Sunday, November 17, 2013

Our Punishment-Oriented Society: Can We Change?

I spent five weeks in Europe this fall and another week in New York City, and during that time I was able to see a number of cultures and find the groove, if you will, of their societies. You'd think you couldn't learn much about a society by whirling through, say Vienna, for three days, visiting museums, palaces, marketplaces, and sitting in cafes, but if you take the time to chat with the Muslim woman that works the bakery, or the entrepreneur with a new cafe in the Jewish Quarter, or the architect who rented you the room during your stay, and so on, you can get a pretty good idea of the way the Viennese Austrians do it and why. And so it was with the dozen or so countries I visited.

To say that, by and large, European countries manage their populations far better than we do here in the U.S. is an understatement to say the least. But what would you expect from me, an avowed progressive for whom socialism is not a dirty word?

Having said that, what caught my attention this morning was an article my wife, a preschool director and teacher, discovered in the New York Times, entitled "Schools That Separate the Child From the Trauma." What was contained in it was so profound -- and from my own experience as an educator, it rang so true -- that I immediately leapt beyond it to the implications for our greater society. First, consider this:
Recently, I reported on the damaging effects that prolonged stress can have on young children who lack adequate protection from adults. Over the past 15 years, researchers have learned that highly stressful — and potentially traumatic — childhood experiences are more prevalent than previously understood. Now scientists are shedding light on the mechanisms by which they change the brain and body. These insights have far-reaching implications for schools, where it’s still standard practice to punish children for misbehavior that they often do not know how to control. This is comparable to punishing a child for having a seizure; it adds to the suffering and makes matters worse.
Thankfully, some places are getting smarter. “The hot spots in education are Massachusetts and Washington State,” explains Jane Stevens, a health and science journalist who edits ACES Too High, an excellent website containing a wealth of information about “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) and the effects of stress and trauma on children. “Educators understand that the behavior of children who act out is not willful or defiant, but is in fact a normal response to toxic stress. And the way to help children is to create an environment in which they feel safe and can build resilience.”

This is not a small issue in education. A great many students come to school with emotional and behavioral difficulties that pose serious barriers to their learning. In a study (pdf) of 2,100 elementary students in 10 schools in Spokane, Wash., for example, researchers from Washington State University found that more than 20 percent had two or more ACEs (experiences that include having been homeless, witnessing domestic violence or having a parent who uses drugs or is incarcerated). Compared with children with no known stresses, these kids are two to four times more likely to have problems with attendance, behavior, academics and health. As the number of ACEs increase, the students fare considerably worse on all counts.
“When kids have undergone a lot of adversity, it changes how they respond to people and challenges in their environment, including very simple things that we might not think about — like how many transitions you ask them to do before lunch,” explains Chris Blodgett, a clinical psychologist who directs the CLEAR Trauma Center at Washington State University(pdf). “For traumatized people, changes are encoded largely as danger.”
When a child violates rules or expectations, the standard response is to try to reason with the child or use punishment, he added. “What the science tells us about how stressed brains react to change, loss or threat is that children will often violate rules because they feel profoundly out of control. It’s a survival reaction and it may actually be intended to control the situation.”
The lessons learned here are clear and recommend strongly that we reform the way we deal with the behavioral issues of our most at-risk children. The implications for our greater society are profound indeed, which led me to think about key failures in our culture and compare and contrast them with what I've seen in both Europe and Japan recently and much earlier when I lived in the Netherlands and Japan.

Those societies are much less violent, incarcerate fewer citizens, have superior health outcomes for much less expenditures while having extremely vibrant economies. Americans should wonder why.

It's illuminating to view how we choose to "try to reason with the child or use punishment" when dealing with behavioral issues. And further on in the article I was struck by this passage:

One big thing is to help children become aware of their bodies, said Emily Cooley, a special-education teacher who works with Powers at his new position as principal of the Mary E. Baker Elementary School in Brockton. “One of my students has three pictures on his desk: a mail box, a snack and a bean bag chair. If this boy is not feeling in his body that he can be in class, he knows he can pick up one of the pictures and go get my mail in the office, get a crunchy snack, or take a break in the bean bag chair.” (Bean bag chairs and bubbles seem to be particularly helpful to young kids.)
“It’s not to avoid tasks,” she added. “It’s so he can calm himself and be here physically and mentally — so we can work on the academics. Little things like this can really have a big impact on children.” [emphasis mine]
 The point I draw from this is the parallel between "spare the rod, spoil the child" and the conservative/libertarian notion of what welfare does to people, as Paul Ryan so tellingly explained when he said, "...we don't want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives."

