Archive | Parenting

An Open Letter to the Woman in the Pink Shirt at the Craft Store

Dear Woman in the Pink Shirt at the Craft Store,

Forgive me, but I don’t know your name.  I don’t know anything about you, in fact, except that you and I happened to be in the same Michael’s store at the same time today, that you witnessed me speak sharply to my twelve-year-old daughter, and that you felt compelled to pull up behind me in the parking lot while I was buckling my four-year-old in, roll your window down, and tell me what a shit mother I am.

You don’t know me, either.  And that’s the thing: you don’t know a thing about me.  You don’t know what I’m dealing with, what preceded my admonishing my daughter, what my relationship with my kids is, what our family dynamics are, what sort of kid my daughter is, what kind of behavior challenges we may deal with, what kind of support we may or may not have – nothing.  You don’t know how many times I’ve asked her to stop doing certain things (like find her amusement in antagonizing her little sister, which is exactly what she did in the store by scaring her with a fake spider – you must have heard the blood-curdling screams coming from my four-year-old while you were lurking a few yards away in the store), and why it sometimes comes down to me raising my voice to her.

Let’s be clear, Woman in Pink: I didn’t scream at her, I didn’t curse at her, I didn’t threaten her, I didn’t call her names.  I heatedly told her again to stop antagonizing her little sister.  And she argued the point with me.  My mistake was probably in engaging in the argument with her.  Have your kids never pissed you off?  Utterly frustrated you?  Have you never yelled at your kids?  Or maybe just not in public?  I think there are a lot of people who yell at their kids in private and then just pretend that they never yell at their kids because it gives them a false sense of superiority.  Is that you?  Or maybe you don’t even have kids.  Which would mean you really have no idea.

I would like to know, Woman in Pink, when yelling at one’s kids became taboo.  I don’t hit my kids, I don’t berate or insult or demean them.  For the most part, I champion them.  But sometimes kids act like obnoxious little buttholes, and parents lose their patience with that nonsense.  But we seem to exist in a culture nowadays in which any attempt to keep one’s kids in line, any words spoken to them in anything other than a soft, gentle voice is viewed as bad parenting.  As if there is one, right way to raise kids.  And so continues the perpetuation of unrealistic parenting (mainly mothering) standards and judgment passed out like Halloween candy.  I’m sorry I didn’t live up to your standards, Woman in Pink.  I fear I never will.

Listen, Woman in Pink: I was the product of abusive parenting.  And I can tell you as sure as I’m sitting here that it wasn’t the yelling that damaged me.  It was the smacking and beating, the belittling, the mocking, the name-calling, and so much more.

Parenting is a hard enough undertaking without people like you, all full of self-righteous indignation, making snap judgments about complete strangers based on a brief snapshot.  And do you know what, Woman in Pink?  You pretty much ruined my day.  You shamed me and made me feel like shit.  Because of course I often harbor doubts about whether I’m a good mother.  Most mothers do.  I’m sure you do, too (assuming you are a mother).  So, kudos to you, Woman in Pink.  Mission accomplished.  You might like to know, though, that my twelve-year-old daughter is just fine.  She carried on with her day as full of laughter and mischief as usual.

Sincerely,

Woman Who Yelled At Her Daughter

 

0

Blue

img_5628I wonder how many people are grappling with some sort of emotional fallout from the election last week.  This isn’t just disappointment that one’s preferred candidate didn’t win – this feels much different.  Speaking for myself, it feels like we as a country have been plunged into a time of great uncertainty and instability, and it’s scary as fuck.  And that’s compounded by the fact that the election results have revealed some very ugly truths about at least half of the American people, and the things they applaud, condone, or willfully ignore.  I still can hardly wrap my head around it, and when I think about the next four years, it is with a feeling of dread.

Life in Oregon is … well, life.  What’s that saying?  “Wherever you go, there you are.”  I love it here, I really do.  There are so many great things about this corner of the world, but I’m struggling, too.  The homesickness did hit.  It comes in fits and starts, and it’s not terrible or overwhelming, but I do frequently find myself feeling a little sad and a little isolated lately.  I miss the familiarity of Fullerton.  I miss knowing how to get everywhere and seeing familiar faces around town.  I dislike living in a temporary home, and I feel like a stranger, an outsider here.  Not that people aren’t friendly – people are noticeably nicer here than back in SoCal – but I’m on a learning curve right now, trying to find my way around, figure out the lay of the land and local customs and such, and it’s a little disconcerting.

Michael is out of town (back in SoCal, actually) on business for the second time since we moved here not even three weeks ago, so that makes it hard, too.  This will be a somewhat regular thing, so I need to adjust to that, too.  I managed to lock myself out of my truck at Target (not within walking distance to home) a few days ago – locked my phone, keys, purse, everything in my truck.  I had no money so I couldn’t call a cab. I was able to use the phone inside Target to call Michael, but he was stuck on a conference call with the court, so I had to wait in the freezing cold for an hour and a half for him to come with a spare key to my truck.  It was miserable, but all I kept thinking was, “What if this happened while he was out of town?  I don’t even know anyone here who I could call to help me out.”

Homeschooling here has been frustrating so far.  Locals say it’s super easy to homeschool here, but the laws are different from California, and I’m trying to navigate them.  All I had to do in California was file a Private School Affidavit with the state once a year, and that was it – I had complete autonomy.  Here, each child who is homeschooled has to be registered separately with the local school district and homeschooled students are required to undergo state testing every couple of years.  Which is fine, but if you have a kid with special needs or learning challenges, then you have to go through a whole other process to get an alternative to the testing.  So I’m feeling very stressed out about homeschooling Finn (on numerous fronts, which would take a whole separate post to delve into), and this has also brought me to the point of finally seeking a formal diagnosis of dyslexia for Lilah, which we never did in California because it’s so expensive.  So we are going through that process right now.

And Joey.  I thought I would just cobble together something for him for the rest of the school year – and I had some really cool programs picked out – but discovered that Oregon does not give high school credits for homeschoolers.  So we could have gone ahead and done our own thing anyway, and he could have “repeated” ninth grade next year when he’s enrolled back in public school, but he’s adamant about not wanting to do that.  So in the end, I enrolled him in an online charter school that is part of the Oregon public school system to ensure that he’s on track for earning the appropriate high school credits.  But that whole process has been a hassle and has resulted in quite a bit of stress.

We’ve totally fallen off our homeschool routine with the move, and having a hard time getting back on track.  There are materials I packed away that I can’t seem to find and have had to reorder things and that’s also made it hard to get back on track.  I’m finding that when Joey was in school before we moved, his school schedule had a way of giving our homeschool days some structure, and now that’s gone, although now that he’s finally started with the online school, at least he’s getting into a routine by necessity.

