I am sitting at the airport in Missouri and am reflecting on the past ATTACh conference that concluded at noon today. I have so many thoughts, with multiple trajectories to traverse as I try to connect the information in the interstates of my brain. This conference has a fair complement of both parents and professionals and the different discussions were very productive indeed. I stand amazed at how much information we do have about the brain and our inter-connections we have with each other as human beings. I stand equally amazed that in the face of this information and research, we still live in a society that over emphasizes productivity and live in a state of perpetual performance anxiety because of it. It is such a strange dichotomy with no research or evidence that it is making us even a little happier.
Parents perpetually feel that in order to be “good” parents they have to be able to provide as much opportunities as possible for their child to participate and perform. The sense of pride with achievement is well understood and I have real empathy and also joy for sharing in this with the many families we serve. But I also often become quiet in my mind and ask myself what for? If you ask me to reflect on a favorite childhood memory, it is always a reflection of all 5 of our children sitting on my parents bed on a Saturday morning, enjoying our coffee together and laughing so hard that my father has to put his book down because we are shaking the bed too much for him to continue reading. Do I have many memories of singing trophies, acting in drama, playing “netball” (women sport in South Africa), being a sports team leader etc, yes! But it is not my first memory that I welcome in my mind. I think about our many family vacations, driving what seemed like hours and hours in the car to get to our destination. I think of sitting between my two big brothers who kept poking at each other over and beyond me that I have to sit forward in my seat and just let them go at it behind me. These are my memories. They are favorite ones, but not the ones in which I need to perform or “be the best I could be”. I could simply just be! How much do you value this ability of simply just “being” today?
I stand equally amazed that in the face of this information and research, we still live in a society that over emphasizes productivity and live in a state of perpetual performance anxiety because of it. It is such a strange dichotomy with no research or evidence that it is making us even a little happier.
We hear of social media, we have 500 friends on facebook, but whom are we connecting with? How much do we truly listen to each other and truly try to “get” what each other is going through? Parents are pressured in so many directions today. They feel the stress of “the window of time” that is now and we have to do what we can in an effort to cross the bridge. Many professionals fall into the performance pressure and even omit developmental milestones, to enforce skills the child may not be ready for. We have to see the product, the child has to speak, and the child has to perform. We even have families coming to us that are having 3 year olds in 30 to 40 hours a week of therapy, not leaving any time at all for the most productive therapy of all: Play! A number of year’s back 4-year-old twins were referred to me and was already put on a stimulant for ADHD. The brain has not even matured yet, but they have to pay attention! I do not blame parents at all. They only do what we professionals model for them to do, go for performance and live on the fear of the child not catching up in time.
Development requires of us to attune with each other, to be social and to thrive on human connection. On Thursday Dr. John Baylin said we humans have “fancier” brains. What makes us unique is our unique properties of caring, nurturing and taking care of our young. Dr. Daniel Hill stated that infants can read their parents state of mind within the first day of life. What makes us different is the way we can feel “felt” and connect with each other. Instead we want to compete, fight for our piece of this wonderful earth and live each day with the stress of needing to outperform each other. Why? I am not certain I understand? Is it not great to invite a couple of friends over, break some bread together and simply enjoy being with each other?
Our children with special needs have an even stronger need to feel “safe” today. Because it is harder or them to understand the world, they need even more to be understood and to be given time to process and create a response that would be both creative and reflective. We think because we are more mature we know better than them and we surely have their best interests in mind, therefore we try to fit them in the holes we prepare for them and we are unhappy when they do not follow suit. At school we expect performance that has to be educationally “relevant” and therefore we fit the square peg into the round hole as much as we can. When the child starts to go into fight and flight our next answer is either to label him or her with a diagnosis or to bring in a behavior specialist because surely the child is to “blame” for his or her behavior?
No, my mind reasons that we are doing children an injustice. Children need family to feel secure and safe. They need to be working at their pace in order to understand their world. When they are not stressed by performance demands, they are “freed up” to go on developing and do this at a faster rate than we can plan. We need to think about what we are doing. Of course we need therapy to push at the right time and the right place, but this does not have to be 30 to 40 hours per week with no modeling of family joy and simply playing and exploring the world. We need to bring balance back and as professionals we have to model “connection before correction”, a concept I will write more about next time!