Kids and Labels
When you have a child that is ‘different’, it’s often a challenge to get people to see the same small person that you see. Where you see an active, witty, inquisitive kiddo, they may see a hyper, sarcastic and nosy brat.
It’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s perceptions of your kid(s). We were at the bookstore a few weeks ago with our local playgroup – mostly kids 5 and under – and my big kids were sitting quietly, playing their Nintendo thingies. I was watching the other littler kids running around and being delightfully noisy – as littles tend to do – and I kept seeing the employees cut evil eyes over towards our little group.
The kids weren’t being ‘bad’ – they weren’t excessively noisy; they kept well within acceptable ‘joyful chatter’ limits for in public. They weren’t making messes (at least not ones that the moms weren’t helping to clean up) and they weren’t disrupting other customers. Really, there was no cause for complaint. Even our most boisterous tots were pretty chill on this occasion – and yet still, they were being viewed through the eyes of people who probably don’t really even like children all that much, much less enjoy the exuberance of youth.
I think the same thing happens in school. For the life of me, I cannot understand why people who do not enjoy children would go into teaching them as a profession, but it seems that many do. I remember conflicting particularly intensely with my 8th grade math teacher. We had instant dislike for one another the first time we met. Some personality conflicts are just that strong and quickly formed and no less important because they’re between an adult and a child. My mother thought that the conflict might be a good thing for me; something along the lines of teaching me/helping me learn that sometimes you have to work with people that you don’t particularly like. I agree in theory, but in practice, all that accomplished was continued animosity and a lifelong (at least to this point) hatred of all things math-related.
Sometimes, it is as basic as a personality conflict. Sometimes, the problem is deeper – like a fundamental lack of understanding about how children with more than their allotted share of ‘muchness’ function and relate to the world. My oldest child is ADHD, has sensory processing disorder and is all-round a ‘high needs‘ child. He’s growing out of it (or adapting better, maybe?) but there are still some key areas where his muchness shines through. It’s his personality, true, but there are other contributing factors. He is the way he is because of certain things, like his hearing (hyperacusis) or his need to touch things (sensory seeking) or have non-sticky or dirty hands (tactile defensiveness) or his need to be up and active with a 30-second attention span (ADHD). He is ‘this way’; he’s always been ‘this way’. He will always be ‘this way’.
Then there’s my youngest… he is alternatively the sweetest, most polite and helpful child on the planet, or the most obstinate, willful, argumentative and unyielding child ever to have been born. That’s just his personality. I’ve watched it develop as he’s gotten older. I see personality quirks in him that I recognize as being my own, or my Loverly Husband’s, and others that are uniquely his own. But he doesn’t have the same kinds of issues that my oldest has. Noises don’t affect him the same way. He can focus on something for long periods do time, and if he’s interested in what he’s doing, then it looks more like ‘obsession’ than mere interest.
I remember what it was like as a younger mother with two small boys. The bookstore is a fairly contained area where, for the price of a cup of coffee (Starbucks, so it’s not even cheap coffee), we could hang for an hour or two when it’s unbearably hot outside and the boys could stay relatively close to me, but still had plenty room to maneuver – and this was back when they had a train table, even. Why have a big comfy kids’ area when you’re not really ‘kid-friendly’?
We’re fortunate to have in our circle of friends several families with at least one child with more than the normal allotted ‘muchness’. I’m also extremely fortunate in that most of my friends parent somewhat similarly to the way I do, so when there is need for a mama-voice in a situation, no matter which mom steps in, the procedure is on-par with what I’d do myself. I value that consistency for my kids.
I also value the overall parental attitude that sees this type of ‘muchness’ as something to be encouraged – not something to be disciplined out of them. We/They value these personality quirks and attitudes as necessary skills for future thinkers and leaders. We/They see our kids as the amazing people – individuals – that they are, not as mini-robots who are stepping out of line. They have a voice, and they’re used to those voices – however small – being heard and valued. I don’t understand people who think otherwise.
In days of yore, way back before I had kids, I was nanny to a HN child before I knew there was a term for it. We took a Kindermusik class for a couple of years and one of the things that I still have and use some 10 years later is a bookmark that I got that talked about language – how the words you use when talking about your child shape how other people see him, and how the words you use shape how your child sees himself. The bookmark had a list of words in one column that could either be neutral or negative, depending on the situation, and an alternative word in the second column with a more positive connotation; instead of ‘bossy’, you might describe your child as a ‘leader’. That sounds really easy, right? But it’s hard to do when you’re tired or stressed out and don’t have the vocabulary handy.
Over our years of homeschooling, I’ve expanded the ‘extra pages’ section of my planner to include various articles, charts and other bits of information that I want to use to help me be a better parent and teacher for my kids. The ‘positive adjectives’ list on this site has been extremely helpful to me to keep handy. Sites like SizzleBop were great helps when my kids were younger, and though it’s changed formats several times through the years, it’s still a great place to find appreciation for the ‘highly distractable child’.
As far as using labels for children, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the labels are a quick way to convey information. If I say to you, ‘My child has ADHD’, then you know (or should know) that lots of sit-down and be-quiet instruction isn’t going to help him achieve as much as he could with a few adaptations. As a teacher who understand this label and what it is intended to convey, you’d know to adapt how you’re teaching to help him learn and retain the information you’re presenting by including activities that work his body as well as his mind. But all too often, those labels also carry a negative connotation. Instead of conveying information, it too often condemns a child to a ‘box’. I’ve seen teachers check out when they hear a label, and that’s absolutely devastating to a parent to see.
There are negatives to labeling for parents as well. I’ve seen lots of parents who hear that their child has a label and just sort of … give up. They either don’t have access to, or don’t care about getting, more information so that they can help their child. Or, they might not believe the label (and plenty of children, esp. with ADHD are given the label without actually having ADHD) and so their child falls through the cracks. Others, parents and teachers alike, can’t see past the label. The diagnosis takes over and that’s the only thing that people see. In either case, those kids need an advocate.
I get frustrated with parents who don’t advocate for their children. For children with a ‘label’, it means that we sometimes have to advocate a little more. We need to be educated, to network with other parents and build support networks for our children. We have to learn a little more, put a little extra effort into them. Our kids still have to function in the real world, so my goal (for both of my children) is to help them develop coping mechanisms that will help them function to the best of their ability. There are thousands of adults who learned to deal with various disorders as students – some in good ways, some in not-so-great ways. With today’s plethora of research and knowledge about how to help, we are in the best position possible to help our kids manage their needs in productive ways.
For my child, this has been a series of interventions, from very noticeable, to less overt as he’s gotten older. I’ve blogged about learning tools before, and about helpful bits I’ve picked up along the way several times over the years, but this is a topic that keeps coming up as more and more parents with ‘labeled’ kids choose homeschooling.