Why ‘Bad’ Moms Still Should Parent Their Kids

Published by — Teach incompetent parents responsive, responsible parenting to avoid taking babies away from the people they love.

In her own opinion, Dr. Brenda Harden has made serious mistakes with other people’s lives.

Thirty years ago Harden was a front-line social worker for Child Protective Services in New York City, frequently removing children from troubled, violent or drug-addled homes.  But now, as an Associate Professor at University of Maryland College Park, she develops remedies for what she now considers to be flat-out damage inflicted on vulnerable children.

Speaking at a recent conference, she says, “I’ve done a lot of bad service in my life.  I have moved children with clothes in black trash bags, and with all the metaphor that goes along with it, about being throw-aways.  I can’t tell you how many attached family relationships I’ve interrupted.  Sometimes there were good reasons.  But mostly we (social services) are re-traumatizing children in our efforts to help.”

That’s some indictment.

If a state’s Child Protective Services (CPS) find that a kid’s parents, usually Mom, are substance-involved, hurtful, mentally ill or neglectful, obviously the best thing to do is to get that kid out of there, asap.  Duh.  Right?

But Harden’s research proves that it’s absolutely the worst thing you can do — except in totally hopeless cases when Mom is irredeemable.

Automatically removing a child treats moms and babies as though they’re just spare parts.  When Mom doesn’t work out, switch her out for a better one.  Even “congregate or residential care,” essentially institutional orphanages, are preferable to letting Mom keep a baby she doesn’t deserve.

But such babies plunge into mourning.  They can’t express deep loss in ways adults recognize, but mourning it is.  Babies know and love the sound of Mom’s voice, smell, her familiar movements.  Mom is inevitably the first love relationship.  The health or weakness of that bond affects kids’ capacity to attach to others in healthy ways going forward.  Strong mother-child attachments give kids a resilient, socially-healthy start in life.  Weak, screwed-up, or broken early attachments often lead to a range of future problems, including attachment disorders, depression and other mental health issues.

Harden says, “Good mental health is what gets us through life.”

Harden’s research shows that what works best for everyone involved is to teach the “defective” mom how to parent well.  Strengthening rather than weakening their bond gives both the mom and the baby their best shot at future health and success.

Granted, if everyone’s best efforts reveal the situation to be hopeless, of course you have to terminate parental rights and liberate the child for adoption to improve his chances for success.

But before that happens, Harden has trained workers to go into troubled homes to teach moms how to be responsive, affectionate, attentive, playful.  They find a spark between mom and child, and fan it by modeling responsive parenting.  Some women have little feeling for their child, and must fake it until they make it.  But sparks can burst into flames.  Harden shows videos where we see her nurture the mother-child relationship.  One technique is to give Mom a video edited from the workers’ research tapes, that captures happy moments when mom parented well and was rewarded with her child’s joy.  She showed one such, set to the song “Eres Tu” — a tear-jerk, partly because of how much the child adored the awkward mom.  The point is that responsive, responsible parenting can be learned.

“Brains always have capacity to change.  But experience matters.  For a baby, the experience of adversity is the absence of stable care-giving.”

So Harden adores programs that keep “bad” moms and babies together, stabilizing the bond.  Surely her most controversial, but also most convincing example is of incarcerated moms who are allowed to keep their babies.  “Most of the women are in for petty crimes and will be out in 3 months.  Put Early Head Start in prison.  The moms are a captive audience, so build the mother-child care system right there.  Strongly bonding with the baby gives the mom motive to succeed on the outside, when she’s released.”

That makes painful amounts of sense.  The alternative is ripping the baby away from Mom to punish her, but what about the baby?   Strengthening the bond helps Mom stay clean or to lose the drug-dealing boyfriend.

“Moms have a host of problems, DV (domestic violence), substance abuse, mental health issues, developmental delays of their own.  Unless you add services into their lives, you can forget the baby.  With substance abuse, we bring mom into treatment and put the baby somewhere else.  These programs don’t work well.  The moms get out and use again.  The babies provide motive.”

As a culture, are we just too punitive to get our vengeful eyes off the offender and onto collateral casualties, like the kids?  By removing defective moms as though they didn’t matter, social services endorses the kick-out mentality.  The mom is bad, thus disposable.  Labeling people “bad” and putting them aside is too simple.  It ignores all the connections, the attachments, the context.

