Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Choosing to Act

How do we respond when someone asks us questions about our kids? Or, how about....how do we respond when someone says something hurtful about our kids? How do we talk to others about our kids and their special needs?

Recently I had an interesting experience. Now I can call it interesting, though at the time it was a mix between hurtful and...well...educational. I was stopping by a friend's home quickly to pick up my phone...yes, it had fallen out of my pocket and for some time I was quite panicked -- not because I couldn't find it, but that Marcus would have even more ammunition to support his claim that I'm always losing my phone! Samantha and Callie were both in the car. My friend's little boy (we'll call him Son) was outside playing with a neighbor friend (we'll call him Boy). Since I was just going to run to the door, I left the girls in their carseats.

The two boys approached the car as I was getting out. They were looking through the minivan's slightly tinted windows at the girls. Son said to Boy, "Her head is really really small. It's so tiny. She's a freak." Did I hear that correctly? He's such a good little kid, I'm sure he didn't just call my daughter -- who has obvious special needs -- a "freak." I mean, he knows her afterall. His mom visit teaches me...they are in church together. No, I didn't hear that correctly.

"Yeah, I know. She's a freak."

Hmmm. Guess that confirms it. I wasn't quite sure what to do in the moment. I was hurt and sad and really angry. But what is the right way to deal with something like this? I was almost up to the door when I heard him confirm what I had thought he said...and my knee-jerk reaction was to defend her. So, I said, "Hey guys, she's not a freak." But they were already riding their bikes up and down the sidewalk again. It was so fast. It happened so. fast. Was my opportunity gone? Yes. So, I decided to create the opportunity again.

I got my phone from my friend and headed back to my car. The boys were close by again and so I said, "Hey guys, Samantha and Callie want to say HI to you." I opened the car door so they could see both of the girls...but then another friend came up along the sidewalk and started talking to me. My opportunity vanished, again.

Had I not be delighted by my friend's presence, this is how it would have went down:

I would introduce Boy (because Son already knows her) to Samantha and kindly continue to point out the obvious. "She is small isn't she? Do you know she's actually older than her sister, Callie?" I'm smiling. This is all very light and happy. This is when I go into teaching mode and explain that she has a smaller brain, but she's learning to talk, and she can walk, and if you make funny faces she will sometimes laugh really hard with you! Kids like making Samantha laugh. I do this when kids at the store stare. It works really well and we all walk away feeling good. But today I was going to add that, "I heard you call her a freak. I wouldn't say she's a freak, just different, though, huh?"

I learned a lot in those quick few seconds. I had never heard someone call my daughter FREAK before, and that stung. It hurt really bad. I know Son's just a kid. But it was still wrong and cruel.  How hard was it to not want to say, "Well, you're a bit of a freak yourself little punk!" in that split moment? How hard was it not to get emotional?

When Samantha was an infant, we got a lot of looks and stares. Most people were kind, but some were unintentionally cruel. I realized during that time that I have the choice to act or react. It's easy to react to what people say...but then don't we often have regrets when we react too quickly? What is harder, at first until it becomes habit and a part of who we are, is to decide to act -- to educate and help change perceptions of what special needs really is.

Early on, for my own sanity and emotional health, I decided that I was going to act. I was going to seek teaching opportunities to help educate people about Samantha and her condition. Instead of walking around the victim of gawking eyes and pointing fingers, I was going to walk around as if I had a treasure (because I do) and if someone was courageous enough to approach me...no matter if they knew how to approach me or not...I was going to give them a slice of knowledge about my treasure. I gradually felt more and more comfortable talking about Samantha until it became no problem.

Even still, when this boy called my Sammy a freak, it hurt and I wanted to react to his label. He was wrong and he needed to know it. But, had I done that, I would have missed the opportunity to teach. Well, turns out I missed the opportunity anyway, but oh well. The theory is still a good one, and one that I stand by. Choosing to act gives me power...and ultimately, more happiness.


  1. I too have been thinking a lot about how will respond to these questions/statements from outsiders. I admire your willingness to be open about your daughter and her condition and to seek to educate others. While I don't feel ashamed of my son or like I have anything to hide, a part of me feels like his abilities are his own personal business and I don't know if he would appreciate me telling everyone. I'm probably overreading into a baby psyche, but I know that if it was me, I wouldn't really want everyone to know all of my strengths and weaknesses. Why does having special needs give total strangers the sudden right to know things that they wouldn't otherwise dare ask a typical child? Everyone, adults and kids alike, have issues, but I would never presume to have the right to walk up to a stranger and ask them why they are overweight, why they dress a certain way, why they are a certain color, etc. So, I guess I just haven't figured out how to balance my desire to express my true pride for my child and educate others about him, with the fundamental right to have personal privacy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Oh Courtney, I hear you! Believe me...perhaps I came off too chipper and pro-active "yeah! I choose to act." That's what I choose, but there are times when I choose to do nothing too. And there are still times when I am really hurt -- especially by the looks. It's a hard balancing act, and trying to figure it all out is one that has to work for each of us individually. We all are our own personalities and different things work for us...and they work for us at different times. I think we need to allow that for ourselves, that things change, that we change along with our child. One day at a time. Thanks for your comment...I hope you see mine in response. (I couldn't find any contact info with your profile, so maybe you'll see this instead.)

  3. Ok Jenny, so glad to read you here! Have been through this thousands of times. I used to get really angry and say mean things under my breath but I wanted them to see Faith for who she really was.... As you said A Gift! So when someone stares now or says something insensitive I walk Faith right up to them and say "faith tell these people hello!" and Offer them her hand. It really throws them for a loop and they either realize their ignorance or feel really embarrassed for being so obvious! Lol!
    Candace (faiths mom)



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