Embrace Your Child’s Individuality

This past summer I signed my daughter up for pee-wee cheerleading and it has been an adventure, to say the least.

I was a pee-wee cheerleader at her age and loved it, and I thought she would, too. Beginning in June, she had practice two days a week for two hours a day. In a parking lot. In 90 degree weather. It goes without saying that these practices were painful, for everyone.

One evening my husband offered to go with her to practice so that I could have some time to myself. I dropped them off at practice and headed to the local grocery store for some alone time. Within half-an-hour my phone was ringing. My husband was calling to say that I needed to come back and get them. Maddy didn’t like cheerleading and we should let her quit. He even put her on the phone: “Mama, come get me. I don’t want to cheer.” I stood motionless in the middle of Kroger. What was happening? I had only left them alone for half-an-hour. I asked to speak to my husband again and told him to hang tight, that I would be there shortly.

I made her stay until the end of practice and then we headed home as a family. When we got home, my husband and I discussed whether or not we should continue sending Maddy to cheerleading. He advocated for letting her quit; he thought she didn’t like it and we shouldn’t make her continue. I advocated for making her continue. Practices had just started and we had paid a large, non-refundable fee to participate.

But then he said something that gave me pause: just because I had enjoyed cheerleading as a little girl, didn’t mean that Maddy would, as well. What was that? Just because I loved being a cheerleader, didn’t mean she would, too? I hate it when my husband’s right, but he was right. We agreed that we would have her continue for the remainder of the season, but if she didn’t want to do it again next year, it was her choice.

My husband’s words really hit home. I suppose every mother who is expecting a little girl assumes their daughter will look and act just like them. I know I did. I dreamed of matching outfits and matching hairstyles. Suffice to say, not only does my daughter look just like my husband, she acts just like him, too. And I don’t say that to complain; it’s just not what I had envisioned. My daughter is genuinely the funniest person I know. Sometimes it’s on purpose, sometimes it’s accidental. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Maybe she’ll be a cheerleader, and maybe she won’t. Either way it’s okay, because she isn’t me. And she doesn’t need to be. She gets to be whoever she wants to be.

Save the Hard Hits for the Field

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge NFL fan. My excitement grows as August sets in – I love the strategy, athleticism and camaraderie of this sport. And like any fan, I get that the hard hits are a part of the game. But the recent exposure of “hard hits” off the field have led me to question the sport and players I have always supported.

Over the past few weeks, the aggressive actions of several National Football League players have been the center of much attention and debate. The latest NFL player to hit the news is the Minnesota Viking’s Adrian Peterson. The indictment alleged that Adrian “recklessly or by criminal negligence cause[d] bodily injury” to his 4-year-old son. Peterson’s attorney has said his client used “a switch to spank his son” and was simply doling out discipline much like “he experienced as a child growing up in East Texas.”

In a statement, Adrian Peterson reported that, “My goal is always to teach my son right from wrong and that’s what I tried to do that day. I accept the fact that people feel very strongly about this issue and what they think about my conduct. Regardless of what others think, however, I love my son very much and I will continue to try to become a better father and person.”

This incident has incited many opposing points of few. At the center of the debate seems to be whether “spanking” is an appropriate form of discipline and whether or not parents have the right to make this decision. This type of debate frustrates me as I think it is clouding the facts. Adrian Peterson is not being accused of doling out physical discipline, he is being charged with causing physical harm to his 4-year-old son. And I believe there is a significant difference!

I do not believe there is only one right way to parent. Parenting is very personal and every parent must decide what is best for their child – which includes the best way to discipline. I also get that for some parents spanking is a viable form of discipline. I know many families that have used spanking for generations and believe that it is right for them. I do not question these beliefs or these rights. I do question how anyone can support the use of a switch, which caused injury to a 4-year-old child.

Adrian Peterson has attempted to rationalize his behaviors by contending that he only did to his son what he endured as a child. And that furthermore he was just trying to teach his child right from wrong. My reaction to this is, seriously? You want us all to believe you didn’t know a better way to teach your 4-year-old child right from wrong. And, most importantly, you didn’t realize you were hurting your son. Again, seriously?

Regardless of how Adrian was raised, he has been exposed to many different experiences and ways of thinking. His position as an NFL player also affords him access to an immense amount of resources. So, at what point should we expect that Adrian would know better than to cause harm to his child?

I hope that the current plight Adrian Peterson and his family are facing causes other parents to take stock of their choices and actions. I also hope Adrian achieves his desire of becoming a better father. But, let’s not cloud the issue. The debate is not about the parental choice to spank, but how we as a culture continue to accept excuses for acts of aggression and violence. And to the NFL players I am pleading – please keep the hard hits on the field.

Don’t Let Your Fear Control You

“Being disabled should not mean being disqualified from having access to every aspect of life.” – Emma Thompson

Fear can be a nagging voice and hard to ignore. It often inhibits others from doing what’s right. My daughter – who lives with chronic epilepsy – has experienced this firsthand.

As Gabrielle’s epilepsy has evolved over time, school officials let fear keep them from doing the right thing for her educationally. Ten days before Gabrielle’s official graduation date, I was told by her school’s authorities that she could no longer attend. They cited two recent separate incidents where her heart “allegedly” stopped and a second when her lips turned black.

