Dismissal, excuses and faux neutrality are at the core of racism and ableism

We consider ourselves to be unbiased, color-blind, tolerant and accepting of all. And yet the accusations of racism and ableism against ordinary, good people in our society never cease.

It brings up defensiveness, anxiety and eventually anger. We don’t see the point.

So what if someone made a slip of the tongue? So what if a group of kids smirked in the general direction of a Native American elder?

Creative Commons image by Igor Spasic

Creative Commons image by Igor Spasic

"There are good reasons. The kids were provoked by a weird religious cult that was racist against white people! There you have it. It’s really all reverse discrimination, a bunch of losers whining because they don’t have what it takes to make it in direct competition, so they want affirmative action and cry ‘racism’ or ‘ableism’ at every turn.”

It is rarely said that coherently and in one breath, but it is what a lot of people think.

I know because I used to think essentially that, except for including ableism in it or resenting affirmative action. I was 18 at the time and I was and still am ninety percent blind. I was mildly, quietly resentful of the focus on racial justice at my university. There was almost no mention of ableism back then and I felt that discrimination against people with disabilities was given short shrift.

It was and often still is. But that did not mean that racism was any less of a problem than the students of color said it was. They were exhausted over the endless fight with it and they were far more tired of the topic than I could ever have been. That was the part I didn’t understand.

It took traveling and living in thirty different countries, listening to hundreds of people tell me their stories while I wrote about social justice issues as a journalist and becoming part of an ethnically mixed family to entirely change my views.

Today, I have to say that such dismissal, excuses and faux neutrality, which once had me duped, is not just the mild fringe of racism and ableism, but rather its heart and core.

Two days ago my third-grade daughter came home from school upset. Her hands were shaking while she told me that some boys had been drawing insulting pictures of Asians on the blackboard when the teacher wasn’t in the room. They were laughing and saying derogatory things about Asian people. A few Asian families have moved to our small town in the past few years. Most classes at the school now have an Asian kid or two in them. My daughter’s class doesn’t have an Asian kid, but it does have my daughter, the only person of color in the classroom.

My daughter, who is generally pretty timid, went up to the boys and asked them, “How would you like it if someone laughed at you that way?”

One of the boys turned to her and said, “You of all people had better shut up. You’re the most brown of any of us.”

My daughter went back to her friends. She was upset and one of her friends was sympathetic. My daughter was too afraid to do anything about it or report it. The classroom has an anonymous tip box for the teacher, where the kids can put a note if they have a problem they don’t want to talk to the teacher about personally but want to resolve. My daughter’s friend offered to write a note and put it in the box because my daughter was too afraid.

Then, in the evening I wrote a note to the teacher through the parent-teacher communication system. My daughter’s teacher has generally been wonderful and exceptionally kind.

I had done multicultural sensitivity workshops in the preschool but have since been overwhelmed with work, health problems and family troubles for the last few years. They had wanted me to come back but I just couldn’t do it. It takes several days to plan, gather materials and do the workshops, and I have to take the time off of work. There usually isn’t a budget for any materials, so I have to fund that myself. Obviously I’m doing it as a volunteer, not getting paid.

But I decided it was time to get back into it. I offered the teacher my help in doing some workshops for her class and told her what I had understood from my daughter’s description. I happily anticipated being able to solve the problem with the sympathetic and helpful teacher.

This evening I got the teacher’s reply, And it hit me like a sucker punch. The teacher didn’t dispute anything I said. She said that the note she got in the box completely agreed with the version I recounted. She said she doesn’t think it’s a problem that the boys draw pictures of Chinese people on the board because they draw pictures of the Simpsons as well. “They’re just having fun.”

She didn’t mention what the boy said to my daughter but she said that in general she doesn’t think the incident is important. She said she had heard the children laugh about “Chinese people“ and she doesn’t think that’s a problem. She said maybe I could do a writing workshop for her class.

I was concerned when my daughter told me about it. On the one hand, I wish my children would never have to be exposed to racism, either as a bystander or a target. But I am no longer the naive eighteen-year-old who used to think we lived in a post-racial world. It’s going to happen, and frankly, my concern was tempered by the small, relatively controlled environment of the third-grade classroom and my assumption of the teacher as an ally.

The teacher’s dismissal not only makes the situation many times worse, but it also shows me how much deeper the problem likely runs in the community. Hence my claim that dismissal and excuse aren’t some kind of benevolent mild fringe of prejudice but rather its fortifying center.

There is another scene that haunts me nearly daily from when my children were toddlers. Two family members had been making comments, saying they didn’t think I was “safe with kids” or “could be a safe parent” because of my vision impairment. I had never had a serious safety scare with my kids. My job involved teaching groups of preschool-age children. I had pulled a drowning child out of water four times and none of those was a child I was supposed to be watching at the moment.

I was very physically active and adept with many physical skills, and I was hurt by those comments. I was even more hurt by their practical implications, as I was prohibited from watching my nieces and nephews during my rare trans-Atlantic visits, it impacted my children’s ability to know their cousins.

One of the family members repeated the hurtful comments at the beginning of an extended family camping trip, and I could feel my whole world quaking. But I appealed to the rest of the family and asked for a family meeting. I was sure that with family consensus and the fact of my good track record on my side, I could be rid of these comments and the accompanying stigma.

My family has always been progressive and openly against all prejudice after all. My brothers and I were brought up to be independent and free-thinking. We always spoke out against racism and my vision impairment was rarely mentioned outside of medical necessities. We were the tolerant, accepting, progressive folks. And so I was sure I would be heard.

Instead I learned a bitter lesson.

The extended family meeting decided unanimously that I was overreacting. They agreed that there was no reason to doubt my safety with kids but also declared “neutrality” in the “argument” over it. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” I was told.

My defense of my parenting bona fides was deemed “disruptive to the family,” whereas the prejudiced remarks and discriminatory actions of other members, which actively harmed children in the family, were deemed “a reasonable matter of opinion."

I felt as though I had been frozen inside a block of ice. A week later, I got on a flight back across the Atlantic and the incident was forgotten by most in the family. Water under the bridge.

This was how I learned how much greater harm dismissal does than even the initial prejudice. And I swore I would never again dismiss prejudice when I happened to land on the more privileged side of the equation, as is the case with racism.

That’s why I speak out against it and hold my ground. To truly feel you love people of all colors and shapes is not enough. Even to try to be unbiased and kind is not enough. We must learn to listen when someone says our actions or the actions of those connected to us have caused hurt or appear to come from prejudice.

Certainly, disingenuous accusations have been made somewhere in the world at some time, but believing the vulnerable party is always the better bet. Redress is rarely more than saying with open-hearted sincerity, “I am sorry my words or actions hurt you. What can I do to make sure prejudice isn’t perpetuated?”

Even sincere acknowledgement costs little. The cost of dismissal, on the other hand, is devastating.

ADHD, brain regulation and guided meditation: An actual parenting tip from Arie

I think my readers might tend to cringe, when I mention parenting. No one has told me they do. I’m just guessing because my posts about parenting tend to fall into three categories: 1. how blind people parent, 2. how not to parent and how miserable it can be, or 3. sarcasm and snark.

I really have read dozens of parenting books, actually implemented their methods, found them to work great with 90 percent of kids and occasionally to fail entirely. That has led to a lot of my cynicism.

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

It isn’t that the methods don’t work. If you are a frazzled parent and you don’t know about counting in an ominous tone, time outs, making everything out to be your kid’s choice when it actually means you are in charge, avoiding power struggles and teaching through your own example, by all means, go read the experts. I specifically recommend:

Parenting by Temperament,

Pick Up Your Socks,

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline,

and depending on your circumstances Attachment in Adoption

However, my posts tend to assume you are like me—a parent who is obsessive enough to research and read books before the kid can even walk (or let’s be honest, before the kid is even born). That’s why I don’t generally go on about the methods in these books, which you should most definitely read and practice.

It’s the five percent of the time when they just plain don’t work that will kill you, cause premature hair loss and end your marriage or partnership. And I usually don’t have much beyond commiseration to offer those of you who have run into that wall with me.

But today I do actually have something worth sharing, a technique I have NOT found in any expert parenting book, which actually worked wonders on my out-of-control, neuro-diverse kid.

Bedtime is often a nightmare for parents of neuro-diverse kids. Some kids don’t run on the same schedule as the school bells or even the sun. Some kids can’t just tell their brains it’s time to calm down and go to sleep. Some kids don’t know what to do with exhaustion and instead of winding down, they amp up.

I have kept a very strict routine with my kids, ever since the day we brought them home. Routine helps. Like a train on rails, my daughter will often stumble from one part to another—with hissing steam and screeching noises but in the end shunted from the teeth-brushing track, to the pajamas track to the story track to the bed track. On a good night, the routine takes only an hour and a half, now that she’s ten.

But not every night is a good night. At age ten, my daughter still has frequent meltdowns and needs the kind of supervision usually reserved for the under-three crowd. By the end of the day, whoever has been dealing with her—and her load of homework assigned by the school in hopes of keeping her somewhere in the ballpark of grade level—is staggering on their feet.

There are nights when after all of it, after the hours of one-on-one attention and the lengthy, carefully designed bedtime routine, she won’t go to sleep. She is up and around the house after bedtime. She wants snacks and she shrieks in protest. Getting her into bed is a literal physical battle that we still win by main force but only just. And then nothing can hold her there and no one can sleep with the racket.

This strife goes on anywhere from one to two hours on those nights and they averaged about once a week, up until recently.

I want to be very clear here about what directly preceded this bit of creative parenting. That is I had two full days and two nights at home alone. My husband took the kids on a skiing trip, returning so drunk with exhaustion out of a snowy night that I shuddered to think of how he managed the two-and-a-half-hour drive.

I sent him straight to bed and prepared to do battle alone, well rested as I was.

I got both kids out of their tight, damp skiing clothes and fed them. My eight-year-old son was blinking and crying, he was so tired. I knew I couldn’t physically handle both, so I got his teeth brushed and let him fall into bed first. He was literally asleep within seconds.