Anyway, I’m feeling generally overwhelmed. It’s hard being with the kids all day every day, and I’m not going to bother qualifying that statement or apologizing for it.  I’m at the point where I think I need to outsource some of this – it’s too much all on me.  I’m spread too thin and feel like I’m letting everyone down in some way.  So I’m exploring ways of taking some of this off my plate.  Maybe it means finding a co-op or having the kids take a class elsewhere on a regular basis.  Maybe it means paying for a tutor for Lilah instead of trying to address her (suspected) dyslexia myself.  Meanwhile, I’m also looking for a ballet studio for Daisy, horseback riding lessons for Annabelle, guitar lessons for Lilah, a theater program for Joey, and maybe it’s time for Finn and Scarlett to do some extracurriculars.

In time, I’m sure I’ll find my footing again.

 

2

Dark Times

It’s not that I was some great fan of Hillary Clinton, at least not before the Democratic National Convention.  I was surprised to find myself crying when she gave her speech accepting the Presidential nomination for the Democratic party.  It hit me that this was a historic moment: my daughters and I might actually see a woman in the White House.  That it’s 2016 and we are America – so smug and arrogant about our progressiveness – and we still haven’t put a woman in the White House is shameful and mind-boggling.  But suddenly it seemed as though we were going to flex our progressive, equitable muscles.

And like many, many people, I’ve been dumbfounded to see the likes of Donald Trump rising to the level of presidential nominee for one of our two major political parties.  How was it even possible that someone as vile as him – with a trail of well-documented (not just speculation, but cold, hard evidence, often in the form of video and audio of he himself saying and doing horrible things) – could make it onto the ballot?

But I took heart.  There was no way that my countrymen would actually vote him into office.  I mean, seriously – we’re America!  I know there are a lot of racist, misogynistic, bigoted, backward people in this country, but surely not enough of them to put someone like him in office.

And Hillary’s message grew on me.  Yes, we are stronger together.  I was moved by her speeches.  I was moved by the fact that her entire adult life has been spent in public service.  I was moved by her knowledge and experience and calm demeanor, even when she was being torn down.  I respected that she held her head high no matter what.  She would be a good leader, I believed that.

Like a lot of people, I turned on news coverage last night expecting a very different outcome.  I was pretty confident that America would see fit to put the right person in office.  I really believed that she would win by a comfortable margin.  When the numbers began coming in so close, I began to feel physically ill.  My stomach was in knots, my heart was thudding – a bona fide anxiety attack.  By the end of the night, I was in tears.  I barely slept last night.

How did we get here?

I feel betrayed.  I feel a great anger – not only at all the people who actually voted for Donald Trump, an unqualified, ill-tempered, vindictive, childish, racist, bigoted, xenophobic, lying, cheating, woman abuser, but for all the third party voters and abstainers who allowed this to happen.  I’m sure when you wrote in your uncle’s name or your favorite cartoon character’s name or filled in the bubble for Jill Stein, you felt morally superior in the moment.  Well, fuck you. You not only threw your vote away, you handed it to a monster.  How do you feel now?

What am I supposed to tell my daughters?  Or my sons?  Do I lie to them?  Or do I tell them the truth: that no, America is not ready for a female president, and we would rather have an inexperienced, loose cannon, lying, cheating, prejudice, woman assaulter in the White House than a qualified, experienced, even-tempered woman who has devoted herself to causes that serve the public interest?

I am trying to tell myself that life will go on, pretty much as usual.  That this will have very little effect on my family’s daily existence.  But I don’t know if that’s actually true.  I fear that the likes of Trump will drag us into another recession, that he cares so little about diplomacy and foreign policy that he will drag us into a horrible war.  I don’t think those fears are unfounded.  But even if my family’s lives aren’t impacted much, it would be utterly selfish to not worry about all the immigrants who now have to worry about deportation and having their families ripped apart, about the LGBT community who now has to worry about their marriages being nullified, about the Muslims who will be harassed and scrutinized and distrusted because Trump thinks they’re all potential terrorists.  And even if my day-to-day life goes on as usual, I live with the knowledge that my family lives in a country in which lying and cheating get a pass, sexual assault against women is acceptable, that abusers aren’t held accountable.

I am sickened.  And very, very afraid.

14

#solongsocal

Well, it’s been a little over a year since Michael and I started talking about it, and now it’s really happening: we are moving to Oregon this week.  The movers are coming on Tuesday to load up all of our stuff, and we will hit the road on Wednesday, arriving in Portland next Saturday.

We talked about moving away from California several years ago, but it just seemed too daunting – and we had fewer kids then!  It turns out that it is an extremely daunting undertaking after all, and sometimes I can’t believe we’re doing it.  YOLO, and all that.

It’s been quite an emotional roller coaster. Sifting through over a decade worth of accumulated stuff, deciding what to part with and what to pack, has been physically and mentally exhausting.  Figuring out all the logistics of uprooting our big bad family, watching the kids struggle with their emotions, and saying goodbye to the people and places that we love and are so familiar has been so bittersweet.  Sometimes I have moments of panic when I think, “What the fuck are we doing?  Are we doing the right thing, uprooting everyone and leaving all of this behind?”  It’s exciting and scary as hell.

Kevin moved out a week ago.  For the time being, he is right up the street, and he’s been stopping by every day to hang out for a while, which has been so nice, and he texts me every day – sometimes we have these great texting conversations at night after he gets off work.  So I’m very grateful for that connection with him.  When we leave in a couple of days and end up 1,000 miles away from him, I think it will really hit me then, and I don’t guess it will be easy.  He is going to try to get some time off work and go up and spend Thanksgiving with us.

We signed a lease on a house outside of Portland, so we’ll be there until we decide where we want to settle permanently and buy a house.  I’m lusting after some space; it would be heavenly to have an acre or two – not out in the sticks, but I’m tired of being so close to my neighbors that I can hear them fart.

It’s surreal to walk through this house, with its rooms half empty and boxes stacked ten deep and halfway to the ceiling in the living room.  I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in this house, and it’s so full of memories.  When we moved into this house, Kevin had just turned 8, Joey was 2, the twins were 6 months old, and I thought this would be our forever home.  Three of my kids were born right here in the house, and all of them have spent all or most of their childhoods here, and one of them reached adulthood.  We lived through Michael having cancer in this house, lots of marital ups and downs, having a child with a disability, more birthdays and Christmases and Halloween costumes than I can count.  So much that has shaped us in ways we probably don’t even realize.

I’ll take my memories with me.

Here’s to new adventures.

2

Fade to Black

In the process of packing up the house in anticipation of our move, I’ve unearthed boxes that have been stowed in the

July 1, 1999 blurb in the local paper

July 1, 1999 blurb in the local paper

farthest, darkest corners of the garage.  Boxes that haven’t been opened in more than 17 years.  The boxes contained things that belonged to my first husband – who, as I’ve written before, died of a drug overdose in a stranger’s front yard in June, 1999.  A lot of photos, including his old school photos dating back to early grade school.  Collector coins his dad foisted on him every year for Christmas.  A video tape of his first (and only) skydive.  An old blanket.  Old cards.  Books from his childhood.  Old schoolwork.  His wallet, which was on his person when he died.  Belongings found in his truck after his death.  Our wedding rings.

