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the Sea is so Wide and my Boat is so Small
CHARTING a COURSE for the NEXT GENERATION
By Marian Wright Edelman
Copyright © 2008
Marian Wright Edelman
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Letter to Parents
A PRAYER FOR TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY CHILDREN
God, help us to not raise a new generation of children With high intellectual quotients and low caring and compassion quotients With sharp competitive edges but dull cooperative instincts With highly developed computer skills but poorly developed consciences With a gigantic commitment to the big "I" but little sense of responsibility to the bigger "we" With mounds of disconnected and unsynthesized information without a moral context to determine its worth With more and more knowledge and less and less imagination and appreciation for the magic of life that cannot be quantified or computerized With more and more worldliness and less and less wonder and awe for the sacred and everyday miracles of life. God, help us to raise children who care. It's not good enough for you to say to your child, "Do good in school"; and then when the child comes home, you've got the TV set on. You've got the radio on. You don't check their homework. You've got the video game playing.... So turn off the TV set. Put the video games away. Buy a little desk. Or put that child at the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework. If they don't know how to do it, give 'em help. If you don't know how to do it, call the teacher. Make 'em go to bed at a reasonable time! Keep 'em off the streets! Give 'em some breakfast! ... And if your child misbehaves in school, don't cuss out the teacher! Do something with your child! -SENATOR BARACK OBAMA, SPEAKING TO A BEAUMONT, TEXAS, AUDIENCE, FEBRUARY 28, 2008 (LOS ANGELES TIMES, FEBRUARY 29, 2008)
Parenting is the most wonderful and daunting challenge in the world, never to be undertaken lightly. No one should have a child if they are not committed to providing love, attention, protection, care, and support for a lifetime. Although families are the crucible of the future and the primary molders of children's values, parenting is one of the most undervalued and least prepared for roles in America. The nation and world are literally being born anew every second of every day in the bodies and minds and spirits of each baby entrusted to the adults who bear primary responsibility for their safety and nurturance.
Parents are children's most important teachers and mentors, but many of us, especially if we are teens or poor or lacked a stable family life ourselves, need guidance and help. Virtually all parents want to be good parents but some do not know how and many lack a network of support. Nobody raises a child alone. Too often parents are judged and blamed rather than helped to meet their children's needs in a society where family life has been atomized; extended family, community bonds, and moral boundaries have frayed: and private sector and government policies often make it harder rather than easier for parents to meet their children's needs.
Parenting has become more and more difficult in our dazzlingly fast-paced world mired down in materialism, violence, fame, celebrity worship, and triviality. With technology's instant and massive reach, the relentless virus of commercial and entertainment messaging to children at earlier and earlier ages is difficult to avoid, forcing parents to compete with powerful outside cultural forces for children's attention and values. Childhood innocence, play, and imagination are being intruded upon more and more by profiteers seeking new markets and trying to addict parents through their children to their brands. Many parents are pressured into buying the latest designer sneakers and jeans and other "stuff" they cannot afford, working more hours to satisfy children who seek to keep up with peers and spending less time at home. In our increasingly coarse and profane public marketplace, mutual respect and any sense of the sacred has eroded, extrinsic values are glorified over intrinsic ones, making it difficult to guide children toward more authentic and purposeful lives. Buying is equated with happiness. Money and fame are equated with success. Children are not just sold products but sex, alcohol, tobacco, and violence as the way to be accepted and hip.
At its 350th anniversary, Harvard reported the top three goals of entering freshmen as (1) money, (2) power, and reputation and fame. Are these the values we truly want our children to treasure? Will the pursuit of such individualistic goals bring our nation and world closer together or drive us further apart? Are these the measures of success we want to leave our children as parents, people of faith, and citizens of a great democracy in a globalizing world desperately hungering for moral leadership? If money, power, and personal fame are the central values in our lives, then human values and fair sharing with those left behind get lost. Children are treated as consumers, market values trump moral values, and personal greed trumps common good. I believe the prophets and the Gospels, history, and common sense beckon us as parents, grandparents, and adults today to reassess what we are to live by, teach our children and struggle harder to model.
How can parents today better educate children about our deepest human challenges and give them the moral compasses and skills they need to navigate life, cyberspace, and a globalizing world driven largely by market forces? How can we buffer our children against the dangerous undertow of alcohol, drugs, violence, and excessive consumption that often capsize their boats? Can parents, teachers, faith leaders, and communities offer more strenuous competition to these threats with more love, family time, and community engagement? How do we prepare our children to respect and live in peace with people of many cultures, languages, faiths, ideologies, and colors in a world that is majority nonwhite and poor and in our own nation, which will be majority minority around 2050?
