Sunday, May 04, 2008
One of these things is not like the others...
A childless friend of mine recently said to me, exasperation in her voice, "Don't people KNOW that raising kids is going to be hard?" She'd been frustrated by the complaining of a single-mother friend of hers, who tends to go on at length with some bitterness about how she can't do the things she wants to do because she has a small child.
Of course, I replied, people know intellectually that raising a child isn't easy. But knowing that intellectually is a vastly different matter than facing the day-to-day rearing of an individual with her own personality and ideas and opinions -- hard enough when you have a partner, probably harder when you're doing it alone. When I talk to my mom-friends, we always agree: the things that can be the most challenging are the unexpected things, decisions or issues you just didn't see coming.
I have been thinking a lot about this conversation with my friend lately, because over the past several weeks I have been immersed in sorting through the difficult business of advocating for our daughter. Figuring out what your child needs can be a very tricky business, I find. When she tells you about a problem she's having, or about something that she finds really, really hard, what is in her best interest? Sometimes just listening seems to be in order, and the venting is what is needed. Do you encourage her to keep trying, on the theory that conquering the difficulty will help her feel good about herself? Or will that make her feel that you're not appreciating the difficulty and seriousness of the situation? Do you suggest different ways of handling the problem, to offer new strategies? Or does that suggest that she's not handling it well or will she take it as sounding critical of her choices? Do you intervene? When do you decide that what she's talking about really *is* something a 12-year old girl shouldn't have to handle on her own? How do you make sure she feels listened to, supported, valued, empowered, and defended or protected if it comes to that?
Sorting out which strategy to use when is tricky, I tell you.
And lately, I have been grappling with another layer to the whole business: how to cope with the adults (like teachers and school staff and principals) who view YOU as a problem because you're standing in front of them advocating to get what your child needs. Some people are great, of course, and dedicated, and empathetic, and sensitive to the fact that not every kid is the same and some are pretty darned different from the rest of the pack. But some kids are pretty sensitive, and some adults are not.
I'm talking in generalities here, because I've been addressing this stuff in regard to a host of different issues. But one example crystalized the issue for me. During a recent overnight class field trip, one of the girls in her class (we'll call her Ann) had her birthday. And at dinner that night, some of her friends assembled a cake for her by putting a bunch of individual cafeteria-cake-squares onto a plate. We were in a big cafeteria, and as we started to sing Happy Birthday to Ann, the kids from all over the room -- not just the ones in our class -- gathered around to sing and watch. And just as the singing ended, two of Ann's friends reached over and shoved her face down into the cake.
There was much laughing and excited shrieking from the onlooking kids. And Ann came up, frosting everywhere on her face and hair, looking hugely embarrassed but smiling faintly, as if trying to see the joke and be a good sport about it.
Me, I gasped in horror. At 12, among a big crowd of peers, I'd have been mortified and humiliated if that had been done to me. The mom sitting next to me looked similarly aghast.
The teacher, sitting to my right, smiled affectionately at the group. "Ann is smiling," she said, "So I'm not going to worry about it."
Frankly, her reaction horrified me even more. It seemed pretty clear to me that the situation called for some immediate discipline -- at least the forceful message that those sorts of pranks are inappropriate and hurtful. I said, "I thought that was a really mean thing to do to someone they call their friend." But still, the teacher smiled, and again said that since Ann didn't "seem upset," she didn't think there was a problem.
So here's the thing: my daughter has been telling me about how this teacher just "doesn't deal with stuff." So when she, or any other kid, feels that they have a problem, they don't talk to the teacher because she doesn't do anything about it. That's my child's perception, anyway, and from what I'm learning from other parents, she's not the only one who feels that way. There are kids in that class who spend each day worrying about what's going to happen -- what other kids might do to anyone else -- and even though nothing happens on any given day, they're stressing out about it because as far as they can tell, the limits are pretty darned loose.
Now, my daughter isn't the sort of kid to let stuff roll off of her. She can fret and worry and get a pretty good stomach ache going over things. And, after seeing various episodes on our school field trip, I have a whole new understanding of why she's reacting the way she is. Just because she feels differently -- or is the only one who reacts differently outwardly -- doesn't mean there's not a problem with the classroom dynamic.
Anyway. Tomorrow I'm scheduled for a talk with the school principal, and I'm guessing (from past discussions) that she'll listen, and suggest that my daughter is unusually sensitive but that everything is under control, and I'll feel a bit patronized and not really heard, so I'll have to express my concerns a bit more emphatically to make myself understood.
It's just not simple, figuring out what is going on and knowing how to do what your child needs you to do. But you do the best you can, and that's all we parents can do.