I was recently on the soccer fields waiting to pick up my daughters when a mom started chatting with me. She asked who my children were, and after I pointed them out she excitedly told me how great my daughters and the other two girls in the group were doing with the larger group of boys. I then of course asked who her son was and as soon as she pointed him out she began to ramble on about how he wasn’t having a good practice today and they weren’t sure if soccer was his thing and he had a growth spurt recently so he wasn’t as coordinated as the other boys and he wasn’t as fast. I could barely keep up with all the things she was saying, and I got the distinct impression she thought I had been watching how poorly her son was playing on the soccer field (which is a big laugh since I don’t know much about the game!)
What did I see? A cute kid kicking the ball back and forth with other cute little kids. He looked the same as everyone else.
I thought about that mom again when I took two of my three girls on a bike ride to the park. I ran into a mom I had met previously who has an adorable little girl. I smiled as I watched her chase her brother around the playground squealing his name. I turned to my new friend and asked how old she was. This is the answer I got:
“She’s almost three but she has a speech delay so that’s probably why you may think she’s younger. We’re working on it but I know she’s hard to understand and I’m concerned with her going to school soon because other kids don’t understand her and I don’t want them to make fun of her although she’s made so much progress and…..” she went on and on.
I finally interrupted her to let her know that she didn’t need to explain anything to me because first, I couldn’t even tell that her daughter had a speech delay; but second, I got it. In fact, at one time I was her.
It’s funny how sometimes you can change the course of your own history in your head, but one small conversation can jolt your memory back to another time. I feel like my persona today is that I am very open about my parenting style and resolute in advocating in the best interest of my children, particularly when it came to raising my twins and the developmental challenges they both faced, one a little more severe than the other. Despite appearing like typical kids now, we have spent hours with physical, speech and occupational therapists to get them to this point. And although my mantra has always been that sharing my story could help someone else, in the beginning — when my daughters were under three — I did the same thing this sweet mom did. I was all about the preemptive strikes with other parents, assuring them that I was aware my kids were not the same as others.
Like when we went to our first two-year old Mommy and me class and my kids were not talking yet, couldn’t sit still, and spent more time gnawing on the books and blocks then interacting with the other kids. I made sure to let the other moms know that my girls were preemies and still catching up, because of course in my mind, all the other kids were behaving exactly as they should.
Or the time a grandmother stopped me in the grocery store and started chatting with my duo and I quickly told her that they had speech delays — because the fact that they were just staring wide-eyed at her face meant she could tell they didn’t have a vast vocabulary yet.
And the time a mom told me how cute it was that my daughter walked on her toes like a ballerina and I blurted out that I had already tested her for autism. That one was really smooth.
Let’s face it and call a spade a spade. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed and insecure that my kids weren’t like everyone else’s, so I tried to make sure other parents knew that I was aware that my girls were different. Because yes, it was all about me, and although I wasn’t sure if they were judging my kid I certainly didn’t want them to judge me. So not my finest hour, and it is painful to admit this now.
But fortunately I’ve grown a lot since that time, and in fact, I think dealing with my kids’ developmental delays back then really prepared me for when things got more challenging later on with educational issues, team sports or even social interactions. And I recognize it in other parents now — that painful conversation you have with strangers because you are feeling insecure and in some cases, a little embarrassed.
Does this mean we don’t love our kids? Absolutely not. Does this mean we need to get a grip on our own insecurities? Absolutely. But how do we do that?
I had to realize that it is never my kids’ job to make me look good as a parent. It is never my kids’ responsibility to do things on the “typical” developmental schedule. It is not my kids’ duty to be the best at school, at sports, on the playground. The only job my girls have is to become the best people they can be — and my job is to help get them there.
When you let that fear of judgement go — essentially making it not about you — then you can actually start enjoying your child’s activities and their progress, or sometimes even be content at their pure joy in participating in an activity– even when they suck at it.
As the mom of two pretty competitive soccer players, my husband and I have worked hard to tone down our pre-game, during the game, and post-game coaching of our daughters. We took to heart what researchers Bruce Brown and Rob Miller discovered when they asked college athletes what their parents said that made them feel great when they played sports:
College athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame. Their overwhelming response:
“I love to watch you play.”
This also rings true for those of us who know we are not the parents of a future NFL pro or an Olympic athlete, and especially for those of us whose kids struggle at life just a little bit more than others…for those of us whose children’s achievements come in different forms, such as graduating from therapy, making their one basket in a season or learning a new life skill — even if it takes them a little longer than everyone else.
I love to watch you play. No matter what it is. So powerful and so liberating.
When you know your kid may not be the best on the team, instead of saying that you know he isn’t as athletic as the other kids we should just respond with: “That’s my son, and boy does he love to play!” When you meet someone new at the park with your developmentally challenged daughter and they ask how old she is, your first comment should be: “She’s three and I love to watch her whip around the playground!” And when a sweet grandmother comes up to you at the grocery store and starts talking in your daughters’ faces about how cute they are, the only response should be: “I know. Aren’t they delicious?”
Because our kids don’t need to be explained — and we have to stop worrying that we will be judged, even when judgement might be happening. They need to be celebrated. Every single one of them.
And I’m starting with mine.