Broken Windows Parenting

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“It was an accident!”

My son’s explanation was the same as millions of others little boys throughout history who found themselves in trouble. On this day and in my son’s case the explanation was true.

He was playing across the street in the neighbor’s yard. His friend had a new boomerang which he had eagerly shown to our 6-year-old son. Like any self-respecting little boy, he threw it, hard. He and his friend watched as it flew in a graceful arc, spinning majestically through the air until it came to a sudden stop against the window of the neighbor’s garage. The boomerang remained in one piece, the window did not.

“It was an accident!” my son repeated his defense, obviously fearful of my paternal wrath. To his surprise, I was not angry.

“I know it was an accident, and you are not in trouble,” I said. I saw the fear begin to leave his eyes, slowly being replaced by hope. “You are not in trouble, but the window is still your responsibility. You are going to have to pay for the window.” The hope faded.

“But I don’t have hardly any money!” he replied.

“How much do you have?” I asked

“Seven dollars”

“Okay, you can give me the seven dollars and I will pay for the rest.”

“But it was an accident!”

“I know it was an accident. But the window is broken and it has to be fixed, and that costs money. Someone has to pay for it, and because you broke it, you have to pay for it. Even though it was an accident, you are still responsible.”

My son was unconvinced but obedient. We went home and gathered all of his change and took it back across the street. The neighbor reluctantly accepted our payment. He felt badly for my son and quietly told me that we did not need to pay. I told him that we had to, because my son needed to learn the meaning of responsibility.

I thought of this story this last week when my dog was attacked by another dog. The dog’s owner offered the same defense as my 6-year old had proclaiming, “It was an accident!” It was obvious that to him the lack of intention absolved him of any obligation to remedy the situation. Because it was “an accident” he owed me nothing.

It was clear to me that his father had not taught him the meaning of responsibility (or the he had had failed to learn the lesson when his father tried to teach it). He truly believed in his "accident defense.”

He is not alone in this belief. It is clearly shared by the person who did not leave a note when he dented by car 6 months ago and by the vast majority of people who bounce checks in my office. Most people do not think of the consequences of their actions or the impact on others. Their primary goal is to avoid responsibility.

What can be done? How do we get people to accept responsibility for their actions?

I do not know how I can get other adults to take responsibility for what they do, but I do now how to get future adults to take responsibility for their actions.

One window at a time.

  • Bart

Attacked By a Bum

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“You mother &$%#! Don’t you ever come back here again! This is my park. If you come back here again my bros and I will mess you up! Mother…”

The profanities and threats continued as the man, a vagrant, strode toward us across the parking lot, clenching his fists, his face contorted in rage. Lisa and I, each with one of our dogs on a leash, backed away as he approached. We were frightened, our fear only partially assuaged by the presence of our dogs and other park visitors. His anger was intense.

I had incited his rage by my actions a few days earlier during another walk in the park. It was a Sunday, and there were several child’s parties going on in the picnic area. Bounce houses, barbecues, balloons and balls abounded, and the joyous laughter of children filled the air.

I noticed the man about 50 feet from one of the bounce houses. He sat shirtless on the ground with a syringe in his right hand as he considered where in between the fingers on his left hand he wanted to inject himself. He was clearly in the process of getting high. (I assumed it was heroin but was sure it was not insulin!) Without even thinking I heard myself exclaim loudly, “Seriously? There are children 50 feet away!”

Appalled that he would so brazenly use drugs around children I grabbed my cell phone and quickly took a picture. Certain I was observing a crime in process I called the police, convinced they would share my concern and respond to my call. I was mistaken. I waited, at a distance, for over 15 minutes for the police to come. I never saw them arrive.

They must have arrived sometime later, as intermingled with the profane threats hurled our way a few days later were declarations that I had wronged him. “You liar, tell the police I was shooting up when I wasn’t!” was one of the refrains.

