Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Following this terrible tragedy in Las Vegas there will be those who argue that laws couldn't have stopped this tragedy. What is seldom noted is that new laws might prevent the NEXT one. There will be attempts at better laws and there will be lawsuits.  This article from the Christian Science Monitor almost  12 years ago was about the families of Sandy Hook who brought a suit, like the suit  brought years ago by my neighbor. I pray that the result of new laws and lawsuits will be that many more people will be able, in the future, to be with the people they love.

One family's effort to make guns safer


Congress has just passed legislation providing special protection from liability lawsuits for the gun industry. This may seem like a win for people concerned about ridiculous legal claims and outrageous financial awards as well as for the gun industry. One often hears the complaint of "too many frivolous lawsuits." It fits in with the mythic suspicion of trial lawyers and may sometimes be true. But a tragic incident many years ago has given me a clear perspective on this issue. I now believe that when human life is involved, the matter is never frivolous.
On our street back then was the dearest 15-year-old boy a neighbor could want, kind to the smaller children and helpful to the older neighbors. This boy was accidentally killed by a friend. His friend wanted to show the gun and first removed the ammunition magazine. He did not realize that a bullet was still in the chamber. He thought he was showing off with an unloaded gun. When the bullet remaining in the chamber discharged, he shattered the life of his friend - and his own.
The parents of the child who was killed sued the gunmaker. The contention of the lawsuit was that the absence of an effective way to indicate that a bullet was in the chamber constituted a product liability claim - that being one of the reasons for the boy's death. It has been almost 10 years since the accident.
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One trial ended with a hung jury, one trial had juror misconduct, and, with the usual workings of our legal system, the last trial was completed just last year. The family lost the case. To some, the decision in favor of the gunmaker may seem like a total loss. But what became apparent is that even bringing a suit can have a powerful impact. During these 10 years there have been significant changes. Three states now have laws that require more safety features, the gunmaker in question now makes guns with a safety feature they originally said wouldn't work, and other manufacturers now make guns with internal locks.

These are just some of the concrete and tangible results. Of equal importance are the thousands of people who have read about the case or heard about it on the news and have taken personal steps with regard to their own guns. Maybe they have purchased ones with a prominent chamber load indicator. Maybe now they store their guns unloaded. Maybe they lock them up more carefully. Or maybe, as my friend once said, they simply draw their own children close and realize how blessed they are to see them grow up.
My neighbor is a modest, reserved woman. She would never say it, but I hope that she knows that as painful and heart wrenching as these years of litigation have been, the battle has won the lives of many other children. Regret is just part of the job of being a parent, but her struggle has saved many parents from the ultimate regret.
Sometimes critics focus on the amount of money in the suit, as if the family is trying to benefit in some way from the loss. Just looking into one's own heart is enough to know that the money is so clearly not the issue. Money is simply the leverage that an individual has in trying to bring about a change in a product or policy - a change that those bringing the suit hope will protect others. The true currency in these matters is not a financial one, but the hope that their loss not be in vain - that a young life lost before it could bring about good in the world can still bring about good.
The companies that are sued are in the business to make money and to hold on to that money. It is not remarkable that they wage a battle to maintain their position. Yet many of the people in these companies may know in their hearts that they and their own children are safer because of previous lawsuits.
What is remarkable is that there are families willing to put themselves through the reliving of a tragedy and to deal with the suspicions and criticisms to accomplish an outcome that benefits the rest of us. There are no doubt some frivolous lawsuits and ridiculous awards, but for every one of those there is a family who is fighting through their anguish to make sure that others do not have to suffer the same.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


This is the first chapter in my book. I just realized that I hadn't posted it on the blog. Please share with new parents and new grandparents.

 Precision Parenting: There’s not an app for that!

Many baby boomers are becoming grandparents and are gathering stories about the “new rules” of raising children. They are taught these rules by their own offspring. As a psychologist working in schools and conducting parent workshops I too see the pressure new parents experience to abide by these rules. It’s given me an appreciation for what an intense “occupation” being a parent has become.
            There is an unfortunate belief that there’s a perfect way to do the job. Most people in my generation were just raised when parent was a noun! There was sometimes a bit of input from Dr. Spock, but we weren’t “parented”  -- so we meet this new trend with a mixture of humor and resignation.
            One illustration was a recent email from a friend after she was “allowed” to take care of her baby grandson for the first time.

