Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Misguided Quest to Raise "Normal" Children, Part 3 of 3


As I mentioned in previous postings, I've spent many years thinking about the concept of normal. It began when my two oldest children were preschoolers. As young children, they were very advanced in some ways, yet very delayed in others. For example, when my oldest son was three, he once rearranged the magnetic alphabet letters on our refrigerator to spell the first and last names of the mother and children he had ignored at a playdate earlier in the day. A few months later, he drew a picture and handed it to me. It was a detailed and accurate aerial view of the highway entrance/exit ramp down the street from our neighborhood. 

But this very same child couldn't speak in expressive sentences until age 5 1/2, and he experienced significant delays in his physical development as well. My second son developed in a similar way, but with weak fine motor skills, unusual mannerisms, and a strong willed (read: fit throwing) personality. He too didn't speak in sentences until age 5 1/2.

Clearly, this wasn't normal, and believe me, I heard about it! For many years, I received unsolicited comments about my sons' delayed development from many people, including complete strangers. Some bluntly told me I was a bad mother, others suggested that I wasn't talking enough to my kids, and one person kindly recommended that my childrens' language skills would improve if I regularly spoke English to them. (The assumption was that I spoke only Chinese to my children—despite the fact that I was born and raised in this country. Very annoying!) As a new mother, I was already insecure about my parenting abilities, and all of this feedback left me feeling increasingly incompetent.



Me and my kids during the silent years, 
when neither of my sons spoke in sentences.


I began investigating different therapies for my boys, feeling self-imposed pressure to choose just the perfect mix of them. After all, suppose I chose therapies A and B, but the best choice was actually therapy C? Or what if therapies A, C, and D were truly the best choice? Or... what if therapies E and F were the best choices, but only if they were done after therapy A and before therapy C? The possibilities for screwing up were endless, and I became increasingly afraid that if I messed up this decision, my kids would be permanently damaged beyond all repair. They would fall even further behind their peers in development, which would doom them to miserable, unfulfilled adult lives. And it would be all my fault!

My train of thoughts continued hurtling down this track until the day a healthcare professional examined one of my sons and exclaimed, "He's just not normal! Don't you want a normal child? Because I can fix him for you, if you'll let me. I can make him normal!" These comments were extremely disturbing and really got me thinking. 


Did my children really need fixing, in order to be considered normal? And if they needed to be fixed, did this mean that they were fundamentally flawed, or even broken? Was this the message I wanted to give my kids?


Around this time, I received a phone call from a friend whose son had developed a new habit. Apparently, he thrust his bottom lip forward whenever he felt nervous, and this made his jaw jut out. A school speech therapist felt this just wasn't normal, so she suggested that my friend take her son to a surgeon, who would break and reset her son's jawbone. That way, he would be physically unable to thrust his bottom lip forward, and voila! A normal child. 

My friend and her husband were horrified by this advice, and they wisely refused it. However, the fact that such a drastic solution would even be suggested helped me realize that we parents of developmentally delayed kids aren't the only ones being pressured to fix our children in the name of normal. In fact, based on conversations with many parent friends over the years, I now believe that parents in general are feeling increasingly pressured to build/engineer normal, perfect children. 

An example of this occurred during my youngest daughter's nine month checkup. That day, we were assigned to see a new pediatrician in the practice. After she measured and weighed my baby, we had the following conversation:


Doctor: Your baby is only 30th percentile weight. This isn't normal. Are you worried?
 Me: Nope. All of her siblings were about the same size at this age, and they didn't pack on weight until after they were a year old. Plus she's 90th percentile height.
 Doctor: Well, I'm worried. It isn't normal. I think she's not getting enough to eat.
Me: Trust me, this child eats like a horse. She's getting plenty to eat.
Doctor: You said you're nursing her. Do you nurse her at night?
Me: Heck no! She sleeps through the night, and that's the way we like it!
Doctor: Well, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if you're nursing her, then you need to nurse her around the clock. That means during the night.
Me: Sorry, but I'm not doing it.
Doctor: But you are NOT following the guidelines advocated by the American Academy of Pediatrics! You MUST give your baby nighttime feedings, and if you don't agree to do this, then I'll be forced to write this down in your baby's medical records!
Me: Look, if the American Academy of Pediatrics wants to send a doctor to my house every night at 2am to get my daughter up and feed her, they're more than welcome to do this. Otherwise, she's sleeping through the night.
Doctor (snootily): I'm making a note of this in your baby's file.
Me (snarkily): Go right ahead. I'm making a note to find another pediatrician.



