Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Joy Berry’s Parenting Advice: Three Horrific Situations

Someone almost punched out my lights today. It wasn’t the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.

I had several meetings in the city. The last one took place in a restaurant across from a movie theater. After the meeting, there was just enough time to catch a movie before heading home.

I hurried to the box office, purchased my ticket, and rushed to my seat just as the movie was starting. When it was over, I went to the ladies room where a young woman stood in front of the mirror applying her makeup.

As I washed my hands, I could hear a young boy calling from outside the restroom. When he did not receive a response, he entered the area where his mother and I were standing.

In a flash, the mother turned on the boy and began hitting him unmercifully. “I told you to wait outside!” she screamed.

The boy curled up on the floor in a defensive position and I reacted immediately, “What are you doing?” I demanded.

“None of your f**king business!” she yelled.

“That boy is my business!” I shouted back at her.

The woman lunged at me. But when I didn’t flinch and continued to glare at her, she turned and yanked the boy to his feet. Then she started dragging him out of the restroom toward the escalator.

I followed close behind while the boy looked at me with terror in his eyes.

While we rode the escalator to the ground floor I told the boy, “It’s against the law for your mother to hurt you. So if she does, tell your teacher, your principal, or another adult who cares. They can help make sure your mom doesn’t continue to hurt you.”

Oblivious to the horrified looks of the people around us, the mother screamed, “Shut the f**k up! This is my kid and I’ll do whatever I want to do with him!”

By this time we had reached the exit, and before I could say another word, the mother and son fled the building and disappeared into the crowd.

Since moving to Brooklyn, I’ve had two similar encounters with adults disciplining children in violent ways. One involved an out-of-control mother who angrily forced her distraught daughter into a shopping cart seat and severely scraped the child’s leg in the process. When the child screamed in agony, the mother slapped her and demanded that the toddler stop crying.

The other time involved a frustrated young mother or nanny (I couldn’t tell which) who repeatedly slapped a crying infant who was lying helplessly in a stroller.

Before I moved to New York, I had ensconced myself in quiet communities that sheltered me from these kinds of horrors. Child abuse had become an academic subject by then. But now, I’ve been pulled back to the visceral place I inhabited as an abused child.

As I write this story, I am at a complete loss as to whether or not I did the right thing today, and I’m still trying to think of better ways to handle these kinds of situations. But until I do, future episodes will most likely end as did the one today with me numbly making my way to the subway and crying my eyes out all the way home.

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Joy Berry’s Parenting Advice: Children And Pets

My son and daughter-in-law vastly underestimated my granddaughter when they came up with roadblocks specifically designed to dampen her desire and slow her resolve to get a hamster. The main obstacle was her need to come up with enough money to purchase the pet plus all the equipment and supplies needed to take care of it. Given today’s inflated cost of cages and other necessary accouterments, that could be a lot of money for a nine-year-old kid to come up with. However, my granddaughter is not easily daunted when she sets her mind to something, and after weeks of doing odd jobs, she finally raised the necessary funds.

I have a number of reservations about children having live pets. While I know that it can be a good experience for kids on many levels, I am not as certain that the situation is as good for the pets. So, when I saw my granddaughter getting close to reaching her goal, I sat her down and had a real heart-to-heart talk with her about being a pet owner. In a nutshell, here’s the advice I attempted to convey:

Unlike many people, I do not believe that animals are put on earth for the sole purpose of fulfilling the needs of humans. In addition, contrary to the belief of many parents, I don’t feel that any animal’s sole purpose in life should be to serve as a plaything for a child. I think it’s unacceptable when parents take the stance, “The baby can (lay all over the pet, pull his ears, pull him by the tail) and he doesn’t mind a bit.”

All healthy relationships require respect from both sides and a balance of give and take. This criterion not only applies to humans, it applies to the relationships between humans and animals too. When we allow disrespectful and/or imbalanced relationships to occur between children and animals, we are doing a huge disservice to both sides.