“After a week of rigorous training from both parents on how to change diapers-- (they go on their bottoms) and how to feed the baby with a bottle (the bottle goes into the baby's mouth) I am “ready”. They have all kinds of baby monitoring devises--I feel like I am in the Pentagon-- Oh--and don't let me get started on proper swaddling--I have to admit I never did that since we all kept our babies on their tummies so they didn't thrash about--but now, since babies are kept on their backs they have to be wrapped up like a Cuban cigar.“

            The perfection assumption has either been spawned by or has led to a whole slew of books on the “proper“ way to perform every aspect of childcare. Some new parents also come from career paths that include specific management strategies and performance reviews. This might impact their perspective. Others have had challenging fertility issues that increase the anxiety about the perfect way to raise the baby.
 The pressure is evident at each age. The prenatal group often gives way to a parent group where the precise how to's are shared with fervor. Parents can feel pressure about breastfeeding, sleeping, swaddling, etc., with all elements presented as doctrine.
Next, the perfect preschool is essential and then they hit school age and there are a whole lot of perfect enrichment activities. The poor parent who sits next to the perfect parent at soccer practice and finds that this person’s child is taking violin, chess and French lessons. Many well-adjusted, successful adults were not Renaissance children. But when you’re just taking your child home after school to hang out and play with the dog in the backyard you can feel a twinge, as your child’s classmate is escorted to multiple activities.
            With “parenting” almost morphing into a competitive sport the process becomes more intense as the children approach junior high and other children are already building their resumes for college admission. Yikes! And who is all this for? It is for our kids, but also for or us to be viewed as good parents and even better -- the parents of successful children.
            In workshops I often share my own experience of being a new parent and seeing all those neat little stickers in the back windows of cars – the ones that say “Harvard”, “Yale”, “Stanford” and the like. Back then I thought, “Hmmm, I’d like to have one of those some day.” As it turned out I did not have a child in one of those schools and that’s been fine. People say that God laughs when man makes plans, but I believe God really cracks up when we make plans for our children. So I advise parents with this aspiration to do the following,
“While your child is very little, go get one of those stickers of your choice. Put it in the back window of your car. Get it out of your system now, so that when your children inevitably take a different route you’ve already gotten the sticker and you can be more comfortable with their choices.”
            To new grandparents, I suggest they continue with the resignation and humor approach. They can even be supportive or at least appear to be.
 Children have survived very well with cloth diapers and disposable diapers. Children have thrived on breast milk, commercial food and home made food. They have developed by playing in the back yard and by taking classes.
Perhaps the greatest risk in this precision parenting trend is that in trying to be perfect parents we might also be trying to create perfect children. In spite of my occasional efforts at perfect parenting my children often adopted a “good enough” approach to many things -- so much so that “good enough” became equal to a four-letter word in our house. After so many years as a psychologist and parent I’ve come to understand that the value of being a good enough parent is that we can then appreciate our children as “good enough.”

There’s a lot of pressure on everyone involved. Reasonable expectations of our children and ourselves are central in this child rearing process.  I’ve come to believe that good intentions, good sense and good humor count for more than anything. These are good enough.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Dear Republicans, an opportunity for patriotism, pragmatism, or opportunism.

Dear Republicans, Patriotism, pragmatism or opportunism?
(I may be dreaming, but could the president be the catalyst to bring the parties together?)

