Thursday, October 14, 2010

Breaking my Heart

I was at Jacob's school yesterday, picking him up.  His class was a bit late getting back, having taken advantage of the glorious October weather to sneak out for an end of the day visit to the park. That's one of the many things I love about his new school, how they get the kids out and about as much as possible; fresh air and sunshine, folks! So, I had some time to kill in the school's lobby.

Have I mentioned before that Jacob's school is a small, private, Special Ed one that is co-located in, and practices active inclusion with a "regular" school?  In fact, it's in a Catholic School, so yes, my little Jewish boy is going to school in a big old church.

I was hanging out, casually observing the comings and goings, noting one lovely boy who seemed to have a lot of energy; bounding up the stairs, he had tripped and fallen quite hard, but seemed unscathed.  He looked so adorable in full "miniature man" uniform with neatly pressed oxford shirt and tie slightly askew.

I then got to witness a scene which is now seared into my memory and haunting me, that I need to share here and use it to stand on my soapbox for a moment:  I watched a mother eviscerate her son; just scald him with scorn, in an attempt to get him to measure up.

The boy looked to be about Jake's age, maybe 8 or 9, and was, in fact that same boy I had seen going up the stairs.  The mother was yelling at her son because he had failed to write down the homework assignment. Again. She accused him of being lazy, of not caring, this sweet boy with such an earnest and eager face.  She told him that there would be no snacks until "things improved."

This was very clearly a repetitive pattern, that this boy always fails to write down the homework assignment, and his mother was exacerbated.  She saw a willfully disobedient child, a bad boy; she saw a failure. He clearly felt himself to be a failure, too; tears sprung up as he repeated his excuses as to why this time he had once again not gotten the job done. 

You could see in his eyes the pain, the panic, that he just didn't know why he kept failing.  I wanted to go hug him, but couldn't, I'm a stranger. 

His mother saw laziness, badness.  What I saw was this: a boy who had ADD and/or executive functioning disorder written all over him.  I realized I had felt a spark of recognition earlier, watching him stumble up the stairs, that radar we have to detect our own kind.

And it broke my heart to see him so broken and his mother's heart so hardened against her disappointing son, who had no idea why what was so easy for others was so hard for him.

"Did the other kids get the assignment written down?" she asked accusingly, making it clear that if they did & he didn't the failing was his.

And I couldn't say anything, not a peep, this woman was a stranger, a parent at the school in whose good graces we need to remain. And I?  I was one of the moms of the "weird kids" and she certainly would never want to think her son was like one of those.  So I kept my mouth shut, and wept inside my head, and felt my heart crackle.

I couldn't say it to her, but I'm saying it here to all of you, my readers. Many of you have children with special needs yourselves, so you know this shit already, but for those who don't, I say this:

If your child repeatedly fails at something, especially if it is something that their peers seem to find easy, do not immediately go to finding fault with and blaming your child, thinking they are lazy and stupid, bad and wrong.

Your child is clearly STRUGGLING, your child needs HELP, not a kick in the teeth.

We are not all the same.  We have different brains.  Just because something is easy for YOU or for your other three kids, doesn't mean it will be for them all. 

If your child were blind would you yell at him for not being able to see the blackboard? No? Well, what if your child has a brain that CAN NOT organize itself?  Trying harder is not going to cut it,  and his feelings of failure will just make his gears spin faster, in place.

He needs understanding, and actual help.  Executive function tutors, specific accommodations, maybe even thoughtful medication.

"We can not keep doing your work for you. It is your job to write down and understand the homework assignment." She said, the anger and disgust palpable in her voice.  "You're on your own here, you're on your own."  Wow.

Those words just felt so chilling, and I could only imagine how abandoned that boy must have felt in that moment.   And I'm sure she thought she was being a good parent, helping her son to shape up.  She is involved, she cares that he succeeds in school, she wants him to "do it right", to be a success.  And she has no idea that she is undermining him completely, eroding his sense of self worth and setting him down a path for repleted failure and pain.

I think: If her son was drowning, flailing about in a pool, would she stand there and yell at him that he was "on his own" there?  Assume that it was his fault he hadn't learned to swim better, that the coordination of remaining afloat was just beyond his grasp?  Would she call him stupid and lazy and tell him to just swim harder, look at all the other kids not drowning?

Or would she toss him a life preserver, or maybe even jump in herself and try to save him?  And then help him figure out why swimming is so specifically hard for him, get him the special instruction he needs to be a more functional swimmer.  Or, if that's impossible, the equipment he needs to not drown.

So I ask again: Why are we parents so quick to find fault with our children; to see willful disobedience, laziness, moral deficit, when a child is struggling and clueless? Why punish when a child needs help?

School is a big, scary pool.  Don't let your kids drown.

OK, off my soapbox now.

I hugged Jacob extra tight when he finally came out, told him how proud I was of him, how hard he works every day to wrestle with what comes so easily for many others.

And I vowed to catch myself when I, too, start to blame his brother, my ADD kid, for what he can't help: his race-car brain trying to navigate these pedestrian streets.

Photo credit: Jim Steinhardt "Boy looking out window" 1948
Vintage Print available for sale at Gendell Gallery


  1. I give you credit I am not sure I could have kept my mouth shout. LOL I would have in a nice way suggested maybe they involve the teacher and make sure before he leaves that his assignment is written down. It frustrates me that the mother blamed her son when in all reality I think I blame her she has to be the adult and think of things to help him not put him down. GRRR I can't stand people like that.

