Monday, April 18, 2016

Let's Talk About The Effects of Consistent Patronization

In the eighth grade, I wrote a poem, on a whim, and let a teacher read it.  I had watched a news broadcast the night before that had really resonated with me.  The poem was deeply personal.  At the end of the day, my English teacher caught up with me on the way to the bus.  He said the poem was so good, it should be in the school newspaper.

I panicked.

The minute I got home from school, I destroyed my single handwritten copy of the poem, crumpling the paper and ripping it into tiny shreds to bury at the bottom of my trash can.


Now, why did I do this?  My teacher read a piece of my writing and deemed it good enough not just for a passing compliment but for the school paper.  Why would I destroy it and throw it away?

To explain this, it's necessary to clarify something else: growing up as a disabled child, I experienced a lot of undue praise from people in authority: sometimes they were strangers, but sometimes they were my teachers, sometimes they were my family members.

I attended a public event.  I heard: "You have more of a right than anyone else to be here."

I walked in the house of a relative.  I heard: "Here she is, Miss America!"

I opened the door to my own classroom and a note came home with me:  "Tonia opened the door to the classroom ALL BY HERSELF."

Having experienced this kind of thing for the better part of thirteen years, at this point, the lines between a genuine compliment on my actual ability and one that gushed because I did common things had grown blurry.  So when a teacher praised my work legitimately, I panicked, because I didn't want something I had put my heart into to be read as the token inspirational piece in the Jackson Journal.


We are often told in society that we must not overindulge disabled children, lest they grow up feeling entitled to everything, making them spoiled brats.  Little is said, though, about the other end of that spectrum.  If we are consistently praised - consistently patronized - by people in authority from a young age, it confuses us, and not just through childhood and adolescence.  Even now, as an adult, I find myself wondering if true compliments are in fact authentic.

I automatically filter the compliment through, "Do they mean pretty for someone in a wheelchair?"  "Do they mean well-written for someone with CP?"  

I have been praised my whole life for doing mundane things: for existing in public.  For walking into a house.  For opening a door.  By hearing these things throughout my life, they have had a hugely detrimental impact on my self esteem.  Because it means that, from the time I was small, people expected nothing from me.

So what did it mean, then, when I graduated high school with High Honors?  What did it mean when I made the Dean's List my first semester in college?  What did it mean when I traveled out of the country for the first time without my parents at nineteen?  When I got a job?  When I moved out and began living on my own?  Does that make me an exception?  And aren't exceptions automatically removed from the overall picture for being exceptional?  So, then aren't we all still measured against impossibly low standards?

Last summer, I was walking outside my apartment, when someone in authority who also lives here commented:  "Are you taking your daily walk?  To inspire me?"

It's difficult to live as an object that people in authority consistently measure their own suffering against.  We must constantly fight the inner monologue created by those around us who mean well, but chip away at our humanness, with each demeaning comment.

So how do I cope?  

I love the people who simply say good morning, or ignore me, if that's what they normally do, and go on their way.  Those who interact with me the way they do with the general population.  No condescending voice,  No cooing at me as if I am an eternal toddler doing something cute.  

I want to exist in a world where I can do something awesome, be complimented, and not filter a thing.  I want there not to be a filter.  I want to believe what you say, when you say it.

So, I'll work on it.


Sometimes, I still think about that poem I wrote as an eighth grader. And though I can't rescue that crumpled and torn piece of notebook paper from a garbage can back in 1995, I can take comfort in knowing it was good.

I did grow up to be a poet, after all.


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  1. Tonia --
    This was beautifully articulated. Not beautifully articulated "for a girl with CP" - it was beautifully articulated, period, full stop. This post conveyed what has been on my mind since before I even began attending elementary school, but until now I have never really been able to put it into words.

