Have you ever been baffled or surprised by something your child says? You may be certain that you heard the words correctly, but they don’t make sense. Having children with learning struggles, I often found that I needed to clarify both what I said to my children and what they were communicating to me. With a combination of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and auditory processing difficulties, communication was often a challenge. First, I had to obtain and keep my child’s attention long enough to convey a message. Then I had to determine if the message had been accurately received. If distractibility and impulsivity didn’t interfere, we could have a good conversation.
Children with learning disabilities often have unusual ways of expressing themselves. My son Josh had some word finding difficulties, so he would refer to the ankle as “that wrist part of your leg”. Likewise, the elbow might be “the knee of your arm.” Once when Josh wasn’t feeling well I asked him to describe his symptoms. He often used vague and nebulous words to tell me what he felt. I felt like a detective who needed to ask just the right questions to get my suspect to tell me what I needed to know.
One time, though, Josh told me his throat was sore and described what he was feeling in this way, “I feel as if my uvula has been acided off”. (I like the “uvula” part – true son of a speech therapist!) This description, although no doubt atypical for most children, painted a clear picture of the location and degree of Josh’s discomfort and indeed it turned out that Josh had strep throat. “Acided” may not be a real word, but it sure got the point across. Josh usually sailed through illnesses with little response to pain, so when he complained I knew it was serious.
When children are infants, we fret because they are not able to tell us what is wrong or where they hurt. We think how nice it will be when they are able to talk and tell us more exactly what they feel. If a child is a late talker, nonverbal, or has difficulty with expressive language we have to continue interpreting possible meanings to whatever communication attempts our child is able to produce.
My daughter Beckie was a big talker, and it was easy to tell that when she wanted “lunch fries” she meant “french fries” and that her “Valentime” was a “Valentine”. Since she had auditory processing issues, she said things the way she heard them and I continued in my role as communication detective to determine what Beckie was trying to convey. This was somewhat complicated by the fact that Beckie chattered a lot and was not always looking for a response but rather was processing her experiences by speaking out loud.
When she was a preschooler I noticed a frequently occurring phrase, “I need eleven!” Eleven what? I tried to figure out if she was trying to practice her counting skills, trying to collect something, or was just repeating something she had heard. But where had she heard it? Beckie was always a cuddle bunny, and was frequently snuggled up in my lap while we read books or talked. I tried to become aware of the context when she “needed eleven”, but couldn’t narrow it down. She said it contentedly when she was climbing onto my lap or getting a hug. She said it when she was physically hurt and when her feelings were hurt. When I asked her if she wanted to count to eleven together, she happily replied in the negative and wrapped her arms around me for a tight squeeze.
One day Beckie had been visiting one of her best friends for a play date, and I went to pick her up. She and her friend were sad to have to part ways, and the other child’s mother offered comfort by asking her son if he needed a lovin. I realized that “Do you need a lovin?” was a common phrase in that household, and in Beckie’s young mind had been translated into “Do you need eleven?” It had nothing to do with numbers, but had a strong connotation to comfort and the expression of affection. Since I had responded in ways she needed despite my lack of understanding about what she was saying, Beckie was inadvertently effective in her communication with me.
This is just one more reminder that love can make up for so many things. We all make mistakes with our children. We realize after the fact that we erred in our approach to teaching some students. We feel the pressures to convey the right amount of information at the right times while helping our struggling students develop skills to help them be successful. Our curriculum isn’t always a match for what we need. Our children may not be progressing at the rate we desire. We lose it. We yell, we apologize, and then catch ourselves being impatient again. We feel inadequate to meet all the needs we face on a daily basis. The stakes are so high.
You’ve heard it before but it bears repeating. What our children will remember the most is the relationship we have with them, not the specific things we deliberately taught or the strategies we used to help them learn. I blew it with my kids sometimes, and I knew it. I truly believe that my relationship with them is more important than any school subject and thus needed remediation before we could proceed with our official homeschooling. I find it very humbling, yet restorative, to apologize to my children when I have wronged them. They have always been very forgiving and amazingly resilient, a picture of God’s grace to me.
Showing grace and respect runs both ways in a relationship. It builds character and will outlast the school years as a child grows into an adult. Have you been focusing so much on getting the school work done that you’ve lost sight of the importance of relationship? Don’t let standards and benchmarks keep you from seeing the individual child who is right in front of you. Teaching a child is a great aspiration, and teaching in the context of a relationship is powerful. Children may not remember everything you’ve taught them, but they will remember you. Do you have the kind of relationship you want to become part of their lifelong memories? Let’s give our children lots of “elevens” and protect our relationships as they grow.