It’s not like they were not aware of her seizures, having dealt with her medical issues for years. Even though a physician assessed her and explained to the staff of the school that what they were witnessing in Gabrielle was not something that would keep her from being able to attend school, they wouldn’t listen. No matter how hard my husband and I, an outside agency, and the doctor tried to convince them, the district would not budge. We were forced to concede.

Gabrielle was abruptly removed from school and separated from her teachers and friends. Instead of doing the right thing and providing her with the same public education as her peers, she was denied those last weeks due to fear. Staff conveyed their concerns for her health, for in their minds, she was “declining quickly.” But at home, we weren’t seeing what they’d been reporting at school. Gabrielle’s been home since early May, and while she may get emergency medications every other week, she’s not dying. She’s thriving.

But we’re still having to fight fear. Trying to find an adult day program that will look beyond Gabrielle’s condition at first seemed as challenging as working with her former school. One program declined placement as they felt like they couldn’t manage Gabrielle’s medical needs. I wanted to return to that program and ask the decision maker, “Doesn’t my daughter deserve the same rights as you? Doesn’t she deserve happiness, joy and opportunities?”

Since then, we have met with other programs willing to meet Gabrielle and her medical needs with confidence. In one particular program where they deal with seizures on a daily basis, the staff felt very comfortable handling many of the scenarios I proposed. I hugged the woman I spoke with afterwards and thanked her. It was a huge burden lifted off my shoulders, to know she’d be in confident hands. I also knew it was the right program when Gabrielle got out of her stroller and wanted to go outside to see the horses. She hadn’t done this when we visited other programs.

Finally, after all of those years dealing with people who were constantly fearful, we’d found a program that “got it.”

Growing Up, Up and Away

When school resumed this year, I was surrounded by parents whose children were either entering kindergarten or beginning their college career. What fascinated me was how similar these experiences were for these parents. Whether it was a 5-year old climbing on a bus or an 18-year-old moving into a college dormitory, the parents of these children were experiencing pangs of worry and grief. And it was not just the letting go of their child that they had in common, but also the impact this change was having on their role as a parent.

A young mother shared with me what she experienced when taking her youngest daughter to kindergarten: she was surprised at how sad she felt, that somehow starting school was synonymous with her child growing up. And though her daughter has been growing and changing over the past five years, this hurdle of starting school had stirred up a sense of loss. Her daughter’s previous developmental gains had taken place before her eyes and she’d had a role in her child’s success. As her daughter entered school she was forced to come to terms with the fact that her daughter was beginning the process of not only growing up but “growing” outside her home.

Similarly, a dear friend was dealing with her youngest son beginning his college career. Different from the young mother, my friend was not surprised by the immense sadness she was experiencing. But her feelings of loss were very similar. She had successfully carved out her role in her child’s life and supported him as he made advancements socially and in his education. But as she moved her son into his dorm room, she was forced to come to terms with the fact that her son was grown.

What has really struck me about the mothers in my life that are dealing with these changes is how they are at a loss. Not only are they experiencing sadness as their children move on, they are also lost in what to do or not to do.  For example, my sister whose oldest son began college this year confided that she struggled with not being in control. She was used to getting her son out the door to school, packing his lunch and monitoring his comings and goings. And it is killing her that she does not know for sure where her son is and what he is doing. She joked about how she had to convince herself not to call him in the mornings to make sure he was getting up for class!

Each of these mothers are renegotiating their role as a parent. As children’s needs change, parents need to adjust the ways in which they support their children, and that can be stressful. The feeling of loss comes from letting go of how it used to be and the fear comes from not knowing what their current parenting role looks like.

My best advice is to take comfort in the fact that no matter where a child is – at school, at home or in a college dorm room – no one can replace a mother. So grieve as long as you need to, cry and let go of the past. And when you’re ready, join your child in their journey of “growing up.”

Backbone and Heart

It seems every conversation I’ve had this week has been around the concept of using backbone and heart. According to Mary Beth O’Neill’s book, Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart, “Backbone means knowing and clearly stating your position, whether it is popular or not. Heart is staying engaged in the relationship and reaching out even when that relationship is mired in conflict.” I’d never heard of this before beginning my master’s degree in Executive Coaching last fall, but ever since I learned about it, I’ve found myself applying it not only with the child care program administrators I coach, but in many of my relationships with adults.

Bringing backbone and heart can be challenging, especially for those of us who haven’t done it much. Up until a decade ago, even if I knew my position, and held strong convictions about it, I’d shrink back from stating it, especially if it was unpopular. And rather than staying engaged in relationships that were full of conflict, I’d disengage completely in order to avoid it. More times than not, that behavior did not serve me well.

Then I had my children. Realizing they needed a mom with enough backbone to stand up caused me to grow a spine, and my desire to model what healthy relationships look like has enabled me to work through conflict appropriately in order to maintain them. Thankfully I was able to learn these skills later in life. Now I’m determined to teach them to my children early on.