From Ryan's point of view, there is virtue in our punishment society. For conservatives, especially religious ones, it's a question of character. To let the child who misbehaves off the hook is to "spoil the child." To let people who lead stress-filled lives mired in poverty off the hook with food stamps, WIC, housing and home-heating credits, and unemployment insurance is to "lull able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency."

Obviously, Paul Ryan didn't grow up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, or east Oakland, California. He has no idea of the stress caused by poverty, just as many Americans can't imagine how these and other realities in the lives of children leave them at risk of being unreachable without special accommodations.

In my view, we turn our society into prisoner factories, allowing children who grow up in the stress of poverty and crime to end up under-educated, with little to no opportunity, and thus turning to a life of crime that feeds our prison system. Yet have we made an effort to offer preschool nationwide? No. Do we offer, as a right of citizenship, universal access to healthcare? No. Do we allow, according to the 2010 Census, 23 percent of American children to suffer from food insecurity? Yes. Have we allowed college tuition to rise to levels that place a college education out of reach for an increasing segment of our society? Yes. Do we instead declare this to be a character issue in which those who are born into or end up in poverty deserve their fate? Yes, as our society as a whole has done so far, with conservatives and libertarians in the lead.

How might our society do things differently? Look to the social democracies of Europe and East Asia for answers. These societies, with their universal preschool, maternity/paternity support, universal healthcare, and social safety nets, have low crime and general healthy, productive populations with stable economies. Is this an accident? No.

If there is a place to start, it would be with our children. Establish universal preschool and at all levels adopt teaching and behavior methods reflected in the NYT article quoted above. Eliminate malnutrition, especially among our our children. Good, stable, successful societies are no accident, nor are dysfunctional, failing ones. It's time to make better choices.

Remember this example of how tea partiers view what to do with the unfortunates among us?

Or what conventional conservatives think of those who end up in the "hammock" of welfare:

Finally, let's look at what the budget chief of the Republican Party thinks about his country:

I've no choice but to parse that statement because of how almost comically wrongheaded it is. First, uncomically, Ryan frames his whole statement with "The point is we are reaching a fiscal tipping point, the moral tipping point is even worse." Since he goes on to talk about takers versus makers, the only conclusion one can draw is that makers are moral and takers are immoral.

Then, he says that "We can become a society in which the net majority are takers not makers." What the hell is a "net majority?" That implies that the group of people, American society, is not a whole but a net amount. Of what? The only conclusion I can come to is that Ryan throws the "net" in there to sound wonkish. Jeez.

So, he establishes a fiscal and moral tipping point, which he considers one and the same: Certain fiscal choices must, then, be immoral. Which fiscal choices are we making or about to make that are immoral? Good question. How does he answer it?

What's this "net majority" of "takers?"  "Seventy percent of Americans get back in dollar value more than they pay in taxes." Ah ha! The takers! Are these the conservatives or the liberals? You'd think because he's a conservative he'd be talking about the liberals, since the moral divide by his rhetoric would dictate that the moral people would be conservatives who aspire to be makers and the liberals who either aspire to be takers or to be the enablers of the takers.

In the course of the next few sentences, unfortunately for Ryan, he gets it all jumbled up:

"The good news is that survey after survey, poll after poll, still show that we're a center-right country, seventy-thirty."

"Seventy percent of Americans want the American Dream."

"Only thirty percent want the welfare state."

For a policy wonk (those who've looked at his budget proposals, none of which has ever added up, know better), his math really, really doesn't work. And if his math doesn't work, then what is he really trying to say? Here's his math:

Seventy percent of Americans are takers. Thirty-seventy is the makers-versus-takers split.

Our center-right country is seventy-thirty, with seventy percent believing in the American Dream, by which he must mean the responsible, hardworking conservatives.

By Paul Ryan's math, however, forty percent of the conservatives are takers, which surpasses the thirty percent of takers that are liberal. Who knew?? Certainly not Paul Ryan.

Here's Paul Ryan's real math: When you combine his "hammock" statement with his "moral tipping point" statement it adds up to this: It's the poor's fault that the rest of us can't have more shiny new objects, and it's the liberals' fault that forty percent of conservatives are takers.

What is he really talking about? What are these shiny new objects? What are Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, any conservative or libertarian for that matter, talking about? Certainly not universal preschool, or universal healthcare, or unfettered access to higher education. That's for the makers, not the takers.

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