    Thanks for joining the Special Needs Blog Hop. I am now following your blog :)

  2. It's so hard to stand back and not say anything, isn't it? Did you mention it to anyone at school? Maybe they can help. Hi from the Special Needs Blog Hop.

  3. Ugh. That must have been hard for you. My son is Jacob, too! I'm stopping by from the Special Needs Blog hop. Looking forward to getting to know everybody. :)

    I'm at or



  4. Whenever one of our students say "that's easy" my automatic response is always..."easy for some, hard for others". Thank you for putting this into words - it is so hard to see a child failing. Makes me want to kill them with love. Is that possible?

  5. Very interesting perspective and an important message. I guess there's a fine line between not recognizing a child has an issue and being too quick to assume there's an issue. It is up to us to be sensitive enough to our kids to figure out which is which.

  6. That is heartbreaking indeed. Do you think the boy hasn't been diagnosed or that the mother doesn't want to accept him for who he is?
    I'm with you on not being able to say anything though. I'm not sure a stranger's influence, out of nowhere, would have done either the boy or his mother any good. How sad.

  7. That is so tragic. The poor little scrap.
    I wouldn't have said a word either, just wept inwardly.

  8. That made me so sad. Heartbreaking and sad. :( Maybe someday you'll get a chance to talk to her and help. I hope so.
    ~Jen B from the blog hop

  9. Nothing breaks my heart more than hearing a parent crush a kid's spirit. You have to wonder why she was giving him such a lecture there in front of everyone - like she was trying to prove herself to everyone there. I would have done just what you did - hug my kid just a little tighter, praised him for whatever he did right that day, and hope that the boy and his mom get help.
    I've visited here before but reminded to come back from the blog hop. Thanks for visiting me too!

  10. Hi! I'm visiting via the special needs blog hop! Great post. Unfortunately, I saw a lot of myself in that other mom. My daughter is EXTREMELY smart! But she has Asperger's, and it can make her a bit spacey at times. I get so frustrated at her (actually at the autism) when I see her do things like put her new fresh underwear over her old pair that she forgot to take off and not even notice1 AGHHH! I know I should take my frustrated out on her, but I DO want her to be less spacey and to actively work at being more in the moment. So while I totally agree with what you posted (very nicely made point, BTW), I can see where that other mother is coming from. It's the disconnect between where she wants her son and how his disability affects him. It's a tough pill to swallow at times.

  11. We are always hardest on our own children.

    It is easy to find humor in the antics of my older daughter's best friend. A friend who does not do her school-work, who sasses the teachers, and who regularly gets sent to the principal's office. This girl is a delight. She is funny and wickedly smart and mischievous and carefree.

    And she is not mine.

    The other night? I found myself lecturing Maj about the fact that her grade in Math had dropped several points. That she was now only two points from a B+ instead of an A-. In my mind I was pointing this out to Maj for her own good. To motivate her.

    But then I saw in her face that I was not saying anything she didn't already know. That I was hurting her feelings. That I was focusing on a tiny negative change in a stellar report card.

    And I realized I would never speak to her friend this way. The friend whose grades are much much lower.


    And so I shut up.

    It's hard to be a mom.

    I want the best for my daughters.

    And as they grow, I hope I will be wise enough to give them the freedom to be who they are meant to be.

    Instead of smaller versions of me.


  12. Thank you everyone for all your wonderful and supportive comments. I hope I have made it clear that as well as being horrified, I also have empathy for the mother here. I think what was most painful was recognizing that I have at times been that mother myself.

    It's so easy to see how wrong it is when watching from the outside, but in the heat of the moment? Damn our children can frustrate us and provoke all kinds of things to come out of our mouths that we never thought possible.

    I must confess that I have MORE THAN ONCE heard myself say to Ethan words that I SWORE I would never say as a parent, that I thought only horrible parents said: "What is wrong with you?" And each time this slipped out I quickly backpedaled and worked to soften it and tried to turn it into a joke but still...

    And I know what's wrong with him, it's the ADD. But it's just so damn frustrating when he is literally jumping around the house like a hyena at 11 pm and I am exhausted and so ready to sleep, the shit just comes out.


  13. I would have hated to see that as well, because I am now on the aspie side of the fence. But I too feel sorry for the mother. For years I did not understand why my (very bright) child could not ride a bike, struggled with handwriting, stuck pencils in the hands of children who annoyed him: the parenting books that I read did not suggest that you get your child checked out for ASD, they suggested more discipline.

    In my case the school suggested ASD first and it would be great if that was a role that schools could play - to gently suggest to parents that their child might need help, not harsh discipline.

  14. Hi Varda,
    I am a new reader from Kris's blog. This was beautifully written and could not have come at a better time. We are on the cusp of learning that our daughter has ADD...and there have been some low parenting moments for me. I could relate to both the boy and the parent. I wonder if that mother feels ashamed of how she treated her son now...?

  15. I have a son with mild Aspergers. Only learned this when he was 12 or so. Until then, it was very frustrating being his mom sometimes. Yet, on the other side of it, he is loving and funny and super smart.

    What a rollercoaster ride. I can see both sides of this. I feel for the boy, though.

  16. Hi from the bloglist...well awful to watch that..I would have hugged my boy extra hard too..:)


I am so sorry to have to turn word verification back on, but the spam-bots have found me - yikes!