For instance, this past fall when my 10-year-old, Liv, was going on her fourth grade trip to Camp Kern, each student was guaranteed to be in a cabin with at least one friend of their choice. To ensure this, they were to submit a list of four friends. Liv wrote down four names and was about to turn it in when another girl saw it and begged Liv to add her because she’d put Liv on hers. Liv likes this girl, but not as much as the girl likes her, so she did not want to be in a cabin with her. But she didn’t state her position. She didn’t want to be mean or unkind and she was afraid. When I found out what happened, Liv refused to tell the principal because she didn’t want conflict. Of course it turned out that she ended up in a cabin with the girl and not one of her close friends. She was miserable the entire trip and ran from her group to join her friends every chance she got. At the end of the year there was a cabin reunion and Liv was reminded yet again how the trip she’d looked so forward to was less than she’d hoped because she hadn’t either gently told the girl she liked her but had already put down who she’d like to bunk with or been honest with the principal when asked if she was ok with things the way they were.

I understand how difficult speaking up one way or the other would have been for Liv but not getting to be with one of her BFFs was worse. Because she wasn’t able to bring backbone and heart to the situation at the time, she’ll always remember what it cost her. It was a hard lesson, but we’ve talked about it a lot and I’ve noticed that Liv is learning to bring backbone and heart to various situations. In fact, I couldn’t have been more proud of her when she was at her father’s on Mother’s Day and forgot the card she’d bought me at his house. While en route to me for the holiday, she remembered the card and asked to turn around for it. When this was met with resistance she held her ground and insisted he take her back (backbone). She also reminded him that it was, after all, her mom’s day, and the right thing to do (heart).

As much as I loved the card and its admonition for me to do whatever I wanted for the day, just as Liv will remember the time she didn’t use backbone and heart, my card will remind me of the time she did.

You’re more than a parent!

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world… would do this, it would change the earth.”

- William Faulkner

Since my daughter’s birth 22 years ago, my husband and I have advocated tirelessly for her. While she was in growing in my belly, we had hopes and dreams for her despite the fact that we knew she would be born with a disability. Her diagnosis did not impede us; it just required paving a unique path for her.

We wanted to provide Gabrielle with limitless opportunities in an inclusive environment throughout her lifetime, allowing for her to learn, play and grow with others of all abilities. Our goal was and continues to be for her to thrive, flourish and to maximize her potential by having the best quality of life possible. But our journey has not been easy.

We’ve had to work on our advocacy skills from her first childcare experience where the director informed us that she “shouldn’t take those kinds of children,” to doctors, schools, camps and currently, adult day programs who see only her stroller, not the awesome, inspiring, capable young woman she is. To other families on a similar journey, I have this to say:

  • We cannot always influence or persuade others to come along side us. We need to learn when it’s time to move on or walk away.
  • Not every battle will be won, so choose which ones are non-negotiable.
  • Turn challenges into opportunities.
  • Don’t let your anger get the best of you. By being objective and composed, I’ve been able to effectively advocate for Gabrielle to help plan the best future and quality of life for her.
  • Find allies and like-minded individuals willing to help and support your family.

I cannot allow others to determine Gabrielle’s future, especially when they cannot perceive her strengths and want to limit her options based on those perceptions. I have been given the awesome privilege to be her parent and with that is the responsibility to fight for her and be her voice for as long as she needs me. If I don’t advocate for her, who will?

Let It Go

Whenever “Let It Go” is played in a public place, I hear women and children loudly sing along. The song clearly has an upbeat rhythm, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s more than the rhythm that has caught on.

If you listen to the words of this song, you may feel quite inspired. For me phrases like, “I am one with the wind and sky,” help to remind me that I am a part of something bigger. While the phrase “the past is in the past” reminds me that I can only move forward. “Let it go, let it go, that perfect girl is gone. Here I stand in the light of day,” encourages me to honor who I am and not be afraid to show my true self to others.

It’s no wonder that this song has struck a chord – especially for women and girls. Many women move through life carrying with them the pressure to live up to the expectations of being a good daughter, sister, mother and friend. Add to that the role of caretaker, nurturer and fixer, and it’s easy to see that women carry a lot on their backs. What this song may be doing is giving women the permission to let some of this go. And maybe most importantly this song may remind us to help our young girls to do the same.

Girls are often taught that being “good” is accomplished by putting their own needs and desires aside. This is done to help prepare them for the years when they will be expected to nurture and rescue their children, fix problems and sacrifice their own needs for the benefit or success of others. And though some of these behaviors may be admirable, do these expectations hamper our young girls from freely being themselves? Are our young girls growing up worrying too much about what others think? And if our young girls are carrying this kind of pressure, then “let it go” is an incredible mantra to sing!

It seems to me that by letting go our girls will flourish. By helping them to feel confident about themselves, step into their own light and maximize their strengths we may be able to alleviate the pressure to fit in and be perfect. However this also requires that as mothers, teachers, aunts and mentors must let go as well. We have to intentionally let go of our self doubt, our needs to be liked and our fears that we are not good enough. Our girls will benefit from our example and our courage. As we are able to stand in our true light, our girls will see that they can be loved and appreciated for their own individual gifts and strengths.