I boxed this stuff up after he died, and wrote on the boxes: “KELLY’S STUFF – SAVE FOR KEVIN.”  Kevin was two when his dad died, and I believed that it was important to save mementos for Kevin because Kevin would want them someday.  I assumed he would long for some connection to the man who contributed half of his DNA.

The last photo ever taken of Kevin and Kelly.  May, 1999, about a month before he died.

The last photo ever taken of Kevin and Kelly. May, 1999, about a month before he died.

As it turns out, though, Kevin has no interest in any of this stuff.  He has no memories of his biological father, and he mostly feels contempt for him, knowing that he was a wife-beater, a liar, an unapologetic manipulator, alcoholic, and drug addict who couldn’t or wouldn’t get his shit together, even for his baby son.  It’s true that I’m responsible for Kevin’s perception of his father, but it’s all based on pure truth, and if I have any regrets about being brutally honest with Kevin about Kelly, those regrets have only to do with how it has possibly shaped Kevin’s self-perception, and not with anything I may owe to Kelly’s memory.  I didn’t set out to poison Kelly against his dead father, but I always answered his questions with total honesty, and by the time he was an adolescent, he had a pretty clear picture of what life was like for me and for us when Kelly was alive.

After all these years, I still carry around bitterness and pain and anger towards Kelly for everything he did.  I don’t dwell on it, but the hard kernel of it in my heart swells when memories come to the surface.  I struggle to dredge up any happy memories (though I have no doubt there were happy times; it’s just that what good there was was way overshadowed by the ugliness that went on for so many years).

So, I don’t want his old stuff.  Kevin doesn’t want it.  And it occurred to me today as I tossed most of it into our rented dumpster (with the exception of the coins and the books, which are going to Goodwill) that there really isn’t anyone left who cares about these old mementos.  Kelly’s biological mother is long dead, his dad is dead, and his one living brother has made not even the tiniest shred of effort to know or connect with Kevin – his nephew! the one child of his dead brother! – in the more than 17 years since Kelly died (which tells me that he also doesn’t care).  The one living person who might care would be Kelly’s step-mother, but she’s got plenty of mementos already, and anyway, she cut me out of her life years ago.  So into the dumpster Kelly’s stuff went.

Maybe it reveals me as cold.  On some level, it strikes me as sad that a person lived for 33 years and died, and his memory is fading to black.  But mostly, I feel like, well, this is what happens when you live like a son of a bitch, leaving destruction in your wake.

2

Homeschooling Curricula: Try, Ditch, Repeat

So, I’ve been wanting to document our progression through various homeschooling curricula, thinking it might be useful to someone out there.  The biggest thing I’ve learned about homeschooling, by far, is that it is such a process of trial and error.  If there’s any family out there who began with a certain method or program or curriculum and stuck with it year after year, then I’d say they’re either extremely fortunate to have hit pay dirt right out of the gate, or they’re foolishly inflexible.

When I began homeschooling Lilah two years ago, everything was really a shot in the dark for me.  All I had to go on as far as choosing curricula for her was the recommendations of people I knew who had homeschooled, and the charter school we were enrolled with at that time – which charter school was also a choice I made purely on recommendation.  Recommendations, I have figured out, though, are only a jumping off point.  Just because a program works well for some kids or some families, and just because that program may get a lot of 5-star reviews from people who review such things, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good fit for every kid and every family.

Towards the end of my first year of homeschooling, I bought Cathy Duffy’s 102 Top Picks for Homeschooling Curriculum.  Cathy Duffy is known as a homeschooling guru, and her specialty is writing comprehensive reviews of homeschooling curricula.  Although she clearly has a bias in favor of Christian homeschooling and curricula, she does at least make note in her reviews of whether a program is Christian, Christian-friendly, or secular.  When I read her book of Top Picks, I rejoiced in having it all laid out for me.  It helped me figure out my own educational philosophy and goals, what kind of learners my girls are, and curricula that would (in theory, anyway) fit all of that.  I went into the next school year, when I added the twins to the mix, excited and fully prepared to have a smooth and productive school year, having painstakingly chosen curricula that would (supposedly) be a perfect fit for us.

It was only a matter of a couple of months, however, before most of the programs and materials I had so carefully purchased on Cathy Duffy’s recommendations, were ditched in frustration.  Everyone was miserable and frustrated and not really making much academic progress, so I did something a little drastic and put most of the stuff away and decided to take a little bit of an unschooling approach.  Everyone was happier, but it created stress in a different way because now I was asking myself, “Am I an unschooler now?  What does that mean?  Am I unschooling the right way?”  Also, by the end of the year, the girls had really made very little progress in math, and that worried me (because, as I’ve said, I tend to operate on an “If I died tomorrow and Michael had to put them back in public school …” basis).  So I felt like this school year, we needed to find some kind of balance where we (and by “we,” I mean “I”) would not be applying labels to ourselves or trying to live up to those labels, we would be more structured in our approach with the simple goal of growing and making progress, but the girls would still be active participants in deciding on a weekly routine and in taking responsibility for their own learning.

So far, almost two months in, the school year is going well.  It’s more hectic than ever now that I’m also homeschooling Finn and Scarlett, but I feel like we’ve settled into a routine that works for us and have found some programs that we’re happy with.

So, without further ado, here’s a rundown of what we’ve used, and how these programs have worked for us:

MATH:

Singapore Math: This math program was the first I used, or tried to use, with Lilah, on the recommendation of a friend.  It’s a very highly rated math curriculum, based on how math is taught in Singapore, a country that apparently scores really high in math in global standardized testing.  It’s definitely a “rigorous” curriculum.  We ran into problems right away with it, though, because Lilah was already struggling with math (in part because of being dyslexic, which I didn’t know at the time).  Also, it was frustrating for me because it wasn’t the way I learned math, so it was very difficult for me to understand a lot of the lessons, let alone to teach them to Lilah.  For purposes of homeschooling, I think this could be a really good program for a kid who is already strong in math, and it could be a good choice for a young child who is just learning math (in other words, who hasn’t already learned math a different way).  However, it’s not such a great choice, despite its ratings, for a kid who struggles with math, because the rigor and intensity can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of defeat.  I also think, overall, that it’s a difficult program to adopt after a child has already been learning math according to a different method or program.  In the end, this was not a good fit for us.

Math-U-See: This math program utilizes manipulatives and visuals to make math more concrete and multi-sensory, and the lessons are all on DVDs that are purchased with the different levels of the program.  I actually liked this program for the most part.  I loved that the lessons are taught by a teacher by way of video.  My girls didn’t like it, however, because the video lessons can be rather long, and the program is very worksheet-based.  So: boring.  It ended up being one more thing for them to drag their feet about, and I don’t see the value of remaining committed to a program that’s causing more frustration than payoff.  Also, although Math-U-See is a secular math curriculum, it comes from a Christian-based company, and there are occasional Christian references thrown into the lessons.  Not a huge deal, but irritating to anyone not interested in faith-based education.

