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Abusive Environments, Gypsies and Education

Written by S. Hein in 2008 while living in Romania


One way to know if a person is living in an abusive environment is to ask whether that person can leave when the environment becomes painful.

Another question is whether the person can change the environment to make it less painful.

Consider a slave. Can the slave leave the master's property or the community where the master lives when the master or the community hurts the slave for disobedience? In other words, is the slave free to leave when the environment becomes painful for the slave?

Also, can the slave change the environment by requesting that the master stop causing him pain?

So the two basic issues are freedom and control. Are you free to leave a painful environment? Do you have sufficient control to change the environment so it is less painful?

To survive, people who live in abusive environments and a) are not free to leave or b)do not have control over them must adapt to the abusive environment. The alternative is death, either voluntary (suicide) or involuntary. An involuntary form of death could be starving to death if the person or group who controls the food refuses to give it to you and prevents you from getting it on your own.

When I think of abusive environments, adapting (coping) and society from this perspective, a lot of things start to make sense.

Being in Romania, learning about Gypsy families and the Orthodox church has helped me to more clearly see what an abusive environment is.

In particular was a conversation I had with a university student yesterday. I asked him what he thought the solution was to the problem of the Gypsy children begging on the streets and not knowing how to read or write. He said they should be "obligated" to go to school and the parents should be "obligated" to work. I reminded him that the parents were also illiterate and he said there were many jobs they could do without knowing how to read or write. They could work in fields for example. But this makes me think of the slaves America who were forced/obligated to pick cotton for their owners. Let's now compare and contrast the two examples.

The slaves did not receive any wages. This meant that they could not save money in order to become free and independent. Their survival was therefore dependent on their owners.

If the slaves refused to work, or did not satisfy their bosses, they would be punished. The ultimate punishment was death and they could, in fact, actually be killed by their owners without the owners being punished since the slaves were considered property. We can generalize this to say that the owners had the power to punish the slaves, but the slaves did not have equal powers, or equal "rights."

I assume that the university student I spoke to last night would say it would also be ok to punish the Gypsies if they did not work to the satisfaction of their bosses. I suspect he would also support putting the most disobedient and "non-compliant" Gypsies in jails.

I assume he would also support punishing children and teenagers who did not want to attend schools. I further assume he would not support the idea that children and teenagers should have the power or "rights" to punish adults. I don't know if he would support the idea that children and teenagers should be free to leave either a) their parents or b) Romania.

Many Gypsies actually have left Romania since Romania has become part of the EU. In the past though, when Romania was part of the Soviet Block, neither Gypsies or other Romanians were free to leave Romania. I am not sure if the Soviets tried to throw out the Gypsies. I heard, instead, that they basically turned them into slaves.

Now I see that another option in dealing with disobedient, non-conforming and non-compliant people is to expel them from the land you control. I recently read about a fundamentalist Mormon group that would take such people, including teenagers, outside their property and leave them there alone, not caring what happens to them next. This, then, is another characteristic of abusive environments.

Returning to the Gypsies and the Romanians I am wondering what, if anything, Romania will do in the next few years with the Gypsies. Will they forcibly "integrate" them into the current system of schools and jails? It seems unlikely they will expel them because there are simply too many of them and it would cost too much and be too politically incorrect since Romania is now part of the EU. So it is more likely they will try to convert them into producers, consumers and taxpayers. Currently, they are of little value in the modern economic system. They neither produce nor consume very much. They live simply. Many still use horses as their form of transportation. While some are quite rich, such as the "witches", I have seen and met many who are extremely poor. They don't have cell phones, computers, automobiles, mortgages, life insurance policies. (Actually, their lifestyle is starting to sound appealing to me!)

Speaking very seriously, I wonder, as Thoreau did, what is really necessary? I see the Gypsy kids on the streets, begging for money from the tourists, and I wonder if they would be happier sitting inside school rooms or working in factories or banks. Someone said "They are free," and in many ways this is true - in fact they are more free in certain ways than conventional children or teenagers. This is one reason I feel drawn to help them. I would like to help them remain free. But I would also like to help them be more free. If they learn to read and write, and use the Internet, they will have many more options in life.

I believe it is possible to teach children without using force, fear or threats. In fact, I know it is possible because I have been doing it in several countries. Education doesn't have to take place in abusive environments where students can neither leave nor change things.

But if you force or "obligate" young people to attend schools which fit the definition of abusive environments, including a) not free to leave, b) no or insufficient control over the environment and c) possibility of getting expelled for disobedience/non-compliance, then you risk creating future generations of abused people.

I believe this is, in fact, exactly what has been happening in many countries and is therefore why we see so many social problems. My suggestion, then is to

1. Make learning fun, interesting, enjoyable and relevant

2. Give students the option of leaving if it becomes painful for them.

3. Don't threaten them with expulsion for disobedience, non-compliance or non-conformity.

S. Hein
May 4, 2008
Sighisoara, Romania

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Further notes.

Romania is something like 90 percent "Orthodox". This is a very conservative, very punitive religious belief system. Recently I met some people who called themselves Christians and invited me to go see one of their Evangelical church services. For Romania, this is something new, but I have seen such things before. Singing, praying, praising the lord etc. Although the church service, or mind control session, whichever you want to call it, was indeed different than what happens in an Orthodox or Catholic church, there are certain basic things the two belief systems seem to have in common.

For example:

- It is okay and necessary to a) force children and teenagers to go to schools and b) hurt them if they don't go.

- It is okay and even sometimes necessary to force people to do what those who have power want them to.

- It is, with only very limited exceptions, okay to stop young people from getting away from either schools or families which are causing the young person physical or emotional pain.