Then I tackled the more difficult kid. My daughter was exhausted too, lashing out randomly and swinging wildly from glee to rage. Her entire body hummed with tension. I could feel it as I helped her undress and brush her teeth. I told her a brief story and settled her down with her audio book in hopes that physical exhaustion would do its magic.

But no such luck. Not that night.

Thirty minutes turned into 40 minutes beyond bedtime and even my two-day reserve of regenerated energy was starting to flag. She wouldn’t even stay in bed to listen to her story and when she was up, she was into everything, requiring constant supervision and making nerve-rattling shrieks every one to two seconds. A hand on her shoulder told me that her body still thrummed with pent-up energy.

On most nights, this would have been the point where I started laying down the law and rolling out consequences, “You can choose. Either you stay up and keep me up and you won’t be able to have audio book tomorrow night or you lay down and relax and go to sleep and you’ll still have audio book tomorrow.” And so forth. It only occasionally works anyway.

Many nights the chaos continues for another hour and finally ends in her being locked in her room until she wears herself out—not a stellar parenting performance.

One of the more helpful things I had recently gleaned from rereading a few of the expert books was to focus on the concept of addressing the child’s deeper need. Clearly, my daughter needed sleep. She was exhausted, but she had no idea how to calm her dis-regulated brain and win some peace.

As a high-strung creative person, I do know what it is like to be exhausted after a long day’s work and to lie in bed with nerves jangling, a thousand thoughts whirling around my brain. Prominent among those thoughts is often the desperate need to sleep, in order to be ready for the challenges and trials of the next day.

So, I asked myself, how I get to sleep when I’m in such a state?

“Badly,” came quickly to mind. But also “quietly.” On such nights, I often lie awake in silence after it is clear that no audio book is going to help. I do relaxation exercises, deep breathing and progressive muscle contraction and release, which make me feel virtuous but don’t make me sleep. And then, more than anything I descend into a childhood fantasy and rehash versions of the adventurous and purposeful life I once dreamed of.

And that usually does help.

With that thought and the understanding that much of my daughter’s difficulty comes from an inability to regulate her own brain and do such things for herself, I came and sat on the edge of her bed and began to make up the fantasy for her.

At first, she was too jittery even to listen or lie down. I had to grab her attention mercilessly. I know what she obsesses over after all—preteen YouTube celebrity girls with shopping infomercials and flaunting conspicuous wealth. There isn’t much beyond kinky sex and hard drugs I would less like my child to be delving into at this age but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Imagine you’re at the most beautiful park you’ve ever seen with all your friends from school and Everly, Ava and Jojo Siwa are there too, just to see you…”

She stopped jerking around and actually settled back on her pillow, her eyes wide and staring. I could still feel her muscles pulsing with nervous energy through the blanket but at least she was in the actual bed.

“It’s your birthday party,” I continued, “and everyone is there to wish you a happy birthday and play with you in the warm sunshine. There are fun things to climb on and the most beautiful cake you can imagine.”

The way my words came out made me think of those relaxation exercises I had so little luck with. I was originally taught those by an eccentric French teacher in my tiny rural high school in Oregon. She had the five kids in her class, me and four ranch kids, lie on the floor of loose wooden boards and do relaxation exercises.

She had also done guided meditation, which the boys had interspersed with rude comments. I had been cooperative but more because I felt a bit sorry for the teacher than anything else. I never did like guided meditation. I encountered it again at a handful of workshops and events over the years.

It didn’t work for me because my brain is entirely capable of paying full attention to the audio meditation, doing the visualizations and thinking of one or two other complex things at the same time. It isn’t relaxing because it doesn’t overwhelm me enough. It is not that other thoughts intrude on the meditation. They simply occur in a different place and the meditation continues without a hitch.

I did eventually find a form of meditation that consumes enough of my consciousness to work as intended but it requires memorized recitation along with practiced movements. Once the words and movements became automatic to me, the meditation worked because it was difficult enough that it took all the excess brain activity with it.

My daughter’s brain is probably the opposite of mine. That has been a large part of our miscommunication. For me, directing my mental attention to something or doing several mental things at the same time is no problem. The only significant problem is prolonged lack of mental activity.

So, it occurred to me that while guided meditation might be boring and insufficient for me, it might be immensely relaxing and freeing to her. Released from the need to try to control her brain, she could coast to sleep on a ready-made fantasy.

I could tell right away that the fantasy I had constructed for her, while successfully capturing her attention was too exciting to induce sleep. Slowly I shifted the focus of the words, describing more the surrounding natural environment and less of the celebrities and then even gently removing the other people from the picture.

“Your friends step into little boats on the lake and start to drift away over the waves. They float slowly up and down, up and down. And they wave back to you calling, ‘Good bye! We love you! Have a good rest!' As they drift away you sit down under the big oak tree. You can feel the warm, smooth bark on your back. You slide down to feel the soft, dry moss under the tree and lay your head on a soft, moss-covered root.”

I could feel her miraculously relaxing. Even her breath was calming. I included some deep breaths in the story and almost magically she took deep breaths as suggested, something that is usually impossible for her

Finally, I concluded the story with my daughter drifting into sleep in the beautiful park by the lake. The entire guided meditation took only about eight minutes. When I stood up, she made one drowsy noise but subsided again. I left the room and didn’t hear from her for the rest of the night.

Since then I’ve used guided fantasy to calm her several times in situations where she used to be unable to calm. Certainly children are as diverse as different species of animals. Just as this type of meditation didn’t work for me, it may not help many children. But what is universal in the technique is the parenting tool of looking at what the child needs on a deeper level and designing something that fits the child’s specific temperament to reach that goal.

How you get the exhausted child to sleep or the frustrated child to calm enough to complete their homework is not that important. We get stuck on having a specific way that such things should be done. There is a standard way that works pretty well with most kids, but not with all neuro-diverse kids.

“Do what works,” a fellow disability rights activist used to tell me. “Just do what works, regardless of how it looks.”

I hope someday my daughter will be able to learn to use guided meditation tapes to steer her own brain and gain a sense of self mastery. I’ve gained a new respect for a technique I previously rejected as too simplistic and manipulative. We all need different things.

On parenting, as usual, don’t judge other parents and do what works.

How to be a good-enough parent

”This kid was whining, saying his mom’s name over an over again. She couldn’t even get him to stop.”

All it takes is one of those comments, usually about the bad behavior of kids or families with children getting in the way and a flood is unleashed. Whether the person making the original comment was judging the parent or not, most people jump to the conclusion that the child’s parent is to blame.

Parent shaming is more popular than fat shaming. It’s the most socially acceptable form of public shaming in our society.

If you’re like me and not made of dried rawhide, you probably want to avoid it pretty bad. Fortunately, I’ve read just about every parenting book on the market, and according to some flatterers, I have quite a few parenting tricks up my sleeve.

So here is my fool-proof guide to avoiding parent shame and winning the coveted twenty-first-century “good enough” parent medal.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Before you start

  • One of the main reasons parents are shamed is because of overpopulation. Before you start, consider whether or not you should. Our world is suffering from population explosion and ecological collapse. It could be argued… and in practice will be argued that you are selfish for insisting on procreating your own special genes.

  • The easiest way to avoid parent shaming is not to become a parent. Sure, we need to have a next generation to keep the economy going while those virtuous adults who choose not to burden the earth with their off-spring get old, but you might want to leave that up to someone else.

  • Another way to avoid the overpopulation and ecology shamers and still be a parent is to adopt. But you’ll be shamed for adopting too. There are stories about adoptive parents exploiting poor people in other countries and buying children. Even though you personally might not have done that, you can be sure that every time the subject of how you adopted kids is brought up, this issue will be rehashed and you’ll be publicly shamed about it.

  • If you either already have kids or still think you can have kids and avoid shame too, read on.

The loving foundation

  • Most people at least claim that they believe the most important part of parenting is love. It all starts with love and the worst shame any parent can have is to be accused of not loving their kid enough, or heaven forbid, loving one kid more than another. There should be nothing your kid could do that would cause you to stop loving him or her. Well, a school shooting, yeah, then you should stop loving them but other than that. Be unconditionally, unendingly, inexhaustably loving.

  • But not too loving. Don’t smother. Don’t be biased in favor of your kid at public events. Lots of shame comes to those parents who cheer too much or protect their kid from criticism or favor their kid over others.

  • Be loving but know precisely when your child doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged anymore. Physical affection is essential. Just because your child pulls away or shouts obscenities at you doesn’t mean they’ve grown out of the hugging phase. They still need loving hugs, up until the point that they don’t. You have to know where that invisible line is. Stop hugging too early and you’re cold and creating needy sociopathic monsters. Too late and you’re a pathetic cliche.

  • Be loving from a distance when they decide they don’t want to have anything to do with you as young adults. Be loving but have no emotions. Love but don’t expect love back. Be immune to screaming, hateful diatribes. Accept them with equanimity.

Balancing parenting and career

  • Provide for all of your child’s physical and emotional needs. Make sure you have a job that pays well, so that your child never has to be exposed to black mold, a leaky roof, a dangerous neighborhood, cheap and unhealthy food, bully-target clothing or unsafe, cheap toys. Financially poor parents are among the first to be shamed everywhere. If you didn’t have good job prospects, you never should have had the off-spring, so buck up and make money.

  • Moms, be especially sure to have a prestigious job, Set a good example for your daughters. It is unforgivable to give girls the impression that their options are limited. And boys need to see women as powerful and prestigious providers too. Feminists are great at shaming moms who break ranks and don’t get a career. Half-time and place-holding jobs don’t cut it. You’re sending a message that women are limited by their biological childbearing function.

  • Not only must your job be prestigious and keep you out of poverty, it must guarantee a stimulating environment for your child, including expensive educational toys and legos, toddler foreign language and music classes, memberships to sports, arts and crafts clubs and courses, and vacations to exciting places. If your child lags in academics, you clearly missed some of these requirements and it’s all your fault.

  • At the same time, you must be present and attentive to your kids pretty much all the time. If doing this while satisfying the points above requires breaking the space-time continuum, tough beans. Nannies are a lazy-parent trick. Parents who rely on nannies for more than emergencies deserve the shaming they routinely get.