Life of Fred:  This math program is very different from most other math programs out there in that it’s story-based.  There are no formal lessons; instead, each lesson is incorporated into an ongoing story about a five-year-old math genius named Fred, the premise being that kids learn math better and easier by seeing how it applies to real-life situations.  At the end of each chapter is a list of word problems for the student to solve, using what has been explained in the story.  The story is entertaining, and my girls were very excited about it at first because it was such a complete switching of gears.  After awhile, though, the novelty wore off, especially for Lilah, for whom the “lessons” were just too abstract, being sort of hidden within a story.  Even for Daisy and Annabelle, who generally do pretty well in math (although neither is very fond of it), it grew confusing after a time, because it was often hard to connect the word problems to the story.  Like Singapore Math, I think this program may work better if it’s used from the outset of learning math, and like Math-U-See, there are Christian references sprinkled here and there.  We stuck with Life of Fred for the remainder of the school year last year, but at the end of the school year I didn’t feel that any of the girls had made very much progress in math at all, and that worried me.

CTC Math: This is what we are using now, and I love it!  So do the girls!  There are no textbooks or materials to buy; it’s simply a subscription to video lessons online.  There are no worksheets, either.  Each lesson is short and sweet, which I think is absolutely essential in order to hold the student’s attention and foster success.  When lessons are too long, kids get bored and distracted, and less is absorbed and retained.  In the video lessons, there is no teacher standing in front of a whiteboard (like in Math-U-See); it’s a cool dude with an Aussie accent talking, but all you see is computer graphics demonstrating what he’s talking about.  Each lesson is on average about ten minutes long, and then there is a set of questions to answer/problems to solve.  Paper and pencil may be used, but the final answer is entered online and feedback is given immediately for each answer.  Parents set the “passing” percentage, which allows the student to move on to the next lesson/level, and each lesson builds on concepts taught and mastered in previous lessons.  If the passing percentage is not met, the student can rewatch the lesson as many times as necessary, and try more problems, until the concept is mastered.  It seems to cut out a lot of the fluff, so lessons go pretty quickly.   It’s not unusual for my girls to complete four or five lessons each day, and that takes less than an hour.  Daisy and Annabelle did not have a good handle, I felt, on sixth-grade math at the beginning of the year, but with this program, they’ve both mastered sixth-grade math already and are now doing pre-algebra.  It takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of me, because I’m not teaching them math, the program is, which is a relief, because math has never been my strong suit.  They’re learning it on their own and working at whatever pace they want to.  So far, they’re all pretty motivated – I haven’t had to hassle any of them at all to do math.  I know this could all change, of course, but right now I will say that this is the best math program we’ve found.

Touch Math: I’m using the pre-k level with Scarlett right now, very informally (I’ve also tried it with Finn, but it hasn’t gone so well, mainly because it’s so difficult to convince him to sit at a table and do any sort of work with me.)  For now, it’s a good program for Scarlett to get her comfortable with number recognition, counting, one-to-one correspondence, and simple addition and subtraction, but I doubt we’ll stick with it for the long term.  I’d like to get her started on the kindergarten level of CTC Math next year.

SCIENCE:

Imagine my surprise when I Googled “Best Homeschooling Science Programs” and discovered that it is actually necessary to specify “Best Secular Homeschooling Science Programs.”  I’m not kidding.  If you don’t specify secular, the default search results for homeschooling science programs are Christian-based and Christian-informed.

Elemental Science:  This is an award-winning science curriculum that has levels from preschool through high school.  It’s very much in line with a classical or literature-based education philosophy.  You purchase the core textbooks, and then there are a plethora of third-party books that must be purchased (through Amazon or other sources).  We used Biology for the Grammar Stage for a while last year but ended up not liking it much.  My girls were bored with it, and I was disappointed because it didn’t really go into much depth on the topics; each week we seemed to just skim the surface of things.  That said, I think this is a really good program, and the problems we had with it were probably simply because I chose a level that was too young for them.  I can’t say what kind of engagement and challenge the more advanced levels provide because we didn’t use any (although I did purchase Earth Science and Astronomy for the Logic Stage, but never used it; we may give it a try next year).

R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey:  We are using Biology 2 this year and loving it!  I am so impressed with this program.  It is very comprehensive, very engaging, and very hands-on.  Every week there is a reading portion, a practical lab, a microscope lab, capped off with “Show What You Know,” which can be administered like a quiz if that floats your boat, but I like to sit down with the girls and just verbally go over the questions and discuss what we learned over the week.  There are a good amount of materials that have to be purchased to do all the labs (including, among other things, a good microscope, and preserved frogs; we have three dead frogs sitting in a box waiting to be dissected).  The Student Workbook, which serves as a textbook and has all the lab report forms, etc., is HUGE, and a lot of material is covered, but it’s not dry or boring at all.  We are all really enjoying it, and learning a lot.  The only criticism I have, if you can call it a criticism, is that Biology 2, the level we are doing this year, is as high as this program goes.  They don’t offer anything beyond middle school-level science, and I wish they did.

LANGUAGE ARTS:

Growing With Grammar; Soaring With Spelling; Winning With Writing:  I used these with Lilah the first year I homeschooled her.  It’s an okay program.  Nothing super impressive about it; it’s your basic grammar/spelling/writing curriculum.  A little dry, and less than engaging, so, in the long run, I don’t know that it really utilizes anything special that makes it all meaningful for the student.

Essentials in Writing: I used this with all three girls for a while last year.  It utilizes video lessons and workbooks.  None of us cared for it.  The guy who teaches the video lessons isn’t that great, the lessons are sprinkled with biblical references, and in the end, it’s just another program that teaches diagramming sentences (and really, what is the point of this?), etc.  Didn’t care for it.

Spelling You See: Produced by the same folks who offer Math-U-See, this spelling curriculum has an interesting method of teaching spelling.  Each week the student reads an entry that is a couple of paragraphs long.  Within the entry are a number of words that are highlighted in different colors, and those are the spelling words for the week.  The same entry is read on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and the spelling words copied by the student and the segments of each spelling word color coded in highlighter according to certain spelling rules, and on Friday, the student writes the spelling words from dictation.  It’s an interesting concept, but it was sort of like slow torture.  The twins were completely bored with it, and Lilah struggled.  She could copy the words perfectly day after day, but when it came to writing them from dictation, it all fell apart.  I really am grateful to this program, actually, for being the catalyst that brought me to the realization that Lilah’s struggles were attributed to something which turned out to be dyslexia/dysgraphia.  In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that having kids memorize spelling words, testing them on those words, and then moving on to a new list of spelling words, is not really a very good way to teach spelling, so we ditched this program a couple of months into the school year.  We actually don’t use a spelling program anymore (except Lilah, with whom I’m using a program that addresses dyslexia; more about that below).  I think the best way for kids to learn how to spell once they’ve got the fundamentals down is just by writing and reading.

