On the cartoon stuck to my refrigerator, someone hides under the bedcovers and a speech bubble says, “I don’t want to go to school. The teachers hate me and the kids make fun of me.”
A mother figure stands in the doorway. She responds: “John. You have to go. You’re the principal.”
I chuckled at this almost every week before I headed out to teach a parenting class at my neighborhood homeless shelter. After all, my own feelings weren’t dissimilar from John’s!
The homeless shelter was actually two small apartment houses next to each, where mothers of young children or mothers-to-be have their own room and share a kitchen and living room with one or two other families. Residents are aged between 17 to mid-30’s.
As a condition to be able to stay at the facility, residents are required to go to classes for three evenings a week. I had approached them about teaching a Hand in Hand Parenting Class. The staff was receptive but had no money, so I applied with a grant proposal to Hand in Hand and was delighted get approved teaching fees and a set of literature for each participant.
And So It Begins…
The women that arrived were clearly skeptical. They talked with each other and sat as far from me as they could manage.
They were there because they had to be.
I acknowledged that and thanked them for coming. I said that I suspected they all loved their children very much and that raising children in a shelter had to involve more than I could understand. I noted the oppressions they face—their color, their age, their financial predicament, language oppression (for many English is not their mother tongue) and parenthood.
I sensed a little more interest, but they were still skeptical.
I threw out my plan to pass out a 4-page pre-class survey, deciding that it would certainly increase the disconnection between me and them. Instead, I talked about listening and why we all need it. I taught them about Listening Partnerships by pairing them up and asking them to talk for four minutes each about what’s good and what’s hard about being a mom.
I always rely on this exercise whenever I teach. Although it’s usually uncomfortable for people at first, it gets them practicing talking about themselves and listening without commenting or giving advice. But this time, everyone except for me and my partner moved into a big group, and instead of taking turns, as I had asked, they all seemed to talk at once.
Like the evaluations, I let it go.
Next I taught a bit of “brain science.” My aim was to explain ways of thinking about children’s behaviors and propose they try some new skills when their children “misbehaved.”
I explained that recent research indicates how when children are not cooperating, it’s because their brain is signaling that they need connection, not because they are “being bad.”
I showed them charts I had brought to illustrate this and where to find the information in the books I had passed out. I said I would teach them ways to strengthen their connection with their children.
With each thing I said, at least one person, sometimes more, disagreed and told me I was wrong.
I talked about why parents need and deserve more support. No one disagreed with this part of the theory, and it led to a lively discussion about their own situations:
“I feel like I am in prison here, “ said one.
“People don’t have compassion for us. Being homeless is an insult in itself,” added another.
“We all have bad self-esteem. Wouldn’t you? I am an adult and a mother, and I have to put up with living with these rules. Really?”
“How can our children accept our authority when we are treated like children ourselves? How does that make sense?”
I saw that my task was to win them over so that they could trust me enough to listen to what I had to say. I decided the way to do that was by listening to THEM instead.
And so out went the rest of my agenda!
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Over the 10 week course of classes, I developed a deepening respect for that quote, by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I estimated that my listening-to-talking ratio was about six to one on a good day. I might speak for 10 minutes total. Some weeks even less. I pared each lesson “down to the bone”, thinking about the absolutely-most-essential information to get across. Sometimes I decided to forego even the briefest lesson in order to listen to them.
They had a lot to say!
Respecting all their thoughts and opinions, all the time, became my guiding inner voice.
Although the Listening Partnerships exercise was useful for me, they did not like it and kept moving into a big group. When I asked them about that they said it was because they aren’t usually supposed to socialize at the shelter. The class was the only chance they had to all talk together.
So now I knew…
In almost every class someone came down to our basement room distressed. She would pull her chair way back from the circle, refusing any invitation to participate. I told them that even though they had to be there, they could choose whether or not they wanted to talk. In the end, they always participated.
There were constant disagreements about spanking. I took a strong but soft stand that spanking is not in a parent’s or a child’s best interests. Despite anecdotes, research, and pleas, I still got comments like this:
“If my parents did not spank me I would be in jail today.”
“My child has to listen to me. I can’t have him being bad, especially in public. It is too dangerous.”
“A little ‘pow pow’ (as some of them called spanking) is what you do when you have to. I got it when I was a kid and I turned out ok. I don’t hurt him.”
Finally, I told them I would not change my mind about this and we agreed to disagree.
Crying as a Sign of Weakness
Discussions about crying were almost as lively. Lots of the group saw crying as a sign of weakness. Many of them have had some involvement with child protection services and worried about losing custody of their child. They worried that if the staff heard their children crying they might be suspected of abuse. People, they said, stop them on the subway or sometimes on the street and indicate that they are bad mothers if their children are crying.
I told them that this is true for all parents when they decide to go against the cultural mandate to shut down crying, and acknowledged that, given their situations, it was even harder for them.
I explained Staylistening to them and asked them to try it. To my surprise, positive stories started to trickle in.
“My daughter was crying that she did not want to go into daycare. Every day we have a scene and I make her go. I feel so bad about how she feels that I get mad. Yesterday, I got down on my knee and just listened to her for awhile like you said to do, and then she cried and then she stopped and hugged me and went in. It was hard for me to do that, but it worked.”
About half way through the series, I asked them to honestly tell me if they felt these classes were useful. I really wanted to know.
I was prepared to hear negative comments but every single one of them said they saw value.
“It helps me change my perspective.”
“It gives me ideas.”
“We get a chance to talk. Nobody listens to us.”
