Injustices of youth: when it’s right for you to speak up

Though I didn’t have words to articulate it at the time, looking back I realize these could be filed under “Injustices of Youth”:

In 6th grade:

The boy I liked gave me a letter another girl had given him.  It was laced with profane words and (sexual) actions I had never heard of; horrified, I turned it in to my teacher, who in turn, took it to the principal.

All three of us were summoned to the office (the boy, the letter writer, and me) and punishments were doled out:  we were all required to write “lines” (Remember those?  Do they do that anymore in school??) and my sentence was “I will not read letters not addressed to me.”  Five hundred times.

I don’t remember their sentences, but his was 750 times and hers was 1,000.  I was the only one who completed it and turned it in.  I don’t think my dad was called and because I was led to believe I had done something wrong, I didn’t tell him; I was punished, after all.

In 7th grade:

I had braces, and for a season I was supposed to wear headgear 23/7.  The kind with straps across the back of your head and metal bars protruding from your mouth; torture devices–emotionally and physically, for a teenage girl.

To minimize the Nerd Factor, I wore a bandana to cover part of it.  When I arrived at Social Studies that first day, Mrs. Lumley promptly instructed me to remove the bandana because our school had a “No Hats” policy.  Mortified, I complied, but I also took off my headgear.  Quite possibly my first Worst Hair Day ever and I remember feeling embarrassed and UGLY all day long.

I’m sure many of you have similar stories with different circumstances.  The bottom line was that an adult/authority figure exerted control over you, for which you were not in a position to argue, defend, or disobey.

And it wasn’t fair…it truly wasn’t fair!

I believe it’s crucial for a child’s maturation to suffer the consequences of poor decisions.

If he makes a poor choice, he’ll learn best when he has to pay a price for bad judgment – not if you bail him out every time.  Otherwise, you’ll create an unattractive victim mentality.  That will not serve him now or through adulthood, or society in general ever!

But sometimes, your child needs you to be his advocate, when you see a true injustice and he’s not in a position to speak for himself.

This looks different for a teenager than it does for a younger child, and it should be a rare exception.

This isn’t about complaining about a bad grade your child likely earned, or lobbying a coach for more playing time because you think your kid “deserves” it; remember, she might be gaining something far more valuable sitting on the bench.

However, if you believe a call to action is warranted, how might you be an advocate if you see your daughter becoming demoralized or defeated from minimal playtime or bad grades you truly believe are too low given the work invested?

Have a reasonable, confidential conversation with the coach or teacher, asking her to encourage your child by recognizing her commitment to practice, good attitude, and support of the team, or obvious time spent in research.  Encourage the coach/teacher, too, because hers is a challenging, underpaid job.

Photo by Zdenko Zivkovic

A time when I felt compelled to be an advocate was when my oldest was on a mission trip.  My daughter sponsored a child and part of the attraction of choosing this trip was to meet the little girl she sponsored.

Once there, she was told unless she came up with an additional $200-300, she wouldn’t be able to meet her.  I won’t go into the rest of that story, but I was just as upset as she was.

I began a dialogue with trip sponsors and discovered a series of missteps and confusion on their end, ending with my daughter meeting her sponsored girl.  Though I’ll never be sure, had I not begun that respectful dialogue, I think that several trip attendees would not have gotten to meet their kids.

One word of caution:

Judiciously discern the circumstances that warrant advocacy for your children.  One of the first things children learn to say is “That’s not fair!” because they have a strong sense of entitlement and WANT.

You should ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by intervening, or what will happen if you don’t. Proceed only after you determine the far-reaching ramifications of your action (versus inaction).

A few suggestions to keep in mind:

“Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.”  
Your child can only share his perspective of the situation; your own observations will still tell only part of the story.  The more complete your understanding of the situation, the better you’re able to speak for your child.

Honestly evaluate if the circumstances are a consequence of your child’s choices.

Exercise restraint.  
Where our children are involved, it’s a challenge to remain neutral, calm, and unemotional.  Best approaches use a combination of reason, respect, and diplomacy, not attacking or pointing fingers (remember, three point back!).

Do not involve your child.  
Seeking to reconcile this type of child injustice should be a quiet and confidential exchange between you and the offender.  It’s not a time to win people to your side or rally for support; it’s an attempt to support your child, remedy wrongs, address warranted concerns.

