Lately I’ve been struggling with this idea of how someone, who clearly see the language differences in Kate or Eric, can ask about these differences in a way that’s not hurtful or offensive to me, and is instead kind and curious. That these questions, instead of triggering my need to defend my child (or to cry), triggers an open discussion that’s filled with learning and a willingness to see beyond what’s considered normal.
Be Curious, Not Judgmental.
The first time I heard this phrase it was while listening to the Zen Parenting Radio, and it was an episode in reaction to the 2016 US Presidential Elections. Now, I don’t talk politics in person and I’m certainly not going to write about them here (or heck, even discuss them in the comments). But, believe it or not, this idea of being curious about someone else’s beliefs, about the life experiences they’ve led to get them to this place, correlates beautifully to what I want as a parent of children who are late-talkers. In fact, this idea can really apply to all kinds of differences, from someone who’s displaying more classic autism-like behaviors, to a child wearing a hearing aid, or someone like Kate, who, when she talks, sounds nothing like a normal four-year-old.
But truly… how can you ask these questions without offending or hurting or insulting the child’s parent?
The reason this hit me smack-ass hard in the chest was because of experiences I’ve had, from little ones where a parent, after hearing Kate talk, asks her age, and when I answer four, the parent completely drops their next, obvious question (which, to put it bluntly, would be: Why does she talk like that??). And, they have a right to be curious because they are right. Kate does not talk like a normal four-year-old. In fact, a lot of two-year-olds (and heck, younger!) talk clearer than Kate.
Of course, these parents just can’t come out and say, “Why does your child talk funny?”
Or, “Why does she talk like that?”
They don’t ask because it’s generally considered rude.
Now, there’s the other end of this spectrum and the people who live here don’t know “rude” if it bites them on the ass (and frankly, I don’t think they much care either). These are the people who fall into my “incredibly insulting, and hurtful” category. Honestly, I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time going down this particular hole. It doesn’t do me any good to dwell in these negative feelings and it certainly doesn’t do you any good reading about them either.
But these people do exist and we do run into them.
If you’ve got a child who’s different, late-talker or not, chances are you’ve met this person. They are the ones who act like self-proclaimed neurologists, who’ve read some article about some thing and this is clearly the reason your kid is the way they are. They totally discount the fact that you’ve been on a rollercoaster for however-many years, that this is your child who you know better than anyone else. This person, though, they just don’t care about your feelings. Or your child’s.
Or maybe, they just can’t see that far past themselves.
In general, I’ve found this particular breed of human beings don’t care much about the people I’ve formed for my kids’ team, from the medical side to family and friends. And it really, it seems it’s because they themselves, are the ones with the answer. They are also completely oblivious that, to what seems like an innocent (and in their mind) helpful comment, is incredibly incredibly hurtful. Insulting, even.
Sometimes you’re able to stay back and say to this person, “Hey, please don’t say that. Your assumptions really hurt me.”
And those people, being actually good-hearted people with good intentions just don’t realize how deep their big foot fits into their big mouth. In general, I’ve found they apologize. Or at least, they stop trying to shove their foot in their mouths.
But then there’s that group I just mentioned, the ones who believe they and they alone have the answer, well, those guys it just doesn’t matter if they get hit over the head with a flying saucer, to them the sky is pink and it will always be pink.
I’ve experienced all kinds on this journey, and I know I’ll experience even more the longer we’re on it. I do know too, that I’ll get better at shutting out and walking away from the ones who can hurt me, the same way I’ll get better helping others to understand (who want to understand) this unique difference both of my kids share.
Which is really how this whole idea for this blog post came about.
There was an experience that hurt me, that made me so furious I went ranting and raving to my close friends and fellow parents of late-talkers. At this particular moment, Sean having just gotten out of bed to see me with steam pouring on out my ears, said to Eric (who’s still on his potty training journey and done his recent share of mommy-limit testing): “See, Eric? Mommy’s never going to get that mad at you.”
That’s how pissed off I was about this particular person.
And while it’s important (and needed) to vent my fury and get these hurtful comments out of my system, I realized what’s more important is to to reach out to parents and to share with them just how to ask about my children.
Because yes, my kids are different and you are, legitimately, going to ask about them.
