Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Parents aren't justly evaluated by society

Many years ago, I read (in Bulgarian translation) the book "Children who are different" by Gerda Jun. It included the stories of 11 children with special needs, told by their parents. One child had cerebral palsy, one had attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, the others were mentally retarded and often with other conditions as well.
A narrator father of a girl with mental retardation (of unknown origin) had also two younger, typically developing children. Once, the school where they were studying sent to his workplace a letter that his children were awarded for success in the socialist school (this was in the German Democratic Republic). As this letter was read aloud in front of all colleagues, the father in question had a strange feeling. He knew his two children were doing well in school without any help from him. The situation was different with his eldest daughter, who couldn't attend a regular school. He had put much efforts to help her achieve the best development she could, yet nobody praised him. So he asked, "Does society acknowledge most the parents who really deserve most?".
Although my parental experience is still short, I can confirm first-hand that this father was right: the public opinion is utterly unjust when judging a parent. And one of the reason is that the child is regarded as a white sheet of paper and the parent as a demigod in full control of what will appear on this sheet. People underestimate the fact that a child's development follows its own built-in program that often couldn't, or shouldn't, be changed from outside.
During the last month or so, my elder son has been praised 4 times for his reading skills. (He doesn't really read yet but he knows the entire Cyrillic alphabet, the Latin letters without analog in the Cyrillic alphabet and can read short words.)
Praise was also addressed to me, although I have done almost nothing. Yes, about 3 months ago I spelled words to him, to help him understand that this is what letters are for. But his interest to letters, numbers and other printed symbols emerged at age 18-20 months without any help from me.
At the same age, something less pleasant happened. My son stopped saying the few words he could say ("mama", "dada" and several of this kind). He also became somewhat alienated from us and the world in general. This regression was followed by a plateau period of more than a year during which his skill development was almost zero. During this period, I of course was very unhappy and anxious. I was wondering what was happening to the child, thinking of all sorts of conditions from impaired hearing to mental retardation. Some of the people around encouraged me and urged me to believe in the child. However, others reacted in a way that only made matters worse, blaming me for all problems. According to them, my son stopped developing properly because I:
- wasn't paying enough attention to him;
- was working too much on my PhD thesis and too little on him;
- returned to work;
- wasn't talking to him all day (as if later in life we learn a foreign language by turning on a radio to listen to it all day);
- wasn't bringing him out to spend long enough time playing with other children;
- was often bringing him to my mother and leaving him alone with her (this is the favourite theory of one of my husband's relations who hates my mother and thinks she will surely damage any child in her custody).
At some time after my son's 3rd birthday, his speech slowly reappeared and resumed its development. The kindergarten has surely helped this, but I have the impression that most of his new talk was as spontaneous as his earlier silencing.
I recently learned that there are other young children (usually boys) who have strong interest in printed symbols, learn to read early without much training from outside and often are speech delayed. This phenomenon is called hyperlexia. Moreover, as many as half of children with hyperlexia regress at age 18 months and nobody has any idea why.
So I was blamed that my child wasn't talking and now I'm praised because of his precocious reading skills. Neither was my guilt/merit, unless in the sense that my genes were involved (I was also a late talker and early reader). My son was the same child and I was the same parent 2 years ago as we are now. So I would advise other parents, regardless of whether their child's development is typicall or not, to do what they think is best for him and not to listen to irresponsible talk by people who have nothing better to do than judging others.

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