From the spanking debate sparked by Adrian Peterson to trans kids like Shiloh/John Pitt and Ryland, these controversial topics touched families everywhere.
It’s been a big year for bad news, as we watched in horror as not one but two planes completely disappeared in Asia, and shuddered with fear as Ebola spread in West Africa and crept over to the U.S. and Europe. For parents with young children, sometimes the news can get overwhelming. The temptation can be strong to just turn away from the news entirely.
But we shouldn’t turn away. Not only because every news story has something to tell us about the world we are raising our children to live in, but also because so much of the news directly affects us as parents. Below are five of this year’s big stories about parenting and children—every family I know was touched by at least one of them. How about you?
In September, Minnesota Vikings running back Peterson was indicted on charges of child abuse for beating his 4-year-old son with a switch. “Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son,” his lawyer said in a statement. “He used the same kind of discipline with his child that he experienced as a child growing up in East Texas.” The NFL’s initial response was tepid; the league suspended him for only one game. Later, bowing to enormous public outcry, the commissioner went much further, placing Peterson on its “exempt list,” effectively banning the 2012 League MVP from the game for the rest of the 2014 season. Peterson has accepted a plea bargain, and it’s unclear whether he’ll play professional football again.
While only a few defended Peterson’s actions (especially after the pictures came out), his case reignited a debate about spanking that has been running in the background of many parents’ own conversations about discipline. No matter how many studies come out suggesting that spanking is not only ineffective but downright harmful, a majority of Americans continue to spank their kids (just as most were spanked growing up themselves). The conversation got especially complicated around ideas of race and culture. Charles Barkley said that if what Peterson did was illegal, “every Black parent in the south is going to be in jail.” Writing for the BBC, Stacey Patton pointed out that while majorities of Black and White parents spank, the conversation around violence and race often reveals deep hypocrisy. When ESPN analyst and former NFL player Cris Collins said that he was parenting differently than he had been raised—“she did the best she should, but my mother was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me”—you could almost feel some minds beginning to change.
Along with corporal punishment, high levels of gun ownership is one of those things that continues to set our country apart from others we consider our peers. The results are quantifiable (though of course gun-rights groups dispute them)—around 100 children die each year from accidental shootings, while many more are injured but survive. Guns at home aren’t the only danger; school shootings have continued at a ferocious pace, unhampered by the brief political awakening following 2012’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. In the absence of legislation to protect them—even the mildest gun law reforms can’t pass our current Congress—many school districts have ramped-up lockdown drills, while some have armed their teachers. A few scumbags have found a market in parental fear, selling bulletproof children’s backpacks.
In the meantime, what are parents to do? We want our kids to be safe, but we don’t want them to have nightmares over the possibility of school shooters. We want them to be able to play without our constant hovering, but what if they happen upon a gun at a friend’s house? There’s no one answer, but my sense is that talking about guns is healthy and necessary: Tell your child what to do if she sees a gun at anyone’s house (don’t touch it, leave the room, tell an adult), teach your child that guns are never toys, and reassure him that the drills at school are like fire drills: preparation for something that will likely never happen.
In a year that saw the shootings of Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice (among many others), an increasing number of parents of Black children shared their fear, anger, and heartache over the dangers their sons and daughters continue to face—the vulnerability at the hands of police. It’s become known as The Talk: that moment when Black parents start telling their sons how to act if they are ever pulled over or otherwise come into contact with cops. White parents of Black sons find themselves having The Talk, too (just ask NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio). It’s poignant and sad as hell; in part because it puts all the responsibility on the vulnerable potential victim. Telling Black boys and men how not to get shot, beaten, or harassed is very similar to all those posters on college campuses telling women how not to get raped. It’s time for The Talk to go wide. I want there to be a Talk for the police on how to hold their fire, how to take an unarmed Black man into custody as nonviolently as they do an armed White woman. I want to have The Talk with friends whose kids are White—just so they can begin, if only in a tiny way, to understand how race in America still is lived.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s child, named Shiloh at birth, has asked to be called “John” and addressed with the gender-neutral pronoun “they.” John’s parents are publicly supportive of John’s decision, and also John’s tuxedo is amazing in this picture. Despite some concern-trolling from the usual suspects, most people seem to think Angelina and Brad are being pretty cool and low-key awesome about this, as you would expect. Such is not the case for many, many other kids who grow up to identify as trans, or as gender-nonconforming. This week saw the suicide of teenager Leelah Alcorn, who even in death was misgendered by her own parents (who put out a statement mourning their son). Gender identity is complex for sure, but as society’s views on trans folks continue to evolve, I hope we see more stories like John’s (and Ryland’s) and fewer of the awful losses like that of Leelah.
This year saw the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala Yousafzi was honored for her boundless courage in advocating education for all children, including girls living in violently patriarchal societies. Kids like Malala—and 14-year-old Gregory Martin, who may have discovered a way to make algae provide an endless source of biofuel, and 18-year-old pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong in Hong Kong—can and will change the world.
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