- It ok to threaten young people with expulsion from school or expulsion from the family for disobedience/non-compliance or non-conformity.

- It is okay to keep young people dependent on their families and on the school system.

To expand on the last point, it many countries I have visited it is, for example, okay to make it illegal for young people to get jobs or have their own bank accounts before a certain age. Thus, until they reach a certain age their ability to gain their own independence is limited. This is similar to the condition of slaves, with the important difference that once a teenager reaches the age of full legal rights (something impossible to a slave at any age), all these restrictions quickly disappear. But there are a multitude of problems with keeping young people in near slave-like conditions for so many years. Without listing them all I will just say that a cycle of abused and abusive adults is created. While "abused" might seem like a strong word to use to the average person who has attended 12 or so years of government controlled education, if we think of the characteristics of an abusive environment listed above, it seems to me we have virtually all been abused in some form or another since none of us were able to leave our families, schools or countries until we reaches a government specified age.

While not all schools, families or governments are abusive, it seems all have the potential to be. I would suggest, therefore, that a deliberate attempt be made to change all environments so they no longer qualify as potentially abusive. In other words, speaking of education first, let students leave when it becomes painful for them, let them have more control over the process, don't threaten them expulsion or denial of their degrees for disobedience and non-compliance. In terms of families, let young people leave the family if it is painful for them to remain. Eliminate the law which says they may not leave until the age of 18 which many countries have now adopted as a standard. This is one of the most unecessary and oppressive laws I have encountered. As I have said before no child or teen would want to leave the safety and security of their homes if the homes were actually safe and secure.

Another thing I have been thinking about is the connection between depression and Christianity. After spending several hours with the people calling themselves Christians last week I felt very depressed. Then this week I got an email from one of them which depressed me again, maybe even more than last week. I felt so discouraged I was almost ready to leave Romania and give up on my plans to help the Gypsy families. In my work with sucidal teens I have noticed that many of them have been living with highly religious parents, usually Christians. I realize not all "Christians" are the same, but most do seem to share the beliefs. In other words, most are supportive of what I call abusive environments. Because such environments are generally accepted, some people are then free to blatantly abuse their power within the framework of such societies. One result is teenagers who feel powerless to either a) leave or b) change things. They may also be afraid of being expelled from their homes or schools. Or they may be afraid that if they don't follow all the rules in their schools they won't get jobs later on. This has the potential to create what I might call chronic insecurity.

If you combine feeling powerless and feeling insecure and afraid, you have the basic ingredients for depression. If you add feeling alone if those around you won't listen to what you are telling them and if they disregard or invalidate your feelings, then you have the potential for suicide as option to end your pain.

To summarize, I can now more fully understand why so many young people living in predominantly "Christian" societies are depressed and suicidal. In my own case, being here in Romania, I have found no one who I feel totally understood by. Virtually everyone has been taught to believe in "God", punishment, and forced education.

It discourages me and sometimes depresses me when I realize how alone I am here and when I realize I don't even have anyone I can call or email who fully understands me. (With a few possible exceptions). The people who I feel most encouraged by are the Gypsy children who are always happy to see me on the street. Some people here say that they only want money but I have been proving this wrong. I will write more about that later, but now I think I will go out and see them and make them smile in the simple ways it is so easy to do. Simple ways like saying hello to them, taking a picture of them, letting them use my laptop, or taking to them to the Internet cafe and letting them look at pictures of animals, or to the store and getting them a banana. It is so easy to make a child smile. It is sad how many adults make them cry. But I understand more all the time that the adults who hurt and abuse children were also hurt and abused when they were young.

If you come from a society which believes in the intentional use of pain and punishment to achieve desired behaviors and outcomes, then chances aregood you were abused yourself to one extent or another.

Of course you may have also been abused by rewards. Like the dolphins who are rewarded for jumping through the hoops. You might ask though, is that abuse? Is it abuse to keep an animal in captivity, i.e. not let them leave, and reward them for behaving as you want them to?

I would say it is. I would say, then, that to teach someone in a non-abusive way you must always allow them the freedom to leave and you must not teach them things which serve your own needs. You must pay attention to what they are interested in, what makes them smile, what they find helpful. While I realize that a child truly cannot conceive of everything they will later need in life, I believe they do know what they need at any given moment. If they don't see the relevance or importance of something, then it probably isn't relevant or important at that moment. Or we might say if it isn't fun and interesting, then it probably isn't necessary to force upon them.

What past societies have created is what I would call an artificial and unnatural system of needs. For example, do all 10 or 12 year olds really need algebra? I say no, they don't. The only reason they "need" it is to get to the next level of school. These are man-made levels, though. They are not from nature. Most people now accept all the unnecessary things we do to children and teens as being both necessary and "good." This reminds me of Alice Miller's book "For your own good."

I am pretty sure though that they are neither necessary nor good. If you want to win wars, then yes, you need certain kinds of people with certain kinds of skills. Now I just realized another reason it is dangerous for other countries to copy what is being done in the USA. The USA is a country which is nearly constantly at war. Thus, it needs obedient soldiers, a certain type of education (we might call it a military type) and "consenting" citizens who "support the troops."

I also saw in South America, Singapore and Turkey clear characteristics of what I would call a military style of education. For example, a high priority on attendance, obedience, math, science and sports. Actually almost all government-run schools systems share these.

Realizing how pervasive these beliefs and systems are is a bit depressing for me right now. I guess I'll just post this before I start thinking about anything else. I won't even spell check this last section. I still have to link it to the home page and I am quickly running out of energy.