I had been feeling incompetent and bad about not covering more material, but I realized that they took what they could and really just needed to talk a lot! Most of them did not read the weekly literature, but a few said they read the booklets over and over, especially turning to them when they didn’t know how to handle a situation.
I began to think that just maybe they looked forward to our time together.
The Language Challenge
Some of the mothers only spoke Spanish which created a difficulty. They were required to be there. The bi-lingual women were worried that I would expect them to interpret, as the shelter staff often did, but I assured them that this was not their job.
Every week the English speaking women complained about how ridiculous and unfair it was to see these mothers sitting through three nights of classes a week without knowing what was going on. I said there was nothing I could do about it. But then I realized that I had not even tried!
I asked for an interpreter but there was no money for one. After some listening partnerships and thinking about it, I asked for another room where the Spanish speakers could meet separately.
The staff was worried that they might not learn anything but I urged them to trust that when parents get together to talk about parenting, even without a teacher, it is often very useful.They agreed that this had to be better than sitting for an hour without understanding anything.
I had my son translate simple instructions that they should read a chapter in the parent’s manual every week (they had the literature in Spanish) and discuss it, taking turns. They were thrilled. Their passionate talking and laughter mingled with ours each week through the walls.
At the end they said that this was the only chance they had to feel like a family and support each other as mothers in a new country. They thanked me profusely.
Often I commented about how all of them understood support. They told me banding together made their situation more tolerable. They knew a great deal about each others’ children. When a new baby is born, they’d often say “That’s my baby” as they lovingly passed her around. They also try to help each other when one of them gets sick or is starting to “lose it” with her children.
Introducing The Skills:
When I introduced a new topic, there was no telling where it would go. Here are some voice notes I recorded after one class:
I feel like I am rolling on big waves the whole time. I try to stick to the message but I can’t tell what is getting through. I get there and launch a kite of ideas. It goes far and wild and I hang onto the string, hoping I can pull it in and repeat my message in some way, then it goes way out again. I feel discouraged. And yet, this is so alive, so exuberant, with so much arguing and laughing. They can be so tender with each other and with me!
One time I talked about Playlistening and one of them said heatedly, “I am not playing! My daughter needs to know I am serious when I tell her something. She HAS TO listen to me.”
The next week she came in and told me that during the week, her daughter said “No” to her and instead of getting angry, she tried the game I’d suggested of saying “Yes” back in a funny way.
They played this pretend arguing game for awhile and then her daughter did what had been requested. This was better, she said, than “getting all angry and stuff.”
Another time I talked about Playlistening, one woman said, “My brother is so great at that, but now he is in jail and my son misses him so much.”
One of my made many mistakes was when I asked if any of them had been in jail. One women turned to me and said gently, “You should not be asking a question like that, Emmy.”
I apologized and thanked her for correcting me. Then they proceeded to tell me anyway!
Almost all of them have relatives in jail, brothers, uncles, fathers, their children’s fathers. Some of the women had been in jail themselves, but several said that they straightened out their lives because they needed to take care of their children.
A Tool Too Far?
Another time I showed a video on Special Time and Playlistening where a father is roughhousing with his daughter. She falls and bumps her head and he gets down and listens to her cry. There was outrage.
“Why was she crying so much? She didn’t really get hurt. You can’t be going and making a big deal like that.”
“I am not getting on the floor while my daughter cries. If she wants to carry on like that I am not getting down there with her. No way!”
This was in my voice journal that night:
I really misjudged. That was too big a leap for them. I just set us back. I will never show this video to a group like this again! This is a different landscape and it was too hard on them.
But the next week one of the women came to me and showed me a video on her phone where she and another mother were running and leaping and roughhousing with their children with delight. She was so proud!
The Last Class
In the last class we had a little party. With trepidation, I handed out some post-evaluations. I thought that since we had a better connection, their feelings around school and grades might not be so triggered. But the comments came thick and fast:
“Is this a test?”
“This feels like school and I never did good there.”
“Who is this for because I am just checking anything off.”
Yet, when I told them that I needed to really know how the class had influenced them so I could go back to the people who gave us the money and books, they clearly wanted to help me, and got serious about the task. I asked them each to tell me the most important thing for them about the classes. There answers were astounding.
“My daughter slapped me three times in church and I did not hit her back. The pastor asked me how I managed to stay so calm. I told him that I had pictured you.”
“I like how we get to talk about our problems and see each other’s faces.”
“I like the idea of trying to listen to my child. He talks so much. Now I let him and encourage him.”
“I don’t feel judged here.”
“I like that people can be open minded. You can vent anything and not be judged. This class is the only place I relax all week.”
“My daughter gets tantrums a lot. Before I used to yell and hit. Now I talk to her in a calm manner.”
“I don’t hit my daughter any more.”
“I never felt so good. So helpful. This class changed my whole life around.”
One of them asked what was most important for me.
I said that although I had taught this class many times to many people I had never learned so much about myself as I had with them. I loved how they told me exactly what they thought and refused to do things they didn’t want to. I loved how they argued and insisted on thinking for themselves.
I said that I had so much admiration for them, and I thanked them for being so gracious with me.
I told them I felt like crying.
And then one of them stood up and said, “No crying, I can’t stand it!”
We all laughed.
Hand in Hand Parenting is a non-profit organisation that helps fund projects like these for communities of challenge as well as parents worldwide. Email us to find out about grants and financial help we have available for self-guided and group classes.
With thanks to LICSW, social worker and parent educator Emmy Rainwalker for sharing her story. Contact her at www.emmyrainwalker.com