Monday, June 22, 2015

"My child is not defective." - Steve Hargadon

Years ago we had a child struggling in school. Really struggling. I went to watch this child in class, probably in the third grade, and I vividly remember how painful it was to see our child completely faking it--not really understanding much of anything that was going on, but pretending to; it had to be a living hell every day.

So we took our child to be tested at the local offices of a national organization that specialized in learning challenges. When the tests came back, my wife and I sat down with the counselor and she went through the results.  "Your child has difficulties in the following areas," she said. Yes, we agreed, it made sense. I said: "So, students who have difficulties in those areas--what do they tend to do well? What kinds of things are they normally good at so we can focus on those?" My idea was to figure out positive areas so that along with any remedial work, there could be encouragement in areas that would be more reinforcing.

"You don't understand," she said. "These are deficiencies. There are no positives."

We walked out.

I'm not happy with the way in which I allowed the system to lead me to believe, over lots of years, that this child was behind, not capable, and defective. But I am proud of leaving that meeting.

How many students and parents allow a rigid system, that recognizes and rewards only certain kinds of capabilities and skills, to define a child as defective? How many start down the path of medications, making it difficult to determine what are the results of the lack of play and outdoor time and caring adults, and what are the effects of the actual medications? How many children who are physically-oriented, or just naturally start reading or learning later, carry the label of defective learners their whole lives? How many children blame themselves for problems caused by confined learning, dangerous additives, or commercially-driven food illness?

The first step, it seems to me, is declaring that our own children are not defective. This is something we have to, as parents, come to realize for ourselves, and it is often not easy. There are so many ways in which it is tempting to collude with the negative and disabling messages which are at the very heart of consumerist propaganda. Those messages are designed to instill in us the belief that we are not capable on our own, without the help of such-and-such person or program or expert. If we don't actually determine, ourselves, that the idea that our child is defective is unacceptable, we'll never be able to stand up to those messages or the messengers.

The next step is to add an exclamation mark to the phrase. "My child is not defective!" Once we realize that the defective label on any child is not OK, then we need to be willing to take a stand and push back on those who have accepted the views of childhood and learning that allow significant percentages of students to be declared such, instead of working to help every child. I believe this is at the heart of the opt-out movement, but I also worry that 1) for many, it's just the particular tests they are concerned with, and 2) that those tests are just one element of a broader culture of defectiveness that remains unchallenged in parents' own minds, not just in the system.

When I traveled in India, I was intrigued by a caste system which gave a rationale for one's place in society. If you were born into the lower caste, it was because of something you did in a previous life that caused this. It gave a comforting rationale both to the dispossessed and the upper castes for your place in life. No need to actually wonder if it was fair, since ultimately you were to blame or to take credit for what were clearly accidents of birth.

Think things are different here? Think again.

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