As he yelled his threats from across the parking lot I pondered what to do. I was not confident that the police would respond to a call but felt compelled to call anyway. I did not want to yield dominion of the park to such a man. This time they responded. A policeman came to my home a short while later. He seemed genuinely bothered by my story but offered little reassurance. “You can file a report,” he said, “but nothing will happen to the guy.”

He went on to explain that recent changes in California law had rendered the man’s blatant drug use and subsequent threats on my person mild offenses on the level of a parking ticket. All he could do was issue a citation, which would almost certainly be ignored. This, he told me, was the way things worked now. He then shared with me the uncomfortable truth that almost all of his fellow officers were planning to leave the state as soon as they qualified for retirement. For them, the war was lost and the bad guys had won.

In spite of his discouraging words I encouraged him to file my complaint and confront the man. “He needs to know that this is not acceptable,” I said, “If there are enough complaints maybe someone will do something.”

I do not know what followed, but I have not seen the man in the park since.

This week I had a different sort of encounter with a transient, even more frightening than the first. This time it was my daughter and I walking our dogs. We had taken them to a small park in a neighborhood a short way away from our home and had rounded the corner onto a street heading towards our house.  We were walking on the sidewalk along a row of parked cars when from behind a small cabover camper came a snarling pit bull. Before I could react the dog was upon us, growling and biting at our dogs. Sadie, our shepherd mix, rose to our defense, bravely biting at the other dog as I forcefully pulled her and Kona away and out of the other dog’s reach.

I saw that the pit bull was tied to the back of the camper and briefly thought I had backed away far enough and that we were safe. I looked for the owner and sawvhim across the street talking to another man. The owner turned at the sound of the dogfight and ran towards us from across the street, yelling at his dog as he came.

His dog ignored his commands. With a powerful lunge the pit bull broke free from its chain and attacked again. I vainly tried to pull my dogs away, spinning and tugging as Sadie again did her best to defend us all. The man finally arrived and grabbed his dog and pulled it away.

“I’m sorry,” he cried, “It was an accident!”

I was not interested in his excuses or apologies. He had foolishly and irresponsible left his violent dog unattended. I do not recall all that I said, but I remember telling him that it was dumb to leave his dog alone and that I better never see his dog unattended again. Remarkably, I did not resort to profanity.

I looked quickly at our dogs, and not seeing any blood, continued toward home. Sadie, powered by adrenaline, seemed unhurt. It was not until we were home that we discovered the extent of her injuries. She had deep puncture wounds in her chest and a tear on her back near her shoulder. It was clear that she needed medical attention. Lisa took her to the vet while I walked back to talk to the man about Sadie’s injuries.

I found him standing on the sidewalk next to his camper, talking to a friend. In as calm a voice as I could manage I said, “I realize it was an accident, but as a result of your mistake my dog has been injured and we are taking her to the vet. You are responsible for her injuries and I think you should pay for her treatment.”

“I’m homeless,” he replied, “I don’t have any money.”

And that was that. There was nothing I could do. I called animal control, but all they did was leave me a form to complete. The animal control officer told me that no action would be taken against the man or his dog.

The care of Sadie’s wounds required her to be sedated while the cuts were cleaned, dressed and sutured, at a cost of nearly $700. By the time we got Sadie home, Kona was displaying signs of injury, refusing to bear weight on her hind leg. Close examination revealed that she too had been bit. The next day saw $300 more in vet bills when she received care.

The man and his dog simply drove away. His foolishness and irresponsibility cost him nothing.

The last few days I have been ruminating about each of these encounters. I have come to the conclusion that they each reveal the root cause of the “homeless problem” facing our nation- the benefits of unaccountability. Both men did something clearly wrong, yet neither faced any consequences for their actions.

This is the reality for nearly all who choose to live on the streets (and for the vast majority of vagrants, it is a choice). They have withdrawn from civilized society, have cast aside the obligations of citizenship and any sense of responsibility for their actions or to their fellow man. They pay no taxes, utility bills or rent. They do not need to show up for work, answer to a boss, or meet any deadlines. They do not in any way contribute to society. They do what they want, when they want.

