A number of years ago an inner-city organization gathered middle school aged youth together weekly who had one thing in common with each other – their mothers were incarcerated.
The community-based organization offered tremendous support and programming to these kids. My association with them happened when they chose to bring the All Stars program to the kids. As the trainer of All Stars, I spent time with them their staff on how to effectively deliver the program and adapt it to the special needs of their kids.
All Stars offers the opportunity for kids to think about and imagine the best future for themselves. It challenges them to consider what they need to do and not do to achieve their best future and create a road map on how they will make it happen. They identify the four things they most want and least want in their best future. They commit to a reputation they most want and don’t want in their future. They write personal and voluntary commitments to what they will and will not do when it comes to risky behaviors in their future. All Stars is not about the past or even about the present. All Stars is about the future. It gives kids hope for their future and a pathway to get there.
At least four times during All Stars, kids are asked to share what they are thinking, planning and committing to in their future with at least one important adult in their life. The kids can choose who this adult is for them. For kids who do not have an adult in mind, time is taken by the All Stars teacher to help them identify one.
Most kids will choose a parent to talk to in All Stars. Other kids will choose a grandparent, an uncle or aunt, a teacher, coach or friend’s parent. It doesn’t matter who the adult is – as long as it is someone the student chooses.
When it came time for the group of kids whose mothers were incarcerated to have their first All Stars conversation with an adult, the organization’s staff asked them to do something additional. Along with choosing their one adult to talk to, the kids were asked to also have the same conversation with their mother. Essentially, the students were asked to have the same conversation with two different adults – one they choose and the other being their mother.
Every month the organization provided van transportation for the kids to travel together to visit their mothers in prison. During All Stars, each student needed to show the staff person they had their All Stars conversation worksheets with them and ready to share with their mother before they got into the van to make the trip.
On four separate occasions, the students talked with their mothers about their future plans and intentions and asked their mothers for advice, feedback and support using the conversational questions provided by All Stars. They talked about the things they wanted in their future – like education, achievement, acceptance, respect and fun – and the things they didn’t want – like addiction, conflict, loneliness and disease. They visited about the reputations they wanted and didn’t want and what their intentions were when it comes to drinking alcohol, using tobacco or marijuana, being sexually active or fighting in their future.
Each time the kids made the 2-hour trip back home in the van, the staff listened to them talk about what their mothers said to them. Based on what they heard, the staff knew something special was happening during these visits.
When All Stars was over and the conversations connected to the program ended, 95% of the mothers asked for similar guided conversations to continue with their child. In fact, the community organization had never received more thank you notes from the mothers to anything else they had done than when they did All Stars.
In one of the notes, a mother wrote:
Sometimes when we work with parents we can become judgmental. I know I have been. We can be quick to evaluate a parent as being a “good parent” or a “bad parent” based on what they have done or not done. Honestly, most of us would probably not think of incarcerated mothers as being “good parents” based on our own criteria.
But, the staff at this community organization saw it differently. They knew something that I believe many of us need to be reminded of…
Even parents who have messed up in their past or even in their present, really don’t want the same for their own kids. Not all, but at the core of most parents – from the best to the worst and every one in between – is the desire to want the best for their kids. They really do desire something better for their own kids than what they have or had for themselves.
The challenge for parents is overcoming the belief that they CAN expect and express something different or better for their kids without being a hypocrite. Breaking through this barrier is critical for parents and giving them the permission and the opportunity to do it is so important.
Another challenge for parents is not always knowing HOW to give their child something better. Research shows that most of us parent the way we were parented. Recognizing that parents may lack the knowledge, skills and resources to do what they really want to do is critical in our work with parents. It’s important for us to give them the tools they need and empower them to use them.
All Stars was the catalyst for empowering the incarcerated mothers to express their desires and expectations to their kids in ways they were never able to do before. The fact that 95% of them wanted the conversations to continue tells you and I how important and meaningful it was to them.
But let’s be honest…the experience for these mothers happened because the staff at the community organization broke down the barriers and set aside any judgment based on what they knew to be true…
Most parents really do want the best for their kids’ futures – even incarcerated mothers.
P.S. If you want to learn more about how All Stars can be the catalyst for empowering your students to think about and plan for their future AND empowering them and their parents (or other important adults) to talk about it, download the All Stars: A Guide to Building Bright Futures for Kids or visit the program’s website! Feel free to also email me. I would love to visit with you!