Writing Strands: This is what we’re using now, and the jury is still out on this one.  The philosophy behind this one is that kids learn to write well by learning how to follow instructions and by actual writing, rather than by learning to diagram sentences, recognize parts of speech and sentence types, etc.  That’s what appealed to me about this program: the hands-on learn by doing part, but the girls and I are finding it to be a little slow going and boring.  I’m not sure we’ll stick with it.

I’ve heard great things about Brave Writer, but now is not a great time for us to take on a whole different program since we’re undertaking a big move in a few weeks that will necessitate putting school on temporary hiatus.  I may give Brave Writer a try once we’re settled in our new digs, or I may look for a creative writing class that the girls can take with other homeschoolers.

So, writing is actually the one subject that I haven’t yet found a good fit for.  I think I’m a pretty decent writer, but teaching how to write well is a challenge, and I feel like writing well is so important in life, but it’s also hard to come by.  So, the search goes on.

DYSLEXIA-SPECIFIC READING AND SPELLING:

Barton Reading: Barton is pretty much the gold standard in dyslexia circles.  It’s an Orton-Gillingham based program, which I will not even try to explain (but you can read about it here), but it’s really an excellent approach to teaching reading and spelling not only to dyslexic students, but really to anyone, because it breaks words down into their parts and gives students to tools to understand why words are built the way they are, and how letters interact with each other to form different sounds.  I used Barton with Lilah for several months and found it to be very effective.  However, it’s also very expensive and very time-intensive, as each lesson requires the teacher/parent to watch instructional videos that teach how to teach each lesson.  A few months back, we switched to:

All About Reading/All About Spelling: While this program, unlike Barton, was not developed, nor is it marketed, specifically with dyslexia in mind, it is an Orton-Gillingham based program, so it is an excellent program to use with dyslexic students.  I like it much better than Barton because it’s far less expensive, it incorporates more fun activities so it’s less dry, and it’s a scripted, ready to teach out of the box program, requiring no special instruction for the teacher/parent.  Unlike Barton, too, AAR/AAS teaches reading and spelling separately, which I like.  As I said, I think the Orton-Gillingham approach is a superior way to teach any child reading and spelling, so I’m also using the preschool level with Scarlett now, and she loves it.

HISTORY/GEOGRAPHY:

We haven’t used a formal program until this year.  The first year I had Lilah at home, we studied California history using California History For Kids, which is an excellent book full of information and activities.

Last year, the girls and I read together A Young People’s History of the United States, also excellent (I highly recommend this book).  It was geat reading that led to a lot of deep discussions of both historical and modern social issues, and throughout the year we detoured into further reading elsewhere on certain topics (like the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving), as well as watching documentaries.  I felt like we covered a lot of good ground in U.S. History.

Trail Guide to U.S. Geography: This is what we are using this year, and I am pretty impressed with it.  We are spending the year touring the United States by region, beginning with New England and working our way south and west, covering two states each week.  The program is pretty comprehensive and multi-level; I love that all three girls are covering the same material each week, but at different levels (the twins are more advanced and so their assignments are written for middle school level, while Lilah’s is elementary school level).  For each state, the girls do mapping as well as research on various characteristics of the state and notable people from that state (so there is a bit of history incorporated as well).  The girls have learned to use a desk atlas and to read maps, which is cool.  To make it even more fun, we try to cook a dish or two each week from the states we learned about that week.  Next year we’ll move on to Trail Guide to World Geography.

OTHER STUFF:

Handwriting Without Tears: This is an excellent program that teaches printing and cursive writing.  The three older girls are using it for cursive for the second year running (they all learned basic cursive when they were still in school, but I appreciate the practice they get with this), and Scarlett is learning to print with this program.

Touch, Type, Read and Spell: This is a program that teaches touch typing, and it’s also supposed to improve spelling as the student learns proper keyboarding.  My girls use this program totally independently, and I can see the value with regard to keyboarding.  The twins are already pretty good spellers, and Lilah’s spelling difficulties are being addressed in another way, so I’m not sure if this program is useful to us in that particular way.

Tinker Crate: This is just a subscription that provides a new science/engineering project once a month.  My girls love it!

Raddish Kids:  This is another subscription I signed up for, and this one is about food and cooking.  Once a month a box is delivered to us that contains themed recipes (for instance, our August box was inspired by the Rio Olympics and had recipes for Brazillian dishes), a shopping list, a culinary lesson, and dinner table activities.  We look forward to receiving our box every month!

***

So, there you have it.  I feel like we are having a pretty great year of learning and growth this year, but it’s a lot, and it’s all on me.  While I am happy with the materials and programs we are using, I really am hoping that once we settle in Oregon, where there is apparently a much stronger secular homeschooling network, I can find a co-op to involve ourselves in or classes the kids can take with other homeschooled kids.  Finding a strong homeschooling network is the final frontier for us.

 

1

Homeschooling: Lessons From the Trenches

It’s hard to believe, but we are already embarking on our fourth week of the school year.  This is my third year homeschooling, but only my first year homeschooling five kids (counting Scarlett, which I do since she follows me around all day saying, “Mommy, will you do school with me now?  Mommy, can we do school now?”).  I remember back when I was new to this homeschooling gig and only homeschooling one kid, and thinking, “Wow, I have no idea how anyone manages to homeschool multiple kids at different ages and learning levels.”  But here I am, doing exactly that, and let me tell you: it’s pretty much as hairy as I imagined it must be.  Don’t be fooled by my Instagram photos; they capture but a slice of our homeschooling life.  Between those photos are sweat, tears, a little yelling, and plenty of angst.  It has truly become a full-time job for me, and although it’s not all easy and fun, I do feel like it’s the right thing for my kids at this point in time.

I want to write a post about the specific programs we’ve tried and ditched and what we’re using now, but that will have to be a separate post, and who knows when I’ll get around to writing it.  Right now, I just want to document where we are on this road – you know, for solidarity with those of you who are traveling a similar road and maybe are looking for something beyond the typical homeschooling blogs that show sun-dappled children creating magical art in obvious harmony with the universe.

So, first, let me say that I don’t do grade-specific homeschooling.  My big thing is meeting my kids where they are, and going from there.  Grade levels are arbitrary, and I think they tend to do a disservice to kids by setting up an assembly line environment of learning, where every kid is expected to progress at a prescribed pace.  That’s not what I want for my kids.  Unfortunately, the three older girls – but mostly the twins – have been sufficiently brainwashed by public school that they are having a hard time letting go of the whole grade level thing.  Annabelle, especially, insists that she’s in seventh grade; it seems very important to her to hold on to this status.  (Frankly, if I died today and Michael put them back in public school, I don’t feel like Annabelle or Daisy would be quite ready for seventh grade; as I’ve mentioned before, they have a late September birthday and started kindergarten before they were 5, something I regret.)