They often ignore basic hygiene and cleanliness, leaving their trash and excrement scattered around for others to collect. Many use drugs whenever they can, and often cast their used needles on the ground for others to retrieve or step on. They commit misdemeanor crimes with impunity, knowing they will be back on the streets before the officer completes his paperwork. They support themselves with gifts of food and money from strangers without shame or consequence, and many receive government aid.

While others may consider their quality of life unacceptable, many of them are content with their existence. It is the life they choose. They do not have to answer to anyone else, not to family, friends or supervisors. This freedom from accountability outweighs the discomforts of being homeless. They do not want to be a part of our world.

Their choices impact the lives of law-abiding citizens, but these citizens have little recourse. The legal system now sides with them, as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has declared that there is a right for people to sleep in public places unless someone else provides them with a free place to stay. According to the courts, it is up to the rest of us to support their existence.

What can be done?

The debate about what to about this problem rages in newspapers, city council chambers, courtrooms, and even churches. Good people who care about the plight of their fellow man struggle with what to do when they care more about this plight than those who endure it.

If this problem is going to be solved it will require hard truths to be faced. For me, I am going to start by changing the words I use to describe people who choose to live on the streets. I am not going to call them “homeless” any longer. That term implies a desire to find a home and the responsibilities that come with it.  (consider- no one calls a retired person or stay-at-home mom “jobless”). Only those down on their luck individuals who are truly trying to get back on their feet deserve to be called “homeless”.

For the majority of street people who do not want to participate in society, I now choose to describe them with terms that reflect their choice. Language should communicate the truth of things, and as a society we have not been truthful about the nature of the problem. We need to use terms that reflect reality. Many of these people are not “homeless”. They are vagrants, transients, and bums, on the streets by choice.

If these vagrants are to ever rejoin society, they will have to learn to follow the rules of civilized society, to accept the responsibilities the rest of us fulfill every day. When we give them money, food, and other support we keep them from having to accept these responsibilities.

 If we are going to solve this problem, we must first begin by acknowledging the truth of it. If we don’t the problem will only get worse.

 

When Doctors Overrule Parents

Do parents always know best?

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On the evening news tonight was a story about the parents of a 3 year-old boy with acute lymphocytic leukemia, an aggressive cancer with a fatality rate of 100% if untreated. As deadly as the cancer is, 98% of children achieve remission within a few weeks of starting chemotherapy, and 90% of those who complete chemotherapy are ultimately cured of the disease.

Perhaps because so many of its victims are children, ALL is one of the most studied and best understood cancers. Treatment protocols are well established and widely accepted. There is no debate regarding the role of chemotherapy in treatment.

No debate between physicians that is. The parents of little Noah decided they knew better than his doctors about how to cure his cancer. They rejected medical advice, believing that a mixture of herbs and supplements were the answer for their son. To them, chemotherapy is toxic and harmful and too risky for their child. They took their son and ran to another state in order to avoid treatment.

The doctors notified the state child protection agency which issued an urgent order that Noah be found and returned to Florida to complete his medical treatment. He was located in Kentucky, taken from his parents and placed in the custody of his grandparents. His chemotherapy was restarted and his parents have filed suit to stop it.

It seems to me that parental distrust of the medical profession is on the rise, associated with an increased trust in alternative therapies unsupported by scientific study. I see this most commonly with vaccines, where hardly a month goes by that I do not have standard immunization recommendations challenged by a parent who “knows better.” Parental belief in the harm of vaccines can be incredibly strong. A former patient of mine recently moved her family to Colorado in order to avoid California’s mandatory vaccine law! She is now a militant anti-vaccine voice on social media.

As foolish and as deserving of public shaming these parents may be, there is one area in which they have  arguments that are valid. They argue that allowing physicians to overrule parental choice is a slippery slope that may lead to harm. Recent cases suggest their fears are not unwarranted.

There are some medical conditions where expert opinion is not as united or where treatment choices are not as clear. In some cases, such as in children with gender dysphoria, medical opinion appears to be driven more by political correctness than by science. (For example, although studies have shown that 75% of children who identify as transgender will ultimately identify as their biological gender, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all such children be supported in their transgender feelings.)

