Monday, April 4, 2016

How a Parent's Response to Ableism Can Impact Their Child

I don't remember every detail.

I was around ten years old.  I had stayed after school to participate in an art-related activity.  My mom was with me.  Some of the activities were parent-child focused, so it was not strange that she was there with me that day.

It was fairly crowded, with parents and children, and I would always clam up when my social world at school and my family's world at home collided.  I was not familiar with any of the other kids.  I knew I stuck out, being the only student there with a walker, and so, I kept my focus on my project and spoke very little and very softly.

When the time came to leave, my mom was helping me put my jacket on.  With the prospect of leaving the room so close at hand, I became more comfortable and spoke at my usual volume.  A younger boy overheard me.  His eyes got wide and he said to my mom, in shock:

"She can talk?"

I was so embarrassed.  I was embarrassed by the child's question, by his incredulity, and that my mom had to hear it, too.  I was used to people's comments but it was extra humiliating if they were made in front of family.

I shut my mouth.  I had no idea what to say.  (Not that it mattered, as the boy's comment was directed at my mom, not at me at all.)

My mom, though, stayed admirably calm.  She continued helping me with my coat, and said to him, "Yes, she can talk.  She uses a walker to get around, but other than that, she is just like you."

I wished the whole instance could have been erased from both of our memories.  I did my best to put it out of my mind until later that evening, when family gathered at our house - maybe to celebrate a birthday - as I said details are foggy.

I was looking elsewhere, but tuned into when my mom brought up the comment by the little boy to another family member.

"He asked if she could talk," Mom said.  "I guess she'd been quiet or he hadn't heard her talking earlier."

I listened carefully, but didn't turn my head.  I wanted to know what Mom really thought about this.  Was she embarrassed?  Did she wish we hadn't done the after school project together?  Or maybe that she had taken another one of my siblings instead of me?

Mom continued recounting the moment: "I wanted to take him by the collar and shake him.  I wanted to tell him, 'Of course she can talk!'"

I cannot tell you how good this was for my soul, for my confidence.  The combination of my mom modeling for me how to deal with naive questions and knowing that she was angry on my behalf let me know, unequivocally, that she valued me.  That she loved me the way I was.

Hearing a parent's anger on their behalf may not be beneficial for every child.  I know, for me, that anger expressed in the moment would have been very hard to deal with.  I'm sure my mom knew this.  And, as the parent of four kids (at the time) she knew that we learn how to respond to things based on how adults around us react.  She stayed calm and rational for that boy's sake, letting him know, through her reaction, that it was okay to interact with me.

But I also loved knowing that my mom was indignant on my behalf.  That it was not just me, who felt that moments like these, and comments like these, were unfair.  That they were wrong.  I needed to know that they hurt her, too.  And while I knew she had spent my whole life fighting for me to have what I needed and deserved, to watch her do it, really cemented something in my ten-year-old psyche.

Just the year before, I had dealt with these kinds of comments and worse, every single day.  From teachers and students alike, who did not know how to integrate a student with Cerebral Palsy into the classroom.  My self esteem took hit after hit after hit, for nine long months.  Even then, Mom was there.  She taught me how to speak up for myself.

And in these brief moments a year later, my mom laid so much of the groundwork that made me who I am today.  She taught me how to address hurtful remarks respectfully, and she taught me it's okay to be angry about things that really matter.  That words do hurt.

...Thankfully, when they come from my mom, they also do a lot of healing.


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  1. Really appreciated this post. It's so hard as a parent to strike a balance between appropriate anger in defense of your child and not jumping to anger in a way that makes your child feel either a) embarrassed or b) that they should be looking for mistreatment even where it doesn't exist. It's hard but it helps me to know that if my child sees or hears me being upset over mistreatment of him (or incorrect assumptions about him) that it won't make him an angry person. I think it's good for kids to know that their parents are human-- we also feel the same feelings of anger and frustration that our children do.
    (This is Mary Evelyn, BTW-- It wouldn't let me log in to post!)

    1. Mary Evelyn,

      It's obviously not the same for every child, but for me, it helped to know I was not alone with my feelings. For so long, it felt like, maybe my upset over these types of comments was an overreaction, but seeing my mom had similar feelings let me know that my own were valid and that I had value as a human being. (Difficult to articulate these feelings as a fifth grader, but it is somewhat easier to do so now.)

      So, no, I don't think it will make your child an angry person. Knowing that you are worth getting angry over is important, I think. Given the right circumstances, I think it's okay to share your anger about mistreatment your child endures.