My youngest daughter at left, a few months ago. 
She is now taller and heavier than her older sister at right.


Had I been a new, inexperienced mother, the aforementioned conversation would have ended far differently. I would have left that office bawling my eyes out, berating myself for raising an abnormally underweight child, and believing I was a bad mother who had permanently stunted my poor child's growth. I also would have set my alarm clock for 2am from that night forward. But thankfully, I was a seasoned mother, and here's what I realized as I stomped out of the doctor's office: even though my baby's weight was abnormally low in the pediatrician's eyes, her weight was completely normal within the context of my family. This raises a very important point: 


Normal is a relative concept!


Normal actually means average, and average is defined as what most people around you are doing. So the definition of normal for any society is what most people in that society are doing. And normal is therefore subject to peer pressure, as well as changes in societal attitudes. 

For example, in today's society it's considered normal when a woman wants to be thin (usually—this excludes eating disorders.) That's because our society is health conscious and the mass media portrays thin, fit women as attractive and desirable. However, back in colonial times, a woman who wanted to be thin was considered abnormal, and here's why:

"Between 1400 and 1700, a fat body shape was considered sexually appealing and fashionable... this standard of feminine aesthetics was associated with the socio-economic conditions. 'In economies oriented to subsistence rather than abundance, a plump figure was a sign of wealth, health, and youth.'" (From The Media and Body Image, by Maggie Wykes and Barrie Gunter, p.36)

So, if our concept of normal is based upon our environment, this leads to two very important questions: 


What kind of a child is considered normal within our society? And are these the children we parents should be striving to raise? 


In my experience, our society's definition of a normal child is a kid who meets, or preferably exceeds, every item on the developmental and educational checklists for his/her age. At first glance, this seems completely reasonable.  

But if you really think about it, this standardized checklist approach treats our children as if they're robots on an assembly line—identical robot children whose physical, intellectual, and emotional development must stay in lockstep with the checklists, in order for our children to be deemed acceptably normal.  

And woe to the children (and their parents) who fall behind in any way—through special needs, physical clumsiness, slower academic skills, jaws that stick out when they're nervous, or 30th percentile weight at nine months!



Photo used with permission from J.L. Watkins



But when I look at the world around me—the world created by God—I've realized that God's normal is uniqueness! Just take a look at the wide array of skin colors, hair colors, body types, and personality traits that define us as individuals. God didn't have to create us this way. He could have created a world full of robot clones who look, talk, and act alike, but he didn't. And here's why: 


We weren't created to be robots, and we weren't created to raise robots! 


Instead, I believe God created each of us to be unique individuals, with unique giftings that point toward the specific callings he has placed upon each of our lives. This means that our children, by virtue of their individuality and natural giftings, will tend to develop more quickly in certain areas, and less quickly in others. Relatively few of them will hit every single one of those checklist points at the specified time, and this doesn't necessarily make us bad parents. Nor does it doom our children to failure as adults! 

In fact, many of the movers and shakers in society—the people who have shaped this country and this world—were considered abnormal (sometimes hopelessly so) when they were growing up. Following are three interesting examples that illustrate this point. See if you can guess who they are:


Abnormal Person #1:
When this person was a baby, his parents were very worried because they thought he was abnormally fat and had an abnormally large head. This person was unable to talk fluently in sentences until age nine, and his elementary school teachers told his parents that he was probably mentally retarded. His father asked the school headmaster what kind of job he should prepare his son for, and the headmaster replied, "It doesn't matter. He'll never make a success of anything." Who is this person? Answer: Albert Einstein.

Abnormal Person #2:
When this person was a young boy, his teacher described him as inattentive, dreamy, and distracted. This person recalled, "One day I heard the teacher tell the visiting school inspector that I was addled [confused] and it would not be worthwhile keeping me in school any longer." When his mother heard about this comment, she angrily told the teacher her son had more brains than he did, and she announced that she would teach her son at home. Who is this person? Answer: Thomas Edison.

Abnormal Person #3:
As a child, this person was considered weird by his classmates, who nicknamed him "the retard". When his father brought home a Lionel train set, it was noted that he did not play with it in the "normal" way. Instead, he crashed the trains for fun and filmed the wrecks with an 8mm camera. Who is this person? Answer: Steven Spielberg.