Do personal experiences of your own “childhood injustices” come to mind? Do you have suggestions to add to my list above? Have there been instances when you should have intervened and didn’t, or chose to step in and shouldn’t have? How can childhood injustices be helpful even if they don’t turn out like you hope?

Robin Dance

Married over half her life to her college sweetheart, Robin's guilty pleasure is Reddi Wip from the can. Mom to three, she's as Southern as sugar-shocked tea. Follow her on Twitter. Her beautiful new blog is a must-see.

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  1. Two unjust incidents from my own childhood (and adulthood!) spring to mind, but the lesson they taught me is far more important than rehashing the story. I learnt that although a school, or even a military, may seem to be a big, infallible machine, it really is only a sum of its parts. And those parts are human. Able to err, and often individually struggling against the tide of the status quo just as much as you are. Both events were eyeopening.

    I haven’t had to step up for my daughters yet, they are still very young, but I hope to have the wisdom you have shown here if (when?) it is required. Thank you!

    • How did I miss your comment at the start? Hmmmm, odd.

      I really appreciate that despite the injust you learned something of value; that’s the most important thing :).

  2. Thanks, Robin. Though my children are young, I appreciate these specific words of wisdom with examples. I tend to over-protect, but I am learning to let them choose options that have small consequences. This learning process is learning life lessons without devastating results.

    • Tracy,

      Intentional parenting is HARD. Making the transition from doing everything for your babies to encouraging their (age appropriate) independence is no easy task; but so important in not only your child’s life but also *your* life :). We talk a lot about “choices” in our family (our kids are 15, 18 and 19) and I’m thankful for the most part they’re making good decisions. My son actually said to me the other day, “Most teenagers are only thinking right here (and he held his hand right in front of his eyes); I’m trying to look here when I decide what to do” (his arm extended). I loved hearing him think that way :). Good for you recognizing your tendency to over protect and then doing something about it!!

  3. Speaking of childhood injustices, when I was in elementary school I had a weird kind of day that resulted in three demerits. Before that day I had never received a demerit and three of them meant I was headed to the front office. I got paddled with a long wooden board despite my protest that my mother would never allow such a thing. When I spoke to my mother after school, she said that the school never called her about the punishment, which was school policy. My mom made sure it didn’t happen again, but I never looked at my teachers or administrators quite the same.

    My children are young. My hope is that I have the wisdom to advocate for them when I should, and the strength to let them experience disappointment and even the “that’s not fair” moments as appropriate. Tough balance.

    • It IS a tough balance; but you had one of those lessons early in life (like me) that maybe, just maybe, helps you to see a little clearer.

      I totally understand how that paddling affected the way you looked at your school authorities afterwards :/….

  4. I think your suggestions are very sensible. It’s important for our kids to know we won’t bail them out because of their poor choices but also important for them to know that we are their advocates because they are still children and sometimes need their parents help.

  5. I think this is such an important topic and your insights are spot on. I find I’m learning tons about restraint and handling situations with more grace when it comes to my kids. But, I am Mama Bear and I’m not willing to stand back and watch them endure cruelty or unjust treatment. I don’t feel my parents’ era was as ‘step-in’ oriented or as willing to defend when we were growing up, as parents are these days (at least from what I observed around me). I love showing my kids that I love them that much and that I’m always one of their biggest advocates.

    • These days my observation has been parents intervene too often! 🙂 But, again, like you’ve said, being their biggest advocate demonstrates love to them when they are most vulnerable and at the mercy of others.

      • I agree that parents these days intervene way more than my parents’ generation. I can’t remember any childhood instances of actually needing an advocate, but back then you don’t really think to question authority or make a case as a child.

        I tend to lean more towards being an advocate rather than letting things be. But rather than simply sticking up for my kid every single time, I try to equip him with the mentality that it’s okay to stand up for yourself, even against adults, and that even though adults tend to have authority, that doesn’t always mean they’re right.

  6. When the teacher of my fifth-grade science class assumed we all believed the theory of evolution, I, a Protestant, looked around at my Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish classmates, and knew that quite a few of us believed in a Creator God. So I put my hand up and told her I didn’t believe in evolution. The teacher was angry and threw me out of the class with instructions to sit in the hall and write three book reports. Fortunately the assistant principal was roaming the halls and told me I didn’t have to write the book reports, though I did sit in the hall the rest of the class.

    I’ve always looked on that as a character-building experience. It was right for me to stand up for what I believed in, and I was glad I did.

