external society sets the standards for behavior. The more "enveloping and penetrating" those external standards, the more powerful they are. When reality meets virtual reality, some people are not able to perceive a difference. And some people are psychotic.

This is a grim picture. Yet it does seem as if our increasingly interactive and enveloping media culture has come a long way since those images of "Jason and the Argonauts" that Plato decried. Today kids don't have to run away from home and go on an oddessy to be action heroes. It may be that human storytelling has always embraced violence; but what happens if people can't separate the stories from the tellers, can't stand outside the tale and debate the conduct of the characters, their moral values, their choices? Is this what happened to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebel?

In the same issue of Harper's, MIT professor Henry Jenkins comes at the problem from a different angle. He says that the question isn't what our children are doing with the media but rather what our children are doing with the media. Jenkins argues that all of us, children and adults, cobble together a "personal mythology of symbols and stories, and investing those appropriated materials" with meaning. He reports:

  • Shortly after I learned about the shootings, I received an e-mail from a sixteen-year-old girl who wanted to share her Web site with me. She had gotten kids nationwide to contribute an enormous array of poems and short stories drawing on characters from popular culture. Although these stories weren't written for class, they would have brightened the spirit of writing teachers. She had reached into contemporary youth culture, including many of the same media products that have been cited in the Littleton case, and found images that emphasized the power of friendship, the importance of community, the wonder of first romance.
  • While agreeing that we should be concerned about the content of pop culture, Jenkins argues that "real life trumps media images every time." He points out the impact of experience: "Many teens return day after day to schools where they are ridiculed and taunted and sometimes physically abused by classmates," and school administrators may be slow to respond or unsure of how to respond. On the other hand, schools that emphasize the importance of treating others with dignity, schools that strive to create a caring community, schools where teachers and administrators live out the values of compassion and love, give kids a very different experience.

    In the wake of the Columbine shooting, our own community of Bethesda, Maryland, held a forum on school violence, sponsored by the Montgomery County Board of Education. Experts on teen violence uniformly stressed the importance of relationships with caring adults, both teachers and parents. The kid who is most at-risk doesn't have the kind of relationship with an adult that allows the child learn indirectly from the adult's values and behavior, and directly through conversation and exploration of the alternative value-systems on display in the media. It's not just the stories we absorb but the relationships we have, and the quality of those relationships.

    If Kimberley Patton is right, and birth itself is a painful separation from the safety and closeness of the womb, just imagine how important it is that all babies be held and rocked and sung to. I've never given birth-both my kids are adopted-but I (like many fathers) had the privilege of being in the room when my son was born. I remember thinking at the time what a shock it must have been for him to emerge into the bright lights and cool air of the hospital. And then the doctor gave the poor little guy a shot, a needleful of vitamin K. He'd looked distressed and confused in the first moments, but the shot made him cry. As the doctor and nurse continued with their weighing and measuring, I reached over and placed my finger in his tiny hand. He gripped my hand fiercely-human contact. He stopped crying.

    We all have the experience of birth. Every infant needs comfort, holding, reassurance. And-as the experts on school violence tell us-the child's need for the presence of a caring adult, one who is willing to be in relationship, is very powerful. It is the presence or absence of that relationship that makes the difference for children. This relationship helps in two ways. First, the adult can help the child figure out what's real and what's not-real reality rather than virtual reality. Second, the adult's presence, the adult's attention fills the void of isolation and separation that perhaps is with us all from birth. It may be that the deep anger, the rage, that fueled the Columbine shootings arises from the absence of comforting-an absence that creates a tremendous and unfulfilled need for the protection, attention, and concern of a loving adult.

    So think about the lives of children today. I can't help comparing my own childhood with the childhood available to my children. When I came home from school, Mom was there with a snack and a smile and a listening ear. When I had "de-briefed" from the school day, I ran outside to a safe neighborhood filled with other children who were also just home from school. We found each other, we played. Often we played pick-up games of baseball or football, adjusting the rules as necessary to suit the number and personalities of the players ("the little kids don't strike out and you have to pitch so they can hit it"). Often we made up our own games-usually adventures that involved racing through the woods and imagining earth under attack from weird and dangerous aliens, who were defeated by the power of our creativity and the deadly rubber bands shot from the weapons we made ourselves. There was violence in our imaginary play, but we knew the difference. And when those voices called us in for supper at five or six o'clock, we all went racing in to wash our hands and set the table and answer questions about how much homework we had.