    For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me, "You are SO independent" - they said it for nearly everything I did. If I stepped up onto the bus by myself, I was "SO independent." If I politely refused assistance and zipped up my own jacket (which I am perfectly capable of doing), I was "SO independent." I remember being vaguely annoyed by the constant repetition of "You are SO independent," and then confused by my own annoyance...why should I be confused, I thought. This is a compliment; I should be grateful. As I read your post, though, I realized that maybe I was just feeling as you did - tired of being complimented for performing everyday tasks, tired of wondering, "Am I actually independent or am I just 'independent for a kid with CP' ?" And these "compliments" haven't stopped. I get praised for using stairs, praised for traversing my college campus, praised for "being happy." Just the other day, someone came up to me and said, "I saw you booking it to class the other day!" I laughed and said, "Yeah, I was probably late!" and they proceeded to look confused. "No," they said. "I meant that it's so cool that you walk to class." ??? I never actually voice my frustration when people say things like this, because I know they're trying to be kind...but CAN WE NOT, PLEASE. It gets old after a while, hearing these sorts of "compliments" all the time, and they don't actually make me feel good. /endrant

    Anyway, this post really resonated with me. I especially loved your analogy about compliments being placed through a filter...that makes SO much sense, and I realized that I unconsciously "filter" compliments too.

    And this last part: "I want to exist in a world where I can do something awesome, be complimented, and not filter a thing. I want there not to be a filter. I want to believe what you say, when you say it." YESYESYES. This.

    I've loved everything you've written on your blog so far, Tonia...but this might just be one of my favorites. :) I LOVE this post - and don't run that compliment through your filter, because I mean it with every fiber of my being. ;) You are the embodiment of objective, unfiltered awesomeness, Tonia!

    1. K, I always love reading your thoughts and knowing what resonates with you and why. While I'm not "glad" you can relate, because that means you encounter the same types of confusing "compliments", it's always nice to know we are not alone. :)

  2. This was a great post, and makes me wonder how Nina feels about this issue, if she feels this way too.

    1. Thanks! And you guys have such great, open communication that I'm sure you could ask her sometime, or talk about it if something similar comes up <3

  3. Hi! My name is Cassie. My 7 week old son has Spina Bifida. I have been following you on Facebook and reading your blog since shortly after I learned of his diagnosis (21week gestation) by a recommendation of a friend with a child of disabilities. I love reading your writings because to be completely honest I feel totally overwhelmed when it comes to raising my son. His physical needs don't scare me but his emotional needs do. I'm afraid of saying the wrong things. I love him so much and want him to have a fulfilling life. In regards to this post- any tips for parents? Doctors don't think he will be able to walk. I could easily see myself over praising him for accomplishing normal things. I don't want to be patronizing him. But I would genuinely be so proud of anything he accomplishes! But I also feel that way towards my son who does not have a disability.

    1. Cassie, I'm so glad you're here! Thank you so much for letting me know you're reading. That's so awesome. My main tip would be just this: think about yourself at a similar age to your son. Would it have felt good and affirming to receive such praise from your own parents at a similar age, about a similar thing? Also, a good indicator of whether praise will be appreciated is if you know he's worked really hard on something and he finally masters it. ( took me a long time to be able to tie my shoes. I practiced for 3 years, starting about 2 years after my peers were able to tie theirs, because my fine motor skills just weren't there yet.) When I finally did tie my shoes, at 10 years old, I felt SO proud, and welcomed the praise, because I had worked so hard. I would also say, be sure to praise your kid for behaviors and traits you really love in him and want to keep seeing: kindness, gentleness, knowing how to share, saying please and thank you, standing up for himself, etc. Really hope this helps and is not too overwhelming! Write anytime <3

  4. The thing your relative said is something that I would see happen to my able bodied friends when I slept over. Its not unique to disability. Family just likes to do that. I find in situations of patronizing verses real compliments the tone of voice of the person will change. If it's a patronizing compliment the voice is higher pitched and too perky. A real compliment sounds closer to regular speech…at least in my experience.