    • While your experience infuriates me, I’m just so proud of you (even though I don’t know you :)) that you stood up for yourself and others! Good for you!!! 🙂

  7. My mother was definitely one of those parents who did not question authority. I had a particularly bad year with a teacher who was mean, played favorites and was (using my adult lens), emotionally abusive. My mom did nothing. My siblings also had some bad experiences with teachers, coaches and bosses but my mom didn’t want to be one of those nagging parents who believe their kids could do no wrong. She now says she wished she had stood up for us more and is doing so with the grandkids. On the flip side, when we did do wrong she made sure we owned up to it, apologized, and made amends. For that I am grateful.

    • Steph,

      I’m glad your mom held y’all accountable though she didn’t quite know how to do that for others. It’s not so easy when you’re in the thick of a situation; and it’s interesting how you and I both now “see” more clearly through our adult perspective. Kudos for you for understanding how this helped shape you for the better.

  8. maryann says:

    So far we have never had to intervene in anything serious, thank goodness. The boys have learned that there will always be bad apples in life, whether it be teachers, coaches or bosses. That usually we have to play the cards we are dealt. And that unfortunately life is not fair.

    I have saved, however, a scrap letter that my dad wrote to my third grade teacher. Some children did something bad and the whole class was punished. We had to write the complete Times Tables 20 times. He repspectfully told the teacher that I said I wasn’t involved and that I am not a liar and that I shouldn’t have to do the punishment. This happened when I was 8, he passed away when I was 30, and I’m 47 and still save the letter where My Dad Stuck Up For Me.

    • That just gave me chills. I *like* your dad :).

    • This is where my oldest has often been often “hit” and so frustrated: the idea that because of the choices of a few/some people, everyone gets punished. I hate this just as much as he does. On a recent youth trip some kids were just throwing food or dumping things on the ground then at the end the leader insisted EVERYONE work to clean up the mess. He refused. He and my daughter had not contriubted to this huge mess so why should they get down on hands and knees to scrape paper towel and chocolate milk off the floor?! He just cleaned his own stuff and walked off the bus. I was prepared for an irate phone call from the leader and was fully prepared to defend him to the end (this was only one of several injustices on this trip) but the call never came. While my son can be stubborn and headstrong – I totally applaud his (1) sense of responsibility (ex. not making a mess on the bus) and (2) sticking up for himself. My daughter confirmed all the instances of injustice but she is much quieter and would be prepared to not rock the boat.

  9. A funny story about stepping in: When my oldest was 11, he was waiting in line for a ride at the parish carnival, a type of ferris wheel with cages that rotated and spun. All the teens were going ahead of my son, and when we went back much later and saw what was happening, my husband questioned the attendant. The guy says “He has no partner & no one wants to go with him”, so his dad says “I”M his partner.” They went next, my son was thrilled, and my husband was of course nauseaus. Ha,ha he’ll think twice before he jumps in again…

  10. These are really great tips. One thing my mom taught me as a child was “Guilty by association” She said even if I wasn’t doing something wrong, if I hung out with kids that were, I would be labeled or found guilty right along side them. Definitely and injustice, but that was good advice, that I followed throughout my school career.

    • Lisa, That’s one of the things we’ve tried to instill in our children–that friends can bring you up or down. And you’re right, it’s not always fair to be labeled according to what others have done…but it can happen. Best be wary :).

  11. I am an educator. I was a classroom teacher for 20 years. My most challenging parenting experience came when my twins entered middle school and had two poor teachers. Because it was a small school in a small community, these were slated to be their teachers for three years–in math and language arts, two of the (to me) most important core subjects.

    I had to dive deep into these questions, made all the more difficult because I felt disloyal to colleagues. (Though I didn’t work in the same school, I consider all educators to be my colleagues.) Three years out–which resulted in my kids transferring to another school and contributed to my decision to move out of that small community–I know I could have handled some things differently and worry that one of my children does have some of that victim mentality you refer to.

    Still, I hope that the larger lesson they’ll take away from the experience is that we should advocate for what we are entitled to. “Entitlement” has become a negative word, but our children are entitled to a good education. My children were not receiving services they are entitled to in our state’s education laws. I’m glad I advocated for them, but truthfully, there were negative consequences to my advocacy. Your advice to consider the long-term ramifications of actions (and inaction) is spot-on.