Although I am not wed to grade levels, they are always floating somewhere on the edge of my consciousness, because I do operate on that whole “If I died today and Michael put them back in public school” mentality.  So, although I very much try to meet them where they are and help them progress and grow from there, I do worry about whether they are “keeping up.”  Which is a total mind-fuck.  But, hey, so is motherhood.

Anyway, I feel like last year we slacked a little too much.  I don’t want my kids to be miserable learners; I don’t want it to feel coerced to them.  I dream about being that homeschooling family with the sun-dappled children creating magical art in obvious harmony with the universe.  I gave them a lot of say last year in how we would do things, and I backed off on what I would require them to do.  In some ways it was good; it reduced the stress and pressure for all of us somewhat.  It allowed them to take charge of their own learning to a degree.  But in truth, there are just some kids who will do as little as possible because that’s their nature (and I’m not naming names, but one of their names rhymes with Bannabelle, and the other isn’t Kevin, Joey, Daisy, Finn, or Scarlett).  At the end of the school year, I had mixed feelings about what we accomplished, and I went into this school year wanting very much to push them a little harder while still attempting to make it fun and engaging.  I want to keep them curious, not burn them out.  It’s a difficult balance to strike.

Here’s where probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned comes in.  I stumbled on a blog post a while ago while I was killing time on the web – I wish I had saved it, but I didn’t, and can’t seem to find it now, so I apologize for not being able to give credit where credit is due – that said something like “Stop trying to be so committed to labels.”  It was a post about homeschooling, and the author talked about how our kids don’t actually give a shit if they are being unschooled, radically unschooled, schooled in the Classical or Charlotte Mason method, or whatever.  It’s we homeschooling parents who get so caught up in labels and methods (and outside of homeschooling, this tendency to want to be committed to some label/ideology exists in parenting itself).  It’s all well and fine to follow our hearts and educate, and indeed parent, our kids in the way we feel best serves them, but when we get so caught up in labels, it tends to create a few problems:

  • It sets up a situation in which we then worry about if we’re doing it the right way;
  • It sets up a situation in which it’s easy to pass judgment on other parents who are doing it differently than we are, because obviously, they’re not doing it the right way;
  • It tends to close us off from families who do it differently, so we deprive ourselves of opportunities to see how diverse the homeschooling world is – just as it should be.

This was a revelation to me because I think I was expending a whole lot of energy trying to convert myself to a label or homeschooling ideology, and it was just creating more stress and worry for me about whether I was doing homeschooling the right way.  Guess what?  There is no right way.  This has taken a lot of pressure off of me, praise Zeus.

Another lesson that has repeatedly been reinforced for me is flexibility.  If something isn’t working, I have to be willing to make changes.  Obviously, consistency is important, but remaining committed to a particular method or program that isn’t bringing forth positive results is counterproductive.

Anyway.  So I ramped up the expectations a bit this year.  The girls and I still regularly confer about how it’s all going, and we tweak things as we go, and while things are far from perfect, I feel pretty good about what we’re doing.

Homeschooling Finn has been tough.  I pulled him out of school last January because things had become so overwhelmingly negative in first grade, and it was exacerbating his negative behaviors, negatively impacting his self-esteem, and creating a horrendous amount of stress for me.  I thought I could turn things around with him fairly swiftly with, you know, love.  That didn’t work.  I think he was a little confused and bewildered for a while after we pulled him – although he was very unhappy at school, he didn’t understand why suddenly he was no longer going to school.  He was very, very resistant to sitting down with me and doing any sort of work.  His negative behaviors didn’t lessen.  His negative behaviors mainly consist of tantrums; he is easily upset and has little ability to control his emotions, so he tends to throw tantrums at the slightest frustration or upset.  I asked the advice of other parents who homeschool kids with Ds, and was advised by many of them to just “deschool” for a while – meaning, just back completely off from anything having to do with “school” and let him decompress for a while.  I must confess that that was hard for me to do because I felt like in letting him just play all day, I wasn’t doing my job as a homeschooling parent.  But I let him be for a long time – pretty much the rest of the school year.

Now, I’m trying to have somewhat of a routine with him.  We work on the fundamentals: reading, math (and by math, I mean number recognition, counting, one-to-one correspondence), and printing.  He is still often resistant, and very distractable, so it’s difficult to keep him on task for more than a few minutes at a time.  So we work in five or ten-minute increments throughout the day.  I worry a lot, because he has lost so much ground, and I’m not even sure if I can truly help him grow and learn to his best ability, but at least I know that he’s in an environment in which he’s loved and valued and cared for, and any movement forward is progress, right?

As I said, Scarlett is right there in the fray with us.  She’s so ripe for learning, it makes my teeth hurt.  So I’m working on the fundamentals with her, too, and it’s really a joy to watch her soak it all in so enthusiastically.

I hope to get to that other post soon.  For now, peace out.

 

6

Summer Intensive

Summer break was a flurry of activity, and my head is still spinning.

Joey finished his final season of Little League, which was very bittersweet.  I am already suffering from acute nostalgia about that, knowing that Fall Ball starts up soon, and we won’t be out there in the bleachers watching him play.

Joey and Annabelle also took part in their final show (The Music Man) with the local children’s theater, which took its final bows after 34 years.  Also very bittersweet.

We kicked off birthday season:

Scarlett turned 4 in June –

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Joey turned 14 in July –

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Finn turned 8 in July –

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Michael turned 50 in August, and we have several more birthdays coming up.

Also in July, we celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary.

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No words of wisdom; we’ve certainly had our ups and downs.  Several couples we’ve known for ages have split up recently, and I find myself wondering about other people’s breaking points.  We’ve come through some really, really difficult, miserable shit, and I feel like we’ve come out better and stronger, but I’m enough of a realist (and cynic) to not be all Pollyanna-ish about it.  It takes a lot to keep a marriage together, and it takes a lot to call it quits.  I’m sad for everyone who goes through a breakup, because it sucks for everyone involved, even if it’s hopefully a step in the direction of happiness.

Anyway.  We spent the first half of summer break getting the house ready to put up for sale.  That meant some repairs and improvements, lots of purging, cleaning, and packing stuff away.  That literally took a good several weeks.  We finally officially put the house up for sale early in July.  We signed the listing agreement, and one Sunday morning I left to go grocery shopping, and when I arrived back home, the For Sale sign was up in our yard, and I promptly started crying.  I wasn’t expecting it to have that effect on me, but damn.  So many memories here, and even though we want this change, it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

The next few weeks were spent in a constant state of stress (which has not let up), while we have tried to keep the house perpetually clean (do you have any idea how impossible that is with this many people living under one roof?), and have had numerous open houses and showings.  Every time our realtor has called to say that someone wants to see the house, we spend a couple of hours madly dashing around cleaning, tidying, stowing, and then we have to get everyone out of the house for a while.

