Obligation: Where Does It Come From?

Most people would say they feel obligated as a result of someone else’s expectation(s) of them. That’s no surprise when you look at the dictionary definition:

an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment: [ with infinitive ] : I have an obligation to look after her.

• [ mass noun ] the condition of being morally or legally bound to do something: they are under no obligation to stick to the scheme.

• a debt of gratitude for a service or favour: she didn’t want to be under an obligation to him.

• [ Law ] a binding agreement committing a person to a payment or other action. (Apple Dictionary)

Morality, legal binding, that’s pretty weighty stuff. Here’s another way of thinking about obligation that, for me, feels easier to swallow:

Obligation = choice + responsibility

This means that if I make a choice, it may include taking on some responsibility. By choosing to take on that responsibility, I’ve given myself an obligation.

For example, last year I chose to have my friend’s teenaged daughter live with me so she could attend the school down the road. In fact, I offered.

Now, I have responsibilities — to make sure she gets to school, does her homework, eats well and, most importantly, that I know where she is and when she’ll be home. I feel obligated to do these things because I made a choice to take on the responsibility that goes with having a teenager living with me.

I don’t feel obligated to her mother, I feel obligated to myself. Nor do I feel obligated to have her daughter living here — that was my choice. I am free at any time to make another choice, eg. to not have her live here, bearing in mind that choice may involve other responsibilities, ie. helping to find an alternative living arrangement.

If you’re thinking, “But surely people have a legal and moral obligation to look after a child in their care,” you’re right. I am legally and morally obligated as well, as are parents legally and morally obliged to care for their own children (or pet-owners their pets). But it is still as a result of a choice — to be a guardian, a parent or a pet-owner.

Internalising obligation, rather than externalising it, makes for much healthier relationships. It eliminates resentment and martyrdom. And, it keeps all of us in the driving seats of our own lives.

Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care Epidemic

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Possibly one of the few things more challenging than being a teenage parent is being a teenage parent in foster care.  While the adverse effects of teen pregnancy have been well studied, researchers and social service providers are only recently coming to terms with the growing epidemic of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care.

According to a 2009 Chapin Hall Study  adolescents in foster care are at a significantly higher risk for pregnancy than the general adolescent population:

  • At ages 17 and 18, one third or 33% of young women in foster care were pregnant or parenting  
  • By age 19, more than half or 51 % of young women currently or formerly in foster care were pregnant or parenting, and nearly half of those young women had more than one child
  • 60% of 21-year-old former foster males report impregnating a female partner as compared to 28 % of the general population

To be clear, foster youth are children who have been removed from their families and are in the legal custody of the state. Another way to think of this is, the government is their parents. If that is the reality, than foster youth are basically “our children” and we are doing a pretty shabby job at being their parents.

What is possibly even more troubling than a 50% pregnancy rate is the experiences of these young parents while in foster care:

  • 1 in 5 pregnant teens in foster care received NO prenatal care
  • 22% of teen foster care mothers were investigated for child maltreatment
    (this is way above the 12% of teenage parent in general)
  • 11% of teen foster care mothers had their children removed from their custody 
  • 44% of foster care mothers graduated from high school; 27% for parenting foster fathers
  • Having a child while in foster care was the largest predictor of homelessness after exiting care

Teen pregnancy and parenting is only one of the indicators of poor foster care outcomes. Very few programs and policies address the needs of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care or work to prevent initial or repeat pregnancy.  Other critical foster care outcomes include a significant  increase in the risk of homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment, and poverty for foster youth ages 14-18 . But there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that the children of foster youth are at-risk for entering foster care while their parents are still in foster care.

Though I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. do away with child protective services or foster care, circumstances such as these do beg the question, “Is the government any better at being a parent than the very caregivers these children are removed from?” This is a scary question to ask, but one that social workers must constantly be appraising.  The answer is not “no” but it is not a resounding “yes” either.

By definition, children in foster care come into care from troubled circumstances, putting them at greater risk for a number of poor outcomes. But we must make a guarantee to these children that the new environments we provide for them will make them better off than the environments we took them from. We must transition child welfare into a place where safety and permanency are not our only goals.  Well-being and a better future are essential.

As a child welfare systems change analyst, I applaud the tireless work of child welfare workers and administrations and recognize it is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs to do. There are so many forces beyond our control and endless administrative hurdles to overcome. But we must still do better. We have to do better or what is the point of the entire system?

References & Resources: 

Boonstra, H.D. (2011). Teen pregnancy among young women in foster care: A primer. Guttermacher Policy Review, 14 (11) pp.8-19.

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care

Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 as of July 2013.

Children’s Defense Fund. (2010). Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act Summary.