  12. I read often but have never commented. Although my daughter (our first) is only 10 months old, I have already started thinking about how to raise her in a way that protects her from *harm* but that isn’t OVERprotective. Don’t know that I’ll ever figure it out, but I do know that I want to be her advocate when it matters. What’s more, I want her to *know* that when it really matters (not just when she doesn’t get what she wants, but when an injustice is being done), I am in her corner. I think teaching her that also teaches her how important justice is for everyone in the world, and will hopefully lead her to become passionate about living justice out in her life.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

  13. Excellent article! I like the term intentional parenting and this is a great example of it. I strive to parent consciously, although it requires attention to not fall into the ways of your own parents or what every other parent is doing.
    To err is human, however, I think parents need to be conscious about their choices for their children- they should be choices and not just status quo. Better to analyze what you believe to be best for your child and make a few mistakes than make mistakes of others just because it’s the acceptable and standard choice of the parents around you. You may do many things against the grain but often you are making better choices for them.
    I, too, think that parents intervene too often on behalf of their children but,interestingly enough, somehow don’t intervene as they should when their child is the perpetrator. Many times on the playground, you see parents oblivious to their child not taking turns, pushing down others or throwing sand at other kids. It’s a sad state of parenting. Glad to see so many responsible parents chiming in here.

  14. Robin – this is great advice. I particularly appreciate that our job is not to intervene on everything. Part of growing up is learning that life is unfair sometimes and sometimes you have to correct the wrong on your own without intervention or push forward and overcome the injustice through your own perseverance.
    But the advice you give on keeping focused on the job at hand when you do intervene is invaluable.

    And – ah, yes – I had headgear too when I was 12. How unjust can the world be for a tween than to look like Frankenstein. Thanks for reminding me of those gruesome times when my dignity suffered so!

    P.S. Tsh – there’s something really weird about how your posts are formatting lately in Firefox. I have to scroll way down to find the comments and I can’t see any other comments!

  15. Growing up, my mom generally let me handle my own issues, but there was one time in particular in high school where an injustice was happening and she stepped in. She came with me to meet with a school employee and the Principal. Having her there to stand with me helped me believe in myself & lent credibility to the situation. I’m still grateful that she was there to help me.

  16. Really great post. Once my kids reach about 12 and up I would generally ask them how they want to handle injustices/unfair situations. Often they prefer to take charge on their own – or already have by the time I hear of the incidence. But if they want or need my intervention then I’ll be there – providing I’ve asked lots of questions and feel intervention is warranted. Many times there is no point in jumping in, the kids just need a safe place to vent. My two older kids seem to be developing into quite strong individuals – willing to stand up for themselves or others when necessary and willing to recognize when to keep their mouths shut.

  17. My son does NOT TELL his daycare providers when he is hurt by another child. 1. He used to and was told to stop complaining and go back to playing (by the director’s dau who was his teacher at the time which compounds the problem) 2 he told me when another boy had touched his privates and the director had the asst director take him in an office and question him SO INAPPROPRIATE. Later that day another teacher told him not to tell lies and stories about something else and in his mind he was a liar – he told me that when he got in the car. Well it turns out he was NOT lying but he knew forom my behavior I WOULD and DID believe him and protect him. I called CPS immediately. When the director called me later that day to deny it happened I told her not to go near my son. A few days later when she came to me

    • (Sorry) and said it HAD happened so they now knew my son was not a liar I stayed as calm as possible and when she suggested in the future to come to her since it had freaked the other caregivers out I suggested she get better training for her staff as I would protect my child the MINUTE I knew something hurt him and if she didn’t have staff that could handle children disclosing abuse and dint have a plan in place or training to know how to talk to kids she needed to fix that NOT make me or my son change.

  18. Wow Robin – I had the exact same letter writing incident and punishment in 5th grade! I too was the 3rd party who really wanted nothing to do with the whole thing.
    This is such a great post that I plan to refer to often – I know the mama bear can come out at any time and can be hard to quiet. This past year of kindergarten for my first has been particularly challenging in that area. The only time we intervened was over a bully (in kindergarten!) because my son, who is a total peacemaker, was afraid to go to school. When we checkin in with the teacher she was at the end of her rope over this student and feeling like the principal was not helping. About the time my DH and I had enough info to put together and meet with the principal the bully was expelled. BUT, all the other times I wanted to over other issues I just really had to realize that life isn’t fair, my child was not in a dangerous situation and to just move on.