There has still been shuttling the kids to their stuff – dance, guitar lessons, horseback riding – and trying to throw in a few pool days, beach days, etc. so that the kids’ summer didn’t completely suck.

Well, it paid off, because as of last weekend, we have a buyer.  After a couple of days of negotiation, we have a contract, and it looks like we’ll be moving to Oregon in late September or early October.  Shit’s gettin’ real.

Meanwhile, the kids are almost done with their first week back at school.  Joey insisted on enrolling in high school here, even though it’s temporary, so that’s what he’s doing.  I’m homeschooling five kids now, and I’d like to tell you all about it, but I’m too fucking tired.  But I do have lots of thoughts about it.  I’m glad we’re doing it – so glad to be out of the public school hell – but homeschooling is hard, yo.

Oh, and Kevin has decided not to come with us to Oregon.  He was offered a very affordable room to rent at a friend’s house, and he was actually supposed to move out this week, but it’s been delayed a bit, but he’ll be moving out in the next few weeks and finishing school here.  He’s decided to pursue a degree in film and television, so we’ll see where that takes him.  Lots of emotions about him leaving the nest, and us leaving to be so far away from him.

And that’s all I’ve got for now.

5

School Year Redux

Here we are again, with yet another school year behind us.  It felt a little anticlimactic for us this year, as Joey was the only one finishing up a year of conventional school; there wasn’t that feeling of counting down to summer.  Homeschooling has a way of blurring lines between school days, weekends, holidays, and breaks.

Joey finished up junior high school.  There was a big promotion ceremony for the outgoing eighth graders last week, which, like so many other things these days, was a little overblown (this is eighth grade promotion, not high school graduation; so many ceremonies of life have trickled down to the younger set that I keep wondering what they will have to look forward to), but nice.  Overall, junior high was a pretty good experience for Joey.  It’s an angsty time.  His social circle changed a few times, and his anxieties increased in some ways, which concerns me (especially given what happened with Kevin in high school).  His grades fluctuated, depending on how much of a shit he gave (and it’s hard, as a parent who no longer believes in the institution or policies of conventional school, to enforce the school’s expectations without feeling like a hypocrite), but he finished strong.  Whatever that means – it’s a piece of paper with letters and numbers on it, right?

Anyway, he’s sort of in limbo right now.  All the kids he knows from junior high are going on to high school, and they all know exactly which high school.  Joey might start at his high school of choice come August, but he might not – it all depends on whether we manage to get our house sold over the summer.  There’s a good chance that I’ll homeschool him for a year, because I don’t want to pull him and have him change schools multiple times given our pending move (we’ll rent for a while once we arrive in Oregon while we look for a place to settle permanently). And truth be told, if I had my druthers, we would delay his starting ninth grade for a year – not because he can’t hack it academically, but I think a year to grow (which is what we should have done when he started kindergarten; he has a July birthday, so we could have gone either way) maturity-wise and size-wise would benefit him.  We shall see.

Homeschooling this year definitely had its ups and downs.  I went into the school year feeling excited and confident; I had spent countless hours researching and choosing materials to use with the girls based on their learning styles and personalities, and my own goals and philosophies.  I bought everything ahead of time and was ready to rock and roll.  Of course it didn’t turn out the way I had envisioned.  By November or December, we had ditched almost everything I had so carefully researched and bought because the girls were bored with it, and I was growing increasingly frustrated.  We had meetings and took votes, because I want them to have a voice in their own education.  We settled on a much more relaxed way of schooling which required them to take a lot more initiative and responsibility for their own learning, rather than my forcing formal lessons on them.  All in all, it was a better way to go, but it’s never perfect – probably because parenting and life are never perfect anyway.  I feel like the girls all grew academically this year – except in math, which continues to be the bane, man.  The things I am most pleased about are:

  • realizing that Lilah is dyslexic and taking steps to address that.  When I figured out back in October that she’s dyslexic, so much made sense suddenly about her short history with school and her relationship with learning; it was a revelation.  I have been working with her ever since using an Orton-Gillingham-based program, and she’s made definite strides.  It’s gratifying.
  • the amazing science research projects each of the girls did.  All I asked of them was to choose any science-related topic they wanted, to research it, and present something.  Each of them did something different. Annabelle studied the solar system – she chose the books from the library and read them, she took notes and made an outline, she put together a Keynote presentation and presented it to the whole family, she made a 3D poster representation of the solar system – completely on her own.  All I did was drive her to the library and buy the supplies she asked for to make her 3D poster.  This was a HUGE achievement for this girl who is usually repelled by anything that smells like work.  Daisy studied waves – specifically, what makes waves in the ocean.  She did all the research herself, wrote a report, and did a cool demonstration involving a tub of water, marbles, and a fan.  This was less surprising coming from her, as she is by nature conscientious and responsible.  Lilah studies volcanoes.  She chose books from the library, did research on the internet, made a working model of a volcano (not from a kit), and with a little help from her sisters, made a mini documentary about volcanoes.  They spent several weeks on their projects, and came away feeling great about what they had learned, and what they had achieved.

Homeschooling Finn has been less than glowing.  In truth, I still have a bitter taste in my mouth over how things panned out for him at school.  I believe that pulling him was the best thing for him – but only because the adults in whose charge he was created such a negative environment for him, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way.  At home, we still deal with a lot of negative behaviors with him – and yes, it’s tough and it’s frustrating.  It takes so much patience and perseverance to ignore negative behaviors, offer lots of positive reinforcement, and create opportunities for him to be successful.  I have no doubt that the negative behaviors he exhibits stem from emotional immaturity, frustration at not always being understood and not being able to do all the things he wants to do, and diminished self-esteem from all the negative reinforcement he’s gotten.  The bottom line is that the more positive we are with him, the more positive he is.  Still, I didn’t accomplish much at all with him with regard to academics.  He was so resistant to anything school-related when I pulled him out of school in January that I finally just decided it was best to back way off and give him time to regroup.  I worry about him falling farther and farther behind, but then I ask myself, “Falling behind what?  Behind who?”  It’s not a race.

Scarlett, who will be four (yes, four!) in a few weeks, also benefits from homeschooling – even if she’s not officially being schooled.  She’s my clean slate – completely unsullied by traditional school.  She mixes colors of paint to make different colors, she sounds out written words, she counts and is beginning to understand the concepts of adding and subtracting – but all of it is happening organically, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Kevin finished his first year of college.  He’s done well.  He’s paid for it all himself at his insistence; when we’ve offered to help with his tuition and books, he turns us down.  I think he’s owning his own education, and I admire him for it.  He’s talking about an art major; I just want him to be able to make a living and be self-sufficient.  We don’t see a whole lot of him these days; he’s either at school, at work, or hanging out with friends.  He comes home to sleep, and occasionally to eat.  That is the natural order of things, I suppose.  He may not even move with us to Oregon, as he might have the opportunity to rent a room in the home of a friend he’s known since third grade. I have mixed feelings about it.  It’s hard to imagine being that far away from this child in whom I’ve invested so much love and hope and fear for almost 20 years, but perhaps it’s time for him to go forth into the world.