Those who “understand” politics will tell you that it is a matter of compromise. Parties must adjust, give up on absolutes and accommodate to the circumstances. This is realistic, but a worrisome situation when we see that politicians are willing to compromise their integrity. Skill at rationalizing comes in handy in this process.
Those less skilled at rationalization, some loyal members of the Republican party, now seem to be trapped in an uncomfortable place, presenting both moral and practical dilemmas. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, having to deal with a very “difficult boss.” For their own safety or ambition, they must. Others are in the middle of a slow walk back to integrity.
 Those who spoke out early no doubt harbor a fear that he will retaliate. Mr. Trump is famous for his capacity to get back at those who have crossed him. Some Republicans had a moment of principle, when the tape of him bragging about grabbing women in the genitals came out. They spoke out, and now have to deal with the foreboding and cloud of what might be the consequences for this “lapse.”
Even those who didn’t speak out, now deal with the growing number of situations that make them wonder how long they can be silent, how long they can convince themselves that their silence will help them achieve the goals that fit with their politics. Goals that they hope will be facilitated by Mr. Trump’s position.
Some are willing to hold on until the bitter end, trusting the ends justify the means. But there are a few who are coming to recognize that such times create the opportunity for patriotism, even heroism
Some are so committed to the country and to their own personal integrity that they will oppose what is going on.  Moreover, there are members of the Republican party with such solid positions that they may not be vulnerable. They have less to lose in their opposition regarding the administration. There may even be some willing to risk their wonderful committee appointments or even their reelection to do what is right. Such leaders may give courage to others.
Others are astute at sniffing the air – they know the direction things are going and opportunism is their motivation. They have seen things in their constituents that have made it clear that they cannot just go along with situation in the White House.
         A third group is just practical. They’re the ones saying,
“What?” What’s being proposed from the White House just does not make sense. They look at the prioritizing of the funds that hard working citizens must give up to them. They see themselves as responsible to carry out duty as honest, practical fiduciaries. They want to make careful, thoughtful decisions about the resource they control? 
So whether from heroism, opportunism or pragmatism, there are those in the Rebulican party who have an opportunity to step up and to do what is right
During my graduate research I studied the development of moral reasoning, analyzed my data in the morning and watched the Watergate hearings in the afternoon.
I feel a bit of Deja vu—I watched the testimony of people at the lowest levels of moral reasoning, controlled by self-interest, authority or affinity to a group like them. It was rare but exhilarating to see the few who functioned at the true level of principle. There are signs of it now in the Grand Old Party.
When this heroism, pragmatism or even opportunism emerges, our job is not to gloat, not to say, “It’s about time,” or “I told you so.” Whichever reason is the foundation of their behavior, it will take a measure of courage. We must not celebrate, for some this step forward carries with it significant loss. Loss of position or loss of faith in the party they were devoted to. Some quiet respect and and some admiration is perhaps the best reaction for those of us who see the dilemma that they have had to struggle through -- to reject the crazy, hateful and inept leadership. Perhaps they will even be the new leaders that can find the nirvana of common ground with the other party.
Ironically, this president may actually be the catalyst for what many thought impossible. The common “enemy”, so obsessed with self and with so little concern for the country, may bring the sides together to find shared goals and realize they must work together for the good of our country.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

GOP = Mr. Trump?

This piece is maybe even more relevant than when published in the Chicago Tribune  five years ago. Some judge all Muslims by the actions of terrorists and some judge all Republicans by the actions of the current president. Time will tell. Many of us who respect the tradition of the party are waiting and wondering what will be the tipping point. The point at which personal integrity wins.

Not my father's Grand Old Party 
By Susan DeMersseman
May 27, 2012

I miss the GOP, the Grand Old Party. I grew up in a Republican household in a Republican state. My dad was an adviser to the governor; my brother was a Republican state legislator. When I was little I wore an "I Like Ike" button. I'm registered in the Democratic Party now, but I miss the GOP, the grandness of the GOP. I am sometimes embarrassed for my family and friends who are Republicans in the old way, the thoughtful, principled way — the grand way. They were people who paid attention in history class, in science class and to the well-being of their neighbors.
It sometimes seems as if the party has been hijacked by groups of narrow-interest voters or ones so angry they would sacrifice their countrymen to beat an opponent. The natural and healthy differences within the party seem to be forbidden.
Some leaders in the party behave as if their job as legislators is to make sure that the rich stay rich or get richer. I know many people of exceptional wealth and very few have backed politicians to make sure that they are protected from paying their fair share. Many appreciate the system that has allowed them to maintain or gain their wealth and they realize (those with enlightened self-interest) that a society in which all have opportunity benefits them as well. They see it as a bubble-up rather than a trickle-down economy.
Some political leaders and commentators like to call it "class warfare" when those on the lower rungs want a better chance, but I do not see most at the top wanting to engage in that mythic battle. For a small group financial domination has become a sort of sport, but in the corporations and government there are thoughtful people who want all to do better. I want them to step up and to speak up.
I miss the days when I could watch a debate based upon thoughtful differences, rather than one in which debaters are simply trying to score points or pander. The Democrats are by no means perfect. I believe even their discourse could be elevated if the worthy opposition were indeed worthy. Currently, the extreme behavior of some in the GOP makes the Democrats look more dignified and sensible. But I would sacrifice that for sensible dialogue.
I once wrote about how politics has morphed into a sport where we cheer for our team and celebrate the fouls and missteps of the other. Now, I think the sport has descended into mud wrestling. I miss the grand part of the GOP. If there is a silent majority, I hope it is those who will soon step up, speak up and take it back.
When my brother gave into the cajoling of his children and opened a Facebook page, he described himself as a "Big Tent Republican" and the "me too" responses poured in. Those thoughtful, generous, dignified members of the GOP still exist in my family and I believe in other families too. Our country will be better when their voices are heard again.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist who lives in Oakland, Calif. She grew up in South Dakota.
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
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Monday, January 9, 2017


