Saturday, February 19, 2011

What is Wrong With Megan's Law?

The Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) requires anyone on parole or probation or imprisoned for a sex offense on January 21, 1996, to register with the Division of Criminal Justice Services. In addition, sex offenders sentenced to probation, local jail, or state prison after that date must register upon their return to the community.

Yesterday, we received a note home from the school informing us that a level 3, registered sex offender had moved into the district. The note wanted to make parents aware of this and requested parents review safety precautions with their children. While a reminder is ok, I have some reservations about Megan's Law.

For one thing, it does not appear to reduce recidivism. A recent study concluded:

...that Megan’s law has had no demonstrated effect on sexual offenses in New Jersey, calling into question the justification for start-up and operational costs. Megan’s Law has had no effect on time to first rearrest for known sex offenders and has not reduced sexual reoffending. Neither has it had an impact on the type of sexual reoffense or first-time sexual offense....Sentences received prior to the implementation of Megan’s Law were nearly twice as long as those received after the law’s passage, but time served has been approximately the same before and after the law’s enactment.

But, even if Megan's Law isn't curtailing sex offenders, it must be helping parents and communities keep their children safer, right? Wrong. The study by Zgboa et al also found that the law had not reduced the number of victims of sexual offense. How can that be? Parents know where sex offenders live in their communities. Offenders aren't allowed within a certain radius of schools or other areas where children are. Offenders cannot be employed in those places. So, why haven't the numbers dropped? I think there are two major factors contributing to the ineffectiveness of Megan's Law: parents get complacent and many parents don't have effective tools to help their children.

I have heard parents say, "I checked the registry, we don't have any offenders in our neighborhood." Really? Because we all know how well our social/political systems work. It isn't possible for an offender not to register and fall through the cracks right? But, that is exactly what happens. Social workers, parole officers, and law enforcement are overworked and under paid and sometimes, things slip through the system.

Or, let's consider the case of Joe Creepy. Joe likes to touch young kids. He hangs out in parks, plies them with candy and nice talk, and touches them inappropriately. But, Joe is smart and slick and hasn't been caught yet. It's not like Megan's Law is going to make Joe stop and think, "gee, I'm a pedophile. Maybe I should register?" Nope, Joe will damage many kids before Johnny Law catches up with him.

Because there is a list and their community is "clean", parents get complacent. The thought of someone harming our children is horrifying. Like the proverbial ostrich, some people chose to hide their heads in the sand. If there isn't a nearby predator on the list, it is a comfort. Like most horrific things, human nature tends to turn the eye unless directly confronted.

I worked in the prison system for a few years. I heard inmates discuss the numerous crimes they committed, both sexual and non-sexual, prior to being caught. I do not kid myself about the sex offender registry. Even if no one is on it, I assume there is an offender in my neighborhood, parks, and community. And, I try to arm my children with the skills to protect themselves.

Assuming Megan’s Law does help identify some pedophiles in our midst and raises community awareness of the issue, why isn’t the number of offenses lower for repeat offenders? I think the conventional wisdom, the “stranger danger” strategy, doesn’t work. We send our children mixed messages: “Don’t talk to strangers,” but “say hello to the nice lady.” Young children are literal thinkers and they need concrete rules. Why are some strangers ok to talk to and others are not? They aren’t old enough to pick up on the social cues that help adults discern when someone is “off” or not quite right. And so, we must teach our kids more specifics.

For numerous reasons, it is hard for some parents to do that. For reasons of modesty or religion, some parents have a hard time discussing anything remotely sexual with their kids. They can’t bring themselves to utter the words vagina or penis, so how can they teach appropriate words to their children? Those parents use general terms like down there or privates, that aren’t specific and, therefore, can lead to confusion. We have always told our boys they can touch their own penises, but no one else’s. We’ve told them mommy or daddy or a grandparent might touch them to clean them in the bath, but not anywhere else. We’ve told them their doctor might touch or look at their penis, but mommy or a nurse will always be in the room. We have respected the limits they have set. When Baker no longer wanted me to help him wash, that was fine. I just reviewed proper cleaning with him and trust him to do it.

