Raising Special Children

All our children are special and each is special in his or her own way.  Two interesting articles recently appeared about two seemingly opposite aspects of children who are different:  children whose differences may be problematic, and those who star as prodigies.  Jane Brody writes about “Embracing Children for Who They Are”, while Andrew Solomon asks about prodigies, “Would You Wish This On Your Child?”

Brody focuses on differences in sexuality, using as an example a little boy who early on was interested in dolls and feminine clothes and accessories.  The issues involved in raising a gay child became the issues that are part of raising a child who is different.  Brody writes that rather than trying to remake a child into something he is not, the challenge is to appreciate and adapt to his differences, to love him for what he is and not disparage him for what he is not.  This is indeed challenging for both parents and child when reality differs from parental expectations and wishes.

Andrew Solomon is himself a gay man and father of four children.  He writes of his own difficulties growing up and says that while his parents were never derisive, they were uncomfortable with his difference from them and encouraged him to try to be straight.  Interestingly, he began his research with parents of disabled children, in order to look at the process by which parents reconcile themselves to children who present significant challenges.  He writes that he was on a quest to forgive – perhaps understand – his own parents for pressing him to be “untrue” to himself. 

Having done extensive research about children who experienced radical and stigmatized differences from their parents, he found when looking at prodigies that genius can be as bewildering and hazardous as a disability.  He writes, “Despite the past century’s breakthrough in psychology and neuroscience, prodigiousness and genius are as little understood as autism.”  The point made is that genius is an abnormality and is sometimes accompanied by other abnormalities.  We take pride in children who are talented and exceptional, but may not be as quick to look at the down side.

Solomon relates this to what he calls the “hysteria attached to early achievement”, which he attributes to developmental psychiatry and its insistence that first experience is formative.  He thinks parents become obsessive about this, believing that a child’s future success and competitive advantage depend on being raised and educated in  particular ways.  This has led to extremes in parenting – from forcing children into specific kinds of achievement, to accepting everything they do without question.  Although we want to help our children reach their potential, we don’t want to lead them to believe their self-worth lies in their achievement.  It is hard to find the balance between the two.

In his article, Solomon gives many examples of the life experiences of prodigies and the challenges faced by their parents in raising them.  In many ways the experience of the parents was similar to that of parents raising children with disabilities.  He reports that half the prodigies he studied “seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents.”

Most of us, as parents, are not facing the special challenges of raising children with disabilities or those with extraordinary abilities.  But many of the issues raised speak to the questions confronting all parents.  Before our children are born we imagine what they will be like and what we will be like as parents.  Inevitably, the real child is not the imagined child.  But even when the disparity is not as great as the extremes reported on, our first task is to get to know, and to relate to who our own child is rather than the one we imagined or hoped for.

All children have strengths and weaknesses, things they do well and other things they find difficult.  This can make it hard for parents to find the balance referred to earlier, to avoid becoming overly focused on either weaknesses or strengths.  We do want to help children overcome their rough spots, and to praise them for what they do well, but without conveying the idea – or believing ourselves – that either is a reflection of the whole child. 

Little children see their parents as black or white, wonderful or terrible depending on whether they feel gratified or frustrated by them at any given moment.  Their task as they grow is to accept both the good and bad as part of one person – their parent – a real person, not some wished for perfect parent.  Perhaps as parents we face the same challenge in accepting our children for who they are.  As we accomplish that goal, we help them accept their own imperfections and ultimately – hopefully – ours as well.

Andrew Solomon found that many families come to “celebrate” characteristics in their children they initially found incomprehensible.  But having seen how hard it was for other parents, he concluded that his own had done a pretty good job.  That is a conclusion we all need to come to about ourselves as parents.

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