In spite of medical data calling into question the validity of transgender identity, doctors are forcing parents to yield to “expert” opinion. In British Columbia a father has been threatened with prison time if he refers to his biological daughter by her birth name. A father in Ohio lost custody of his child for refusing to consent to hormone therapy intended to change his 14 year-old daughter into a boy. He has been ordered to consent to counseling for his younger children so they can accept there sister’s transition.

Things are not always crystal clear with immunizations either. While the public health argument for mandatory immunizations for highly contagious diseases is compelling, there are a number of vaccines for diseases that can be avoided by other means. Hepatitis B and HPV for example, are typically sexually transmitted. While the vaccines are not harmful, should we force parents of young children to consent to their administration? Or punish them if they don’t?

While there are times when parents do not act in the best interest of their children, this does not mean that parents should be overruled in every such instance. If we wish to maintain trust in the medical profession, we should respect parents whenever possible, only overruling them when the risks to their child or to public health are extremely compelling.

If we fail to do so, we risk losing the trust of parents everywhere, and should not be surprised when some parents do not accept even our most clear and most emphatic recommendations

Bart

Stop Blaming the Church

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I realize that some posts are so theologically focused that some readers may not be interested, but hey, it’s my blog, and this was heavy on my mind these last few days…

Here goes-

It happened again this week. I sat and listened as a well-intentioned teacher told us that young people were leaving the church in record numbers. The reason according to him was that there are number of important questions that the church has failed to answer. On the screen he shared a number of the unanswered questions that he believes have contributed to the exodus. His presentation was organized, passionate and compelling.

It was also wrong.

While it is true that young people are leaving the church in record numbers, it is not because difficult questions have not been answered, and it is not the church’s fault that this is happening.

Understanding this begins with an understanding of what is meant by “the church.” There are two possible definitions. One definition of “church” is the place where people gather for religious services. A second and more biblical definition of “church” is the universal community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.

Membership in the first type of church can be held by just about anyone, as individual churches can believe and teach just about anything. There are “Christian churches” that do not believe the Bible to be true, do not believe in the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus, and which are little more than social clubs. True believers would be expected to leave such a “church” in search of another. Leaving these churches, from a biblical perspective, is a good thing, not something to be mourned or lamented.

Membership in the second kind of church, a community of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, is different. While members of this community may gather in buildings on a regular basis, this is not how it’s members are known.  Membership in this community is granted by the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation, not conferred by an organization. It is an adoption into the family of God, a gift of God born of faith, not a choice by an individual.

Membership in the second kind of church is distinct from the first in another, crucially important way. Membership in the family of God is permanent and irrevocable. True believers never leave!

Consider the words of Christ-

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” John 6:37

“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” John 10:29

What does it mean then when young people walk away from a community of committed followers of Christ? Why do they leave?

The Apostle John gives us the answer-

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” 1 John 2:19

Consider the implications of John’s assertion. Nearly 2000 years ago John made it clear that there will be people who at one time claim faith in Christ but who will ultimately walk away from the faith. As terrible as this is John made it clear that it is something about the person, not something about the church, that causes them to leave. That something is a lack of true, saving faith.

How do we then reconcile the reality of so many young people leaving with these truths of Scripture? Why are so many more young people walking away from the church today? What has changed?

One thing that has changed is that church attendance, and faith in general, is no longer culturally popular. In previous generations church attendance was a sign of morality and goodness. As a result, it was easier for people who did not truly believe to feel comfortable going to church. Being a “churchgoing person” was a good thing, so people would stay even if they did not believe.

We are living in a post Christian world, a world in which traditional Christian teachings are increasingly considered immoral, bigoted and close minded. Being a “church-going person” is often no longer a positive thing. In such a society, why would people stay if they did not believe?

Yes, young people are leaving the church, but it is not because of anything true believers are doing. It is because these young people don’t truly believe!

