Years ago, when Andy and I had a meeting with our child’s preschool teachers, I remember sitting around the little table meant for Playdough and snack-time and the preschool director saying something about certain behaviors being “red flags.”
I had walked in expecting to hear something like, “his crayon scribbles are really creative” or “he really likes hanging on the climbing structure.” To be honest, to this day I can’t really recall what the “red flag” was a “red flag” for, just that there was a “red flag,” and that this made me feel woozy, and sad, and worried, and inadequate.
A red flag that made my inner Ferdinand just want to sit and smell the flowers; a red flag that made me swoon with fears about having already messed up my kid, maybe by being a therapist, maybe by giving bad genes. I’ve worked with so many parents by now that I’m more calm to know that we almost ALL seem to have these worries to some degree or other.
I have since worked with many families dealing with children across the range of anxiety, OCD, ADD and ADHD (on through LMNOP), autism, Downs, depression, learning differences, etc. etc., but one thing I have always kept in mind is that parents are not just hearing facts about their children (or, more accurately, opinions), but parents are also having feelings about these things, strong, heart-felt, sometimes heart broken feelings.
My point about “red flags” is two-fold: firstly, that we want teachers and specialists to notice things and alert us early, because small interventions and bits of assistance early-on can make huge differences for kids later on; but secondly, that we parents must keep in mind that many skilled specialists and experienced educators can at times be “right,” yet also be lacking in bedside manner.
I think that there are several reasons for what I would consider empathic lapses in these raise the red flag sorts of moments. For one, experienced educators are so used to a range of issues that saying that a child has a red flag for a learning difference or a socialization issue is like a pediatrician saying, “It’s a low grade infection.” Yet when it’s our baby, we so want nothing ever to be “wrong” with them that it pierces us to hear anything potentially negative, especially when our kids are so young, especially with first children.
Another trend that sometimes appears is the specialist who has no children, now I have known some who are incredibly sensitive to the feelings of parents; but others can be a little clueless about what it actually feels like to have kids, especially to worry about kids—from that spiked fever, to that alarming cough, to that biting incident at school or the toilet training drama that gets a bit late into “normal” development.
Yet another empathic lapse I’ve seen is where specialists may be unconsciously aggressive toward some parents… only for me to later learn that their own child had the exact issue at hand. Unresolved guilt, anger and sorrow of their own experiences seemed to unexpectedly show up in the form of coldness, harshness or lack of empathy when a particular case hit a raw and all too familiar nerve. Sometimes, it seems, as with certain autism-spectrum disorders, that a specialist himself or herself may have a touch of the very difference they are so adept at recognizing and even treating… but not necessarily in meshing with the “normal” parents of the child in question.
In sum, we parents want to get straight talk from the experienced educators and specialists who encounter our kids—and thus my point with my words here is to either front-load compassion into whatever you will hear about your child in the future, encouraging you to stay open and trusting that this is how we can provide children with optimal learning and growth environments, or else by way of these words to add some compassion into the painful things that you have already heard in the past, sloppily or carelessly delivered by well-meaning (or even not so well-meaning) experts, educators and/or specialists.
So, let’s dedicate today to putting compassion into our words, to thinking about not just what they mean, but how they might feel to those who receive them—striving to be brave, involved, pro-active and effective, and also kind—in the service of all our collective children.