Wow! I'm trying to think of a good way to introduce what I want to write about tonight... It could get extremely long. I'm thinking about kids, and more specifically about my experiences with kids... I'm also thinking about my experiences as a person with disabilities and how I treat people without disabilities--and what light my experiences as a non-parent can shed on my relationships with nondisabled people. It's very profound, and I'd like to try to capture at least a bit of it before I go to sleep and get on to another day's thoughts.
One of the most hurtful things parents can ever say to me is something along the lines of, "When you're a parent you'll understand ..." Generally this kind of comment comes after I've weighed in on some discussion and my opinion is in sharp disagreement with whatever the person who happens to be a parent thinks or has done. The comment hurts me for a number of reasons. Most of all, it assumes that parenthood is absolutely necessary in order to have any understanding of children's needs, disciplinary issues, etc. While I'm certain that I will learn things as a parent that I don't know now, I am also absolutely convinced that biological parenthood and even 24-hour-a-day relationship is not required in order to give a person knowledge of these things. This kind of logic would assume that parents are automatically wisest simply because they are parents and those who are not parents are by default unwise in these matters. It's simply not the case. There are many parents who are unwise: blatantly disregarding their children's needs in favor of their own interests or preferring disciplinary methods that don't work or are abusive. In addition, there are child care providers and teachers who are themselves childless but who provide wisdom and stability that may be the sole source of a child's support. Some of these people become foster parents or otherwise significant adults in children's lives, sometimes more trusted than the child's own parents.
What is the point to all of this? I am having to develop a very thick skin about these comments and trust my experience as well as my instincts as a "child person." I have been working with children in one capacity or another for the past 22 years. I need to trust the kids; and the kids have always told me that I have done the right things for them. They "told me" by responding in ways that indicated that what I was doing was working. They "told me" by trusting me with their feelings when they clammed up with other adults. These are things I can't be prideful about--the pride would make me the very sort of person the kids would stop trusting. But they're also things I need to acknowledge if I am to stop getting my feelings hurt every time a parent tells me that I don't know what I'm talking about.
The latest of these accusations seems to have something to do with someone interpreting a comment I made to mean that I don't understand the concept of a child "having an attitude." The comment implied that when I have my own kids someday, I'll "understand that kids aren't always as sweet as I think they are." Fortunately, I wasn't so hurt by this one. The person obviously knows nothing about what I think or what I know. I happen to know that "the 'tude" actually starts as early as three or four years old, and I've had parents argue that point with me because they don't believe their three-year-old is really capable of cruelty. But I'm outside the situation enough to observe and see that yes, indeed, a three-year-old is capable of cruelty--and how it's handled is extremely important.
My experience with kids has run the gamut, and I'm actually glad now. People ask me what age group I prefer working with, and I have no preference. I started out as a nursery volunteer with two and three-year-olds for a couple of years, then moved down to the toddler nursery for the next four years. During this time I also did some occasional baby-sitting of children under age 11. A couple of them truly had "the 'tude"--and boys with attitude are much more challenging than girls.
During my freshman year of college, I worked the infant nursery at church for the year. After getting my first dog guide, I took a breather from nursery work, and during my junior year I directed a small youth choir. The members ranged in age from 11 to 15. None of them had ever sung before, and they were all quite sensitive about their singing. Two were sisters, and they were quite competitive and occasionally hurt each other. Getting them to sing at all was a challenge. Getting them to sing harmony was a joy, and getting them to do it with genuine smiling faces and not plastic smiles was vital to me. It meant that I had to gain their trust and conquer "the 'tude."
During the next three summers, I was involved in one way or another with a two-week-long camp for teenagers with visual impairments held at the university. Two weeks is nothing significant in the big picture; but it can be an eternity when it doesn't go well. During the last two summers, it did not go well. During the middle summer, I was a dorm monitor. One of the girls (the one with "the 'tude"--and also the lone African-American) was sent home. Why did she have such a "'tude?" Her roommate was shutting herself up in her room with a boy and refusing to let her in! Why was she sent home? I don't know all of the details. My perception is that the staff and the populus was afraid she would lose her temper and act out in violence. She was a very emotional child and I was called anytime she started shouting and cursing. Her feelings were entirely legitimate--no child should be barred from her own room. I laid down the law with her roommate about the issue of appropriate sexual behavior--these kids were 13 and 14 years old, after all! They argued the point with me with great passion, mostly because they thought they would never see each other again. (Then why were they acting so intensely anyway? They had no clue of the potentially life-altering things they could do to each other!) None of the other staff seemed concerned about this problem. The "problem child" was sent home. The next summer, another child was sexually assaulted.
During this time period, I made friends with an adult student who had four children. Her husband had passed away suddenly, and I often watched her children while she studied, ran errands, or took care of other business. One of her study breaks kept her out very late one night. One of the children was sick with a high fever and was crying out in his sleep. The oldest refused to go to sleep... This child had tested me openly: "You can't spank me." I did it simply to communicate to him that yes, if necessary, I could and would. I never needed to again. He was generally very compliant, even if he argued the point. I learned that it was important for him to have his say and feel understood even if I didn't change my mind. He quickly came to see himself as "the man" in the family because there was no man--and he was nearly ten years old, an age when boys begin to experiment with trying to put on the man's role anyway. Protecting his dignity was important in any disciplinary action I took. And if he was upset, he would handle it alone. There was no comfort I could give him... But on this night, with his mom out late, he stayed awake, his eyes overflowing, looking toward the side door leading off my bedroom where she always came in with the kids. "She's not coming," he said. "I just know." I wanted to hold him, but I couldn't. There was nothing I could do for this boy/man sitting beside me. But he had to give in finally. He lay down and put his head on my lap and cried like his 18-month-old brother.
