Saturday, January 19, 2008

There is a better way

Our local public libraries in this city are on the verge of hiring armed police officers and its not because they want them to have more reading time. These folks are scared of the young people who recently began spending more time in the libraries, primarily to get access to the internet. Our staff have been talking with folks at the libraries about alternatives to this plan, and I'm happy to tell you that the leadership is interested in hearing more.

We provided a training to some of the staff in the library across the street from us and it was well received. They report to us that after resorting to calling the cops at least once a week due to unruly behavior of kids in their library, since the training this summer, they have not called them once. They also told a wonderful story of just one of the changes they made. After the training they realized that many of the problems with young people began while they were waiting in line to get on a computer. With this information, they decided to place Sudoko puzzle books and a checkers set where kids were waiting in order to give them something to do. And, whala...problem solved.

Now maybe that's just an interesting story in and of itself, but I think its also a metaphor about how we are making all the wrong choices in our fearful attempts to establish security in this world. Whether its a "lock 'em up" mentality to solve all social ills, a "build a wall" mentality in our immigration policy, or a "shoot 'em up" mentality in response to perceived international threats, we seem to keep playing the same old song, regardless of how ruinous the results.

The heart of the training we provided to library staff was based on research into parenting styles that breaks down approaches based on structure (demands) and responsiveness. Here's a little summary:

Neglectful parents are neither responsive nor demanding. They do not support or encourage their child's self-regulation, and they often fail to monitor or supervise the child's behavior. They are uninvolved.

Permissive parents are responsive, warm, accepting, and child-centered, but non-demanding. They lack parental control.

Authoritarian parents are demanding, but not responsive. They show little trust toward their children, and their way of engagement is strictly adult-centered. These parents often fear losing control, and they discourage open communication.

Authoritative parents are demanding and responsive, controlling but not restrictive. This child-centered pattern includes high parental involvement, interest, and active participation in the child's life; open communication; trust and acceptance; encouragement of psychological autonomy; and awareness of where children are, with whom, and what they are doing.

The librarians who went to the training realized that they were being permissive in ignoring problem behavior until it got out of control. Then, they brought in the authoritarians, or the cops, to threaten or use physical force to solve the problem. When they adopted the authoritative approach, they began to be responsive to the needs of the young people and looked for ways to solve the problem, all while being clear in their expectations about appropriate behavior.

So lets take a moment and apply these concepts to some of our current political issues. The neglectful people are not really in the game at this point. Perhaps that category can be applied to those in this country that continue to enjoy their lifestyle and keep their heads in the sand about what it is costing us in the world today.

Very often liberals are accused (rightly so in my mind) of being too permissive. There are justifiable criticisms of those who grant unqualified support to folks like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Conservatives and libertarians also engage in a permissive style when they, like the librarians, ignore the roots of problem development and then react too late with an authoritarian show of force.

But perhaps the style that is most overwhelming in our political scene today is authoritarianism. The same type of response that says we need armed cops in libraries is what is driving our "global war on terrorism." Its the knee-jerk thinking that a show of force will stop any kind of rebellion, no matter what the root causes. The lack of engagement in problem solving makes people think the only option is one of violence to stop the threat. And, as we are seeing in almost every sphere where it is used, ITS NOT WORKING.

The alternative is an authoritative approach - one that establishes expectations, engages in dialogue, and is responsive. So here's something revolutionary for those folks in DC...we can say that blowing people up, whether its in NYC, Iraq, Israel, the West Bank, or Darfur is wrong. AND we can talk to people, observe the situations, learn from history, etc., and try to find solutions to the problems that are creating the violence. This does not have to be an either/or question.

As a small example, I recently wrote an essay about a man named Greg Mortenson who builds schools for kids in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Imagine the lives and money that could be saved if we truly wanted to join with the people of the Middle East and took the time to engage them over Three Cups of Tea.

And on a more grand scale, JFK expressed it so beautifully in his inaugural address.

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