I wonder why it’s OK for me to point out my children’s limitations but not the ways they excel?
When I tell people that my son, J is autistic, or that my daughter, L, is tiny for her age and was very slow to start walking, this is OK. It’s allowed. The usual response is for the listener to then try to make me feel better (about something that didn’t actually make me feel bad in the first place) by saying you’d never know there was anything “wrong” with J; that L knows the best things come in small packages. This conversation is socially acceptable – no-one is left feeling threatened by my children’s supposed shortcomings, and the other person can be happy they have done a Good Thing by telling me I don’t need to worry.
However, my children are both also exceptional in their abilities. J can identify 15 different shapes and can tell you the difference between a pentagon, hexagon and octagon. He flummoxed his cousin when he asked her to draw a rhombus. He recognises all numbers and letters, and can name every planet in the solar system. He is obsessed with shop signs and logos and recognises dozens, if not hundreds of them. A drive down the High Street is J’s perfect trip out: “I see McDonalds, I see B&Q, I see Sainsbury’s, I see Pizza Hut …” is the running commentary from the back seat. How people react to me telling them this depends on the context in which I present it. Am I telling them one of J’s autistic traits, or am I telling them my son is gifted and highly intelligent? The former is acceptable. The latter seems to make others, especially other parents, feel uncomfortable.*
But it seems to be with L that I am most expected to stay quiet about her incredible gifts. She has absolutely extraordinary conversational abilities. Her vocabulary is outstanding, and she sounds more like a 6-year-old than a 3-year-old in her sentence structure and topics of conversation. And sometimes it’s more like talking to an 80-year-old! The other day she proudly told me she’d done a wee on her potty: “… and I didn’t even need to hold your hand, even though I was a bit anxious. Do you think Daddy will be proud of me?” She has a sophisticated and mature sense-of-humour, has an interest in what is happening in the world around her, and asks insightful and thought-provoking questions. In fact she meets most of the criteria on Mensa’s “gifted child checklist” (http://www.mensa.org.uk/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=525)
Just as I am concerned about J’s needs being met when he starts school, I am equally concerned about L. I want her to be stretched and challenged and supported to be the best she can be. I am worried that she may struggle socially as children her own age baffle her when they do not reply to her complex conversation. But mostly I stay quiet about this. I know that when, on occasion, I have broached the subject, the unspoken reaction has usually been “Pushy parent. Jewish mother. Biased.” I’ve even had to restrain myself from typing apologies and justifications for the way I have spoken about L here.*
Why is it seen as simply stating facts for me to point out my children’s limitations, but bragging for me to explain the ways they excel? And isn’t this utterly representative of a much wider picture? Too often we’re too quick to point out our own failings and those of others. We get so caught up in our limitations that they become all we see. So many of us struggle to know how to accept a compliment.
I once taught a group of teenagers and asked them to write their name at the top of a sheet of paper, followed by three things they liked about themselves. They then passed the papers around and had to each write something they liked about the person named at the top. They got their own papers back, complete with a list of compliments written underneath. The experience was a revelation for some of them. They had never had their strengths pointed out by their peers and I could see them visibly growing with pride and pleasure. Even more telling was the difficulty many of them had in writing the things they liked about themselves – some simply could not think of three things. If I’d asked them to write three things they disliked, I have a feeling it would have been a different story.
It’s indisputable that we need to accept our own and others’ limits, and be kind and tolerant and supportive of them. But we also need to embrace our strengths. Encourage your friends to talk about the great things they, and their children can do. My children are an example of the limits and strengths within all of us. It isn’t until we accept, and yes, embrace, both ends of the scale that we can be truly happy.
* I would like to point out that I also have many wonderful friends, who are parents themselves, and who accept J & L for who they are, gifts and talents included!