  • Make sure you are home with your kids for at least the first three years of their lives and that you are there when they leave for school and when they get home. In fact, while exercise is good, not driving your kids to school is shame-worthy if you live within a 200-mile radius of any historical child-kidnapping incident, which defines every inhabited place on the planet, except maybe some remote cabins in Greenland.

  • What your kids need more than anything is your constant, reassuring and playful presence. It is the single most important factor in the development of their self-confidence and their educational success. Of course, their day at school needs to be as short as possible and not lengthened by after-school programs, so that you can selfishly work longer hours. They are just children after all and their growing brains cannot handle long days the way adults can. You know who those whispers at pick-up time are about.

Tackling the housework

  • If you were thinking that you can game the previous section by working from home or running a business out of your home, this point is specifically for you.

  • Embrace the mess. Kids are naturally messy and it is unnatural and harmful to deny them the right to be messy or to force them to live in too sterile an environment (defined as spaces in which more than 50 percent of the floor area is walkable). When social workers enter a home on a child-abuse tip, a too-clean home is one of the red flags they are looking for. Shame on those clean-freak parents!

  • Also cleaning does not count as being present and attentive. You need to be playing with your kids, engaging in child-led activities (such as being the evil queen, lady’s made, monster or bad guy running from miniature cops). Cleaning must be kept to a minimum and done only when the kids are asleep, which rules out most home businesses.

  • Ensure a hygienic and stimulating environment for your child. Those same social workers are also looking for cluttered and dirty homes. That goes right on the form. Parents who are slobs and have clearly not washed their floor since it was puked on and who have clutter covering a lot of grime will certainly get shamed.

  • Also clutter doesn’t count as a stimulating environment. If your kids can’t find their educational toys or the pieces to all those games or the wheels of their lego sets, they won’t get the advantages those toys provide.

The care and feeding of littles

  • Ensure that your kids get good nutrition. Processed and prepackaged foods are the worst. Restaurant foods are also highly salted and sugared and full of harmful GMOs, white flour and trans fats. The harm these foods do to a child’s body and brain is truly horrific, including the development of allergies, neurological disorders, obesity, immune disorders and lifelong risks for diabetes and heart disease. (In fact, if your child already has any of those conditions or autism or ADHD, you are pretty much sunk on avoiding parent shame. You will inevitably be told that all they need is a better diet.)

  • You really need to cook from scratch. Bake whole-grain breads, but make sure you test for gluten sensitivities and learn to bake the gluten-free kind, if necessary. Note that cooking, like cleaning, doesn’t count as being present and you’ll need to do it while the kids are asleep or at school.

  • You’ll also have to satisfy both the vegetarian shamers and the “kids need a lot of protein to grow” shamers, but I’ll leave that one up to you.

  • Always keep in mind that sugar and nutrient deficient simple carbohydrates like rice, white bread, noodles and fries must be kept to a minimum. Did I mention that ketchup is mostly sugar? A lot of bad parents around you will be feeding their kids pretty much only these foods—right in front of your kids unless you keep them locked away from society. Because these foods are specifically designed to be attractive and biologically our bodies crave simple carbohydrates, your kids will beg for them. The shame is so easy to slide into.

  • And the most important rule about food is that you must never ever force your kids to eat something. You must provide healthy food, while they watch other kids both in person and on TV consume junk food and fast food. But forcing your kids to eat is one of the easiest things to shame parents about.

  • Food can never become a point of controversy in your home, or you will be “creating eating disorders.”

Fostering education and self-confidence

  • Children are the future and even people who don’t have children will rely on your children’s economic activity when our generation is old, so education is a hugely important part of parenting—the most important part according to many. You must ensure not just adequate but excellent education for your child, if he or she is to have any hope of surviving in the competitive economy these days.

  • As a preschooler, your child needs bright, fun, educational classes in foreign languages, brain development, music and art, and you should be present or right outside the door at all times.

  • You should carefully choose your child’s school. The only consideration allowed when looking at cost or transportation times is the child’s comfort, not yours or your selfish work schedule. You must get your child into a high-quality school or all the rest is your fault.

  • Teachers will expect you to devote several hours to your child’s education every evening, to keep all records and projects in perfect order, to go through backpacks and school materials and replace anything lost in the classroom jumble and to ensure that homework is completed and that the child actually understands what he or she is doing, rather than just parroting answers you gave.

  • Remember while average academic success on an assignment gets a C, which implies that most kids will get that kind of grade, you must make sure your kid isn’t one of them. C students can’t expect professional or academic success and parents of C students are lazy slouchers.

  • Oh, and never pressure your child about academics. The most important thing you can do for your child’s academic success is to boost his or her self-confidence with lots of praise. Praise your child’s every effort and reward good grades but not to the extent that any other child who is not so successful will suffer low self-confidence. Excessive praise would be as unforgivable as pressuring your child to succeed.

  • If they don’t succeed academically, it is your shame, not theirs.

Screen time, consumerism and socialization

  • If a child has social problems at school, it is the parent’s fault. Usually the parent has not provided the right kind of or new enough clothing, school supplies, accessories or toys. That or the parent is extreme and doesn’t allow the child to watch the popular entertainment of the day or play the current video games. Such a child cannot keep up with what the other kids are interested in. Kids will often be unpopular or even experience bullying when they come from extreme households that don’t allow these modern influences.

  • But of course you shouldn’t allow your child to be indoctrinated by consumerism either. There is nothing worse than a whiny, consumerist brat, constantly demanding this and that and thinking only of themselves. You need to identify the exact amount of toys, clothes and consumer items your kids need to survive socially and yet not become spoiled brats. It’s up to you and shame on you if you miss the mark!

  • You’ve no doubt seen the studies about the harmful effects of too much screen time on kids. You must carefully limit your child’s exposure to television, movies, video games and social media. Fifteen to thirty minutes per day might not be harmful but you have got to shut it off after that.

  • Also make sure the experience of shutting off the screens isn’t traumatizing to your child. That’s another reason parents get shamed.

  • And make sure that the denial of this forbidden fruit doesn’t result in your child being obsessed with screen-based entertainment. One more reason.

Morality without forced religion

  • Instead of consumerism and entertainment, make sure your child has a spiritual grounding and a healthy desire to help others. Involve your child in groups and communities which are focused on spiritual values. And above all teach your child right from wrong. This is one of many areas that parents are shamed for neglecting when their children get into trouble.

  • But never ever force a religion or spiritual beliefs on your child. Spiritual abuse is real and often turns kids away from spirituality entirely, which is also the parent’s fault. You can take them to a place of worship a couple of times, but don’t force them to go once they are old enough to wish to play video games instead. They will have to develop altruism and ethics without the structures that every previous generation of humanity relied upon for their spiritual development, and it’s your job to make sure they do (without the help of clergy).

The big one: Behavior and discipline

  • When it comes to separating right from wrong, it is important that you understand the difference between discipline and punishment. You must ensure that your child is disciplined but never punished. Punishment destroys self-confidence and thus higher brain functions.

  • You must teach your child how to behave well, or you will certainly be shamed. But you must never be harsh or punitive. You’ll not only be shamed. You could even be investigated by the authorities, the ultimate shame.

  • There are truck-loads of parenting books about how to ensure respectful and responsible behavior without harsh measures. They all rely on the idea that if you approach your child properly, they will inevitably respond reasonably and logically. Any childish lack of logic or other abnormality that causes your child to misbehave despite the expert strategies. reward charts and carefully phrased respectful reminders is probably your fault too, possibly something you did during pregnancy.

  • You may remind your children of the rules, ask them to sit in “time out” if they become too upset, ask them to ‘do over” whatever they did with poor behavior and provide positive reinforcement when they do behave well.

  • You will be held personally, legally and morally responsible for each and every one of your child’s misdeeds, but you are never allowed to punish them for it. You must be consistent with your rules and guarantee their sanctity, but you must never physically force or confine your child. You can gently remind them of the benefits of following your hard-and-fast, but punitively revoking privileges is no different from punishment.

  • You must at all times treat your child with the same respect you accord to well-behaved adults, even while your child is screaming insults, throwing food in your face and poking his or her siblings in the eye for fun. Respect, say the parenting rules of logic and reason, begets respect, and if it doesn’t, you must have done it wrong.

  • Don’t be a helicopter parent. Allow your child to take risks, so that they understand natural consequences. Natural consequences are the key part of non-punitive discipline. Instead of your punishments, your child should incur the natural consequences of their actions.

  • Of course, you should not allow your child to incur any of the consequences on the following list, or you are a criminally neglectful parent: physical harm, cold, dangerous heat, sunburn, tooth decay, malnutrition, allergic reactions, exposure to dangerous organisms, illness, exposure to dangerous substances, consumption of unhealthy food and its long-term health effects, sleep deprivation, educational failure, social ostracism, emotional trauma or public shame and disgrace. The public shame must be all yours when you fail at parenting. You must protect your child from all of the real consequences while not punishing and not helicoptering.

  • When your child does something even mildly annoying in public, you will be shamed. You need to ensure that your child does not annoy others. After all, you cannot impose your life choices to have a child on those who chose not to have children, even if they are counting on the next generation to keep the Social Security system ticking when they’re old. If your child whines, repeats annoying words, pesters you for attention, fidgets, taps things or otherwise is seen or heard in an annoying fashion, it is clearly because you failed at the point on discipline. You must be attentive and stop the annoying behavior one way or another immediately. However, you must remember to never be punitive or harsh. Otherwise you will not only be publicly shamed but reported to the authorities.

Keeping it all together

  • If doing all this, while working a sufficiently lucrative job, cooking from scratch and making sure your kids’ homework gets done, sounds tough, have no fear. Today people also shame parents for not doing self-care and taking time for their marriages.

  • You must take time for yourself. Go away for at least a couple of days per month with your spouse to ensure your family is rock solid. If your marriage falls apart, your kids will suffer and you’ll never live down the parent shame. (While planning this mandatory self-care, remember what happens to parents who hire nannies and sitters.)

