Sports Day last year at my son’s school. It was a really good day. Sunshine, blue sky, green grass, lots of goofy events for the kids, samosas and hot dogs, candy and soft drinks. My son was 8, in grade 2. My daughter was 4. I hung out on the sidelines with her to cheer for the kids and have some fun, which we did.
One of the Sports Day events was the races. All the kids in each grade got to run across the field together. Siblings who weren’t yet old enough to be in school also got to be in a race, just for them. My daughter was very excited about this. She lined up with the other little kids at the starting line, and when the start signal came she ran like a fiend across the field, beating everyone: all the girls, all the boys. She was number one and gloriously happy about it and the ribbon she received.
My son ran with the other grade 2s. He lined up and when the signal came he started running. About halfway across the field he pulled up, turned around, and kept turning around, just looking at everyone else as they flailed and ran and screamed to the finish line. He was smiling and laughing, totally enjoying himself, but absolutely and completely unconcerned about making it to the finish line. He finished last, laughing as he got there. No ribbon of course.
He’s never mentioned that race again. I don’t think it mattered much to him. My daughter however still mentions it on occasion, almost a year later. It did matter to her.
My son doesn’t have a diagnosis like autism, or Asperger’s or CP. We just slowly realized that there were things he needed extra help with. There was a speech delay, developmental delays, and then learning difficulties in school once he was old enough for that. His first school didn’t think they had the resources or knowledge to provide what he needed (they didn’t). After grade 1 he changed schools so that he could go to the school with the resource room, meaning a smaller class, with more support for kids that need extra help because of things like autism, speech difficulties, learning problems, and other issues. He is also part of a “mainstream” class, but spends most of his time in the resource room.
I’ll confess that it wasn’t easy to hear that my son might not be able to learn the same way other kids do, and that he might not be able to learn everything that a regular school curriculum expects kids to learn. I’ll even confess that I cried the day I went in and sat down to listen to the school experts tell me the results of his evaluation. I haven’t cried about it since, but I did have a moment of grief there, as my most fearful, most apocalyptic vision of his life flashed before my eyes. I won’t tell you what I saw. If you’re a parent of a special needs child, and even if you’re not, you might be able to imagine what I thought I saw.
But then, what do I know? I’m his mother, not a fortune-teller. What do I know about what he will be able to do? What do I know about what his life is going to be like? What do any of us really know about how our kids’ lives will turn out?
By comparison, I had it easy in school. I dealt with life as a student by assuming that I could get 100% on every test, and usually I did. I studied hard, but I was also lucky: I have a good memory, and my brain and the way I learn things just fit into that round, school-sized hole like a round peg should.
My son, like many other kids, is not so lucky. If regular school is a 1″ round hole, then some kids are square, 4″ pegs. And some kids are other shapes too, like stars and triangles, octagons and rectangles. No matter how you try, you just can’t fit them into that hole. Many go through school without ever fitting in or getting help. Many can’t win the race that most schools make them run, because some don’t even know there is a race, some don’t care about the race, and some can’t win because even if they know and care, the race is not designed in a way that they could ever win.
And if you’re not winning, then you’re losing. Right?
Is my son losing? He can’t learn in a regular class with 20 kids. He needs more structure, less distractions, more support and guidance. At the same time, he also needs not to be babied, not to be treated like he’s incapable of learning, not to be treated as though there is no race at all for him, and he definitely does not need to be told to sit down in the corner and not run at all. Luckily, the resource room and the staff there have given him much more of what he needs, and he is already surpassing what people at his old school expected of him less than two years ago.
Of course, in some people’s eyes, he’s still not winning, because he’s not running the race the way “you’re supposed to”. Some people will pity him for that, and judge him to be lesser-than. Some may pity me too. I’ve heard that in some parents’ voices when I talk to them about my son, though few would say it out loud. I don’t hear it often though, maybe because I choose my company wisely and maybe because my son is just an amazing kid, even though he’s not a round peg.
Are your kids winning? Are they getting to the finish line first, are they getting the best grades, the awards and the ribbons? Are they faster stronger smarter better? And if they aren’t, what does that mean? How important is winning? Do we value people more if they are round pegs? If they are faster better stronger? Should we?