    Today in America, most children live in homes of parents who are in the workforce. Since 1948, when only 30 percent of women worked, to 1995, the percentage of working women has risen to 60 percent. If the phenomenon of working parents was once limited to lower-income families, it is no longer: the most recent increases in women in the workforce are greatest among middle-income families. Despite the entry of women into the workforce, family income, in real terms, has declined for families in the lowest 40 percent of households, and barely increased for families in the next 40 percent. These figures, which come from the Economic Policy Institute's "chartbook" The Prosperity Gap, suggest that most working parents are working because they have to work-and many are still losing ground.

    What happens to children when parents work? Childcare for young children ranges from arrangements with neighbors to formal settings that cost between $400 and $800 per month. After-school activities typically require the payment of a fee and private transportation arrangements; in elementary school, there is no "late bus" and the school- or PTA-sponsored after-school activities may only cover an extra hour, leaving two or three hours before a parent returns home from work. Formal after-school child care costs from $200-$400 per month and is not even available in our middle schools. Not every family, even in families with two working adults, can afford these fees. One consequence is latchkey children, kids who walk or ride the bus home and use their own key to open the door to a home where nobody waits for them. According to the Economic Policy Institute, one-quarter of America's very young children, and 20 percent of children from the ages of 6-17, live in poverty. A parent's minimum-wage or low-wage job just doesn't bring in enough to pay for quality child care.

    Among the more privileged families, the phenomenon of working parents means that school-age children typically are in pre-school and after-school care. Montgomery County school-based child care begins at 7:30 am and ends at 6:00 pm. That's a long day even for a grown-up; it's a long day without parents or grandparents or other adults for whom the child is "special," the center of adult attention. Paid caregivers in a formal setting are responsible for the physical, social, and emotional needs of many children. Although these relationships can be good, important, and even salvific, they are not the same as attention from the key adults in a child's life. For children who do come home after school, there just aren't other children to play with. Television, video games, and isolation may be the norm even for kids who have a parent at home. Informal play, the social crucible of my childhood, is replaced by organized sports. Kids don't make the rules up to suit the players-grown-ups decide that in first-grade soccer there will be four players at a time from each team, that there will be no goalies, that the goals will be six feet wide, that no one will keep score. Of course, the kids always know whether they won or lost, and they always know how many goals they scored and how many were scored against them.

    How are children to learn to negotiate their own social arrangements when adults set all the rules? Piaget's observations of young children at play led him to conclude that the process of creating and changing the rules of the game is the process most crucial to the development of social skills. They learn to adjust, compromise, talk things out, be flexible, be inclusive. Sure, there are plenty of hurt feelings when kids are left out of a game by their peers; but what about the kids who are systematically excluded from play by the structured array of adult-organized sports teams? The two Columbine shooters were "picked on" by student athletes, and it was the athletes they particularly targeted. If home circumstances, a child's own preferences, and the increasingly selective nature of organized sports causes children to be excluded without much regard to their personalities or behavior, what message do they receive? Have we, as a society, reinforced the natural human feelings of isolation? For children who don't play team sports, have we eliminated (in one fell swoop) both social interaction with other children and the attention of caring adults?

    Now, I do not mean to suggest that we return somehow to the idyllic middle-class 1950s of my childhood. Don't get me wrong-in many ways it was great, and it was especially great in the area of relationships with attentive, caring adults. Not everybody in the '50s had this quality of attention, that's for certain. But the problem I see is that so few children today have the attention and involvement of caring adults; and our attempts to provide adult-supervised play experiences for children may be contributing to the further alienation and isolation of the children who are not in a position to benefit from organized play arrangements. We can't "go back" to the social situation of fifty years ago. But what are we to do about the problems our children face today?