Boys Don’t Cry: The Crisis of Masculinity

When we talk about sexism, we almost always automatically think of the victims as women. Tackling discriminating language, sexual harassment and domestic violence seems to be exclusively discussed as ‘women’s issues’. Much in the same way that these problems are not only ‘women’s issues’, sexism itself is not a ‘women’s issue’. There are other types of sexism which are equally pervasive in our society and potentially more corrosive due to the fact that they constantly go undiscussed or completely undetected.

boysdont‘Man up’, ‘be a man’, ‘men don’t cry’, ‘Lad culture’; these are all commonplace maxims in our daily lives. Our understanding of manhood and masculinity is that of men as tough, unemotional individuals who will not shy away from a fight and who have a duty to protect and provide. They can never be the vulnerable ones.

This image is everywhere for our young boys to aspire to. Popular culture feeds us the ultimate ‘men’s men’ such as Sylvester Stallone, Vin Diesel, 50 Cent, and even the fictional comic heroes, like Batman and Superman, are physically strong and violent individuals.

Manhood is so synonymous with violence that we never stop to ask ourselves what we are fed by the media. How often is the climatic, heroic moment in a film, the part in which one man fights and defeats another? And from being violently superior, that man consequently wins the affection of women and the admiration of his peers. We celebrate these moments rather than condemn the violence.

We have begun to openly acknowledge the damage that our narrow view of manhood has done to young men struggling with their sexuality. As a Social Worker I have worked with a young man whose greatest hurdle to admitting his homosexuality was how it would affect his identity as a male. “But I don’t like girly things” was his stock response for denying his feelings. Ignorant preconceptions state that in order to be a man, you must like women and in order to be gay, you must be camp. However the problem runs much deeper than this.

The conversation we are not having is why the majority of the world’s prison population is male or why the majority of all violent crimes, rapes and assaults are committed by men. We accept this as normal; as if this is what nature intended and there is no cure. Similarly, throughout the world, the number of men successfully committing suicide is dramatically higher than the number of women. In addition to this, a report from 2012 from the Office of National Statistics in the United Kingdom discovered that men were most likely to be homeless or suffer from substance misuse issues. There is something terrible plaguing our men and I do not believe we should simply stand by and claim ‘it is what it is’.

Some people are finally beginning the conversation about the crisis in masculinity. Jackson Katz, creator of Tough Guise, is a leading anti-violence educator in America. In the United Kingdom, the theatre production of Result, is using football to discuss mental health problems amongst young males. UK MP, Diane Abbot, also launched a campaign to tackle what she describes as the ‘Fight Club’ generation.

We need to stop allowing masculinity and feminity to be defined so rigidly. Siobhan Bligh succinctly stated: ‘What we must aim for is a healthy masculinity, in much the same way feminists would want women to have a healthy femininity. Whilst these ideals may be social constructions, they still guide people in the way they see themselves and others, and therefore it is imperative to promote a healthy gender culture for both men and women.’ )

If we as Social Workers are to claim to be defenders of social justice and equality then we cannot ignore this problem any longer. We must lobby nationally and internationally to tackle the media glorification of male violence, but also on an individual level, we should never allow boys to feel that power, aggression and stoicism are necessary parts of their development into manhood.

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Your Teen and Alcohol: Signs of a Problem

It is important for all parents to familiarize themselves with the most common signs that a teenager has developed an alcohol problem. After all, research indicates that as many as 30 percent of all high school students participate in binge drinking, and this can easily lead to alcoholism, a DUI arrest or even death. Realistically, the vast majority of teenagers will experiment with alcohol at some point. However, there is a big difference between catching your teen trying a beer and turning a blind eye to the many warning signs that they have started drinking on a regular basis.

Top Warning Signs

Sure this is water?
Sure this is water?

1. Issues at School – A sudden drop in academic performance should always be closely paid attention to because it can be indicative of an alcohol, drug or medical issue. Additionally, you need to pay close attention to any attendance issues or any unusual disciplinary action that occurs. Due to this, it is always a good idea to request that your teen’s school contact you if they begin to notice a decline in grades or behavior.

2. Switching to a New Social Group – It is natural for teens to branch out socially as they get older, but anyone who suddenly switches their entire group of friends could be developing an issue with alcohol. After all, this typically happens when a teenager decides that they want to get drunk a lot and their typical group of friends disapproves. You should be especially cognizant of the danger that is presented by any new friends that your teen is reluctant to let you meet.

3. Mood Changes – Every teenager goes through mood swings, but adding alcohol to their hormonal mix is likely to render them even more defensive and irritable. Therefore, if they begin exhibiting frequent outbursts of anger you will need to consider the possibility that they could be on their way to becoming an alcoholic.

4. Mental or Physical Issues – If your teen suddenly starts having issues with poor concentration and memory lapses, this could definitely be indicative of a drinking problem. Additionally, you should pay attention to other potential warning signs such as slurred speech, coordination issues and bloodshot eyes.

5. Depression – Although a teen can definitely have the symptoms of depression without drinking, it is common for an alcohol problem to be accompanied by low energy levels, a sloppy appearance, a negative attitude and the unwillingness to participate in activities that used to make them happy.

