Monday, March 30, 2015

Defending the Family: My Take

Over the weekend, my Church hosted a Women's Conference that I attended with two of my daughters.  The Conference began with a video that showed families sitting together in various settings, singing the words of a fairly new children's song about families.  This was followed by many talks about how the family is under attack and called on us, as women, to defend the family.

I have since read many posts online and have talked to women at church about the Conference.  Probably more than any Conference session I can remember, most reactions I have heard are reactions of alienation and confusion.  One woman at church told me that watching the videos of the perfect families singing in the sunlight made her feel inadequate.  I have read blog posts about women wondering exactly what is meant by this call to "defend the family?"  From one blogger:  “Hey, does this mean I should be speaking out against divorce and/or same-sex marriage and/or unwed parenthood?”  

I think for most of us, imagining ourselves getting on a soapbox and having confrontational exchanges with our friends and families about polarizing issues doesn't sound fun or effective.  And frankly, it doesn't sound Christlike.  So, I have decided that for me, this is not going to be my take away from Women's Conference.  Even though such a conversation is where my mind first went when I heard the words "defend the family," I don't think this is what our leaders meant (at least I hope not), but they weren't very specific about the specifics.  

And so I guess it leaves it to each of us to figure out the specifics for ourselves.

So I have been asking myself all day, first: What are the threats to the family?  And by threats, I mean real threats, substantiated by data, not simply by perceptions and fears.   Secondly, what are my responsibilities in relation to those things?

Research has shown the the biggest threat to stable families is poverty.  In January of this year, The Washington Post published this article that cites research that shows that for the first time in 50 years, the majority of U.S. public school students are in poverty.  These children will have a much harder time getting a good education than their more affluent peers, and because poverty is cyclical, the instability that they are experiencing in their lives will likely be passed on to their children and their children's children.

I run a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching social and emotional learning skills to children and teens through the medium of ballroom dance.  In my work, I visit a lot of schools--from very affluent schools to very high-poverty schools.  

In the affluent schools, the children are supported on all sides.  Parents regularly visit the classrooms.  The PTA raises money for extras from playground equipment to field trips to computers.  The parents show up for our culminating dance performances in droves.  Parking is always a problem because there are so many supporters.  The boys and girls are all impeccably dressed and someone has helped them fix their hair.  Parents bring flowers to celebrate achievements.

In the high-poverty schools, the kids come to school hungry.  The principals and teachers spend their days exhausted from dealing with behavior problems, and it is so hard for them to teach the material to children whose basic needs have not been met.  For principals and teachers, communications with parents are often heated and unproductive, leaving educators emotionally depleted. At one school, the principal packs 30 backpacks full of food to send home with children over the weekend, every weekend, so they have something to eat.  These are homeless children.  In suburban America.  At another school, members of my staff and I cried when we learned of an instance of human trafficking that involved one of the 5th graders.

Children in high-poverty schools often come to school dirty, maybe without basics of clothing.  At these schools, there is usually no PTA support.  There are no extras--unless the teachers and principal can scrape it together.  When we have our culminating dance performances, very few parents attend. Very rarely do children have a nice dress or a shirt and tie to wear.  Often, it is the teachers who help them comb their hair.   

At one of our last inter-school competitions, the principal from a high-poverty school drove all over Tacoma and personally picked up the kids from her school to make sure that they could attend the event, because their parents couldn't drive them (probably single-moms, probably without cars or money for gas).  Contrast this with the affluent school--who brought parents, grandparents, and half the town and overwhelmed the auditorium with their cheers of support.

This is my personal glimpse into poverty and the inequalities it creates for children.  I absolutely believe that poverty is a threat to stable families now and that this threat is increasing as we look into the future.  As hard as they try, those teachers and principals can never fill in the gaps and meet the needs of all of those children.  And without their needs being met, those children, and eventually their children, will be vulnerable to a whole host of problems, some of which I can imagine and some of which I can't.

In Relief Society today our lesson was on living an abundant life (a spiritually abundant life, not a materialistically abundant life).  Towards the end we were reading in Mosiah 18 from the Book of Mormon.  This is a chapter that discusses our baptismal covenants.  

Alma says to the people in verse 8:   

Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death . . . 
It goes on, but I realized that this is what we signed up for when we got baptized, to "bear one another's burdens" and to "comfort those that stand in need of comfort."  Have you ever noticed how many times the scriptures implore us to take care of the poor and the needy?  Pretty much constantly.  And that was kind of the theme of Christ's life, who is our example.  It struck me today that the Lord is not asking us to defend the family by having wars of words with our neighbors, but by rolling up our sleeves, extending a hand of fellowship, and following His lead by doing our part to alleviate poverty in our communities.  
I agree with our leaders that women can be tremendously powerful in this effort, and that we are needed.  Several times, I have gone into a high-poverty school and said, "I'm guessing you don't have much PTA support . . . " only to have the principal respond, "Well, we have one amazing mom."  And I have learned that one amazing mom is all it takes.
The example I have shared from observations in my life is just one possibility in what I believe are endless opportunities for strengthening families by addressing poverty.  I am certainly not suggesting that every woman needs to go sign up for the PTA, but I do believe that being involved in the work of local schools is one way to make a difference for families.  There are all kinds of poverty in our world today that extend beyond economic poverty, such as spiritual poverty and emotional poverty, and there are many different ways to address these issues.  None of us has to look far before we see a need that can be filled.  
In John 21:17:  "He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep."
Feed my sheep.  For me, when it comes to defending the family, those are the specifics.