So many of our children are struggling to cope with family breakdown from pervasive divorce and the added stresses many single-parent families face: babies born to unmarried mothers constitute more than one third of all and more than two thirds of black births. All children suffer from the erosion of extended family and community supports, the loss of civility evidenced by road rage, profane language, and ever coarsening public discourse so common in our culture. Epidemic substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness know no income boundaries.
I am often asked, What's wrong with our children? Children having children. Children killing children. Children killing themselves. Children roaming streets alone or in gangs all day and night. Children floating through life like driftwood on a beach. Children addicted to tobacco, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, pot, drinking and drugging themselves to death to escape reality. Children running away from home and being thrown away or abused and neglected by parents. Children being locked up in jails with adult criminal mentors or all alone. Children bubbling with rage and crushed by depression.
Adults are what's wrong with our children. Parents letting children raise themselves or be raised by television or the Internet. Children being shaped by peers and gangs instead of parents, grandparents, and kin. Children roaming the streets because there's nobody at home or paying enough attention. Children going to drug houses that are always open instead of to schools and church houses, mosques, and temples that are too often closed. Children seeing adults take and sell drugs and be violent to one another and to them. Adults telling children one thing and doing another. Adults making promises we don't keep and preaching what we don't practice. Adults telling children to control themselves while slapping and spanking. Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating in our homes, offices, and public life. Adults telling children not to be violent while marketing and glorifying violence and tolerating gun-saturated communities. Adults telling children to be healthy and wondering why they are obese while selling them junk food. Adults are what's wrong with our children and I hope God will help us to repent.
It is time for parents, adults, and leaders in all race and income groups to break our silence about the pervasive breakdown of moral, family, community, and national values; to place our children first in our lives and struggle harder to model the behavior we want our children to learn. We do not have a child and youth problem in the United States but we have a profound adult problem as our children do what they see adults doing. Children seek our attention in negative ways when we provide them too few positive ways to communicate and to get the attention and love they need.
All children need hope, a stable family, a sense of connectedness to a community, engagement in something beyond self, positive alternatives to the streets, and inner compasses to help them resist negative cultural and street lures. All children need imperishable spiritual anchors rather than fleeting material ones and the regular presence of and interaction with positive and consistent adult mentors to move beyond obsessive self-gratification. All children need adults to put their needs first and buffer them from harmful external assaults.
My daddy and mama always put me, my sister, and brothers first. They did not have much money but they had a lot of love ,and high expectations for each of us. The external world told me, a black girl growing up in the racially segregated South, that I wasn't as valuable as little white children but I didn't believe it because my parents said it wasn't so. The outside world put a lot of obstacles in my way, including segregated public accommodations and libraries and unequally funded schools, but my parents valued education and made sure we always had books in our home. My parents could not buy us a lot of clothes but they taught us how to take care of the ones we had, passed them down from child to child, and paid no attention to the latest fads and fashions, which was far easier before television and the Internet. We had few luxuries but all we needed to get to school on time and be able to learn: a hot breakfast and dinner waiting after school; a time, place, and help for homework; an established playtime, bath time, and bedtime-structured routines that made us feel safe and valued. Lying and profanity were not tolerated and laziness was not an option. We had daily chores at home and on the weekends in the church and community: setting the table; washing and drying the dishes; cleaning the house, our clothes, and the yard; and taking out the garbage. No excuses were allowed. Daddy picked up and made us pick up litter without regard for who put it there, saying if your street is dirty, that is no reason for your house, yard, or room to be.
My parents sacrificed for us-all the time. If our growing feet needed new shoes, they wore old ones. They believed in lifelong learning and growth, attending conferences, and subscribing to publications to improve themselves. Above all, they believed in holding family together through thick and thin. I am astonished rereading some of Daddy's sermons by his emphasis on parental duty in maintaining a stable home for children amid change and his recognition of the impact of external forces on children. So many today point to families as the sole source of children's problems, ignoring how economic and social changes affect child and family well-being. When plants close and jobs move abroad, families and children are hurt.