In addition to the people above, there's also the more down-to-earth example of my father, who came to this country with nothing but a trunk of clothing and a college scholarship. He was already in his early twenties when he entered college, which meant he was several years behind his fellow students. After two years, he dropped out, because he had such a tough time taking classes in a second language. He eventually found a job as a warehouse painter, and he spent several years working his way up the ladder to an engineering position at the same company. He later returned to college, taking night classes for several years until he finally earned his undergraduate degree at age 29. 


This is not the normal college prep and career path that high school students are warned they must follow, in order to lead a normal, successful life! And yet, my dad did quite well for himself. He had a long and successful engineering career, earned a masters degree, and raised five kids who all graduated from college. He and my mom also retired very comfortably.
 




My dad and the others I mentioned are all proof that people who fall behind norms for their age can catch up with their peers, and often surpass them during adulthood. They've also convinced me that hard work, a good attitude, and the willingness to make the most of opportunities can trump supposedly abnormal development during childhood.

This has profoundly affected my parenting style. Rather than worrying so much about all of the short-term goals on developmental checklists, my husband and I now take a long term, individualistic approach to childrearing. Over the long run, we have the same expectations for all of our children.


However, our short-term expectations are tempered by an understanding that children learn more quickly when they're developmentally ready for something, rather than when some timetable developed in a vacuum says they must be ready.


Given this mindset, we chose to homeschool our sons (and eventually all of our children). We felt this would give them extra time and space to develop, without subjecting them to the "fixing" mentality I mentioned earlier.  


As part of their schooling experience, we got both of our sons involved in music at an abnormally young age (five), figuring it would increase/stimulate the functioning of their right brain. Interestingly, our oldest son suddenly began speaking in sentences about three weeks after he began playing the piano with two hands. The same thing happened with our second son, who plays classical guitar. And today, both are functioning fairly "normally", despite being way behind on the development curve when they were younger.




Our oldest son on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives, 
serving as an honorary page for our state representative, Sandy Cole. 



 Our second son giving his first speech in Gavel Club (Toastmasters for teens). 
After this speech, he eagerly asked me how many more speeches he will get to do this year. This is not how "normal" teenagers are expected to behave!
  

Looking back on the past sixteen years of parenting, I can see that my sons' language and physical development delays profoundly impacted me in ways I never expected. Initially, I felt very overwhelmed. I also felt angry at God for making parenthood so difficult, and I felt bitterly envious of other parents who didn't have to deal with the fears, frustrations, and rude comments that came my way. And yet, all of this ultimately became a blessing, because it forced me to rethink the entire concept of normal on a far deeper level than I probably would have otherwise. 


Normal is no longer a goal I care to pursue, for either myself or any of my children. 


Instead, my husband and I are raising our kids to know and be the unique individuals that God created them to be, regardless of what the checklists say! This has made parenting far more enjoyable for us and for our children, who are getting better, less neurotic parents as a result. As usual, God knew what he was doing—even when I thought otherwise! 

Final note: everybody tells me that a "normal" blog post should be about eight hundred words. In the spirit of throwing normal out the window, I have far exceeded eight hundred words, and I hope you have enjoyed reading every one of them! 




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6 comments:

  1. Marlene ~
    Love your observation: God's normal is uniqueness.

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  2. Great work, Marlene. Thanks for your openness and your boldness in defying normal on behalf of your kids.

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  3. Enjoyed reading your appraisal of normal. My daughter and I have had discussions about the public school and the academic expectations made in kindergarten. I will share this post with her.
    Thank-you for your observations. You are doing a great job of parenting!
    Blessings,
    Carol

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  4. Great post, Marlene. Only thing with which I'd disagree is the comment "or exceed" -- because there is as much flack for kids who exceed standards for their age as their is for those who fall under them. I even had teachers tell me in front of the class that I wasn't normal (I was reading about 6 grade levels ahead). They really do want average -- nothing less, for certain, but also nothing much more.

    Bat wonderful, important observations. Wish there were more moms like you.

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  5. Enjoyed reading this post, Marlene.

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  6. I came to the same conclusions last year after hearing the word "typical" from the speech therapists enough time to make me hate it! As though I wouldn't notice that typical means the same thing as normal and therefore I wouldn't recoil from it as much. You've articulated my thoughts so wonderfully here, and better than I could have! Thanks you!

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