Taking care of a pet requires more than throwing food into a container and periodically changing the pet’s water supply. It takes a great deal of knowledge and understanding about the pet as well as an in-for-the-long-haul dedication to addressing all of the pets needs and desires on a daily basis.

As I said to my granddaughter, “When someone chooses to take an animal out of its natural habitat, it is the person’s full responsibility to do everything possible to make the animal’s life as good as it can be on every level.”

A few nights ago, Waniso tracked me down to inform me about the arrival of a cuddly-soft, tan, Teddy-Bear Hamster. I rushed to her house to meet the new family member.

As I gently cradled the small animal in my hands, I could only hope that what I had shared with my granddaughter really got through to her—not just for her sake, but also for the sake of Kaytee Button.

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Joy Berry’s Parenting Advice: My Amazing Dog-Walker

An 18-year-old Hispanic girl who lives in my neighborhood saw me transporting my two dogs in special carriers that enable people to take their pets with them on the subway. She needed a way to transport her pet rabbit to the vet, and she approached me about borrowing one of my carriers.

During her pick up and return of the carrier, I noticed her outstanding connection with my two dogs and asked whether or not she was open to taking them on their daily walks. She jumped at the chance. So we negotiated a price for her services, and she began her new job the very next day.

Before long, the girl picked up several other satisfied customers, and as a result she currently has a full-fledged dog-walking business.

Over many months I discovered a lot about my amazing dog-walker. For starters, I found out that she comes from a very large family in which her two parents work several jobs in order to meet the family’s financial needs. By her mother’s own admission, and as often is the case in situations such as these, little time is left for providing the parental guidance and encouragement that the children in the family desperately need and desire. Such was the case with the wonderful girl who walks my dogs.

One day, upon her return home with the dogs, the girl and I began talking. During our conversation, I asked her, “What are your hopes and dreams for yourself?” The quizzical look on the girl’s face made me feel like I was speaking a foreign language.

I attempted to clarify my question. “What do you want to be?” I asked.

“A wife and mother?” she said tentatively—as though there could be a right or wrong answer to my query.

With no lifetime partner on the horizon, and with the potential need for her to support herself, I suggested that, given her gift and her passion for animals, she might want to consider some kind of work in the field of animal care. It was obvious that, even in spite of her thriving dog-walking business, she had never considered turning her love for animals into a vocation.

“But what would that mean? And what would I have to do?” she asked earnestly.

To the best of my limited understanding and experience, I shared with her a variety of options that she might want to consider. Some of the options required formal schooling while others required on-the-job training.

The girl returned the next day to pick up the dogs, and while she was attaching the leashes to their collars, she announced that she was going to a local junior college to find out about its program for “people who want to work with animals,” as she told me. Before long, the girl was fully immersed in the program and performing at an extraordinary level that no one, including herself, expected.

I believe that had I not been the one to turn my dog-walker on to the profession that she is currently pursuing, she would have gotten there on her own. I am sharing the story as a reminder of how important it is to pay attention to the passions and gifts of the young people who surround us, and how important it is to encourage those gifts and passions in every way possible.

Indeed, nothing that parents do is more important that helping children discover and direct their passion and gifts. At the very least, children who are fortunate enough to have this kind of guidance and encouragement are far less likely to get into the usual trouble that kids with no direction get into.

It’s hard to stifle my delight every time my dog walker comes to walk my dogs. This is not just because my dogs adore her. It is because she serves as a constant reminder of the pure joy and satisfaction that abounds when a child is in sync with his or her natural-born gifts, and when those gifts are being used to make the world a better place for everyone.

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America’s Sidekick - Ed McMahon

An extremely precocious fourth-grade boy lives in my building. Oftentimes he comes into my apartment for a snack from the cupboard that I keep well stocked for my grandchildren and other kids in our complex.

The boy plays the cello and would rather read than play sports. In addition, he prefers to have one friend instead of many, and enjoys playing with girls as much as he enjoys playing with boys. His main challenge is having a friendship in which he does not feel like he is “the number-two guy.”

“I want to be the number-one guy who calls all of the shots,” he lamented one day.