  • If you’re stressed out, harried and gray-haired as a parent, your tone of voice will not be loving enough. Get enough sleep after the kids are in bed, the cleaning and cooking that you can’t do when they’re awake is done and the bills are paid. That’s the only way to avoid the shame of being willfully sleep deprived. You’ll need to use your skills with physics to stretch time in order to make time for reading novels, massage and other quality me-time activities. Remember there’s no excuse for not taking care of yourself, so you can be a good-enough parent.

My best tip is that the next time someone parent-shames you, make them read this.

Good luck! You’ll need it.

You don't have to forgive

I’ve been staring at photos of Jemel Roberson for almost two weeks now. Every violent death of innocent people—there have been so many lately—is a tragedy. Every time the police in the US kill a black person for no conceivable reason, other than prejudice and disregard for their lives, it’s an outrage.

But there is something about Roberson that has me by the throat. It grabbed me even before I saw the pictures of him with his nine-month-old baby. It’s the context. He saved people from a mass shooting, yet another one. He did what all those who oppose sensible gun regulations keep saying some good guy with a gun must do. And then they shot him dead.

And I watch black men and women speak about it—calmly, with dignity, with tightly controlled emotions. I don’t think I could talk about it in person without getting upset. Writing has always been easier for me that way.

But of course, I’m not black. I haven’t been forcibly taught to control my emotions or hide outrage to such an extreme. I respect that dignified control. I try to emulate it without much success. Today it makes me think of an incident that happened at my house, which was a lesson on self-control, manners and forgiveness.

My daughter bursts in the front door, breathless and wide-eyed. “They called her “black face!’” she gasps.

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

My husband just drove up with my daughter and her Nigerian friend from the city, age 8, in the car.

“Who?” I spin around. Our little town is very, very white, something my slightly brown children are all too aware of.

Still gasping out each word, my daughter points out to the road. She says both my son and a boy visiting us from across town ran up to my daughter’s friend when she got out of the car and started taunting her, calling her “black face” and a the local term for “African,” which isn’t supposed to be derogatory but lots of things depend on tone.

I run out the door and find the little girl on the front porch alone. I bring her inside and ask for her take on the story. She is mostly silent, answering with shrugs, nods and shakes of the head with her lips pressed together.

“Is it okay to call you that?” I asked.

Shrug.

“Do kids at school call you that?” I know she goes to school in a mostly white area as well.

Nod.

“Do you like it when they do?”

Shake.

The girl is only eight and we’re on the leading edge of Eastern Europe. We don’t exactly get consciousness raising here, so I can’t assume much. I explain that it isn’t okay for people to call her things she doesn’t like or to make fun of how she looks. As I explain, she slowly relaxes. This is only the second time she’s been away from home over night with white people and she barely got out of the car when this happened.

Justice will wait a moment in favor of therapy. I spend a good long time reassuring her that this is not okay and I won’t let anyone say those things in my house, no matter what. I reassure her that she is beautiful—and she is objectively stunning for an eight-year-old as it so happens. She nods but looks unconvinced.

I do get confirmation that it was my son as well as his friend calling names and I try not to show that this not only deeply embarrasses me but fills me with rage. She doesn’t need my emotions. but my kids are adopted from a racially marginalized group here in Eastern Europe and they have been called “black face” themselves, although they are many shades lighter than the Nigerian girl.

That my son would participate in this… There are no words.

I give her my own apology and send both girls upstairs to play and go out to slay demons.

When I corner the boys outside, they are initially unrepentant—silly, stumbling and giggling. This almost, but not quite, breaks my cool. I want nothing more than to rip them to shreds.

I ask for their side of the story. They attempt to say they were just playing, just kidding, but admit to using the words. The visiting boy admits fairly easily. He isn’t entirely sure these are bad words. My son knows better and it takes longer to get the truth out of him.

I need to cool off to keep from doing something illegal, so I put my son behind one door and the other boy alone on the porch for a time-out. After awhile, my son is more open to talking and he tells all.

The other little boy is frightened and crying. I know that his father just left definitively a couple of weeks ago and that his mother cleans houses. I note with quiet irony that the Nigerian girl’s mother cleans for a living too.

When children do really bad or dangerous things, things parents want to stop in their tracks, there is a conundrum. It isn’t garden-variety naughtiness and with rambunctious kids like mine, they have already seen every acceptable disciplinary strategy in more than a dozen parenting books. Giving them regular discipline (time-out, apologize, revoke video game privileges) seems woefully inadequate and I want to make this eminently memorable.

I talk to my son alone, keeping my fury in check.

“Why did you call her that?”

“It was funny.”

“Has anyone ever called you that?”

Negative head shake.

“Well, actually I happen to know that they did when you were in kindergarten. Lots. It was a big problem. That one teacher…”

Shrug.

I had to bite my tongue. Unlike the kids and some parents, the teacher had not called him “black” or “gypsy” but she had said “those people have trouble in school” and “it’s about the genes, you know.” In the spring she had insisted that he had a contagious skin disease and would be banned from kindergarten for the several weeks it would take to be completely screened by dermatologists. Fortunately, the pediatrician stood up to her. It was ant bites. But all Marik knew was that he had to go to the doctor and the teacher was upset and the doctor said it was silly. As a mother you protect six-year-olds from some of the world’s worst truths, but kids and parents had said those things to him.

“Do you like it when people call you something like that?” I pressed.

Head shake.

Sigh. “Do you think you can give her a really really good apology?”

Nod.

I am far from satisfied, but I go out to talk to the other boy. He’s wiping his tears on his sleeve. This is even harder, though less personally humiliating, since he isn’t my son.

“Have you ever seen an African person before?” We essentially don’t have any local people of African origin here, so this is more or less how I phrase it.

“No.”

Much as I thought. “Why did you call her those words and laugh at her?”

Shrug. “I don’t know.”

“Have you heard other people use those words about African people or other people with brown skin?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand that you heard older kids and grownups use those words. That still doesn’t mean they are okay. It is not okay to call people names and I will never allow those kinds of words at my house. Even outside my house, if you use them, you won’t be welcome at my house. Do you understand me?”

Slight nod.

“Do you think you can say you’re sorry in a really nice way?”

“She’s black. It’s true.”

I’m momentarily at a loss for words. He’s only seven. I didn’t expect much resistance, though I didn’t have any great hopes of making a lasting impression on him either.

I again have to leave in order to avoid coming down like a ton of bricks on someone else’s kid.

I leave the boys in separate confinement for awhile yet. Then I bring them both out to the porch. I tell them that they need to apologize extremely well or my son’s friend will have to go home immediately. I know his single mother is looking forward to a day of rest with him here, but that’s just tough. He will go home if he is recalcitrant on this one.

Before I’m finished the two have started giggling again but I reiterate the consequences and they start to get serious, when they realize I mean it. I have my phone out, ready to make the call.

They start crying and we discuss more. My son’s friend unexpectedly states that kids at school do call my son those names. My son argues that it is mostly only one kid. Obviously he wasn’t telling the full truth before. I discuss with them the ridiculous nature of calling someone with slightly tan skin “black” and point out that the Nigerian girl is also not technically black in color, but more like dark brown. I reiterate that these differences don’t matter and it it is not okay to laugh at someone’s appearance anyway.

Slowly they both appear a bit more genuinely contrite. Finally, I leave them to plan their profuse apology and go upstairs to see the girls again.

I ask the Nigerian girl if she would come down, when she isn’t busy. Overly polite child that she is, she jumps up immediately to go downstairs. I ask her if she would be willing to listen to the boys’ apology. She agrees.

We join the boys outside, and I reiterate for everyone that it isn’t okay to call people names or laugh at anyone’s appearance or background. The boys actually do a pretty good job of apologizing and I almost ask, “Do you forgive them?” But I bite my tongue again.

She’s standing there with her head high, looking down on them from the top step of the porch, while they stand on the grass in the deepening dusk. I think on the fact that white people have probably never apologized to her for racism before. It will be a rarity in her future as well, if she ever gets another such apology, and the racism isn’t going to stop.

The handling of this moment is as crucial as any other step I’ve taken in resolving this deceptively childish conflict.

“You don’t have to forgive them,” I tell her. “They can handle it themselves. But you can forgive them if it makes you feel any better.”

She takes a moment more to look down on them and then says with the most impeccable manners I could wish my kids had, “I forgive you. Thank you for your apology.”

Then she turns and goes back to playing upstairs.

I let the boys come in the house and mostly things continue well, except that I discover that it is the Nigerian girl’s birthday. They don’t do birthday parties in her family, so no one mentioned it when we invited her. I decide this is a perfect opportunity to make the rest of the day all about her.

The boys have to work off a bit of their naughtiness by cleaning the floor. I whip together the world’s fastest chocolate cake and make the boys wrap a gift. The birthday girl is wide-eyed and stunned when she comes downstairs again to our impromptu decorations and party. She says she’s seen birthday parties on TV and she does everything just like in the movies, closing her eyes and putting on a dramatic show of making a wish and blowing out the candles.

In the middle of eating the cake, the seven-year-old who had never seen a black person up close before blurts, “At least you don’t have to worry about getting chocolate on your face, since…”:

I growl his name and fix him with a death-glare across the table. He gulps and wisely shuts up.

She doesn’t appear to notice.

By the time I tuck all four kids into bed, I am aching and exhausted. I feel like I have been literally fighting a war. I don’t know if I’ve won anything this day and I am sure that tomorrow and every single day we’ll still be fighting it.

How does this relate to the case of Jemel Roberson exactly? Well, it isn’t just that case of course. But I would say to all the black people who hurt inside or out because of this lethal and crushing racism we are living with, “Thank you for your calm and your manners and your endless attempts to live in peace with us. You do not have to forgive white people, even when we apologize. We can live with not being forgiven. What we need is to learn and remember and do better in the future.”

The first reason for outrage: Living with climate change

Your grown children scrape at the rock-hard ground with salvaged hand tools, trying to turn the baked mud. They have realized their dreams and they have professional careers but today—in 2050—everyone has to keep a garden to supplement the limited food they can buy at exorbitant prices.

A torrential flood came through last winter and took away what was left of the homes built in better times. But the water didn’t stay.

