Veronica Grace: “We can’t easily change the reality that children face when their parent is in jail, but we can talk about this more openly.”
I grew up with invisible friends. I know, you think they were imaginary. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I also remember, as child of the 70’s, watching Sesame Street, and the storyline of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus. I remember how frustrating and yet comforting it was every time Big Bird would try to introduce Snuffy to other people and they didn’t see him. The Sesame Street writers had created a story that reached out of the screen and made me feel less alone.
Sesame Street has a wonderful history of taking issues small and large and helping kids make sense of them and feel less isolated. They have done shows on issues such as divorce, death, and 9/11 so it should not have been a shock to see that they have created a toolkit for caregivers of children whose parents are incarcerated. But it was a surprise to me. We don’t think about how many children there are with parents who are in jail or who have spent time in jail. I didn’t think about it and I worked in a prison. During my time with the Federal Bureau of Prisons I worked in the visiting rooms of a Federal Correctional Institution. I watched children interact with their incarcerated parents many times, but that isn’t the biggest reason it should not have been a surprise that this was a subject badly in need of some Sesame Street attention.
The father of my two sons spent almost 2 years in jail when they were in the age range that Sesame Street’s toolkit has been created for.
My younger son wasn’t really sure of what was going on. He had a general sense of anxiety and lack of understanding why that daddy guy had disappeared and where he was. My older son struggled much more.
One of his struggles was with fear. He was afraid of everything connected to the whole situation. He was afraid that he would never see his father again, and to his young mind 22 months was not far from forever. He was afraid that his father was in a scary, dangerous place. Thanks to my experience years earlier as a correctional officer, I was able to give confident concise descriptions and reassurances that helped to some extent. My heart aches for children who have no one to do this for them. I’m not saying that prison is never a scary place. But I was able to help separate the day to day realities of a Federal Prison Camp from the overwhelming anxiety of the unknown. There are not many narratives out there that highlight the mundane of prison life instead of focusing on the most intense possibilities.
Letters and 15 minute weekly phone calls from his father were both a blessing and a curse. The contact reassured my older son that his father was still out there but would also get him stirred up and make him fearful again.
The fear had a strong hold on my older son. I remember vividly one day finding him frantically searching for coins and trying to get the money out of his bank. I asked him what was going on and he told me that if his dad needed money he would send it to him. He had somehow gotten the idea that his father was in jail because he’d done something for money and he wanted so desperately to fix it so his hero didn’t have to “go to jail anymore.” I had to try to explain that there wasn’t anything that we could do to change this. My son was heartbroken. He was 6 years old, trying to take care of his father and feeling like a failure for not being able to. I was heartbroken. My sweet son did not deserve to have this weight on his small shoulders, but nothing I could say seemed to lift it.
My son felt shame for not being able to fix things for his father, and a deep shame at being part of a man he understood had done “a bad thing.” He experimented with stealing things and when he got caught, told me he wanted to find out why someone would do “bad things.” He seemed to be trying to figure out what was so great about these things that someone would chose them over him. I think he was also testing himself to see if he liked “bad things.” He was afraid he was bad and would end up in jail one day too.
Kids in this situation deal with all of this and so much more, often while feeling like they are the only ones. I asked my son if he’s ever told any of his friends that his father had been in jail. He said “no.” He didn’t think that any of the kids he goes to school with would understand, but the statistics say that some of his classmates do have a parent who is incarcerated.
We can’t easily change the reality that children face when their parent is in jail, but we can talk about this more openly. First, we can talk to kids we care for who have loved ones in jail. We can talk about it as something we understand may be hard for them, but something that does not need to be a shameful secret. We can let them know that we don’t think it means they are “bad.” We can let them know they are not the only ones. More than that we can give them our time and attention. We can let them share or just let them have a safe space to be.
I’m not a psychologist so I can’t tell you the signs that a child needs to see a counselor, but I can tell you that I wish we had found one sooner. We just didn’t think of it. That sounds crazy to me now, but we were just going along doing what needed to be done. Even though we did not get a counselor until after my ex was released it has made a huge difference for my son. It’s rarely too late to get help.
Even if you are not a caregiver or friend of a family with a child in this situation, you can spread the link to the Sesame Street toolkit link around in any parent groups you are in, online or in person.
If you have been in any role in this situation you can share your story.
If seeing that Big Bird had a friend that no one else could see was powerful for me, imagine how powerful it could be for parents, caregivers and children to know that they are not the only ones involved in a situation that involves incarceration. I wish that I had known someone whose father had been in jail and who had grown up into a good person. I think it would have made all the difference for my son if I could point to someone real and say “His dad was in jail too, you are not alone, this will not stop you from growing up to be a good man.”