    My concerns around this issue led me to a book by Dr. Peter Breggin, a Bethesda psychiatrist who specializes in the care of children. His most recent book, Reclaiming Our Children, Dr. Breggin sums up the situation this way:

  • "Our basic social fabric in regard to children is coming apart. We suffer from high rates of child abuse, as well as domestic violence that also impacts on children. Our children often grow up amid pedism, poverty, racism, and sexism.

    Even among the most affluent, many grow up as latchkey kids mostly raised by themselves or by hired help. We feel so pressed by our jobs, professions, businesses, and other obligations that we have too little time and energy left for our children. Too often, our children get the remainders-our leftover time and energy-after we've taken care of everything else....My psychiatric practice has increasingly confirmed for me how starved our nation's children are for significant adult relationships in their lives." (pp. 67-68)

  • It seems as if the message here is fairly clear. The experts on school violence say that children need more and more significant relationships with adults. A psychiatrist with long experience treating children sounds the same warning. So what do we do? What do we, as concerned Unitarian Universalist adults, do about this problem? I think there is a solution, but it isn't easy.

    The first place to start, it seems to me, is in our own homes. Those of us who are parents, or who are otherwise have primary child-rearing responsibility for their grandchildren, need to pay attention. We need to reconsider and if possible re-structure our social lives so that we can give our kids more attention, more of our presence. We need to think about how to give kids a chance to play informally with other kids; we need to think about replacing organized play with family outings and informal playtime. One family I know, whose son worked for years to reach the heights of soccer-team play-the traveling exhibition team-was stunned and sad when after a summer of practice the coach announced that the boy just wasn't "good enough" for the team. Despite the emotional blow, the child has more than recovered. "We have our lives back," the boy's mother told me. "We do things together as a family. We don't arrange our schedules around soccer practices anymore, and we've started to find our own rhythms." And, clearly, that's what all of us who are parents need to do-find our own family rhythms, make time for our kids in ways that serve their need to be with us and to be in relationship with us.

    The next step is for those who aren't parents now. Perhaps your children are grown. Perhaps you've never been a parent, or aren't yet ready to be one. What can you do about this problem that affects all of us? First, look around. There may be children in your lives-nieces and nephews, grandchildren, the children of friends, neighborhood children, children at the local school. What can you give to these children? Don't think it's necessary to be able to coach soccer or teach art. Our children don't so much need to have skills transmitted as they need to have love transmitted-they need to be in relationship with caring adults. So an adult who cares and is willing to pay attention to a child who is in proximity has only to find a channel for that caring and that willingness. Of course, you can't just start handing candy out on street corners. What can you do? I think the solutions are individual and vary depending on the circumstances of each child and neighborhood and interested adult. The responsibility is to start looking for ways to be in relationship.

    Finally, we as a community of UUs need to assert ourselves in political action. Where do we start? Obviously the problems of poverty and child abuse need to be addressed. But these are big-picture problems, not "action items." Our committees and task forces are already at work addressing the economic issues that underlie difficult and abusive situations. But perhaps we need to change our focus slightly, or perhaps add a new focus: that of the child's need for relationships with caring adults. Peter Breggin calls for a "cultural paradigm shift" that will make "every legislature and government agency, every school, church, and family give first consideration to the needs of children for positive relationships with adults." (p. 282)

    In a "rough cut" at how to go about creating a cultural paradigm shift on behalf of our children, I have thought about school buildings. Schools are in use from about 7 am to about 3 pm, and after that only partially and almost haphazardly. What if the end of the school day were to signal the start of another kind of day in the lives of our children? What if the buildings were open, and adults were available, for informal, but supervised, play? If there were enough adults not engaged in coaching or teaching or tutoring that any child who needs a listener can find an adult who has the time to listen? What if our schools and Board of Education and state legislatures supported this "relational" approach to after-school use, by recruiting both paid and unpaid adults willing to interact with children in a less-structured setting? What if this sort of program existed at our elementary schools, at our middle schools, at our high schools? Would it make a difference? It would have to. Can it be done?

    Well, that's up to us, isn't it? We, ultimately, are the only authors of a paradigm shift in the way we relate to America's children.

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