When the three-day storm was spent, all that was left was stinking mud on everything—tainted with the bodies of people and animals and with chemical spills. Now the drought has returned with a vengeance. It hasn’t rained in weeks and early spring looks like late summer used to look, at least in the sky.

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

There are no trees left. Those were cut long ago for fires and to build makeshift shelters when houses were destroyed by winter floods and summer brush fires. What is left are mostly the hardier sort of weeds. Even if they can plant the seeds they have left, your children won’t see much of a harvest. Just like last year, the insects are the only life that is flourishing and they swarm in clouds that can make breathing difficult on some days.

Even with their career jobs, they need this garden. Your youngest grandchildren—which you may well not be alive to meet, if you were in your twenties in 2018—sit listlessly in the dust beside the garden. The low-nutrient diet and grinding stress of survival takes its toll on both mind and body, especially for the youngest ones. They can barely muster the energy to cry, let alone play. They are wracked by sicknesses that your generation believed banished from your wealthy country forever.

They are still better off than the wretches your children see along the road outside, refugees from the south. Long lines of refugees were something you saw on the news. They are now something your children and grandchildren see on their doorstep and all along the high fences your children built to protect their scrubby garden.

The lines of people trudging by never end and they look like walking skeletons. They don’t beg as much as they used to. By now they know that your children don’t have enough for their own and they go on, hoping against all the facts to find a place with some rain… but not too much rain.

This is what famine and drought look like and it’s what life will likely resemble in 2050 in the US Midwest and Southern Europe, if carbon emissions from coal, gas or oil burning and factory farming continue apace. According to the recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this is the kind of impact we can expect from a 2°C rise in global average temperature, a level we’ll reach by around 2050 if we continue as we are and by 2100 even if we implement the more widely accepted agreements on emissions reduction.

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

A 2°C temperature rise doesn’t sound bad to many people in northern climates. The problem is that it is an average and it isn’t equally distributed. It also is a lot more drastic than it sounds for the earth’s climate. Even such a small-sounding temperature change would mean widespread drought.

Extreme weather events would hit temperate areas the way they are now hitting desert areas such as the Middle East. The areas hit today will become uninhabitable.

Still many people don’t register the realities of such impacts. Scientists often call out people who predict the collapse of civilization due to climate change. A 2°C temperature rise may be bad but it would probably not mean the complete destruction of modern industrial and consumer society. And most people in wealthy countries will still live, just poorer and shorter lives.

Scientists deal in probabilities and theories. They aren't supposed to look at impacts personally or allow emotion in. That prevents them from extrapolating out what their data would actually mean for their own family as I have done here. And even so, many climate scientists are suffering from clinical levels of anxiety and depression due to their understanding of what is coming and the lack of response from the wider population or the outright denial of many in positions with the power to change it.

If you are over thirty and your children are already half grown, this may be the fate in store for your grandchildren and great grandchildren instead. But he fact still remains, that this is the life we are creating. On paper the predictions don’t sound that bad for people in temperate climates. Most predictions focus on the fact that some more vulnerable areas which are already very hot will become uninhabitable either by flooding or extreme drought. Many people in the equatorial countries may die outright.

But those countries are far from the English-speaking world. And the predictions scientists put forward about us sound dry and theoretical. “Decreases in crop yields, increases in pest infestations and extreme weather events, increases in disease, spreading drought in certain areas and increases in coastal flooding.”

If you have never been bothered by any of these things and do not currently raise food from the land, it all sounds distant and like someone else’s problem. Many people assume it will simply mean that food is more expensive. But I have spent a fair amount of time in countries where this type of weather is common today, the countries likely to be hit hardest and earliest by climate change, such as Bangladesh. The weather that scientists predict for much of the American west and the Midwest and for large parts of Central Europe is the weather these vulnerable places already have and their dismal economic realities may be a crystal ball in which we can see our own future.

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Food is likely to become so expensive that many more people will have to be engaged in growing or attempting to grow food, even if it is only to supplement what they can buy.

The lackadaisical view of climate change so common in society today isn’t really surprising. On the one hand, we have dry predictions which give little indication of the wrenching realities they factually describe.

On the other hand, there are the more fictionalized predictions of the collapse of civilization as we know it and the death of whole swaths of the population.

One sounds incremental and abstract. The other is easy to dismiss as unrealistic and if it were actually likely, many people would decide it’s better to live with all comforts now than struggle to be one of the few miserable survivors in such a world. Better to die quickly is the trendy, distanced logic, so why try to fight it if we’re doomed anyway?

But neither of these is a real depiction of what climate change means for us and our families. The reality isn’t total annihilation and neither is it merely a matter of higher prices. It means a lot of real hardship and heartbreak. Life will go on unless global average temperatures reach the 4°-5°C-above-pre-industrial-temperatures range. But it will be a much harder life than it needs to be.

Climate change is currently the umpteenth reason for outrage. Many of us are so exhausted by poverty, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, war, ableism, denial of health care, general bullying and immediate environmental pollution that climate change gets put on the back burner or at least low on the activist’s list of grievances.

It should be the first reason for outrage and the rallying cry. Climate change effects everyone and it is the thing that across all underprivileged groups we have contributed to least but which harms us most. It is caused only slightly by individual actions and more by corporations and heavy industry. It is the most essential injustice and those who will suffer most from it are those who have no voice at all—small children and those not yet born.

At the new moon, I will paint another word picture about climate change—this time about the sort of effort and lifestyle it would take to prevent this level of climate change. Outrage is necessary and so is hope.

In the hurricane: How one child's storm can swamp a family

Snapshot

Rain patters on the roof on a Saturday morning. The comforting, homey sounds of pouring cereal and my seven-year-old’s chatter lull me.

My nine-year-old daughter cruises around the room, poking at objects, shifting things around randomly, dropping things, babbling in the toddler syllables that take over at home from her fairly normal speech in public.

After a few minutes, she disappears outside. I will need to corral her soon and ensure that she takes her supplements, brushes her hair and eats something, preferably something with protein, but I put it off for a few more minutes. We almost never have a relaxed weekend morning at home.

The seven-year-old starts his piano practice and homework. The nine-year-old has been in and out several times. I manage to get her to swallow the supplements and she only screams a little when she has to sit and brush her hair. They have been really good this morning and I remember that there is the last of a cobbler in the oven.

I talk my daughter into an egg for breakfast, as brain ballast, and then tell them we’ll have a morning treat—cobbler with some spray whipped cream from the can that Papa got yesterday.

Creative Commons image by Hamid Najafi

Creative Commons image by Hamid Najafi

I know this is one of my daughter’s favorites. With its contents of sugar and preservatives, canned whipped cream isn’t great for her and it could cause a bit of chaos and mental fragility today, but she’ll be able to blow off steam outside.

The kids both cheer, united for once, and I go to the fridge to get the coveted can.

A quick glance doesn’t reveal it so I start shifting containers. Then I start a systematic search, top to bottom. No whipped cream. I

know it was there last night and I know my husband doesn’t like it. I ask my daughter, who is most invested in it to come and look. She scours the fridge and sounds completely baffled by the missing whipped cream, though not upset.

“I’m going outside,” she says with a resigned shrug. “I give up.” No baby talk in that at least.

I notice when she’s at the door. She’s headed out the door away from the trampoline and the swing. “Where are you going? “ I ask absently, my head still in the fridge.

“To see the chickens,” she says and slams the door.

A few minutes later she is back, buzzing around, her vibe becoming more frantic as the morning progresses. She knocks books off the table and scatters bits of broken plastic from a toy across the floor. She puts muddy hands on the food I’m making for lunch. She won’t either do her homework or play. She refuses cobbler with no whipped cream. Too much fruit. “Yucky.”

Then she says she’s going to visit the chickens again.

“What are you doing with the chickens? “ A jolt of alarm goes into me. Our chickens are large, tough and utilitarian. I am only a little concerned for their safety, but she has never shown any interest in the chickens before, except for the one day when we brought home somewhat cute, half-grown chicks.

“I just really like the chickens. I really really like them,” she calls back as she slams the door again.

Suspicion blooms inside me. I meet my seven-year-old’s gaze. He doesn’t say a word but slides off his chair and dashes to the door. Not a word has passed between us on the subject but I know he is going to spy out what she is doing at the chicken coop. It will no doubt result in conflict and very possibly a fist fight.

I’m too exhausted to stop him though. The past few days have been a whirlwind—an endless string of work, her meltdowns, doctor’s appointments and school problems. The relative calm of cooking while dealing with kids has me groggy. And anyway it’s seventy yards up a steep hill to the chicken coop and I have onions frying in a pan for soup and a dishpan full of soapy dishes.

Someone needs to check on what is going on at the chicken coop, so I let the seven-year-old do it.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

In two minutes, he’s back, the empty whipped cream can held up demonstratively. “Yup, she was squirting it into her mouth,” he says, confirming both of our unspoken suspicions.

I am grateful that he doesn’t care that much about canned whipped cream. One less bickering fight between siblings. I’m also impressed to see that he managed to get custody of the canister without physical injury… hopefully to either of them. The can is entirely empty, so she probably abandoned it to the chickens.

Confession

I’m going to write about life and parenting with a neuro-diverse child. There will be people who judge me for even mentioning children in my writing. The new thinking is that one should wait until they are adults and then ask for their consent before writing about them.

There will also be those who curse me for telling the harder side of living with a neuro-diverse person. There is a heavy push for parents to gush about how privileged and honored we are to parent this specific child. It comes after several decades in which parents of neuro-diverse kids were sainted and considered to be charitable saviors of mental invalids. Now the pendulum has swung the other direction, and we are required to abase ourselves in gratitude for a life that is in most cases still both physically and psychologically exhausting but also just part of life.

As usual, I am not much influenced by the trends. I am writing about this because there is a crisis in judgment of and pressure on families with neuro-diverse members. Services and educational adaptation are minimal and the vast majority of the blame for any difficulties is shunted onto families, who are almost always struggling as hard as they can to help those with neuro-diverse conditions survive and thrive in a brutally neuro-typical world.