I directed the youth choir again from the fall of 1996 to the spring of 1997. Since 2000, the bulk of my child care experience has been with children under five. However, after I moved back from Florida, I did not return to nursery work. Instead, I started taking kids in my home for various needs. The kids who were under five in 2000 and 2001 are now six to 12 years old, and they are my current kids. "The 'tude" reigns supreme, even in their play. The most compliant child alone can turn into a completely disobedient child when another child is here. However, it isn't because she intends to be disobedient. It's because she is literally completely distracted by whatever she is thinking about. Punishing her for it (which I've seen people do) does no good--she has no idea why she's being punished. I need her to attend to me--and not just to my words but to their meaning. I've had to develop ways of making this happen that don't end up sending stress vibes through the entire house and all the kids--the last thing I need is everybody (including me) in meltdown because I had a disagreement with a kid.
Sometimes "broody kids" get distracted by their own thoughts and emotions, and that can be harder to work with. I get broody kids in here who are hateful to other kids, and they get mad when I put an end to it. I let them sulk it out--I don't see a point in telling a kid she can't have some time to sulk. A broody kid needs a few minutes to deal with her feelings as long as she isn't taking them out on other people. The last time this happened, the other two kids went off to play and the broody kid (age 11 and whom I had disciplined for speaking hatefully and excluding one of the younger kids) sat down to pet the cat and "sulk." I went in and sat down next to her and tried talking with her about nothing in particular--she's not a kid who trusts me; but if I'm there and don't scream at her for sulking like I've seen other adults do to her, someday she may choose to confide in me. She didn't choose to talk that time, but she did hug the cat and then got up and played nicely with the other girls.
A discussion got started on one of the communities I participate in regarding the question of whether anyone with a disabilitiy has ever criticized us for "not trying hard enough," etc. I answered that yes, it has happened and that most of my criticism has come from people who are young and haven't had the life experience to realize the extent of what I fight against on a daily basis. Someone wrote back, and all her post said was, "Ageism?"
Without getting too deeply into what I think of words like "ageism," "disablism," etc, I'll say only that while some people may be upset by what I said (which was not directed at any particular young person), it doesn't change the fact. In fact, it was a younger friend who helped me to understand this... I have always believed that friendship transcends age. I mentioned my friend with the four children earlier in this post... I was unhappy because she preferred to confide in women from the church who were in their 30s and not in me. What was so wrong with me? Looking back, it's glaringly obvious--and still painful. I was a kid to her. A friend in matters of theology or school, etc. But I didn't have children of my own, and I had never lost a husband. So in those matters she confided in people who she thought would understand her. And the sad truth is that I have done the same thing to people in my life... It isn't always age-related, though at times it has been. There was a time when I unintentionally abandoned several of my younger friends because my life circumstances were changing rapidly and I preferred--needed--the support of friends who had experienced that transition. It was wrong of me, and I have since then attempted to be more communicative with my young friends. They still care and still want to know what's happening to me. That is something I can relate well to.
What does all this have to do with that discussion about criticism? One of the reasons criticism hurts is because it touches too harshly in places that are painful. Friends can expose those same places without hurting me so deeply. And one of my young friends recently did--and got an earful from me regarding why I could not address the issue. Every idea that she could have given me was something I had tried many years ago. She said, "I had no idea! I guess it's really different once you're out of college, isn't it?"
So understanding that my critics are likely young people who can't understand my life can be helpful. On the other hand, I hope that I'm also open-minded enough to evaluate whether there might be any merit in what they are saying... At this point, the only examples I can think of are very bad examples: the guy who came bursting onto the blindpeople community and said that all of us should go to college and get a job and get a life because we're all worthless. How we'd all love to get a life! (I already have the college part done, but thanks for the idea.) I've been working on the job part for eight years. How 'bout you, Mr. born when I was eight years old? I wonder if he's out of college yet. Working? Sadly, the unemployment struggle seems to know no bounds. IT professionals, social service professionals, and everyone in between can't get jobs if they are blind. The employers can't seem to imagine how the work can be done. "Will you be all right living so far from your mom?" rings in my ears seven years after that interview... Pile on any additional hidden disabilities, and it's more challenging.
Yet my response to the critics is also important. The worst way to hurt someone is often to say, "You don't have a clue." How would I know what they do and don't know? That response isn't really about what they do or don't know. It's about me trying to make that person be quiet because I don't want to hear what he/she has to say. Aren't there better ways for me to accomplish that than being hateful? Sometimes ignoring works wonders, although it takes a lot of strength--and I haven't mastered that kind of strength very well yet. I'm working on it actively. Sometimes just answering directly with my circumstances is helpful.
What does the parent/non-parent discussion have to do with any of this? What I wish parents would do is take the time to know something about me and why I might say something I've said before they assume that I said it just because I'm not a parent and don't know what I'm talking about. I might very well know what I'm talking about, and it might actually happen that whenever I do become a parent my conviction only grows stronger. Then they won't be able to use this "someday you'll understand" air of superiority with me that makes them feel better about themselves. Why not just say, "I disagree?" Why is it so important to put me down because I haven't popped a child out of my womb? Certainly many non-parents don't have extensive experience with children. But some have vast experience with thildren, and it's worth respecting.
Someone said something on Sunday regarding her experiences as a sign language interpreter that I found fascinating. "You can be a part of the community, but you can never be a part of the culture." What I want is to be respected as a part of the community involved with children; and a number of parents often cop an attitude that anyone who is not a parent is not qualified to hold an opinion about discipline or any topic deemed related to "parenting." Most "parenting" topics bleed over into the community at large, especially in this society where children are often left with child care providers for fair portions of the day and sometimes evening while parents work and where other adults may find themselves responsible for everything from toilet training to policing sexual behavior.