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