Another reason is that once the years have passed, it is unlikely that I or anyone else will remember what these years were like. Middle childhood can be a very difficult period for many neuro-diverse children and their families. Most outsiders have no clue and are quick to jump to judgment when they see the outward manifestations. Even neuro-diverse adults often forget what the day-to-day reality was like. This is a world that rarely gets a detailed accounting.

For that reason as well, I will write.

Snapshot

“I want it! Now! Now! Now! I hate you! You’re the worst parents! I hate you! I want it! Please! Please! I’ll be good! I’ll be sooo good! I hate you! No! No! I want it!”

My nine-year-old daughter shrieks as my husband and I pull her out of the mall by gripping her upper arms on either side, careful not to injure her but firm in our refusal to let her topple displays or persist in a demand-based tantrum.

This was meant to be a quick stop for groceries but things have derailed. She is twisting between us, kicking at our legs with her sharp little princess heels, interspersed with frantic promises to be perfect and manic screeches of hatred. She turns to sink her teeth into my hands, but I am still stronger and quicker than her. I shift my grip and deftly avoid the bite.

The meltdown was most directly sparked because she saw the round pink globes of LOL dolls in a toy store window and insisted that she must have one. These collector’s dolls come in opaque round packages. You cannot tell which one you’re getting. That apparently is the fun in it or maybe just the profit in it for the manufacturer. They are only a tad more complex than the toys in a Happy Meal but they cost a solid $25 per secret package where we live.

My husband and I aren’t impressed by the dolls in the first place and we generally don’t buy toys for the kids during random shopping trips, let alone anything that expensive. Her name day is coming up in a few weeks and I suggested that she could ask for one of these dolls for her name-day gift. That started the whining, yelling and kicking, though it was still at a somewhat subdued wheedling level and was mostly directed at Papa, who is more amenable to impulsive purchases than I am.

But he has been practicing sticking to his statements with her and he had already said no. He repeated himself more firmly and that sparked the all-out revolt.

We finally pass through the automatic doors of the mall and my husband releases her arm, apparently assuming that she’ll stamp her feet, sulk and eventually recover. But instead she wrenches her other arm out of my grip and spins toward the doors with lightning speed. I catch her round the middle, glad that I’m still relatively agile. My husband turns, slower to react and stares. Then she tears herself away from me and sprints into the parking lot, across lanes of traffic, heading in a straight line away from us.

“Get the car!” I yell over my shoulder and dash after her.

I’m very nearsighted and I dare not let her get too far away, but I know that the only way we’ll contain this situation is if we can get her in the car. She reaches the end of the parking lot without slowing down and disappears through a line of shrubs still a hundred feet in front of me. I break through the shrubbery and find myself on the exit ramp of a gas station.

I don’t see my nine-year-old as I dash across it and come around the pillars of a giant gas station sign. There is another line of denser shrubbery behind it. I run past it but then turn, real fear hitting my breathless body as I survey the gas pumps and cars. There are now many directions she could have gone and I can’t see any sign of her purple shirt and turquoise mini-skirt.

Fortunately, I’m seriously winded by this time though and my feet don’t carry me far beyond the shrubs. I hear a tiny noise and spin to see her crouching low under the branches. She stares for a split second before she leaps away and that’s all it takes. I grab and latch onto her arm with an iron grip. I pull her back around to the exit ramp and my husband drives up in our car, which is something between a hatch back and a mini-van with sliding doors in the back. He opens a door from the inside and I wrestle our struggling, screaming daughter inside.

No one appears to have noticed and I’m momentarily torn between relief and cynicism, considering that to any bystander the scene just played out looked exactly like the classic Hollywood portrayal of a child kidnapping.

Creative Commons image by Jeffrey Kontur

Creative Commons image by Jeffrey Kontur

She is still screaming and kicking in the back seat. We can’t stay on the exit ramp with cars behind us, so my husband drives two blocks to find a place to pull over, so that we can wrestle her into her seat belt. She seems moderately calmer and we reiterate that she can ask for a toy for her name day but she will not get this toy today or anytime soon, due to her current behavior.

We have to keep going. We’ve had dinner and it’s nearly bedtime. If she doesn’t get into bed at the right time, she will meltdown in the morning and not get to school and then someone won’t get to work. “Just wait them out” is almost universal parenting advice. It’s meant well but it often doesn’t work in the real world.

We get back into the front and my husband pulls the car onto the freeway. It seems unlikely that she could actually plan this, but as soon as we’re in heavy traffic she starts up again, kicking my seat and hitting her brother, yelling insults at him. I reach back and seize her hands, keeping her from physically tormenting the seven-year-old.

By this time we’re on a freeway bridge and there is nothing more to do. I meet his eyes and talk in a low, calm voice under the screeching.

“I know this isn’t fair. I’m sorry. I need you to be a big kid and be calm,” I tell him. I explain that the nine-year-old is having a really hard time and has a problem in her brain that makes it very hard for her to regain control. She screams insults and bullying names at him and starts to cry a bit. I hold him with my gaze and he keeps his hands away from her.

By the time we reach the next exit, she is a bit calmer. We discuss stopping in low tones but it won’t help. She will see it as power if the whole family has to stop and wait. Both my husband and I are still relatively calm and this alone is a major victory. We have managed to keep our cool despite a pretty extreme scene.

I lay out the consequences of further physical attacks to the nine-year-old, while still containing her hands. I don’t kid myself that this will have much effect. When she’s in this kind of state, her ability to process cause and effect is nearly nonexistent.

Even so, she is quiet enough that I release her hands, which turns out to be a mistake. She seizes the nearest hard object, her large plastic doll and throws it at my husband’s head. Since he didn’t take that exit, he’s wrestling with a snarl of fast, big-city traffic. I mange to knock the doll aside so that it hits the headrest instead of his head and falls onto the seven-year-old.

I give him a quick apology and make a left-handed sweep of the back seat, removing every hard object I can reach that she could throw and piling them at my feet in the front. She’s screeching at top volume again, hurling most of her insults at me and Papa. The seven-year-old has flattened himself against the door on his side.

I turn back to the front and check to make sure that my husband is undisturbed while driving. The small shocks of her feet slamming into the back of my seat irritate me, but it is mostly the greediness of her demand for immediate toys that makes me seethe with anger inside. I am hanging onto my calm by a ragged thread.

I spare a moment to think about parents with other types of disabilities and single parents. What if my husband was driving alone with them when this happened? What if I didn’t have above-average physical strength and speed for a woman or what if my eyes were just a bit worse? The thought of the judgement of people who would see us and think we were being overly harsh and that we should somehow magically find a way to handle the situation with grace and sweetness fill me with disgust.

Then the seven-year-old cries out a warning and I turn just in time to fling up a hand as the nine-year-old launches her booster seat, which she has managed to get out from under her, at my husband’s head.

I don’t catch it and she seizes it again when it falls. She draws back for another throw.

“Don’t!” My husband’s strangled voice indicates that he’s struggling with a major freeway interpass and he can’t even have me twisting in my seat and waving my arms around. I hold my hand up grimly, ready to take whatever she has got to keep it from hitting the driver in the head.

Exhaustion

Every day is exhausting and hard. Some days I feel like I'm in a war zone. 

I don't say that lightly because I worked in war zones years ago. At the end of the day my ears are ringing, my vision is fading in and out and I am staggering on my feet. Every inch of my body aches and my shoulders and cheeks are bruised from blows. My husband's face is blank and his eyes are glazed after only being in it for a few hours after work. My son lies in bed in a fetal position. 

The screaming hurricane is finally down at nine in the evening but we don't have a glass of wine and watch TV. I don't write on evenings like this. We just totter off to bed, separately, sometimes without even a word or a touch. 

It isn't every day but it is like this most days.

I recently read The Little Monster: Growing up with ADHD by Robert Jergen. The author, a man with severe ADHD and auditory processing disorder (the same categories of disability as our daughter), describes growing up in a fog, unaware of many of his actions, unable to remember what happened, what he said, what others said, moment to moment. He wasn't just in trouble. His parents, even used to four rambunctious boys before him, were desperate. 

I listened to it as an audio book on a rare day at home alone while my husband was out with the kids. During the portion of the book focused on Jergen's childhood, I gritted my teeth and muttered angry words at him and sympathy for his parents. The book does a good job of helping the reader understand his experience and he didn't describe his parents nicely, but I knew what it was like for them.

He did accurately describe the endless hurricane of chaos, destruction, obliviousness and carelessness with which he filled their home. He was the youngest of five boys, so it is possible that his presence wasn’t as all consuming as this hurricane is in our home.

Here there is often only one person who is allowed to be human on many days, only one person who is allowed to have needs. Nothing and no one can exist beyond her when she's in meltdown. And yet it isn’t her fault any more than my bad eyesight is my fault. And in rare quiet times, she promises to try not to be a hurricane.

Jergen writes that he believes everyone in the future will hope their children have ADHD. That is the only thing in the book that is truly wrong and infuriating. I have great sympathy for him and honor his experience and his admirable truth telling about having these disabilities, but the truth is also that he has never parented a child, let alone a child with his type of disabilities. 

I am glad for the hope that at least someone with these types of disabilities has found a measure of happiness and independence as an adult, though it is clearly noted that Jergen tested as highly intelligent on standardized tests even as a child and many children with these disabilities do not.

As a person with a significant visual disability, I know all too well that adaptation can be done and yet that it takes a great deal of mental resources. I have watched the vast majority of blind and visually impaired adults sink in to poverty and isolation, while I battled my way to a life with a family and a middle class lifestyle. 

Some kids with ADHD are also very intelligent, just as there are people with autism who are high functioning with genius-level intelligence. That has, in fact, become a kind of stereotype for ADHD, but it isn’t actually the norm.

Those people with disabilities who get a voice to speak about their experiences are those with abnormally high intelligence who manage to find coping mechanisms. They are not the ones who are destroyed and sentenced to failure. poverty and the astronomical ADHD-in-prison statistics. Coping mechanisms may be beyond the reach of many.

Snapshot

The house is a disaster. There are toys and clothes scattered all over the kitchen and hall floors. The kitchen is piled high with dishes. I’m cooking two major meals at once because the next day is jammed with doctor’s appointments and school events for kids.

