Shaming is Shaming Even If It’s Well Intentioned

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately due to some conversations my husband has recently had with colleagues. He works at a prestigious liberal arts college where the majority of faculty have never experienced the degradation and helplessness of true poverty. My husband’s childhood experiences are as foreign to them as someone from another country. While they understand poverty exists, they really don’t get how it affects people, their interactions with others, and how they live.

For instance, he related a story to a colleague about how another colleague once joked that they would remember they could feed him dinner for only $3. He and a few others had taken a seminar speaker out for dinner–a dinner my husband couldn’t afford but which he went to anyway (that networking eventually paid off in his getting the job he now has, so it was worth it). He bought a $3 appetizer and claimed he wasn’t that hungry. The colleague had no idea that the reason my husband limited his food was that we had extremely limited funds and he simply could not afford to purchase an actual meal. It never crossed his mind there was an ulterior motive.

When you’re poor, you never share with others how poor you are. It’s humiliating to admit that, despite hard work and doing everything you;re supposed to do, you have nothing. You make excuses, tell small fibs, and hope no one finds out exactly how awful your finances are, because then they might feel pity for you, or worse, anger at you for not working hard enough to make a living (and there’s always the ‘well-intentioned’ shamer who bloviates, “God provides for those who provide for themselves, so you just aren’t doing enough for God to deem you worthy of help”).

The reason for this diary, however, is an incident that happened during one of my programs for work. My storytimes get a couple dozen families, and their financial situations range from “new immigrant, no money” to “my husband works at a local college so we are comfortably well-off”. That’s quite a range, and the wealthier families will say or do things that oftentimes show how much of a bubble they live in. In this particular instance, it involved singling out an immigrant mother because her child was not in preschool.

Three mothers who knew one another were sitting at a table while their children completed the after-story craft, talking and laughing together, while another mother helped her daughter with the activity. One of the three mothers looked at the unknown mother and asked how old her daughter was. The three gasped loudly, drawing attention from other families, when the mother responded, “She’s four.” The three began to chastise her for not having her daughter in preschool, since everyone knows that children need preschool to succeed in kinder. They told her that their older children went/had gone to a local religious preschool that only cost $400 a month, and gave the other mother a card with the school information on it, telling her the secretary would be there until 3:00 PM and that she should call right away.

The solid mask the woman’s face had become before she accepted the card and placed it in her purse made me want to punch the three mothers.

While they ostensibly wanted what they considered best for the child, what they really did was try to shame her parent into doing what they wanted her to do. The reaction to their helpfulness was either not noticed or ignored, and the mother packed up quickly and ushered her daughter out the door.

They haven’t been back to storytime since, though they still visit the library–usually during times of day when few others are around. Considering I see them when preschool is in session, it’s a good guess the mother did not contact the preschool.

There’s so many reasons why she wouldn’t. Obviously religion is a factor, and I still wonder if the three parents were thinking “here’s a person we might be able to convert!” Why assume a random stranger would willingly send their child to your religious institution for schooling? Considering how the three mothers behaved, I have a not-very-nice impression of their church and how the congregation likely views outsiders (well, I get to hear parents gossip during the craft part of storytime, so my impression is not just based on this incident, but is enhanced by it). The targeted mother certainly felt the brunt of their disdain.

Wealth is also a factor. According to the Preschool Report 2014 for the state of California, 48% of 4-year-olds live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. Only 35% of those children get financial help to attend preschool. And, if you have not guessed, immigrants are usually not the wealthiest of people. Many need help to send their child to preschool–and those funds are scant indeed. The three mothers insisted that $400 a month for preschool was a real bargain–and simply assumed, since they have a steady and not-so-bad family income, random Jane is in the same boat and can come up with $400 to send a child to preschool. The truth is, many visitors to my library utilize our services because they cannot afford to buy books or purchase internet access. Granted, I have no idea whether this particular family can afford preschool, if they are choosing to homeschool, or what, but that doesn’t mean you can assume that people make enough to cover school tuition. When you do, it leads to incidents like these, where you feel justified in trying to shame someone to do what you deem is best for their child.

And that is the real thrust of emotional sword–the insinuation that the mother was not doing what was best for her child. Her child needed to be in preschool. That was that, and where there’s a will, there’s a way to get her there, right? Wrong. There are the above-mentioned reasons why preschool may be out of reach. There’s also language and cultural barriers. One of the reasons so many immigrants bring their children to storytime is that those children are able to interact with other children despite their limited vocabulary in the new language and lack of understanding of new social norms. They get to listen to stories, sing songs and repeat rhymes which help in learning the new language, and adjust to a new culture in a non-threatening setting, Storytime can be a very welcoming experience to new arrivals who are unsure about their new home. I try to cultivate that experience.

That those three parents completely trashed the sense of welcome and belonging I try so hard to maintain infuriated me. That they decided to pick on another mother infuriated me more. And I just get sad every time the targeted mother leads her daughter out of the library and the child asks when will she be able to do the craft again. Those parents, because they chose to shame a mother and make her feel so uncomfortable that she refuses to return to storytime, have denied the child a program she loved. She may not have had preschool, but she had storytime–and now she doesn’t even have that.

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