As for summer break, it’s shaping up to be very hectic.  Joey and Annabelle are both at rehearsals every day for the next couple of weeks gearing up for the summer (and final) production of the theater company to which they belong; Daisy is at dance nearly every day, and she too has a show coming up, and other than that, we’re getting the house ready to put on the market, which means purging, packing, cleaning, and having work done.

And that’s all she wrote.

1

People First Language and Identity: There’s More to the Conversation

I came across a link to this article in my FB newsfeed earlier this evening, and it’s got me thinking about a lot of things.

The first thing I want to say – and I’ve had this on my mind and have been wanting to write about it for some time – is that I’ve moved beyond feeling, and insisting to the world, that Down syndrome doesn’t define Finn.  You know what?  Down syndrome absolutely does define him.  Down syndrome and the particular ways it manifests in him shape so much about him: it shapes how he experiences the world, it shapes how the world experiences him, and to a very large extent – possibly to a greater extent than any other single thing – Down syndrome will influence and even dictate the path his life takes.  So, to continue to say that Down syndrome doesn’t define him is both an untruth and a disservice to him and to all people with Down syndrome.  It’s a disservice because it’s dismissive (by and large by those of us who do not have Down syndrome) of his experience and his identity, and moreover, it relegates Down syndrome to something that is negative and undesirable.  We would never insist that someone is not defined by something that we see as positive (he’s not defined by his wisdom; she isn’t defined by her compassion); we only say this about traits that we perceive as negative, and we say that a person isn’t defined by things we see as negative as a way to try to diminish their impact on the person in question, and really, their impact on us, because those things make us (the people who do not have those particular undesirable traits) uncomfortable.

I’ve begun talking to Finn about Down syndrome.  At this point, I really don’t think he has any understanding of what Down syndrome is, or even how it pertains to him, except that he is aware that he looks like other people with Ds; when he sees pictures of other kids with Ds, he’ll point to them and say “Finn!  That’s Finnian!”  In any case, I want to instill in him from this young age that he has Down syndrome, and that he should feel good about it.  He should own it, damn it.  I never want him to perceive Down syndrome as something negative, something he wishes he didn’t have.  I never want any of my kids to wish they weren’t who they are.

So, this leads me to the People First Language issue.  I admit that I’m wrestling with it.  Amy Sequenzia makes some excellent points in her article (if you didn’t click on the link above, go read it now: People First Language and Ableism), but I feel like some nuances are overlooked.

I still tend to use PFL and appreciate when others do – unless told otherwise by directly affected people (for instance, I am now very aware that autistic people prefer to be called “autistic” and not “people with autism”; I respect this, and therefore have made that change in the way I talk about autism) – where it pertains to Finn.  There are a few reasons for this: first of all, although I do not see Down syndrome as negative or undesirable, and I accept and even embrace that Down syndrome does, in fact, define him, I’d still like to think that our shared humanity is the thread that binds us all together, and what separates us from other beasts.  Maybe this is a Pollyanna-ish view, I don’t know.  In my mind, it’s not that I don’t want people to see his Down syndrome, or that I want to attempt to diminish its impact on him, it’s more like this: if you can see his humanity and see how his humanity relates to your humanity, then hopefully you can see him with compassion – not pity or disdain – and hopefully you can see that he is a whole, complex human being, and not a subhuman defect.

There is also the problem of word usage and how awkward it can be.  I’m talking about grammar, I guess.  See, while autism has an adjective equivalent (autistic), Down syndrome does not.  So when someone says, “He’s Downs,” or “the Downs kid,” it grates on the ear (at least mine) because “Downs” is not an adjective.  Plus, I guess I have somewhat of a problem with using the name of the guy who believed and promoted the notion that people with Down syndrome were actually an entirely different species – a sort of subhuman species that had manifested from some sort of reverse evolution – to identify my kid.  Yes, I still use the term “Down syndrome” to describe my son even though I’m not a huge fan of Dr. John Langdon Down’s ideas, but only because it’s the term that most people are familiar with.  If you say, “Trisomy-21,” most people have no idea what you’re talking about.

Anyhow, so there is no adjective version of Ds or T-21 that I’m aware of that would make “_______ person” sound right, from a linguistic standpoint.  Ds isn’t the only disability like this; what about cerebral palsy?  Would you say, “she’s cerebral palsy,” or “the cerebral palsy man”?  Or pretty much any “syndrome.”  How about Williams syndrome or Fragile X syndrome or Prader-Willi syndrome?  None of those have adjective equivalents, so it’s just awkward to use them as adjectives.

So, let’s just say “disabled” then.  I can get on board with that, except that it’s just such a negative word.  I mean, if you disable a smoke alarm or a machine or a bomb, you render it inoperable.  Are disabled people inoperable?  Do they no longer “work”?  No.  And if you think about it, all of the most common “dis” words in the English language are negative: dismember, disenfranchise, disrespect.  In fact, the dictionary defines the prefix dis as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 8.58.12 PMI wish we had a word that wasn’t itself so negative.  “Differently-abled” doesn’t work, either, because in its insistence on focusing on ability, it’s ableist.  So where does that leave us?  I don’t know.  I guess we’re stuck with “disabled” and all of its inaccurate and negative connotations.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs over language and terminology, but I think all of these subtleties are worth contemplating.  A big part of the problem is that, yes, it’s very often – probably almost always – people who are not disabled who are deciding the language that gets used.  A lot of them, like me, are parents of children with one or another diagnosis – parents who do not themselves have those diagnoses.  A lot of us are thrust into this world of disability, and we’re trying very hard to be advocates for our children, and, yeah, we fuck up along the way.  Speaking for myself, having Finn was my first ever experience with disability.  When he was born, I didn’t know Down syndrome or disability from my ass.  God, some of the things I thought and said and felt in the beginning truly make me cringe now.  But there was never a single moment when I did not love my son fiercely, and all along I’ve tried to advocate for him and for the larger disability community.   I heard and read things over the years that resonated with me and made perfect sense to me – like People First Language.

Advocacy changes; the language that we accepted a few years ago is now offensive, so now we advocate for new language.  That language will one day also be offensive, because it will be misappropriated and turned into slurs, or it will take on new ableist connotations.  Hot button issues of today will be replaced with hot-button issues of tomorrow – perhaps issues that we can’t even conceive of today.

So, what I’m getting at is that it’s just not so cut and dried.  Being an advocate and a true ally is an ongoing, lifelong process of listening, reflection, introspection, contemplation, and growth.

 

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