My seven-year-old gets up from the early lunch I heated for him and goes to get his own backpack ready for a soccer tournament. I call out items he shouldn’t forget and I manage to fill his water bottle in between stirring veggies on the stove and putting breakfast things back in the fridge.

I put a kiss on the top of his head. I know there are benefits to hardship and having to be moderately capable at almost eight will put him ahead of his peers in many ways. But it still makes me sad that he gets no more than this hurried send off for the first soccer tournament of the season. All the other kids have devoted parents cheering from the sidelines at every game.

But it isn’t going to happen for us. For now I’m just grateful that the nine-year-old is letting me cook very briefly. She is actually doing something nice for once. I put the box of washable kid-safe paints where she can access it near the drawing supplies, and she has the contents spread out by the fireplace. Hopefully she’ll paint and I’ll get thirty minutes of cooking done.

Creative Commons image by Dylan Parker

Creative Commons image by Dylan Parker

On my way to the freezer I walk by and notice that she has opened every single color of the washable paints, which are used not just by her and her brother but also by my ESL students. I stop to make a quick check and find to my dismay that the damage has already been done.

Every single color has been squeezed out of the bottles into a plastic large container and she now has a half gallon of dark gray paint. There are dregs in the bottoms of a few bottles, which she didn’t squeeze hard enough but mostly the paint supply—at least $50 worth—is gone. That is the price paid for the last twenty minutes of uninterrupted cooking.

Snapshot

“I don’t know that letter! I don’t know it! Let me go! No! No1 No! I won’t do it! I don’t know how to read!”

The nine-year-old is throwing a tantrum because she momentarily cannot remember the sound made by the letter A. She can actually read, though dyslexia makes it a struggle. But her short-term memory issues, a common part of ADHD, makes it so sometimes she truly cannot remember the sound of a letter.

The bigger problem is that she knows this happens and she is not above pretending to have such a memory attack in order to get out of homework. My husband is close to tears and this has only been going on for one hour.

The day is yet young at 5:00 pm.

By 6;00 pm they have switched to math, giving up on today’s reading assignment. Dinner is ready and I take over from my husband.

“How in the world am I supposed to explain algebra to her?” he fumes at the textbook. The problem reads 42 - ? = 14.

Our nine-year-old can—on a good day--just barely work out 42 - 14 = ? with help. But my husband never needed to work at math as a kid, so he doesn’t remember how you get from that to the real problem. I wasn’t as good in math and I still remember the agonizing steps.

I spend the next two hours trying to coax her into the basics needed to get to where her classmates are, while she screams and thrashes around on the floor.

Snapshot:

I have to get to physical therapy as soon as I get the kids off to school in the morning. I prepared extra well the night before, so all I have to do is slip snacks and water bottles into their backpacks.

The nine-year-old insists on wearing leggings with half a dozen holes in them and a halter top even though it froze last night and the forecast is chilly. I know the judgement I’ll get and I force a long-sleeved shirt on over her halter top, even though I know she’ll just take it off. I can’t physically get the halter top off of her with out injury to one or both of us.

She starts screaming ten minutes before it is time to leave for school and she continues well past the time they usually leave. I let the seven-year-old go on his own. She seizes a log off of the woodpile and hurls it against the glass back door of the house. The glass doesn’t break but I doubt it can take much more.

I open the door a crack and tell her to stop hitting the glass and go to school. She grabs a longer piece and tries to strike me with it. I close the door and it lands against the door jamb. I open it a crack again and tell her that every time she hits the door she will lose a day of television privileges. We’ve been through this before.

I count fifteen strikes of logs against the glass before I leave by the other door, locking it behind me. She comes raging around the house, screaming at me.

She still has some nervousness about getting in trouble with her teacher. I tell her that she will be late for school at this point but if she goes right away she will not get in big trouble. It makes no difference. She continues to rage and scream, her face covered with snot and her hair stringy at the sides.

There is no waiting it out. I either have to leave or I will miss an appointment that took six months to get. The irritated doctor, who didn’t believe me the last time I postponed an appointment, might not even allow me to get another.

Snapshot

I whisper “Good morning” into the children’s ears as the first streaks of dawn make silver in the east. They need time to get up slowly. Given that they have to walk to school because I can’t drive, we rise pretty early here.

I turn on lights, scratch and rub backs, exchange a few words with the seven-year-old and smile noncommittally at the pretend baby talk of the nine-year-old while I give her a reassuring hug and kiss. Then I go down stairs to get snacks and vitamin supplements ready.

“She’s in Papa’s room messing with his office!” the seven-year-old calls down a few minutes later.

Yesterday, she climbed up on the stove to get candy out of the stash on the shelf just below the ceiling and then refused to eat any dinner because she already had her sugar fix. She took non-washable dye and hid it in her room when I did an art project with her and then lied when I was looking for it. She got into my room and made off with my phone and my scissors.

I have to go to physical therapy again this morning. In a flash, I am so angry I can’t think straight.

I run up the stairs and pull her away from my husband’s desk, where she is rummaging. I take her downstairs and my voice cracks with strain as I demand that she tell me what she was doing, what she had taken or what she was looking to take. I am pretty sure it is either sweets, money to buy sweets or something electronic she wants to distract with at school.

She refuses to say, as usual. She doesn’t tell the truth anymore the way she once did. It is hard to blame her, since she often gets in trouble and now is often accused of fibbing.

My voice cracks and I start yelling, shattering the peace of the pink-tinged morning. My voice is hoarse and scratchy for the rest of the day and I feel like a bad parent for ruining the morning for everyone.

I am too tired, too worn out. I am sick and tired of lies and commercial demands and unkindness.

Judgement:

“You just have to give her some positive reinforcement.”

“Well, you know ADHD doesn’t really exist. It’s just something they say to excuse lazy parenting.”

“I know what it’s like. My kids are all really active. They’re great in sports. You should get her playing sports.”

“It’s about diet. I’ll bet you always eat out at McDonald’s”

“I’m sure it isn’t really that bad. And she’ll probably be a genius in art or something.”

These are all real statements that people have said to me in just the past month. Neuro-diversity is terribly complex and you’ll never find another child exactly like mine. Some neuro-diverse children are exactly the opposite. There is no way that most people can truly understand people with hidden disabilities.

But there is one thing that everyone should know that would actually help neuro-diverse people and their families. That is that hidden disabilities are real and they are very difficult to deal with. Assume you don’t know.

And don’t judge.

My child and my whole family eats a more healthful and careful diet than 90 percent of the population today. My child gets lots of exercise, taking multiple aerobic dance classes, walking too and from school and bouncing a giant trampoline most afternoons. It isn’t “all in the diet” or “lack of exercise.”

It’s a disability. It exists and it appears from the outside like a very bad, very spoiled child. Our walls are covered with more reward charts than any household I’ve ever seen. I have studied and tried dozens of strategies and parenting styles.

Most work fine with my seven-year-old. He is known for being a very active and even a “wild” boy but he doesn’t have ADHD. None of the parenting techniques actually “work” with my nine-year-old. A few help a little.

i used to think I could tell if a child was being parented well by observation. I now know that I can’t. I wish I had been able to learn to be less judgmental in an easier fashion.

Strike a blow against bureaucracy: Freedom for multicultural names in the Czech Republic

My path to parenthood was a rocky one, slogging through infertility, an Eastern European adoption system and the judgments of many who felt a blind person shouldn't parent in the first place.

As well as those large boulders, there were some small, sharp stones on that road, not barriers but merely unpleasant jabs to endure. These were, for instance, lectures from bureaucrats about how wrong I was--wrong to think I could parent, wrong to adopt, wrong to accept children of another ethnicity, wrong in naming my child...

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt

Creative Commons image by Jason Pratt

That last was one of the final rocks in my shoes, but one that I knew about from the beginning. I had heard rumors about the Czech Republic's name czar, an elderly linguist with the antiquated opinions of the 19th century. 

You see the Czech Republic has a name calendar. Each day of the year has been given a name, sometimes two. These were originally the feast days of saints and the custom dates to a time when immigrants were few and knowledge of the world beyond the little valley of Bohemia and the hills of Moravia was very limited.

Name days are still celebrated by many in the Czech Republic. Friends and family members give flowers, cards, chocolate and alcohol to those named after the saint in the calendar. As a result, being given a name that isn't on the calendar could represent a distinct denial of small gifts. 

This may have been one of the motivations for appointing a linguistics expert to control all foreign and uncommon names given in the country. Another reason given was to prevent people from having to correct the spelling and pronunciation of others.

I will admit that there are some small perks to this rigid naming system, once you have learned to pronounce all 365 or so names--no small feat with names like Zbyněk, Wilhelmina, Břetislav, Otýlie and Zdesislava--just to name a few. If you are ever called upon to pronounce another person's name without help, you theoretically have no problem. 

But the most commonly cited reason is the fear that classmates will ridicule a child with an uncommon name. Those who wished to give their child a common foreign name like Doug had to apply for a permit, while one could cheerfully and freely name a child Bonifác--one extremely rare Czech name that sounds just as ridicule-prone in Czech as it does in English, but which—none the less—gets a day on the calendar (May 14 to be exact).

That's why when I went to name each of my kids and didn't want to choose either the 30-odd actually used names on the Czech calendar--which results in my children's classes having only three names to share between eight girls and the like--or any of the ridiculous ones not in general use, I had to approach the name czar with polite pleas of supplication and suffer through one last lecture about my wrongness. 

The name czar warned me that my children, named Shaye and Marik, would suffer terribly in school because of their odd foreign names. In both instances, the name czar originally denied my request and I had to document the common use of the names in other countries.

Beyond the fairly popular English name "Shaye", "Marik" is a Slovak variant of the common Czech Marek and it saves my son from sharing his name completely with two other kids in his year. But the name czar did not like my choices.

Exhausted from years of this kind of ordeal in the adoption process and still unsure whether or not the authorities could revoke our children if we were too disobedient, my husband and I bowed our heads, produced all the needed paperwork and stuck to fairly standard names even when applying for something different.