  19. Three days before I started junior high, I cut off my pointer finger on my right, writing, hand. Since it was full of pins and stitches and wrapped up to my palm, I couldn’t use my hand much at all. I certainly couldn’t write, but that didn’t stop my English teacher from forcing me to try to write with that hand anyway.

    As soon as I got home from that first awful day at school, I had to go back to my surgeon to replace all the bandages, because the task of writing causes my sutures to bleed like crazy and then the gauge was stuck to everything. I was in a horrifying amount of pain and I never wanted to go back to school, but what I didn’t know is that the very next day my mom went to school and she took that teacher into the principal’s office (turns out the teacher and principal were BFFs), and laid down the law on what was going to happen from then on. It did include a threat of retribution from the surgeon as well (and that was no bluff!), and needless to say, that teacher left me alone for the rest of the year.

    I honestly didn’t remember much of anything about it, except having to have my bandages replaced. One random day Mom and I were just talking about past things and when she told me that I couldn’t believe it! I have an awesome mom, and I hope I do as well for my own girls.

  20. Well said and written, Thanks you for sharing this. There were many times growing up that I had to endure embarrassments and hardships, but in the end I really believed it helped make me the strong woman I am today. I will hopefully try to pass that down to my daughter.

  21. I teared up reading this. As a kid I knew that my parents were going to “side” with the adults in 99.9% of issues that came up. But there were a few times that my mom in particular stood up for me with no apologies, and typically it was right in front of me. (But I was not involved in the exchange, just a witness.) It cemented my understanding that she really was looking out for my best interests at all times – that most of time that meant I needed to grit my teeth and learn thru the situations, but that she had a solid knowledge of what I really needed and was willing to stand up for it. It definitely helped me stay more open to her as a teenager. And because I witnessed the interactions I learned a lot about how to respectfully stand up for myself and others. Her (few and far between) interventions changed my view of her, of myself, and how I can handle myself in this world. I only hope I can handle similar situations as a mom as well as she did.

  22. Nice article. I do believe, however, that the teacher was correct to enforce the school’s “no hat” rule. I’m not a teacher, but the fact that a student is embarrassed about her headgear does not seem to be sufficient cause for letting her wear a bandana everyday. Now if it was religious headwear, I would say that an exception is warranted.

  23. I had some rough times during school and my parents rarely got involved. One exception: my 1st grade teacher wouldn’t allow me to use the restroom, which was inside our classroom. I was painfully shy as a kid and this really messed with my head. Almost every week, I would have an accident and my mom had to bring me a change of clothes. It was so embarrassing and I was so frustrated and confused. My mom told me years later that she had a meeting with the teacher and principal and the teacher said I must have a kidney infection to have to use the toilet so frequently and was also retarded because I mixed up my P’s and B’s (irrelevant to that situation?) when writing. I remember thinking that the teacher certainly didn’t like me. I also remember her marking a big red X beside my name on an assignment because I wrote it in cursive instead of manuscript and I wasn’t supposed to know how to do that yet.
    Well, I still have to use the toilet quite frequently at age 36 (small bladder, I guess! everyone jokes about it) and I am not retarded or dyslexic.

  24. My five year old son was recently punished for throwing away a plastic cup after he was told not to. The teacher decided that refusing to give him any more water on that 95 degree afternoon on the playground was an appropriate punishment. Do you know what the worst part is…. she was not fired on the spot!

  25. My heart skipped a beat when you told the story about the bandana and the headgear. I wonder if your teacher knew?

    Thanks for this post, Robin. I really appreciated your perspective and I agree that there are definitely times that parents need to step out to intervene on behalf of their children.

  26. Having a nice afternoon skimming … and came across this. Wow! It is interesting how those injustices are so remembered. I think it’s okay to understand that adults are imperfect, but still … it’s really awful what some people have gone through.

    I, personally, remember very clearly the time I had a poor experience in high school choir. I had an A. If you missed a concernt, you were docked one grade. My family traveled to another state for a trip, planning to be back in time for my concert, but my brother ended up in the hospital for an ATV accident. Even with a note from the doctor, the choir teacher still docked my grade … dropping my GPA for his ridiculous rules that didn’t allow for reasonable exceptions.

    But those experiences teach someone to be fair themselves. You can learn from them … but thinking about it, I do wish my mom had helped. As a high schooler, I managed it as far as I could and wish she would have stepped in when I couldn’t do anymore.

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