As such, automatically removing children from troubled homes is an early-childhood version of the kick-out mentality that leads to the classroom-to-prison pipeline.  It demeans how critically important relationships are to kids — all kids, of all ages.  Family members are not spare parts.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

What Does a Flourishing, Healthy, Competent Kid Look Like?

Published by — Child Trends is working on a new project to track positive trends among children and youth.

Child Trends has started a “Flourishing Child Project.”

Ironically, Child Trends (CT) has long been among my most reliable sources of data about the state of American kids, almost all of which is depressingly negative.  Their briefs cover substance abuse, grandparents taking over for parents, obesity, and other sad social indicators.

But getting away from this intense negativity is precisely the point.  As their site notes, “There is a critical need to monitor positive development among children and youth.”

Yes.  What gets measured, gets valued.  What gets valued get attention and resources.

So they want to balance our obsession with kids’ deficits and problems — teen pregnancy, poverty, juvenile incarceration — with attention to the qualities we want to see in kids.  What do we hope for them?  Only to graduate and get good test scores?  Really?

What else does it look like when we’ve got it right?  Not for the schools, not for the tests, not for meeting state accountability standards — but for the flesh-and-blood kids themselves?

What, in Child Trend’s words, does a flourishing kid look like?

They’ve come up with a draft of 19 qualities, under six domains.  Under the largest domain, “Personal Flourishing,” includes Gratitude, Forgiveness, Hope, Goal Orientation, Life Satisfaction, Purpose, and Spirituality.  Environmental Stewardship stands alone in the smallest domain of the same name.

With these and other qualities in hand, the next task is to find or invent ways of measuring whether we’re getting better at helping kids develop them.  This will be a big job, to be sure.

But as the site insists, “It’s good science.  The study of child development, and of human development more broadly, encompasses both positive and negative developmental processes.”

Education as a field is terrific at measuring the negative.  Or at least coming up with negative conclusions thanks to narrow measures.

So, for example, the Project will develop reliable measures for characteristics like “educational engagement.” Test scores indicate what kids have learned, but tell us nothing about whether they actually give a fig about the stuff.

When educators, officials and the public — though definitely not parents — look to see if students meet goals, they look at a few bits of data.  Winning scores and graduation rates keep the state and federal accountability police at bay.  Schools with low scores are named, shamed and in some cases threatened with take-overs and job losses.

I’m all for accountability and test scores, but where on earth are the kids in all this?  We don’t measure whether students are kind, generous or civic-minded?  And if those qualities don’t matter, what does?  Do we just want schools to feed a workforce to the Economy — a goal that’s not working out all that well anyway?

I love Child Trends’ use of the word “flourishing.”  It’s organic, like juicy apples and happy babies.

Under the right conditions, all children can flourish.  They may not finish college, though there should be more of that.  However, they might thrive in a trade apprenticeship that will lead to good money and useful occupation.  They might be content supporting themselves in a dumb day job while pursuing an art or personal passion.  They might know how to gather a team around themselves to help the struggle through illness, a parent’s death, a bad break-up, or major disappointment.  They might develop the critical combination of altruism and thick skin allowing them to become effective leaders.

Whatever their test scores, these are adults-in-the-making whom we would love to have among us.

And it only stands to reason that kids who are flourishing would, oh btw, get better test scores.

So Child Trends will counter-balance miserable indicators with measures of healthy kids.  Qualities like self-control, empathy and optimism can all change for the better under improved conditions.

For example, it’s possible Child Trends’ research will show that girls with a strong sense of purpose reliably avoid premature pregnancies.  Okay.  Well, both community service and career exploration are very good at helping middle-school kids get their heads in their futures, sparking dreams and ambitions that give them a sense of purpose.  Both initiatives have slipped out of fashion in recent years.  But surely they’re a wiser, never mind cheaper investment than paying the expenses incurred over the lifetimes of the roughly one million babies born to unprepared teens each year.

The Project is hoping that documenting trends in such data will be able to convince the folks with the purse strings to invest in kids’ positive development, instead of spending gobs of resources on prisons and other failures to clean up our social messes after the fact.

The Flourishing Child Project is an overdue effort to shift to a more satisfying conversation about kids.  What do we want?  How do we measure it?  A love of learning is innate.  So the healthier the kid, the more she’ll take charge of her own learning, on her own, for her own reasons.

Given decent teachers, an optimistic focus, and juicy opportunities, students will make sure the test scores take care of themselves.

Accentuate the positive.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment