Here’s a thought:
It is not our job to make our kids likable by conforming to others’ expectations but to help them blossom within their own uniqueness.
Think about that.
Do you realize how liberating that is – how much guilt it removes when you’re able to do what your gut is saying is right for your child instead of what you know someone else is judging you for doing or not doing?
I remember when my oldest was a toddler. I wasn’t that far removed from being a kid myself, and so many of my decisions about how to raise my children were a constant vacillation between what my instinct was telling me was right and caving in under the weight of well-meaning advice and unspoken judgment of others who believed me to be in varying circumstances too harsh or too permissive, indulgent or strict, or too controlling or lazy in my parenting. I didn’t know it then, but my daughter is what is now called Twice Exceptional (and, no, that does not mean my kid is twice as wonderful as yours). A child who is Twice Exceptional qualifies for special education under at least two distinct and different diagnoses, with one of those exceptions being a gifted IQ (130 or above in most places) and the rest being some cocktail of learning disabilities.
Raising a Twice Exceptional child (or more than one) is usually a daily adventure into the unknown, especially when a child is young – because the exceptionalities are rarely identified that early, leaving parents a bit off kilter as they struggle to understand their child’s unique approach to life. All three of my children were on high speed from the time they awoke until they fell asleep – and they spent far less time asleep than did the children of my peers. They were intense, driven learners – and this usually meant that they wanted to do things that were far beyond their development level, which, in turn led to high frustration and meltdowns. I can say from first-hand experience that there is nothing quite like a toddler’s meltdown in a museum (or zoo, store, or library) to entice complete strangers to negatively judge your parenting skills.
It wasn’t until I finally hit the wall with an exceptionally bad experience that I finally found my real footing as a mother.
I remember the day well.
My youngest – also Twice Exceptional – was in second grade and just newly accepted into special ed with a long list of learning disabilities including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and auditory processing disorder – although it would take three more IQ tests over four years to finally get him qualified for gifted as well. My son’s teacher that year leaned more towards the highly organized, rigid style of teaching, and it was a terrible match for my kiddo who failed miserably at helping her meet her self-defined goal of curing my kid of his ‘bad habits’. She spent many a day yelling at my son for his forgetfulness and messiness and sent angry emails home every Friday to report another failing grade in spelling. I was still a bit insecure, trying desperately to find ways to help my son learn to memorize his words and feeling guilty as a mother that I’d failed to find a solution that would work.
But in our last parent teacher conference of the year, with my little 8-year-old sitting beside me, the teacher began ticking off one complaint after another. She pointed out every one of his failings with great emotion. And as she detailed each failing on her list, my son sat quietly by my side, swinging his legs and rolling his little dinosaur over and over between his fingers. He did stop and listen as she reported his state test scores but never spoke a word.
When she finally ran out of breath and stopped, I looked at her and quietly asked, “This is all of your feedback?”
“Yes,” she said, still visibly upset.
“Nothing good to say about my son?”
She looked surprised for a moment and then, with a tight jaw, said that no, there wasn’t.
“Not one good thing?” I pushed her again to reconsider.
“No,” she said. “You son is difficult. He doesn’t do his work like the other students. And he says things in class that challenge my authority. He questions what I say – right in front of the other kids. He argues with the facts I share in science. And he is the student. He should be learning from me. Your son is a problem.”
I ignored her and turned directly to face my son. I put my hand under his chin and lifted his head until his eyes met mine. I said, “Do not listen to her. You are not a problem. You are wonderful and unique, and you will one day do amazing things because of your special gifts. Do not listen to her.”
We walked out of the meeting, and my legs were shaking so much I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the car before I broke down. I buckled my son into the back seat, climbed in our minivan and prepared myself for what I believed would likely be one of the most painful conversations I would have to endure – helping heal the wounds inflicted by his teacher’s words. I gently asked, “How do you feel about what your teacher said in there?”
“I was excited!,” he replied, much to my surprise. With a bit more prodding, he explained. “Did you hear what she said? I was at grade level in reading. Finally!”
It was in that moment that I realized my responsibility to my son. It would be my job to make sure that he learned the lessons life required of him, but that those lessons happened so that my son could embrace his own unique gifts to decide for himself what his contribution to this world might be.
My son is a teenager now. He’s already done some amazing things with his young life. He’s launched his first business. He helped his friend as she organized the first Teen Startup Weekend by teens for teens … the first in the world. He’s designed a plethora of mini games in Minecraft that his friends want to buy, and he’s created several of his own musical compositions. And yet his teachers, for the most part, continue to focus on the problems – his inability to conform to their specific process of turning in papers or his input in class which feels disrespectful or disruptive. One of his teachers recently sent an email asking about my son’s grip on reality – because the teacher just assumed that a child who still can’t spell a word the same way twice in one sentence – much less the correct way ever – could never have the ability to launch a business at the age of 13 and must be bragging about things that didn’t really exist.
While I am all for teaching our children to respect authority, learn discipline and responsibility, I have also come to understand that it is so not my job to make my kid feel defective because he doesn’t fit in the right box. There are a long list of leaders across multiple industries who all rose to those heights in their careers by not fitting in a box, by not being the “easy kid in class”. While I won’t tolerate bad morals or bad behavior, I am completely over apologizing to anyone for my kid not being some bland version of himself so that he’s easier to manage.
When I stopped worrying whether someone else was comfortable around my kid or liked them, I discovered something pretty magical. I discovered I genuinely like my kid. Just as he is. So I’m pretty sure that I’m the one who’s ended up on the lucky end of parenting.
I have come to hate Mondays.
I don’t mean dislike or any other vanilla word that is polite. I mean hate, as in filled with a sinking sense of dread and doom – but not for the reasons you might think. I love Mondays when it comes to my work. I love the fresh start with five wonderful full days ahead in which our team can make progress on milestones, complete new projects, land new clients, begin new work. When it comes to work, Mondays are my favorite days.
No, the reason I have come to hate Mondays is because that is the day when my child’s teachers email me a litany of complaints, many of which are leveled with veiled accusations that it is somehow my fault that my child forgot his homework, did a project incorrectly, offered an unwelcome opinion during class or in some other way made their day less than ideal.
It is probably the thing I’ve found is the most difficult when it comes to raising a twice exceptional child – and that is saying a lot. Anyone who has raised a child who has both an exceptionally high IQ and a complement of learning disabilities to boot knows just how many challenges are attached to the role of parenting. The learning curve is massive, especially if you didn’t grow up with similar challenges. Learning how to help your child find news ways to work around challenges while trying desperately to give them opportunities to expand their insatiable hunger for learning is exhausting and overwhelming. Being the bad guy – that’s tough, too, when you’re the one pushing your child to continue struggling with something that has taken them four hours to complete when it took their peers a handful of minutes. And learning how to suck it up and not be hurt when your child takes out their frustration, hurt, anxiety and pain on you – that is a monumental task to take on when one is parenting a child with exceptions. Please don’t get me wrong – it has a plethora of rewards as well, and I wouldn’t want my children any other way than who they are. I love their complexity and creativity and zest for life. I love learning so many new things because of their own growing wealth of knowledge. I love who they are as people. I am just being honest here about the challenges that come with raising children with complex challenges.
But nothing for me has matched the difficulty of having to accept the necessity of taking on the role of the dreaded helicopter parent when I wanted to be nothing of the sort. When it comes to teachers and administrators who are frustrated with the challenges they’re facing because of having your child in their class – the amount of vitriol, anger, accusations, frustration, and sometimes downright ugly comments that are directed at you and sometimes your child? Hearing at home your child recall some of the petty, mean things that teachers say in class in front of peers? It is heartbreaking. It is overwhelming. It hurts. And it resurrects the fiercest anger I’ve felt – one that has to be kept in check so that my child does not bear the brunt of the fallout that would surely come if I let a teacher or administrator know the truth about what I thought.
Part of the agreement that was made during our last marathon of an IEP was that I would send out a group email once a week asking each teacher a series of questions that they would then fill in the blanks and email back. It was hoped that this new communication would allow the teachers more direct access to me and vice versa as we all struggled to find a better system to help my son remember to turn his work in, to do all of his assignments and to stay on top of his classwork.
Instead, what has happened is that those emails have become the permission that each teacher has needed (with exceptions – there are some who have been amazingly patient and supportive) to turn the faucet on full blast with a litany of frustrations and anger that they feel not only towards my son but towards me for somehow failing to be all they expect me to be.
So this is my response that I cannot possibly say to them:
Of course I know my child is more challenging to work with than some of the other children in your class. This does not come as a surprise, seeing as I have been the hands-on parent of this individual for his entire life. You really don’t need to keep saying this as if it will open my eyes to some new discovery. There is a reason he is in special education, and it isn’t because the school can get more money for him if he is. It is because the school system as it is now does not adequately create an equal playing field for him. It is your job as his teacher to do what you can to make it an even playing field so that he can thrive and enjoy learning, whether you have decided you like his personality or not.
I’m sorry his personality isn’t all rainbows and puppies. Well, actually, I’m not. I like him just as he is – a completely open book with the most amazing honest insights I’ve ever seen. I love his purity and his willingness to hear very hard truths without being crushed under the weight of what he has to hear. If I had to hear half of what he did on a daily basis, I would be curled up in a fetal position waiting to die. So maybe you could figure out that not every child in your class needs to be the type that follows the rules without question, that doesn’t ask questions when he feels like something said isn’t correct, that doesn’t challenge your authority when you’re throwing it around like a medicine ball without any respect for the individual you’re targeting.
And lastly, let it go. Seriously. Sometimes just let it go. The kid is brilliant, and he can learn faster than you or me. So if he doesn’t finish an assignment, doesn’t show his work correctly because it came to him in his head because that’s how it works for him … just let it go. Make an exception. It’s ok. The world will not fall apart, and you will not be discovered to be a sham of a teacher if you bend the rules because the rule doesn’t need to apply in this very specific instance. It will actually mean you are a better teacher, a master teacher when you arrive at that understanding.
And to all of the teachers who don’t continually direct their anger and frustration at the parent simply because they’re a safe target, please let me say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know how hard your job is – and that the laws being passed seem bent on making it harder with each passing year. I deeply admire your commitment and your love of teaching. And I am forever in your debt for the peace you’ve allowed me to have, for the respite of anger you’ve given me. It was not lost on me, even if I failed to acknowledge it to you.
So, yes, I’ve come to hate Mondays with a passion. But there is an end in sight. In only a few short weeks, the school year will be finished and I will have three blessed months of peace before I get to meet a new set of teachers. But I’ll dread that tomorrow. I have enough on my plate today. I still haven’t heard from three of his teachers, so I’m not finished dreading today.
One of my favorite reasons for working from home? Sometimes when I start work in the morning, my task board is replaced with things like this.
This is the first thing my son shared with me after arriving home from school earlier this week. And with an intro like that, I wondered what was coming.
“She asked us if any of us knew a second language, and I raised my hand. When she called on me and asked me what other language I knew, I told her I’d taught myself Klingon.”
I wasn’t sure which question to ask: when did you teach yourself Klingon or what did she say? I opted for the latter.
“She didn’t believe me, even after I told her there was an online academy and several websites where you could learn it. So she told me to prove it by saying something in Klingon,” my son said.
Note to teachers: unless you plan to lose control of the class, it is likely not a good plan to ask a kid to start speaking in Klingon … for any reason.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I told her HIja’, tlhIngan Hol vIjatlh jIH.” His words pushed out in rough, guttural grunts. “It means I speak Klingon.”
“What happened after that?” I asked, dreading the answer and whether it might be leading towards a visit with the principal.
“Well, the rest of the class all died laughing and started trying to say things in Klingon. And then once everyone quieted down, she just told me it was nothing to be proud of.”
Oh, she is wrong there. My kid taught himself a language online instead of vegging out. He ought to be really proud of that. And, who knows. If we ever meet any Klingons, it might come in very handy.
Sometimes I feel like Snow White.
Not because I have alabaster skin or mesmerizing beauty that could survive being encased in glass for time on end – at least, not without a whole lot of formaldehyde. I don’t have an evil step-mother, nor do I have high hopes for a Prince Charming to rescue me from all my troubles. And the only time I talk to birds is to yell at the pigeons which still refuse to accept the eviction notice I served on their current abode of our upstairs deck. In fact, when I come to think of it, Snow White and I have very little in common.
But I can seriously relate to her frustrations of living in a household of men. Since my daughter moved out last year, I am the only female in the house. There is no one left who empathizes with mom being the only one working in the kitchen (guys just pretend they don’t notice and hope like crazy you’ll let them get away with it). There is no one to tell me my new sweater looks pretty or ask me how my day was. And dinner conversations that used to include topics like family news have been completely overrun with academic discussions about antimatter and play by play analysis of the latest football game. The nice part, I guess, is that there is no longer any temptation whatsoever to talk with food in my mouth in order to share an exciting thought before the topic moves on. In fact, there’s little motivation to talk at all. I recently experimented with the possibility of interjecting comments that might lead to new topics, but most have been met with blank stares and awkward pauses before the men around the table once again dive into their highly stimulating debate about whether time is an actual object or a man-made tool. I spend more and more time during meals with that lady in my head; we talk about new recipes I’d like to try, and she never fails to ask about how my day was. She’s a pretty good listener, too, so it works out.
I think the thing that drives me the most crazy about living with men is just how literal they can be. I am convinced that if I stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled for my son to rush out of the house because of a fire, he’d stand at the top of the stairs while slowly tying his shoes and asking a series of questions. How do I know it’s a fire? Do I know what caused the fire? Why am I assuming the best path of egress is the stairs? Have I considered the option of jumping off the deck? Did I start the fire to chase off the pigeons? And then the older one would come out of his room to see what commotion woke him up. He’d jump into the debate and tear apart the younger one’s theories and explain his own theory of how the fire started and how, if we developed a new system for harnessing the energy of fire, we could use that energy to build an eco-friendly super car. The two of them would still be debating the viability of their ideas when the firemen arrived and physically hauled them out of the burning house. And when I had the audacity to complain to my husband, he would be far more interested in their theories than in my frustration that our sons couldn’t just believe me when I said that there was a fire and that they needed to hurry down the stairs.
It is no picnic living in a land filled with Captain Literals.
I have a theory of my own. I don’t think Snow White’s evil step-mother gave her that apple. I think it was all Snow White. She found out about an apple that would give her blessed sleep and escape the incessant sports chatter and science debates that were driving her crazy. She cooked up the recipe, chomped on the apple and fell into a peaceful sleep. I imagine it took a bit for the Dwarves to even notice she’d fallen face-first into her plate. And I bet it took even longer to decide it was more important to investigate Snow White’s sudden change than to finish their debate.
I still have some apples left over from my last baking spree. If any of you have the recipe for a magic apple, I’m all ears.