Recently, the boy dropped in for a snack, and noticed my People Magazine that was opened to the tribute to Ed McMahon, who had just passed away.

“You know,” I ventured, “you just might find this interesting.”

I picked up the magazine and proceeded to read to him the short article called, “America’s Sidekick – Ed McMahon.” The first paragraph read, “In a business centered on the star, Ed McMahon embraced his role as the ultimate No. 2 man. ‘It takes a talent all its own, like being a catcher,’ McMahon told People.”

The boy listened intently, and after I finished reading, we launched into a wonderful dialogue about the value of every person in a relationship—no matter what role the person played.

“There can’t be a number one without a number two in any relationship,” I stated.

“Hmm…” the boy murmured knowingly.

I continued. “That would mean that the number-two guy is just as important as a number-one guy.”

A broad grin brightened the boy’s face.

Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m getting through when I talk with a kid. But this time, as that incredible boy left my apartment, I thought that our conversation about Ed McMahon’s relationship with Johnny Carson just might have made a difference.

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Farrah Fawcett’s Anal Cancer

I was riding the subway into the city. Sitting next to me was a father and his elementary-school-age son. The father was reading a newspaper article about the death of Farrah Fawcett while his son played an electronic hand-held game.

When the father finished the article, he folded up the newspaper and sat quietly. The boy asked, “Who is that woman?”

The father answered, “She was a famous movie star when I was a kid. She just died of cancer.”

“What kind of cancer?” the boy asked. “Was it the kind that Grandma had?”

“No.” said the father. “It was a different kind.”

Unsatisfied with his father’s answer, the boy continued to pursue the subject. “Was it lung cancer?”

“No” the father stated tersely.

The boy persisted. “What kind?”

Visibly annoyed, the father shifted in his seat and changed the subject. “Did you finish your homework?” he asked.

It was obvious that, even though the father seemed educated and very modern, any conversation about Farrah’s anal cancer was over before it started. Such a conversation was simply too uncomfortable for him, just as it was for others. Indeed, even before Farrah passed away, several distasteful jokes were circulating about her illness.

All too often, a joke is a preferred way to deflect attention or conversation away from uncomfortable realities or subjects—especially when children are involved. I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be better to make discussions about our private parts as straightforward and run-of-the-mill as conversations are about any other body part.

In other words—in my opinion, the father missed a golden opportunity to move his son’s future thoughts and discussions about the anus out of the gutter (where taboo subjects often reside for young boys) into respectable everyday life, where they belong in the first place. My hunch was confirmed with the knowing look and the wicked little smile that the boy flashed to me as he and his father left the subway car.

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Michael Jackson's Untimely Death

Like millions of people, I was affected by the death of Michael Jackson. But the thing that bothered me most was something that might not have bothered others.

It sickens me to hear all of the amazing post-death tributes to Michael in light of the way he was treated when he was alive. Salacious accusations and inappropriate labels were steadfastly maintained, even though he was legally exonerated. In addition, he was a continual butt of horrific jokes, even though what many considered to be “strange behavior” did not affect anyone but himself. This was especially true of his decisions and actions involving his physical appearance.

For example, I was stunned when my nine-year-old granddaughter responded to my sadness over Michael’s death by telling me, as though it was the gospel truth, “He was very weird. Did you know that his plastic surgery nose fell off during a performance and all that was left was a big hole in the middle of his face?” (Apparently this novel bit of information surfaced after a recent performance during which she danced to Michael’s song and recording of Thriller.)

When asked what advice I would give to children in the wake of Michael’s death, I said, “I’d tell them that the most positive funeral speech about a dead person can never wipe out the negative things that were said or done to the person when he or she was alive. Kind words and deeds better serve the living than the dead.”

Michael’s sudden and unexpected death provides the perfect opportunity to remind us all, including children, to treat every person as though he or she were going to be gone tomorrow and there will be no further opportunity to make things right with the person. Kind words, as well as apologies, need to be shared now instead of a time when it will be too late.

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