Another thing we have done in our family is forbid secrets. We have had extensive conversations about this topic. “It is not ok to ever keep secrets. If someone asks you to keep a secret, you immediately tell mommy or daddy.” This has become so ingrained in our family. My father will often say, “let me tell you a secret,” when he is trying to impart a nugget of wisdom. The kids always pipe up, “poppy, we don’t keep secrets.” We’ve spent lots of time delineating the difference between a secret and a surprise (like a party or present) and stressed that some people use the word secret when they mean surprise. If someone asks you to "never tell" it is a secret and you need to come to us right away.

Statistically, pedophiles are male. From early on, I have always taught my boys to look for a “good mommy,” a women with children, if they get lost in a store or at a park. While this isn’t sure-proof, it cuts down on the likelihood that they will blindly trust a male figure. We have countlessly rehearsed the getting lost scenario: find a good mommy, stay were you are, and if someone tries to take you, shout, “this is not my parent.” We review this every time we head to the mall, museum, or an amusement park.

When we first started broaching this subject with the kids, I worried that we would make them fearful of the world; that they would see evil strangers lurking everywhere. I worked hard on stressing that most people are good, but there are a few bad people and we don’t always know who they are. I think this lesson has worked. My children aren’t fearful in public. They don’t mind going into the bathroom by themselves, but they know the rules and follow them. Baker got separated from us at Disney. He walked to a woman and asked her to call his parent’s cell phone. He stayed where he was and we found him before she even made the call.

Some parents worry about raising their children to be too fearful and, so, avoid these types of discussions. Some think, “it will never happen to me,” and so avoid these conversations with their children. Some try to teach their children by ineffective means. Some are so horrified by the idea that they shut down at the thought. But, no law, no matter how well-intentioned, will make our children safe. We can only protect them if we step up to the plate, face our own fears and perceptions and misconceptions, and give our children the tools they need to navigate this wonderful, but sometimes scary world.


Author's Note: Many of the ideas I have formed about safety came from reading Gavin de Becker's book The Gift of Fear. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in personal safety issues.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Supermom or Not?

Definition of SUPERMOM: an exemplary mother; also: a woman who performs the traditional duties of housekeeping and child-rearing while also having a full-time job

Yesterday I was heading into the gym when I ran into an older woman I know from church. She said, "You're here to work out? I don't know how you do it with little ones." 

I started to think about this. How do I do it? I have three young children. I have a dog that is recuperating from knee surgery. I have three cats that are ours and two feral cats we are fostering. I spend most days grocery shopping, making meals, taxiing kids to different places, cleaning up messes, doing craft projects or playing, helping with homework, and laundry, laundry, laundry. Besides that, I try to maintain a semblance of a relationship with my husband in the minimal time we get to spend together without little people. I try to do some things for myself, like the gym and scrap booking. And then there are the relationships outside my immediate family that I try to maintain: parents and friends. And there is even more.

Yes, I don't work outside of the home, but it feels like I do sometimes. I'm the Religious Education Chairperson at our church. Last year, besides this, I was a Worship Associate helping to plan services. I'm also busy in the schools. Jamie goes to a co-operative nursery school. I'm the treasurer there, and I'm in the classroom once or twice a month. I volunteer in Baker's class helping with reading centers and I'm a homeroom parent. I participate in SPACE, a parent organization, as well as the PTA.

So how do I do it? Am I a supermom?  I don't think so.

In the 1950's Betty Friedan wrote the Feminine Mystique. In the book she questioned the happiness of the homemaker. Did housework full-fill the average woman? Was there more to life than cleaning and scrubbing the floors? Most point to this book as the beginning of the women's liberation's movement and the start of feminism. Unfortunately, while more doors opened for women, others didn't close. As Gloria Steinem pointed out, women would never achieve real equality as long as they continued to do two jobs while men did only one, until men flooded equally into the “unpaid labor force of child-rearing and homemaking… and the cruel, guilt-producing impossibility of being Super Woman and Super Mom will keep robbing the country of talent and women of peace of mind” 