Why then, do so many young people say they are leaving the church because of unanswered questions? I suspect it is because they do not want to admit that they do not truly believe. It is easier to blame others for one’s actions than it is to admit lost faith. (As a side point, in an internet world, there are no unanswered questions. Truth seekers can always find answers somewhere!)

This is important, because there are dangerous implications to the message I heard. The teacher, perhaps unwittingly, implied that the faith of the current generation was dependent on the actions of the church instead of solely on the work of the Holy Spirit. His teaching inadvertently suggested that God is not bring enough to draw people to Himself on His own.

This is not to say that there are not questions that the church can and should answer better, or that we do not have a responsibility to better equip young people to stand against the challenges presented by the world. The point is that the salvation of our children is not dependent on us. Their membership in the family of God is granted by Him, and there is nothing we can do to change it. Try as we might, we cannot save anyone. Fail as we may, we cannot keep anyone from God.

When confronted with our failings it is important to remember that the church will always be imperfect, and those who do not want to follow Christ will always point to her imperfections as their reason for leaving. Rather than apologizing for her imperfections, a better response for the church is to point to the perfection of Christ, for it is Him those who leave are rejecting.

Bart

PS: Some who read this may have heard the same lesson I did and think. “This was not his main point!” It wasn’t and I realize there were many good things said on Sunday morning. This post is not meant to pick on a particular speaker (he is intentionally unnamed), but to address a common error made by many people I have heard speak

Like it or not, it's Easter

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He was mad, seething mad. It showed on his face, disgust and anger intertwined, all directed at me. Because I had the audacity to speak the terrible truth about his condition.

A long-time smoker, several months earlier he had been diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer, an unwanted answer to the question of unexplained weight loss. Surgery and chemotherapy had done what surgery and chemotherapy do in patients like him, lengthened his days without changing the end result. He had a terminal disease.

He had returned to work, convinced that he was winning, weeks earlier. A few weeks before this conversation he took a turn for the worse, shortness of breath was now a constant companion. A chest x-ray revealed a large build up of fluid around his lungs, laboratory analysis confirmed the fluid was cancerous. All treatments had failed, he had days to live. It was my job to deliver the bad news.

“I refuse to accept it,” had been his reply, “I am not ready to die.” His defiantly set jaw supported the passion of his declaration. He was certain that he could still beat the disease.

“Whether you choose to accept it or not, whether you are ready or not, doesn’t change the fact that you are dying.”

He repeated his refusal, his voice rising.

In an attempt to break through his denial I spoke even more bluntly than before. “You are dying, and there is not anything anyone can do about it!”

He stormed out of the office and drove to the hospital where he demanded treatment. The doctor there admitted him to the intensive care unit. It was there he died less than two weeks later, proving the point that reality does not change because you refuse to believe it. The truth of things exists independent and unchanged by our acceptance of it.

His story and attitude came to mind this morning as I pondered the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus. For over two millennia, followers of the Christian faith have gathered to celebrate a remarkable, unbelievable story. On a Friday, a Jewish man named Jesus was executed by crucifixion, his battered and lifeless body placed into a cave-like tomb. The following Sunday, the “third day”, the tomb was empty, and hundreds of his followers claimed to have seen Him alive. He had risen.

His resurrection signified to them that Jesus was more than just a man, that he was God in the flesh. It affirmed his teachings and his life, which had proclaimed the way for men to have relationship with God.

The message of Easter, as with all messages, is either true or it isn’t. As is always the case with truth, the veracity of the story is not dependent on our willingness to believe it or desire to deny it. Jesus either rose from the dead, with all of the associated ramifications, or he didn’t, with those associated ramifications.

Either Christians are fools, victims of a cruel hoax or childish fantasy, or they are not. It behooves all men, those with and without faith, to explore the truth about Easter, to formulate answers and reach conclusions based on the facts of history and the available evidence. Neither blind faith nor blind rejection are appropriate responses.

Bart

Thanks for reading and sharing. If you have honest questions about the Easter Story, or any questions of faith, I can be reached through the contacts page on this website.