In fact, I want you too. I want to share our journey. I want this knowledge to get out into the world to say: YES! We can have kids that are different from the normal developing ones, even if they don’t automatically fit into this one box the medical community is pushing. (And I’ll say too, this goes for the reverse: if you know your child is different and the doctors don’t believe you because they’re only seeing one side of the picture.) These are all children who, in one way or another, aren’t fitting into any one box. And that’s ok. That’s great even, because we should be proclaiming the differences and uniqueness of our kids, and frankly, for ourselves too. I want other parents, whose children are approaching that stage when pediatricians are starting to scratch their chins about the lack of words and may (or may not) line up a whole series of tests and specialists visits. The more we share the more other parents can benefit, so they won’t be alone, so they will know there are actually a rather large chunk of kids who are different than the norm and that’s totally okay too.
And the best way to get there is to share. So today I’m sharing my thoughts on how to be curious without being judgmental.
How to ask… why does Kate talk the way she does?
How to ask… why doesn’t Kate (or Eric) listen when I ask them not to step on the beach blanket?
How to ask… is there something wrong with them?
Frankly, the questions themselves are pretty charged (and in regards to that last one, I’m writing out what I know other people often think… thankfully that one hasn’t been asked of me yet).
First off, your tone is so so so important. If you ask a question, and your tone is honest-to-goodness, kind and curious, even if the question itself might be a bit rude, I can tell that you mean well. I can tell that you would like to know about my kids, but you just don’t know how to ask in a way that’s “politically correct” (not that I even know what “politically correct” for a kid who’s late-talking).
Truthfully, a lot can be forgiven if you just ask nicely. If you just say, “I’m really sorry because I don’t know how to ask without sounding offensive or judgmental or… ” (insert your description here).
Or… here’s another really great opener….
Help me understand.
Really. You should highlight that one. Anyone you’re having issues with, family or whoever, and they keep just rubbing you the wrong way, ask them to start with this.
“Help me understand… why your child isn’t talking.”
“Help me understand… why he doesn’t seem to understand when I ask him a question.”
“Help me understand… why so many people don’t seem to know about late-talkers (and why so many parents are being pressured with an autism label).”
Believe me, that’s probably the best thing you could say. Those words are truly saying:
“I’m curious. I want to understand but I need your help.”
I don’t know about you but I am more than willing to step up to that plate.
Or, if you’re distracted by your own kids (because, gee, when doesn’t that happen when our kids are around?), but we’re trying to have a meaningful discussion… realize too that a lot can get lost in those distractions. You may make a comment or ask a question that’s hurtful to me even if that was never your intent. You meant to add in another three or four sentences, and those all together would have been just fine. In fact, it would have been a great question to discuss together, to help each other understand where the other side is coming from.
This is one area where a long-time friend and I continually bump into. We manage to keep coming back and work it out, but boy it would have been so much easier to get it right from the start. I’ve learned to be more mindful of this, especially when us parents are being distracted by our adorable kids, but I think the best solution is just to be honest with each other.
Say to the parent with the late-talking kid, “I want to understand. I want to discuss this, but I’ve got my hands full and what I say might not come out the way I mean.”
For me, personally, that means I’ll keep myself more open. I won’t just automatically shut down the conversation, where I pull away and stop sharing.
For me, talking about my kids and our journey, it’s very personal. I’m opening myself up, feelings and all, when I talk about this. If I feel like you’re not receptive or that you’re being judgmental, you better believe I will shut down that door super fast.
I need too. That’s how I’ve survived. That’s how I’ve protected myself and my willingness to trust and believe in my kids. If you don’t believe in us, if you don’t believe in our journey, you better believe I’m not about to let you inside and put doubts in me.
Sorry. I just can’t afford to. My kids, can’t afford to. Life and society has already thrown enough hurtles our way to add yours to the mix.
You see, so much of this dialog is about your intentions.
Do you genuinely want to understand the life experiences of this late-talking child and their parents? Do you want to know about their journey, about all the joy and pain and scary moments they’ve had? Do you want to share in that?
Or do you just want to share the latest trending article on Google?
Keep in mind too, it’s not all just about words or tone. Body language is just as important, if not more. Picture someone with their arms crossed, their chin titled high, feet spread out wide. Even if the question itself sounds kind, your body language is saying something else entirely. That you, and only you, have the answers.
I mean, seriously, this is one of the fastest way to heat up my pissed-off meter and make me want to deck you. (Not that I would, conflict adverse person that I am. But you better believe there’s steam coming out of my ears.)
But really, I think the most hurtful, insulting thing you could say or imply, is that you know my children better than me.
I’ve stood up to pediatricians over this, early intervention (those folks there should be glad I’m never going back after the way they treated us), friends and family too. And I’m not going to stop either. Ever.
