Yesterday afternoon was my (one of) my God-son's 2nd birthday party. He is a big fan of diggers and construction vehicles and the party was suitably themed. At the party, my youngest (Miss 18 months) spent a fair bit of time with the aunty of the birthday boy. As we were leaving the party, the aunty came up to me and said; "[Miss 18 months] is so smart!"
I am just like any parent. Telling me that my child is smart makes me happy. It doesn't matter whether there is truth in the statement or not. (I actually think that calling Miss 18 months 'smart' was more based on the fact that she is sociable and interactive, rather than intellectually superior, but that is another story...). But this interaction reminded me of some reflections during the work conference I attended last week.
Our speaker was an internationally renowned developmental specialist, lecturer, researcher and author. (Dr. Louis Rossetti, for any Speech Pathologists reading). The conference days were two of the most interesting days of lectures I have ever attended. Dr. Rossetti has spent a life-time working with children aged 0-3 and their families. Many of the families Dr. Rossetti works with begin their relationship with him at birth, in a Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The families often have very sick babies, who have recognised developmental delays or are at high-risk of developmental delay.
Dr. Rossetti has kept a parent journal for 31 years of his career, where he writes down interactions he has with families of children with additional needs. Parents open up to him about their anger at feeling let down by the health system, at feeling a lack of attachment with their sick babies, at feeling the death of their dream of having a 'perfect' baby, at carrying the judgement and disappointment of their extended family and friends. One of the most interesting (and heart-breaking) aspects of his presentation was hearing the stories of interacting with families.
One of the things he mentioned, almost in passing, really struck me.
Our society values babies and small children based on two things: whether they are cute and whether they are smart. Many of the babies and children we work with are not "cute" (babies with dysmorphic features, facial clefts etc), and they are not "smart".
So, what sort of reaction do parents of these children face everyday - from extended family, friends, people down the street, even from medical professionals? No-one tells these parents that their babies are cute (or if they do, it is not sincerely, which is even worse). These families spend their whole lives with their children under-going tests which will tell them that their children are not smart (though usually not in those words). It is shattering for parents, for their own esteem (which is often so wrapped up in our children), for their dreams.
As we (society) fail to affirm and value these children, parents struggle everyday to find value for both their children, and for themselves. Of course, (most) families love and accept their children, no matter whether they are "cute" and "smart" or not. But many families struggle to see their child valued by outsiders, never receiving the affirmation that the parents of other children receive. Add this to the often high-level physical care needs required for these children, and things are not easy.
We all know how hard parenting can be, even with our own "cute" and "smart" children. We all know how our esteem can be shattered and our value questioned over the smallest criticism or rejection of our child. For some parents this is a reality in almost every interaction they face, everyday.
I'm interested if you have any insights...
How can you express acceptance of or love for a baby/ small child and avoid the cute/ smart thing?
Have you you been in the position of any of these families, with a baby/child who is not considered cute/ smart by society for any reason? What is the hardest thing about your situation?