Despite feminism's frustration with the role of the supermom, women were stuck with it. Feminism told them they needed to get out and take advantage of the opportunities it had procured for them. I remember a class in college where we were asked to talk about where we saw ourselves in 10 years. I said I wanted to work for a while and then settle down to stay home with my kids. My classmates were appalled: how could I be a feminist and want to be a homemaker? I replied that the point of feminism was to allow women to make choices and support those choices. Being a homemaker is a valid choice as long as it is my choice and not society forcing me to do it. I think there are many women out there who feel they have to pursue a career and have children. Let’s face it, supermom is a myth. No one can do both equally well.  

And, even for those of us who have chosen only one path, the road is still bumpy. Unlike the 1950’s, women of today who stay home don’t chose to do so to make the house comfy for hubby. They do it to raise their children. So even though they’re home, they are expected to do all the household chores while nurturing and stimulating their children. When you’re home all day, there is a societal (and sometime spousal, though not in my situation) expectation for the  house to be perfect, the kids always clean and presentable, dinner on the table, and lunches packed daily. And some people manage this on the surface. I’m not one of those people.

I could manage that if I chose. I wouldn’t have time to have play dates or painting sessions for the kids. We wouldn’t have time to go sledding after school or hiking. I’d be cleaning from the kid’s bedtime until now instead of doing things I enjoy. And so, on most days, my house is a mess. That is ok for me for now. Time with my husband and time for me are more important than clean bathrooms and a spotless floor. I am not supermom and I don’t pretend to be. Anyone who appears to be supermom is giving something up somewhere else in their life. It’s just not as obvious as the dishes piled in my sink.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dioramas, Forgiveness, and OCD

Baker came home with his first diorama project. We all remember dioramas from our past: cute, little shoebox representations of a book we read, a social studies report, or a science project. Wait, did I say cute, little shoebox representations? I meant tortures from the depths of hell that strain a parent/child relationship and mar the psyche.

While helping Baker with his project, I thought back frequently to my own experience with these sorts of projects. A blog was forming in my mind. I was going to write about the emotional damage inflicted on me as my father sought to "help" me with my dioramas. I thought about how my dad would start out with little suggestions or I'd ask for help with one aspect and the next thing I knew, he had taken the project over. I vaguely remember my idea for a representation of a Sumerian ziggurat that became this massive Plaster of Paris nightmare. It was stark white, it was heavy (did I mention I walked to elementary school?), and it was nothing like what I originally envisioned. Years later, I looked back on how my dad took over these projects and I thought it was his way of saying he had no faith in me. I thought he was giving me a silent message that I was no good at this kind of thing and I needed his help.

This Sunday at church, the sermon was on true forgiveness. Our minister talked about how there is no formula for forgiveness and sometimes it must be given without any expectation from the person being forgiven. She pointed out that true forgiveness is as much for the forgiver as the one forgiven. She talked about keeping flawed personalities in our lives even if we struggle with those flaws. But only if we can truly accept and forgive those flaws. She pointed out that the path to true forgiveness isn't an easy one. It requires reaching down inside ourselves. As Alexander Pope so aptly put it, "to err is human, to forgive divine."

And so, on Sunday, I found myself thinking about how my father made me feel as a child and forgiveness. I found myself surprised by what I found. The original blog I wrote in my head went something along the lines of "I will never do to my children what was done to me." I was going to talk about how important it is for children to make their own mistakes. I was going to point out that the parents who do projects for their kids aren't teaching them anything, but taking away from their independence and self-esteem. I still think this is all true. But, I also see what my father did in a different light.

One of the personality traits I inherited from my father is a bit of OCD. I like things to be a certain way. I like them to be "perfect." When I scrapbook and something is off-center, it makes me a bit nuts. Early in our marriage, my husband would purposely move the coasters on our coffee table a degree off and see how long it took me to notice and fix them. I've let go of some of that since having kids. Anyone whose been to my house recently can attest to that. But, helping Baker with his project brought some of that back quickly. I cringed when he ignored me and used a glue stick instead of Elmer's to glue the box and lid together. I was sure it would come apart. It didn't. I was relieved when the first bamboo picture he picked out couldn't be used. It had no foreground and I thought it would look weird. When I went to print it, the quality was too poor to print, so he picked a different picture. Either would have been fine: his ground cover covered the bottom of the picture anyway. I started to get upset when he over-painted his box and decided the river should be in the middle instead of the edge where I thought it should be. The list goes on.