Certainly not as long as my children need me to be their voice.
Another thing that happens with speech pathologists I’ve met out in the wilds of the world (and parents of other special needs kids)… is the look they give Kate. You can literally see them studying her, assessing her. I can see them making opinions and judgments. All of which are wrong because, frankly, seeing her for five minutes or an hour or four hours is not going to give you an accurate picture of my girl.
No way. No how. (And if you personally know Kate I’ll bet your nodding your head in agreement right now.)
If you’re curious about my daughter, come up and ask about it instead of treating her like some puzzle to figure out.
Let’s have a conversation about it, a meaningful one where I can see that you care and that you’re curious about our journey (and not the one you may have already formed in your brain).
To be fair, if you’re a doctor and you see someone limping, you can’t help but try and figure out what’s causing the limp. That’s part of your training; that’s what you do. I totally get that. I totally get if a speech pathologist meets Kate they’re gonna start having opinions. But I think the reason it hurts so much is because they don’t tend to have this… curiosity about her. They don’t generally come up and ask those questions. They generally don’t ask to understand what we’ve learned or where we’ve come from.
All I see in those looks is their opinions, their judgments. That’s it.
You may think you’re being all stealthy in your assessment… trust me… you’re not.
Us parents, especially us moms, we see everything.
There’s just something different when it comes to our kids. Or maybe I’m wrong and you’re a grown adult with your own issues and you still get these odd looks, or maybe you have an aging parent with their own mental or health issues. None of it would surprise me, honestly.
I think, at least for me, the reason why this is so hard is these are our children. They are still growing and maturing. They’re still forming their own person and I want… no, I need to protect that. I need to let them treasure who they are without someone else threatening this growth.
And maybe that’s it too.
When our kids are young, there’s not a whole lot of hard and fast answers because they are still developing. And there’s a huge range of what is still considered “normal.” There’s a reason I haven’t talked much about Eric and his not talking up to this point, or what his journey might look like from here, because even though he wasn’t where other kids his age were, he was still falling into that normal category. At this point, he’s old enough where we do know his speech sounds are immature and his expressive is delayed for his age. But we needed to give Eric that time before we could get a clearer picture of how best to move forward.
For us parents of late-talkers, there’s a lot of uncertainly. And a lot of fear too.
Even though I’m on my second journey with Eric, there’s still a lot of fear. It’s much, much easier to push it aside, to accept the child I have, and to live in a place of peace and trust, but the fear is still there.
Because again, I don’t know when he’ll start talking.
I don’t know exactly what’s going on yet, and I won’t. Not for another year. Maybe two. Maybe more.
I need to find a way to not only live with that, but to enjoy the process. To enjoy the life that’s Eric and it will be his, completely. Someone that will be unique and different from Kate.
Because every kid is different.
The only real answer we have, as parents, is that we need to wait. To give our kids time. Time to simply see what develops.
But there’s a lot of fear going on in our world and it’s constantly threatening this love and connection we have with our kids. Fear because of what the doctors might be straight-up telling us or hinting at. Fear because we know our children are different, even if we know there’s nothing “wrong.” That they are just different and developing at different pace. We will find the right way to help them, but it’ll be in our own way and a way that fits best for each individual kid.
So yes, when you go up to a parent of a late-talker (or any kind of special needs), it is a delicate subject because there has been so much that’s gone on already that you don’t, or can’t, know about.
All I ask, is to be mindful. To be kind. Be curious.
Let’s face it, there’s a whole lot going on when it comes to a growing child; just look at the first year of life for crying out loud! There is a whole lot of complexity in children, and I think collectively, we need to start acknowledging that.
There is no one-size-fits-all box approach.
Not every child is the same.
Our kids are different and they are complex.
That’s step one.
Step two, is us having discussions about our complex children. And if you’re another parent and you want to ask questions about my child or someone else’s, a child that is different from all the others, you truly, can’t go wrong with this simple one:
“Help me understand.”
For parents like me, of late-talkers or if your child falls into another category, the more we share, the more we can help spread the word about just how different our kids can be… and yet, still be normal and perfect in their own way. The more we do that, the more can take away some of that fear.
Because really, the last thing we need in this world is more fear.
Again, just a short disclaimer. Each of our children is different and you know yours better than anyone else. What has worked for mine, may not (or straight-up won’t) work for yours. I encourage you to trust in yourself, to find a team (medical and supportive) who you trust and respect, but most of all, trust in your child.