Thursday, June 20, 2013

No Rule Can Substitute Compassion

I happened to come across a few episodes of The World's Strictest Parents, a TV show where troublemaker teens are “shown the way.” The message is as conservative and moralistic as can be expected, narrowmindedly blaming the teenagers for just about everything. Still, upon closer inspection, it can't be brushed off all that easily.

The usual adult reflex, especially among people who pride themselves of high moral standards, is to claim complete innocence when their children don't behave exactly as they want them to. In most cases, that attitude is actually what started the problem.

It's not easy to be a teenager. The adult world, though, tends to demand of them to show none of it – as if leaving childhood is illegal. It's even so that they are treated with increasing intolerance and expected to show more self-restrain than ever before. That's detrimental. Often it is really cruel, in a way that no adult would ever accept to be treated.

The World's Strictest Parents doesn't differ from that pattern, not at all. The homes that the teens are sent to all have the same rules – no smoking, no alcohol, no profanity, no sex. They expect unquestioning obedience of the adults and complete adaption to their demands, no matter what. Very often the temporary foster homes are devoted to one or other religion, which doesn't exactly promote tolerance.

If the teens are unable to behave as demanded, the whole blame is on them – as if that proves their inferiority and delinquency. How many adults would pass such a test?

In addition, most of these teens have a deeply troubled past, for which they can't be blamed. Several of them experienced parental divorce when they were children, some of them had even been struck by tragic death within the family. More than once, these events are reported as coinciding with the start of the obtrusive behavior. Well, do the math...

It's nothing but inhuman to demand of the teenagers to be restrained and obedient to an extent that is not humanly possible.

So, I picked one of the shows to examine closer, in order to expose the absurdities I mention above. It happened to be the very first episode of the series, where the kids were sent to a conservative Christian family in Alabama. No Einstein needed to figure out what must follow.


The World's Strictest Parents - s01e01 - Alabama by theworldstrictestparents

Sure enough, the strictness and the rules were what could be expected, as was the initial clash with the teens when complete obedience was demanded. As if they could be expected to reprogram themselves inside out in mere seconds.

But another image emerged, soon into the show. The Alabama parents were non-compromising in their moral beliefs, but they proved to be very sensitive to the simple fact that the teens had another life to try to manage, and their own background stories making all the difference in the world.

So the adults were repeatedly forgiving, a paradigm of Christianity often neglected by those confessing loudly to it. Also, they were genuinely showing hope and commitment to actually help the teens – even when it meant bending the rules.

I was reminded about what Jesus said when the priests accused him for letting his disciples ignore the rules of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

The Alabama family was aware of this distinction, simply because they really cared about the two teens in their temporary care.

At one point, the father became angry and spoke heated words. It was when the teens had smoked contrary to their promise to him. It was not the smoking that upset him, but their breaking of a promise: “If we can't trust you, if we can't have faith in you, there's just nothing here.”

He was obviously saddened more than enraged, although expressing it in the latter way at first. He was disappointed, because he had genuinely hoped for a different outcome. That was evidence of how much he cared, which is just about all that matters and the only way by which serious problems in human relations can be solved.

That's also why they could put the incident behind them and move on, quickly from that point deepening their bond and mutual respect. That's a cure for just about everything.

I had to look at a bunch of other episodes of the show. Some were indeed dreadful in regard to what I've stated above about disrespect for the human heart beating inside the porcupine surface of teen attitude. When such encounters ended well, it was totally because of the compassionate yielding of the teens, in spite of adult rigidity.

But several other shows had that surprising quality of “the strictest parents in the world” reaching the teens and helping them to cure themselves. There was even one Utah Mormon family proving able to do that (season 2, episode 4) – much to my amazement. Mormons have their share of children emotionally crippled in their care.

What was always evident was the recipe for success: It came when the strict adults were moved enough to soften that strictness, really reaching out to the needs of the teens. Compassion is the key. No rule can replace it.

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