Life’s Not Fair, Whether I Help My Teens or Not
Life isn’t fair. As the saying goes: Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something. I know this. My kids know this. Everyone knows this, right? We deal with life’s unfairnesses as best we can.
When it comes to school, though, and the business of teaching our kids to advocate for themselves, unfairness can become its own beast. And it can be really hard to know when to step in and when to step back. (At least for me, that’s true. You may be more highly evolved and better at this stuff. If you are, please teach me, Obi Wan!)
Little kids are easier, in this respect. If there’s an unfairness that simply is, and wouldn’t benefit from parental intervention, you take it as a learning experience. You talk about it at home. You brainstorm solutions, or—if there are no real solutions—you talk about how to cope. This would include things like exclusion on the playground or not getting an award. Sometimes… things are just crummy, and that’s how it is. We all have to learn to soldier through. And if there’s an unfairness that can be rectified, well, no one faults a parent for stepping in. If your elementary schooler comes home with a terrible grade on a well-written opinion paper simply because the teacher holds a differing opinion, it’s fine to ask for a conference and talk it through.
Self-advocacy is a fraught topic in our family, because in addition to the standard “you’re growing up and need to be able to speak up for yourself” stuff, both of my kids have the additional issues of needing to decide how and when to disclose their special needs, plus they have to deal with the challenges those needs bring to the table whether they choose to disclose or not. Emotional regulation is not a strong suit for either of my teens (though both have come a long way over the years, and are improving all the time), so the minefield of advocacy is that much more dangerous because it’s hard to be taken seriously if you can’t stay calm. Right now I have a senior and a junior; in a few months, my oldest will have to navigate this stuff on her own at college (though she won’t be alone, she will have to utilize Disability Services if needed), and my youngest will be a senior. One of my teens (I’ll give you three guesses as to which one, and I only have two kids) has an especially difficult time communicating effectively when there is a perception of having been wronged.
You know where I’m going with this, right? I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. And although my kids do have special needs, and sometimes stepping in is just logical, I almost always feel bad about it. I’m worried if I intervene that I’m not letting them solve it themselves; I worry if I don’t intervene that I’m not supporting them properly. And always—always—I worry that when I take a teacher to task, I am perceived as someone who believes my special snowflakes deserve the world handed to them on a silver platter. I know that’s never my intention, and I only step in when I feel confident that reason is on our side, but that’s the truth: I worry I’m being judged, and that the kids are being judged, by extension.
So, the kid I mentioned who isn’t a good communicator? Said kid has been a total rock star about self-advocacy this year. Truly. I’m seeing progress I hadn’t dared to hope for, and it’s glorious. But recently we’ve bumped up against a situation where I feel compelled to step in (because progress isn’t being made without me), and all those old feelings of being a pain in the rear and being judged are flooding back.
Let me be clear here, too, that I know most teachers work really, really hard for their students. Being in a position where I feel like I’m standing up and saying, “This teacher is not doing their job and my child is suffering because of it” is hard and disappointing and makes me feel like a jerk even when it’s true and needs to be said. After some reconnaissance, it’s become clear that my kid isn’t the only one struggling with this particular teacher. We’re finding out that this has nothing to do with special needs and everything to do with… well, just not a great situation. And the end result is that you have a whole group of kids who used to love a subject but sort of dread it, now, because of the way things are going in this particular class. Several of us parents are speaking up. It’s not just me. And it’s a situation that must be rectified.
But. But. I still worry I should be making my child do their own advocacy (even though I know they have tried, and failed, through no fault of their own). I still worry that I’m perceived as a helicopter parent. I still worry that my complaints will be heard as grade-grubbing (“I want my snowflake to have a higher grade”) rather than the overarching concern it truly is (“When you tell me my kid is your best student and said kid gets the highest grade on this test and that grade is around 50% and you refuse to curve the test, I am left wondering both why everyone failed and what you think is accomplished by failing the entire class”). I worry about what happens when situations like this crop up in college or beyond—and they will; maybe not in exam form, but they will—and I can no longer help.
I worry. I worry because life isn’t fair and at the end of the day, that’s always going to be true.
So I tell my kids, “We do the best we can. We accept that sometimes we cannot change even the most unfair things. And we keep trying.” I hope that—despite my discomfort with it—the interventions I do now are demonstrating that, to them.
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