Unfortunately, many underage drivers are arrested for a DUI each year. According to New Jersey attorneys Levow & Associates, if a DUI occurs within 1000 ft of a school, consequences are even more severe. If this happens, your best recourse is to contact an experienced local attorney to help defend your teen in court.

If you have a good reason to believe that your teenager has a drinking problem, you should take steps to get them help before they end up in legal trouble.

Peer Pressure: Tips for Parents

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Teenagers do not have an easy time in today’s world. Along with maintaining their academic grades, completing homework assignments on time, learning how to drive a car, and making first attempts at romantic relationships, kids have a lot to think about every day. Many teens succumb to peer pressure during this experimental and confusing time in their lives. Even if you have taught your children about the dangers of drinking and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, her friends may have more influence at times than you do. How can you help your teen make good choices?

Speak Openly to Your Kids

One of the best things you can do, as a parent, to combat peer pressure is to talk openly with your children. Ask them about their friends, their hobbies, and their feelings – anything that can help them understand that you are someone they can trust; someone they can share concerns with. Let your teen know that it is OK to make mistakes, but when it comes to alcohol, those mistakes can be deadly.

If your teen tells you he feels pressured to drink in order to fit in with the clique at school, explain to him that true friends would never encourage him to do something he isn’t comfortable with, especially if it is something illegal, like underage drinking. Talk to your teen about experiences in your own life if possible in which you didn’t go along with the crowd and still achieved happiness and did great things.

Know the Warning Signs

When you suspect your teenager may be headed down a destructive road, you have every right to investigate. Her life may depend on it. As a parent, it is your duty to periodically check emails, text messages, and Internet search history.

Look for conversations about drinking, partying or anything else that may be alcohol or drug related inferences. Pay attention to teen lingo such as, “POS” (parent over shoulder), “PAW” (parents are watching), and “PIR” (parent in the room) that might be used during conversations about covert actions.

Explain the Consequences

One of the biggest concerns you can convey to your teen about drinking is the serious consequences – legally, emotionally, and financially – that drinking and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (DUI) can have on her future.

States have various DUI laws addressing drinking under the age of 21.  Young people are usually surprised by the severity of the charges, especially in some states. For example in Florida, one DUI attorney at Katz & Phillips, PA points out that the legal drinking age has been 21 since 1987 and one drink could put a teenage on the wrong side of the law.

“Adults are not legally considered to be driving under the influence in Florida until their blood alcohol concentration reaches .08 percent. If you’re under 21, you don’t have that luxury. You’ll blow over at .02 percent – the legal limit for underage drivers — and you can be charged with a DUI.” ~David Katz

Teenage drinking is a serious issue that could result in a criminal record, license revocation, and even jail time. The more seriously you explain the consequences, the better the chances your child will realize the gravity of this dangerous activity and choose to refrain from it regardless of what his friends are doing.

How to Protect Your Child Against Sexual Abuse

Child Sexual abuse is still a taboo topic in many homes. We don’t talk about it, we don’t want to hear about it and we just pretend it would never happen in our homes. What if I told you that educating your child about the dangers of sexual abuse could protect them?

What if I told you that teaching them about the proper names for body parts could help give them the language they need to keep themselves safe? Well, the fact of the matter is knowledge is power. The more age appropriate information you give your child, the better equipped they will be to handle difficult situations. Let’s begin by discussing the language we use.

Too often we use pet names for our body parts. We call vagina’s pocket books and penis’s ding-a-lings. Although this may help the parent in a moment of discomfort to communicate with a child, it does not help the child develop the vocabulary needed to express themselves in the event of abuse. For example, could you imagine the child who runs to the police officer and says to them that, “that man or woman touched my pocket book”?

It may even take you a while as the parent to get what they are trying to say to you. Teach your children the right names for their body parts. This can begin right from birth. If they touch their penis, you say “penis” or if they ask you, “mommy, what’s that”? Then you say, “Breasts”.  Another way to educate your child is by informing them of who can touch them and for what purpose.

If your child is a toddler, it is very important that they understand the difference between being assisted and being fondled. If they are capable of caring for themselves, then only the parent and medical professionals should be allowed to examine their genitalia or other private body parts. We know that perpetrators of sexual abuse are typically relatives or people close to the family. So, it’s important that we inform our children that they should not be afraid to tell their parents if someone, no matter who it is, touched them inappropriately.

Which leads me to the next point, how to distinguish a good touch from a  bad touch. Educate your children on what good touches and bad touches are. They should know that a hug or high five are good touches. Bad touches are touches to their private areas or any touch that makes them feel uncomfortable. You can use dolls to do this or even role play with your child. Finally, let’s talk about supervision.

Child-on-child sexual abuse is extremely common. Children who are left alone playing house or playing unsupervised in general are at risk for inappropriate sexual behaviors. Educate your child on what behaviors are acceptable during play time and ensure that an adult is always present to monitor their activities. I would highly encourage anyone who uses nanny or baby-sitting services in their home to keep the home monitored to ensure the safety of the child.

These steps reviewed frequently with your child will greatly increase their chances of not falling victim to sexual abuse.

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