"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
childrenmostly telephone, mail and through the children's
mothersand 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
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 peoplemurderers."
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
beatingit'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.