We all know parents whose kids are always winning. They’re the parents who always one-up any other child’s achievement, the ones who have children who apparently always behave, never have meltdowns, never talk back, never act out. The ones who have children who know how to read, write, run, swim, play, and do everything better and sooner than other kids, all the time. This kind of stuff starts early, maybe even when you get together with that first baby group and some parents seem locked in an unspoken but fierce race to score baby “firsts”: first to roll over, sit up, walk, talk, poop on the toilet.
Of course it’s good to be proud of your kids, but with some parents, I get the feeling that they’re trying to prove the value of their kids, and their own value as parents, by praising (and possibly exaggerating) the achievements of their children. As though it is somehow dangerous to speak of weaknesses, failures, and less-than-perfection. As though the revelation of any flaw might make others judge them to be bad parents of bad children.
But what do I know. Maybe those winning-est parents are not exaggerating. Maybe all they say is true.
If I’d taken my daughter to a baby-group when she was little, I might have won every event. She crawled when she was 6 months, walked at 9 months, was speaking pretty fluently by 18 months. (Though she would have failed the “never has melt-downs” test and some other ones too…) She’s verbal (and in my experience, at least 90% of people’s perception of your intelligence is based on how good you are with words), she’s competitive, she’s smart. She’ll fit into the school-system a lot more easily than my son. Sure, she will have problems (who doesn’t?), but they will be of a different kind. She will be able to run that school-race the way the system/society/our robot overlords expect it to be run.
In many ways I’m glad she’s my second child, and that my first-born has taught me that though these things she can do, the things she is capable of, are all good and valuable, they do not define her value as an individual, or my value as a parent.
I’m not saying that achieving good grades, high scores, and being excellent at stuff isn’t important, or that it’s not something to be proud of. Of course it’s important to do your best, to learn, to grow, to work hard. And it’s OK to be proud of your kids too, but does your love for them somehow increase with their achievements and decrease if they don’t achieve? Does your love increase if they get good grades, and diminish if they don’t? Do you value their lives less, if they start talking later and have speech difficulties? If they have physical or mental challenges? Do you love them more if they have scissor skills before Kindergarten and less if they haven’t mastered reading by grade 3?
Of course not.
When I look at my friends, the people I love, the people who matter in my life, including my kids, I know that I don’t value them for their accomplishments, their grades, or how much money they make, (though I can feel happy for them and celebrate those things with them). That’s not why I love them, and that’s not why they matter to me. They matter to me because they care about me, because I care about them, because they are kind, flawed, funny, caring, sometimes needy, sometimes supportive.
Are my kids winning? You bet they are. Every single day. Every day when I get to know them better, every day when they learn, grow, try, fail, try again, strive, care for others, fight, live, play.
I’m proud of them too. I’m proud of their creativity, their kindness, their quirks, their humour. I love them, not because of what they achieve, but for who they are, and who we are to each other. I love them for what they teach me, every single day, about myself, about themselves, and about life.
And while school might be a race, life really isn’t. It’s not about “getting there first” or winning, because the end destination of every life is the same. Whether you’re faster better stronger smarter, or not, you die. And who wants to get there first? To me, life is about being here, experiencing this life to the best of my abilities, about being a person, being a human being, being a friend, being a family, being loved and loving someone back.
So what the heck am I saying? What the heck is the moral of this rambling, long-ass post? Maybe this: that I love these damn infuriating, lovable, wonderful, perfect, flawed, surprising, amazing, frustrating people that I helped make, but that somehow no longer belong to me, but only to themselves and the world. And that I think this world is a better place if pegs of all shapes are allowed to fit in. And finally, that I love watching my kids run around in the grass, whether they run across the finish line first, or fall down laughing on the way.
This post was inspired by my life, my kids, and by these blog posts:
- Herding Cats’ “Being retarded“
- Adventures of not super-mom “Autism” and “I don’t like my kids“
Square peg image thanks to SelfHelpDaily.com.
This post was originally posted at my personal blog: Kids. Food. Life.