I notice that parents are often accused of a variety of things. (You name it, we’ve been accused of it.) Parents of unusual children, particularly, are singled out for criticism. Recently I interviewed parents for an article about advocating for special needs, and this is something I’ve been hearing over and over again: “People don’t understand that it’s not just bad parenting.”
Let’s admit it: When you had your little darling in preschool and he was the world’s biggest angel, wasn’t there a little tiny voice down in there that kept telling you that he was such an angel because you were doing a good job? And didn’t that voice tell you to wonder whether that other mom, whose son had just bashed your son over the head with a baking pan, was perhaps not such a good mom as you?
Of course you did. And I know you did, because I was you. I was a dedicated reader of parenting books, and I knew that kids are difficult. But my first one had an important attribute: he was seldom difficult in public. So I will freely admit that I wondered, when I saw other little kids misbehaving, whether it might not be a case of—dare I say this?—bad parenting.
Then my next one came along.
She was darling in many ways, but good behavior in public was not, we will all admit, her forte. She was an unusual child, and she had an unusually difficult time maintaining socially acceptable behaviors in public. All of a sudden, I was on the other side. I saw the looks; I heard the comments. I noticed that we were not invited to birthday parties. I had become The Bad Parent.
But here I am, the same person. Mom of the angel, mom of the devil.
Which leads me to coddling and indulging. That’s what we do for our children when other people disapprove. When they don’t like sauce on their food and we serve their food plain, we are coddling. When they hate school and we respond by taking them out of school, dropping our careers, and homeschooling them, we are indulging.
Here’s the flip side: When someone approves of what we’re doing—the same food, the same homeschooling—suddenly we’re nurturing our children. We’re supporting them to be the best people they can be. We are doing the best we can.
To adults who haven’t lived with it, a mom who takes her child with Tourette’s Syndrome out to lunch is coddling him by not lecturing him to keep his tics silent. In fact, she’s a bad parent. He must be making those rude, annoying sounds because she doesn’t care about other people’s feelings. (Really, a mom I talked to said that this is a common experience for parents of kids with Tourette’s!)
But to people who know what it’s like to have a child with special needs, that mom is supporting her son. She is showing him that they don’t need to hide, that his disability is not who he is. Just like other people, he can go eat in a restaurant. And when other people stare, his mom is there to support him and help him become the strongest person he can be.
Readers might insist that this case is different—this boy has a diagnosable disorder and the adults who disapproved of his behavior just didn’t know. The fact is, however, that most kids who are acting out in a way that doesn’t benefit them have a “disorder.” Something is wrong, and in their childish way they are trying to make it right.
It was so striking that each parent I talked to mentioned this difficulty. I heard stories of being insulted, shunned, and corrected. So the next time you see a child misbehaving, try sympathy instead of judgment. Yes, that misbehavior might be a sign of bad parenting. But more likely, it’s a sign of disorder, either a temporary one that the child needs guidance and understanding to fix, or a lifelong struggle that you are only seeing one small part of.