The security and discipline of family life guided my childhood years and grounds me still. While I have been a far from perfect parent, I've struggled to carry on as many of those traditional routines as possible and to share with my wonderful sons and grandchildren what is important and expected as my parents and elders did with me. So for all beleaguered and devoted parents today, I share a bill of responsibilities learned in childhood that may be of use in steering children to safe harbor.
A PARENT'S BILL OF RESPONSIBILITIES
Make sure your children know they are loved unconditionally and forever and ever and that nothing they do can ever take away your or God's love. Children need to be loved for who they are and not just for how much they achieve or how they look or for any external reason. Although all parents want children to do well in school and are proud of talents they possess, it is important that children know that they are valued because they simply are-God's sacred child and your special child.
Know where your children are and make sure they know where you are! "One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don't come home at night," anthropologist Margaret Mead said. When I was young, my family had a practice of calling when any of us arrived at a destination so we all knew we were safe. This is very reassuring, although some adult children may think this practice intrusive. It's about caring. How traumatic it is for a child or young person to have parents disappear for hours, days, months, or forever without knowing why or where we are. Leave a note. Call. Better still, try not to leave children for any significant period without patiently explaining the reason.
'Be a good role model and mentor for your children. You are the most important person in your children's lives and they take their cues from you about what is right and wrong and valuable. If we call our children and others disrespectful names, they will do so too. If we tell jokes that demean people of other races or faiths or genders or with disabilities, they will too. If we abuse alcohol and drugs, they will too. If we are violent, they will think it acceptable. If we spend every dime on ourselves or on material things and give nothing or little to those less fortunate, they will follow our lead. If we spend hours watching TV, playing video games, listening to the radio, gossiping on the phone, and never pick up a book to read, they'll do the same. If we use profanity as a second language, they, will too. Be mindful that we are always being watched. Author James Baldwin wrote that children seldom do what we tell them to do but they almost always do what we do. What an awesome responsibility we parents carry!
Don't tear down children's confidence-build it up. Applaud them when they do well. Don't tell children to "shut up," "sit down," or "stop asking all those questions," or "I'll smack you." I have sometimes heard mothers tell their little boys "you're not gonna amount to nothing just like your no-good daddy." They didn't choose their daddy, you did. Choose carefully and teach them to respect both parents. Do not involve your children in your adult fights that they did not cause. Reach out to uncles, grandfathers, and other positive male role models in your community so that girls and boys can forge safe and healthy relationships with men as well as women.
Really pay attention to each of your children. Many of us are so harried trying to cope with the demands of life and to juggle competing and often stressful demands of job and family that we sometimes forget to truly hear and appreciate our children. I think back with great regret to the times I was so busy getting things done at home or at work that I didn't just stop to be with and enjoy my sons and experience the world through their eyes and ears. Time does fly, as the old folks used to say, and children grow up in a blink of the eye. I would give anything to be able to recapture moments and occasions I missed or failed to savor with each child. With my grandchildren I hope I'll be much more relaxed, wiser, and able to spend special time with each child. This is hard in large families or when huge distances separate us across generations. In a recent telephone conversation with my four-year-old granddaughter, Zoe, she asked me where I was. I told her where I was traveling and that I had just sent her a postcard. She immediately asked whether I sent one just to her or to her and her sister Ellika. I sheepishly admitted that I had sent one to both of them, as I had to my twin grandsons, Elijah and Levi. But I went immediately to buy four others so that she and her sister and each twin could have one of their very own. I'll remember to do this from now on. I tried to send weekly postcards to each of my children, who sometimes complained that they could not read my terrible writing and figure out what I said. That's okay. They simply said, however illegibly, I love you and am thinking about you.
Excerpted from the Sea is so Wide and my Boat is so Small by Marian Wright Edelman Copyright © 2008 by Marian Wright Edelman. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents Acknowledgments....................xi
1. A Letter to Parents....................1
2. A Letter to Teachers and Educators....................19
3. A Letter to Neighbors and Community Leaders....................31
4. A Letter to Faith Leaders....................39
5. A Letter to Young People: Anchors and Sails for Life's Voyage....................51
6. A Letter to My Grandchildren, Ellika, Zoe, Elijah, and Levi....................67
7. A Letter to Our Leaders About America's Sixth Child and the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Crisis....................77
8. A Letter to Citizens-the Creators of Leaders and Movements....................97
9. The Mother of All Issues-Pregnancy and Childbirth: A Letter to Mothers, Grandmothers, and All Women....................107
10. A Letter to Dr. King....................117
11. A Letter to God: Prayers for Our Children, Country, and World....................139