But not everyone is such a lightweight, thankfully. Another mixed couple--an American of Native American Indian background and her Czech husband--won their two-year court battle with the name czar this past summer. They had to go all the way to the Czech Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land.

Tthe court struck down the name czar and the power to intimidate and harass families of diverse cultures. The court decreed that the law says only that parents must provide documentation, such as a mention on a baby-names website or another registry of names or evidence that a name has been used in the past. Upon the filing of this documentation with a county clerk, the parents’ name choice will be automatically accepted. 

My children are well into their school years with their mildly unusual names and they don't report any major difficulties. My daughter has mentioned that mean boys will occasionally chant bastardized versions of her name, but they do it to all the girls. She is mildly dismayed that her name rhymes with so many things because this gives the boys a bit more fodder.

Still she is strong-willed and does not want to use her bland second name Hana (mostly given to her to ensure that she would not miss out on name-day treats).

My son, on the other hand, is slightly sad that his does not rhyme with anything in English or even that much in Czech. I have had to correct officials a few times when they heard his name and assumed it was the more common Marek, instead of Marik, but my son is happy with is little bit of uniqueness and that is what matters in the long run.

I am relieved to hear of this small victory for common sense over bureaucracy and grateful to those who fought the long fight in court.  

What does the "all bodies are beautiful" message actually tell our daughters?

"Everyone says you're ugly anyway." 

It's just been that kind of week and this was my nine-year-old daughter's response to the standard mother-daughter talk about how all body types are beautiful and true beauty is in our hearts and actions--you know, those modern truisms that we pass around to try to feel good and keep the horrible self-loathing at bay. 

She has mentioned this before. The first time she came home with tales about what other--kids and some adults--say about me. she was six and there was hurt in her eyes. But she's over it now. Now she has internalized the social norms.

Arie teaching 4.jpg

"What if I get fat?" she asks and there is terror in her voice that runs deep... so deep.

I grind my teeth. I don't know which part to react to first. Her terror infuriates me more than anything. This is what scares you? Not failing a test at school, not monsters, not climate change... she's terrified of getting fat?

I want to tell her first off that if she gets fat, she'll be fat. So what?

She'll have lap-room for more than one kid, she'll have glorious curves and she'll look like an ancient goddess figurine. She'll also be more likely to have knee problems, heart problems and other health issues, if she gets fat. It's not all a goddess picnic. But I also want to scream at her and tell her to get worried about something worth worrying about.

And at the same time, when I see that terror in her eyes, I want to snuggle her close and tell her that she is very unlikely to get fat. I'm her mother, but she doesn't have my genes and she's physically active, loves salad, already wants to be a vegetarian and shows absolutely no signs of gaining any extra. You can't help but want to sooth terror, even if you know that the very soothing is insidious psychological poison.

My body is thick and heavy. I walk a couple of miles a day on average. I can't drive a car because of my vision impairment, so that's just what happens. Recently I've started using an electric scooter because of problems with the bones in my legs. So to get exercise I run on an elliptical machine. I also garden heavily and run herd on hyperactive kids. My Apple Watch at least thinks I have a pretty active lifestyle. 

My genes couldn't care less. A physical therapist recently shook her head over my legs, saying, "Looking at the muscles in your legs, you look like an athlete." My legs are mostly hard muscle, except high on my thighs where the muscle is covered with a layer of fat. And higher still, I carry a round Buddha-belly worthy of a goddess figurine. 

But that isn't the only reason my daughter hears people--both kids and adults--make negative remarks about her mother's body. My eyes have a permanent and severe squint, because I've been legally blind since birth. My pupils move erratically and I'm told it is disconcerting--to say the least--to fully sighted people. 

Given all that, it isn't very inspiring to try to be a fashion queen. I've been lucky to find good, professional clothes that fit me in the last few years. It probably isn't all the latest fashion and features a lot of slimming blacks and dark blues, but I just get dressed, make sure everything is clean and wrinkle-free and go. 

I don't wear make-up. No amount of make-up is going to make my eyes appealing and I'd rather not emphasize the issues. My face has an unfortunate habit of turning red when I'm excited or exerting myself. But I'm not crazy about the chemicals in most affordable make-up and hair dye, so my hair is going gray, which I actually find rather pretty in my own non-standard assessment. I personally don't like the look of make-up either. So some small part of my appearance is personal choice. 

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

But I'll be blunt. I have never gone out in public dirty, smelly or with uncombed hair or even with rumpled clothes. And yet there are enough people saying negative things about my appearance that my terrified little girl says, "Everyone says you're ugly." And this is when she is in a somber mood, not when she's mad at me.

This isn't just a two-way relationship between me and my daughter. This is a three-way conversation and one of the three sides is the commonly expressed social norms of our society.

But society likes to pretend that it has no part at all. Every day or two, some version of a feel-good, "every person's body is beautiful" meme comes across my social media feed. There is never any discussion around these, just a lot of hearts and thumbs up and smiles. No one ever mentions the reality of having a body that is widely seen as distinctly unbeautiful--a physical disability or illness or a shape or a face that doesn't conform to current--or any--beauty standards. 

Those memes make me as sick as the rest of it. I know the people who send them, generally mean well, but mostly they do not open their professional or social circles to people who are considered less attractive no matter what their memes say. We like to say it doesn't matter, but it does matter--to what kind of job you can get, to what kind of community involvement you can have and to how you are treated on a daily basis in simple things like the grocery check-out line. 

This past week one such meme was specifically about communicating this universal beauty myth to our daughters. I have said it to my daughter many times, the same sentiments as in the poem. I tell her how grateful I am for my body, for the health and energy that come from healthy living.

We are almost never sick in this family, even though we are four people and none of us is actually genetically related to any other. It astounds the pediatrician that my children and I stay so healthy through the winter while their classrooms are only half full due to illness. We probably do have some genetic luck, but it is also the result of good nutrition, activity and careful use of medicinal herbs. 

I am thankful that my hands are nimble and strong, that I can sew and build a rock wall and do a great many other things. I am thankful for what vision I have, even if it's supposedly less than ten percent of "the norm." 

I tell my daughter that each of us is beautiful. She hears how beautiful she is every day from strangers. Her big magnetic eyes, completely unblemished skin, thick curly hair and slim, muscled frame are all exactly what society applauds. But I tell her I am beautiful too, because that is what we have been taught in my generations that we should say. 

But if it is true, it is only because I personally choose to see beauty in myself. While some specific feature of my body, may be considered favorable to someone else, it would be disingenuous to say that my body fits any other idea of beauty. 

Irritating meme about how everyone is beautiful.png

And I would not care much, if we lived in a world where appearance wasn't so crucial, where physical beauty wasn't a hiring requirement, a social gatekeeper and something strangers comment on  to small children. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We don't pretend that everyone has a great singing voice or amazing math ability or spectacular writing skills or huge sports talent.

But we like to pretend that everyone is physically beautiful. 

Why? I'm not sure. Possibly because we actually believe deep down that physical unattractiveness is the last truly shameful flaw--that while it isn't a person's fault if they are tone deaf or bad at math, that it would be a person's fault if they were ugly or fat. And so we must never admit that such a thing is possible or we would be blaming that person.

Finally, last week I broke down and said as much on one of these memes--with not one word of profanity, caps or insult to anyone except the generalized norms of society. And the response rocked me back on my heels and sent my head spinning.

I was met with one of those social media hate storms, in which I was told that I need my head examined and several less flattering things. A group of friends ridiculed me and joked at my expense. Then the person who posted the feel-good meme threatened to use their position to have me banned from a spiritual group I belonged to. 

These were the words that sparked that storm of hate: "I’m thankful that my body doesn’t get sick a lot, thankful that my hands can do a lot of things, thankful for energy to do the things I want to do. And I acknowledge that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  If someone came along and asked me if I would trade my writing ability, my mental ability and my inner world of curiosity and fun and fantasy for a body that people would honestly say was beautiful, a body that could get around freely or ski or drive or sing or dance or just not make my children ashamed, I would still turn them down. I don't want to hear platitudes about how everyone is beautiful unless people are actually friends with those whose bodies are far from perfect, friends enough to meet at a place where they can get to and in the door, friends enough to spend time, and share the enjoyment of life with people who don't fit common beauty standards."

I wanted to open up a discussion, but somewhere I touched a nerve, something that must have struck home enough that it could not be allowed. And the result was a stream of hateful messages at me and ridiculing messages about me to others. It's the way social media is and one has to be prepared, if one wants to engage in conversations there. But let's not kid ourselves, social media is only more brutal because people are more likely to speak their minds and dispense with politeness. The opinions expressed on social media are what people really think.

While we often--on and off social media--claim that all bodies are beautiful, the messages we and our children absorb from this enforced cheeriness is much less supportive. Children, who are more attuned to actions than words, hear something like this: 

  1. Physical attractiveness is the most important measure of worth.
  2. Don't question the social norm, if you don't want to become a pariah.
  3. And always smile and put on a good face, even if you feel desperately sad and terrified inside.

That I think is a terrible thing to tell ourselves or our daughters and sons. Here is the message I would like to replace it with, one that does not tell half truths or require suspension of one's knowledge for a moment of fuzzy inspiration: 

Friends, children, old people, people all over the world, homeless people, refugees, bankers and presidents, gay people, straight people, black, brown and white people, wheeled people, stick people and running-all-around people, I mean all of you.

Your worth is not defined by your appearance, by your brain, your body or even by your abilities, by your wealth or sophistication or even your manners, by your country, your house, your car, your ancestry, your social media rating, your popularity or your job. Your worth is defined by how hard you strive for something beyond those trappings, by your passion for something beyond yourself and by the depth of your relationships, rather than by their number.

You have strengths, no matter how close to rock bottom you've hit. You may not be beautiful, healthy, popular, smart and wealthy all at once. But there is something in you, that the world needs. You also have your weak spots. You probably are not beautiful, healthy, popular, smart AND wealthy, and if you are, you almost certainly have some other large problem. And that problem does not define you or make you unworthy.

You will in the end choose your own worth because worth can only be measured by things that a person can choose, not by those things that life hands to you. And another thing, that kind of worth cannot be quantified or compared. It just is.