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"LEADER" On-line: Leader Fall/Winter 98

It's hard to say who is learning the most when Active Parenting principles are brought to federal prison.

Parenting from the Pen


by Terry Gibney
For a guy accustomed to doing Active Parenting groups in child-care centers, YMCAs and corporate meeting rooms, the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary is a bit of a shock. From the ultraviolet marking stamped on my hand (my ticket to exiting the facility) to the numerous steel doors clanking shut behind me, it's clear this will not be your run-of-the-mill session on communication skills and logical consequences. I walk down the long corridors with Sally Doster, coordinator of the parenting program. She moves through the mass of men like everybody's favorite high school English teacher, greeting inmates by name. Sally is a volunteer who decided one day that an outreach to inmates who wished to continue in their roles as fathers-despite prison sentences running into decades-was important. Whenever possible, she likes to bring in men as "guest" trainers.

As a guest I will not have the weeks needed to conduct a full-fledged Active Parenting program. However the ideas are too good not to share with this group of very long-distance dads. And my curiosity about seeing the inside of the massive old prison helped me overcome my doubts about connecting with the parent group I'm about to meet. Now that I'm here, however, I'm not so sure.

About 15 men wander into our classroom-black, white and Hispanic. That's important because Sally told me that discussion can easily turn into areas of racial conflict, which is high in this institution (as it is in most).

I've already decided not to use the Active Parenting video vignettes because of the unique family situations we have here. We start by talking about the way the men stay in touch with their children—mostly telephone, mail and through the children's mothers—and a common difficulty quickly arises: many mothers are now with different men. I expect anger about this, but the group is decidedly realistic. They're going to be away a long time and they understand that many women will move on.

What they don't understand is when moms resist their maintaining contact with their children because the women believe it threatens their current relationships. And, indeed, many of the "new men" do not want the dads calling the house and talking with moms about parental issues. A lively and thoughtful discussion takes place (although not everyone participates; two or three men are present to enjoy down time and are mostly asleep). A few men say they believe it may be time for them to sever relationships with their children and let the new family move forward.

Others argue against this with a passion and articulation that surprises me. There are some serious dads here. I tell them that the notion of sacrificing their own relationships with their children-for the good of the children-is a noble idea, but, in fact, research has clearly shown the huge importance of maintaining and nurturing the ties.

This discussion spins off in an interesting direction about feminist issues. The men are offended by the bad decisions the moms sometimes make just to be in relationships, like bringing inappropriate men into their children's lives.

I offer a few ideas about the manner in which women are depicted in the media and what that says about society's conflicting expectations. This jump-starts a group dialogue about the plight of the women and the daughters they left behind. The talk is good and I must admit to secret pleasure in watching a group of convicts briefly transformed into a women's consciousness-raising circle. The subject of how to effectively discipline their daughters leads to logical consequences which leads to corporal punishment. This can be a sticky topic with middle-class suburban parents; with inmates it's a train wreck waiting to happen.

They tell some hair-raising stories about how they were physically disciplined as children, yet the majority believes spanking to be a good thing. An exception is a man with a low, wonderfully resonant voice, somewhat like James Earl Jones', who speaks about how physical punishment creates rebellion and the desire for vengeance. He then models a parental conversation with a child who is picking on his sister, laying out logical consequences in a respectful but firm manner.

A whip-thin guy from West Virginia, all muscle and sinew with shoulder-length gray-blond hair, says he appreciates what the man is saying, but his daddy whipped the daylights out of him and he whipped the daylights out of his own children and they all turned out fine. It seems ludicrous, but after hearing so much advocacy for physical punishment, I have to point out that they are, after all, in prison. I wonder aloud if there is a connection between being physically abused as children and the choices they have made as adults.

Unwittingly, I have made a racially charged comment. A Jamaican man with a very large shaved head, who had not yet spoken, looks at me dolefully. "You think because most of us are black and we believe in spanking, and because we are in this prison, that we are violent people—murderers."

He tells a story about the time his son committed a misdeed. When he found out, the Jamaican instructed his wife to drive the son 400 miles to the prison he was housed in at the time. There in the visitor's center the man beat the boy and the mother then drove him home. The father views the fact that the boy is now in medical school as proof of the punishment's effectiveness.

I'm about to counter that the key to this story is not the beating—it's the fact that the man and his wife were so committed to the boy's upbringing that he was driven 400 miles to face consequences for a misdeed. However, the longhaired West Virginian jumps in and challenges the Jamaican's statement by saying, "I know I'm an armed robber because my Daddy broke my bones."

He may mean what he says, but it mostly sounds like a too-easy conclusion designed to make the Jamaican look bad, and it's time to go anyway.

I shake hands with most of the men. Many of them seem stimulated by the discussion; I know I am. I want to come back and do the full Active Parenting program with them. Some of these men are good parents, even on the inside.

Click for Active Parenting books and videos for families with a parent in jail.


Reprinted from Leader magazine.
Copyright 1998 by Active Parenting Publishers, Inc.