I don't think my son is incompetent. I don't think I always know whats best. But, there is that voice in the back of your mind that says, "what if his isn't as good as the other kids and he's upset?" I suspect some of my father's own behavior stemmed from that same question. I also think it is easy to see our kids as extensions of ourselves. If they fail, we fail. We've done something wrong. Maybe we didn't foster creativity. Maybe we didn't give them imaginative play. If our own self-esteem isn't strong, it is easy to be fearful of their failure. Looking back at my father's behavior, I think this might have been the case. He didn't fear that I was no good at diorama making, but that he wasn't being a good father. I can see now, whatever was going on for him, it wasn't the purposeful attempt to undermine my confidence. It was a reflection of his on errors and frailties as a human being. And for that, I can forgive.

I didn't do things with Baker like my dad did with me. Despite some misgivings, I bit my tongue, sat on my hands, and let Baker do things his way. I helped him when he asked for it and stepped back when he didn't need me. It was hard to do. I worried about how it would come out, but I tried to remind myself of the ship building exercise. Earlier in the year, he had to make a ship. I didn't help him with it at all. He used an old plastic tray for the bottom, paper for the sail, and a Tinkertoy for the mast. Some other child had a Popsicle stick boat that looked like a museum exhibit. I'm pretty sure the parent did it, but maybe the kid was just an idiot savant with Popsicle sticks. Either way, Baker didn't notice the difference in ships. His ship floated and he was happy with it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Piano Dilemma

Recently, we acquired my parent's piano. Baker was incredibly excited to learn to play. He talked for months about taking piano, telling anyone who would listen of his plans. And then lessons started. It was a fight to get him to practice. At first, I chalked it up to timing. We started lessons right before Christmas and there were so many other things going on. But after things settled down, the fighting continued. Then he started fighting about going to the lessons. I told him if he didn't start practicing, we would just stop. I really don't need another thing to fight with him about.

As a child, about Baker's age, I took piano for a year. Like me, my mother had to fight with me about practicing. And, like me, my mother chose to stop lessons rather then force me to practice. As an adult, I regret not learning to play. Both my grandfather and father could sit at a piano and just play. I regret that I don't have that talent.

This is not to say that I blame my mother. I understand why she stopped. I try to expose my kids to different things. It is a trial and error processes. Some things they continue with; others they don't. It is kind of the equivalent of the "no thank you bite:" you have to try this, but then you don't have to have any more if you don't like it.

So, where is the dilemma? I don't want Baker to give up piano. I have no visions of my child being a virtuoso. But, he was so excited to start lessons. I think he expected to sit down and just start playing. So many things come easily to him and he isn't used to having to really work and put forth effort. I recently read an article about success. It stated that success is more dependent on perseverance than intelligence. As a fairly smart kid, Baker hasn't had much experience with "stick-to-itness." I don't want him to breeze through school with minimal effort, never really having to apply himself, only to be side-swiped when he enters college.

I had to think long and hard about my feelings on this. How much of my desire for him to continue piano is related to my own failed attempts to learn? How much is related to my own experience with being a lazy student? And how much is it related to objective facts? It is impossible for parents to make decisions without the ghosts of our own childhood rearing their heads. It takes some honest soul-searching to make an objective decision. It isn't always easy, but nothing about parenting is.

In the end, I decided that Baker would continue lessons until he finished the first book. When it is time to go to a new book, if he doesn't want to continue, we'll stop then. This way, he is learning to give it a fair chance and getting to a point where it is more fun to play. He's been practicing and he really does seem to enjoy it when he masters a piece. Maybe he will continue and maybe he won't. But hopefully, he'll walk away with a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that he has to follow through on things.