Outrage Fatigue? Then Join the “Persistence.”
People who work in the helping professions often experience a state described as “compassion fatigue” or burnout. They deal with so much that their capacity to feel can become dulled. The current situation following the campaign and election of Donald Trump has brought about a similar experience for many. That is “outrage fatigue”, the result of the almost daily news that is beyond belief, outrageous in words and actions. Since there seems to be no end in sight, how do we process this?  Can we sustain this level of upset without harm to our health?
I see some people so worn out, that to protect their mental health they have started to view the craziness and cruelty as the norm. Out of self defense, they are no longer outraged. Others have quit paying attention entirely, putting their energy elsewhere. Some have settled into the Kubler Ross stage of acceptance in the grief process. I have come to a stage of acceptance too, but it’s not the acceptance of this political situation; it’s an acceptance of the new role that I and others must now play as citizens of this wonderful country.
Psychological research indicates that those who are active in the face of a tragedy do better mentally in the long run. I and others are developing active strategies to respond to each new outrage that comes from the president-elect, his people and family. My menu of coping strategies includes a list of organizations that I send small donations to and a group of friends to call and rant with for a moment. But we don’t get stuck in a mutual hand wringing. Instead, after a little venting, we talk about what we are doing in response. And for comic relief, old episodes of SNL to watch again.
            Among my friends are ones with a specific cause or concern. Many are promoting more climate awareness and action. Some support initiatives in science and education. Others, civil rights organizations and issues. A few will work to protect Social Security, health care and other threads in the safety net. People are joining groups and starting groups. 
 I write letters to law makers on both sides. I wrote one to a Republican who has shown some evidence of a moral compass, concern for the country above party (I believe more will surface). I write to journalists and thank them for their work. I exchange emails with friends, sharing links on projects and organizations.
My small donations don’t amount to a lot. But each one soothes my spirit and keeps me from falling into a sense of powerlessness. Feeling powerless breeds lethargy -- why bother if you can’t do anything? Well, we can! It might be baby steps but there are millions of us taking those steps. We must not just be the “resistance”, but must be the PERSISTENCE—persevering toward specific positive goals. Among these are supporting journalists who find and tell the truth, schools that make our children smarter and kinder, institutions that create a more level playing field --where a true meritocracy exists.
Our power is in the truth and the faith that it will eventually prevail. Our power is in the kindness and compassion we will show to those who believed in Mr. Trump and eventually find themselves to have just been the most recent victims in his compulsion to self aggrandizement. Our power is in our restraint, when we want to say, “I told you so”, knowing that this phrase can often make people cling to a flawed path. We have to be careful not to fall into the efforts of some to emphasize the division. Ours is already the bigger tent and we can make room for more.
We also need to be mindful of how this situation and our reaction to it impacts our children. We have to modulate our own fears to protect them. While we might hold very strong views about Mr. Trump and his plans, it’s important that we provide some child-friendly reasons for why we hold these beliefs -- his disrespect for women, his tendency to lie, his arrogance, and his bullying behavior.  Equally important is having children see us do positive things to cope with and improve the situation.
I’m deeply troubled by the circumstance that brought us to this point, but I am heartened by the many actions that I see being taken. There are reports of a significant increase in newspaper subscriptions and growing numbers of people involved in individual and group efforts. There is a ground swell, a bubbling up of energy.
 The sleeping giant is awake. We may be a little stiff from our long nap of trust and comfort, but we are moving and speaking out. Since there are more of us, our voices together will drown out the ignorant prejudice voices, not with angry shouts, but with a hopeful chorus.
I’m angry, but I’m excited by the energy I see around me. At one recent holiday party we concluded that many of the young people are so busy working to afford their rent that they can’t lead the “persistence”; it’s up to us, retired and semi-retired, to take up the cause. Even if our knees don’t make marching the preferred action, we have other methods.
The path ahead, given the mercurial personality in charge, is unpredictable, but we are not. We know that we have to focus and not get distracted by the “shiny object” that is frequently dangled to distract us from real issues. Soon the press and everyone else will be wise to that, and when he starts tweeting about locking up flag burners or about the nonexistent war on Christmas -- we will all respond, “Oh, shiny object again, now what is the real issue we are being pulled away from?" We will be smart, kind and united. Through many paths, we will move in a direction that considers the well-being of all – including the ones that once believed him.

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