My Child is NOT Broken (and neither is yours)

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child not brokenIn a few short days, my amazing first-born son will turn five. FIVE! The age of really learning to read, increased independence, stronger opinions, and getting to know himself even more than he has already. So, what do I want for him as he enters his sixth year of life? I want him to be confident. I want him to be happy. I want him to love learning. But I don’t want him to be perfect. He doesn’t need to be perfect. He is not a broken child. He does not need fixing.

Sitting in the waiting room for a session with a local occupational therapist about a year ago, my son was quietly observing the other children around him. A boy, perhaps 8 years old, was having a full-blown, violent melt-down. About halfway home from the session, my son asked me from the back seat of our car, “Mommy, am I broken too?” Cue my tears. He explained that he associated that boy’s “problems” (his word) with his own sense of self. While I understand that my son has challenges – everyone does! – I do not want his self-esteem affected because he thinks he is broken. That was the last time we went to play “in the gym.”

To remind my son that the people in his life are not trying to fix him, I focus on a few key sentences. While I know that observations, assessments, anecdotes, and tests provide valuable information about him, they are only pieces of his complex puzzle.

Children have different learning styles. 

My son is a visual learner. He needs to see a schedule, a sequence, and reminders about procedures. While we can play fun games (the shopping list game! Simon Says! repeating digits! the AuditoryWorkout app!) to improve his auditory memory and attention, he has a strong connection between what he sees and remembers. It is important to focus on strengths rather than to harbor on weaknesses.

Children need cheerleaders. 

Shoot! Everyone needs cheerleaders. When my son feels unsupported, discouraged, or like the people around him are watching for him to fail – he might. He needs someone to playfully challenge him like we do when my husband says he will win our dinnertime game of UNO. He needs to know that the person in his classroom writing on their clipboard is not watching him bite his nails but rather doing an observation of the teacher or assessing whether new wooden blocks are needed. He is curious but sometimes assumes the worst. Dispel it so he can move on.

Children are young. 

Mine is barely FIVE YEARS OLD (Sorry for screaming). As a teacher, I have fifth graders who don’t know as much about themselves as learners as my little guy. Hopefully, this will serve him well. Therapy is not always the answer. I will not spend my afternoons and weekends carting him around to social thinking groups or psychologists because I don’t want this to become a part of his childhood. He should be running around on playgrounds, playing fetch with his dog, and fingerpainting. He has plenty of time for ‘professional intervention’ if needed. No one, in their right mind, would punish a 9-month old for not being able to walk. It’s all about developmental readiness. They will reach those milestones at their own paces.

Children are growing.

My son is more collaborative each day as he interacts with his peers and his little brother. He should be commended for all of the positive decisions he makes each day rather than worrying about the two questionable ones. He is learning to control his emotions and frustration. He is learning every. single. day.

Children learn coping strategies.

If he needs to follow more than one direction, he does so best with paraphrasing. When we come home from school, he says, “jacket, shoes, gate” as he walks through the door. He is also a kinesthetic learner who remembers things best when he does them himself, like saying the words aloud. He will continue to learn what strategies work best for him in all aspects of his life.

Children ALL have challenges.

Our pediatrician eloquently explained about herself, “Could I maybe have benefited from some OT? Sure. So what? I found something that suited my strengths. I didn’t play basketball. I could have been a better basketball player with some hand-eye coordination therapy, but it certainly wouldn’t have led me to play in the NBA.” So long as our challenges are not negatively impacting our day’s success or our self-esteem, we figure things out. We develop grit, resilience, and determination. We become stronger as a result.

Remember that each child is different, unique, special, and complex. While learning as much as we can about each individual may help support their educational journey, it should not be geared to “fix” anyone or fit them into a mold that we, or their teachers, have for them. Our children are the most precious gifts we will ever be given. They don’t need to be fixed. Perhaps we are the ones that need fixing.

How do you help your children without discouraging them?

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Julie is a full-time 5th grade teacher, full-time mommy, part-time runner and resident of Ridgefield! Originally from Colorado, she grew up in SW Fairfield County and got married in 2008. They spent a few years south of the Mason-Dixon, got a dog, and returned to CT to raise their family. A former collegiate tennis player, she loves staying active and finding ways to get outside with her two boys (Oliver - February 2011 and Miles - October 2013). When she's not grading papers, playing racecars, or training for a race, Julie is trying to cook healthy meals for her (picky) family, keep their golden retriever out of trouble, take photos, stay organized and save some money to buy a fixer-upper.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I think the article is beautifully written and expresses many valid points. Our kids do need a childhood free of the stress of being perfect. Life is about creating joy.
    I would caution your readers not to give up OT after witnessing one incident of a stranger child without discussing it with your doctor/medical professional, as you mentioned you did. Julie, you seem to be a professional yourself and knew the proper resources, but many of your readers do not have that benefit.
    I also wanted to say that OT should not be the equivalent of punishing your 9 month old for not walking. Any OT that is like this is not true OT. In kids, OT is teaching children the “occupation” of play. There are so many benefits. Maybe they were outweighed by negatives in the case of your son, but not so for most others.
    I enjoy hearing the perspectives of moms with kids all on the spectrum. Thanks for sharing! Best of luck with your mama-journey!

    • Hi Mary,
      Thanks for your reply. We discussed OT with our pediatrician who didn’t think it was necessary at all (nor did our health insurance – but that’s another issue!). It was not for my son because his ‘challenges’ are not interfering with his educational journey. If they ever do, that is a bridge we will revisit crossing. My “revelation” was not simply about that one moment. I had been a doubter, even as a teacher myself. I value childhood immensely, as I’m sure you do, and want to give him natural ways to experience failure and develop grit. I also don’t have the financial resources to spend the kind of money OTs charge. Thanks again for reading! 🙂

  2. Julie, this is wonderful. Thank you for touching on the “not broken” attitude. My son is struggling with mild ADHD, and while we are challenged by how to help him as he starts 3rd grace next year, we know he is smart and has needs that don’t conform to the rest of his peers. We just need to learn what those are to support him as best we can. Thank you again. Sharing and re-tweeting!

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