Parents as Informed Advocates

AUTHOR // Jackie Kelleher

Published in Pathways to Family Wellness, Issue #63

Smart and well-behaved as he was, my fourth grader couldn’t read. Well, Ryan could kind of read, but he was far short of being a reader. My having a degree in education hadn’t helped. Yes, I had pressed the school to test him, and yes, he had an individualized education program (IEP). He had time in the resource room every day, and extended time for tests. None of it was moving him to where I felt he should be— in fact, I felt the experience and future I wanted for him slipping further and further away. He was stigmatized by his teacher—and through her example, his classroom peers. And yet his peers in the resource room weren’t a good social fit. He was lost and I was frustrated. It was time to make a change—a significant one.

When I informed Ryan’s teacher and principal that he’d be moving to a private school the next year, they pushed back hard. “That hippie school? That’s a really bad idea. We’ve had children arrive from there as fourth graders, and they didn’t even know how to read.” I was grateful for the opening. “Interesting,” I replied. “Because he’s leaving here after the fourth grade, and he really doesn’t know how to read, either.”

We took the leap, and he flew. Not at first, but he thrived. In Ryan’s first year, they worked on rebuilding his sense of self and didn’t focus on reading. I was concerned, but heartened when I saw the light coming back into his eyes and his growing self-confidence. The following year, Ryan became consumed by a series of books that were above his level and began to be a reader. Not a great reader, but a competent one.

Despite the improvement, upon graduation two years later I was certain that he was not ready for middle school. I made another challenging decision, and we home-schooled Ryan for the following two years. He continued to thrive. Did he outgrow his challenges? Not entirely. Did he develop skills and competency? Absolutely. He reentered the public-school system as a ninth-grader. He played sports and had friends, went on to graduate college, and today is choosing which grad school program to attend.

Throughout, I was using an active decision-making process, although I didn’t have that phrase to apply to it at the time.

The opposite of active decision-making is a reactionary approach. When we are living a reactionary life, we go with the flow, accepting the choices dictated by the societal norm. When those norms don’t suit us, we work to improve the situation—but we do so while remaining within those same constructs, accepting their outcomes rather than moving outside them. In my son’s case, that would have meant accepting his placement in school as the best it could be. We lived in a “good” school district, and he had accommodations. After all, we were making the best of a hard situation, and the impact on his self-worth and social acceptance were the expected norm for someone with his differences.

Active decision-making made a substantial difference. It led us to identify priorities, explore options, and live the choice that applied best to our situation. Active decisionmaking put the power in our hands. We pursued our personal priorities and created the lives we wanted, rather than the ones we’d hoped for, and our son was better off for it. Living this way can seem overwhelming because it means taking responsibility for our choices. Active decision-making requires confidence and readiness to accept that mistakes will happen. Sometimes we’ll need to make modifications. It’s an ongoing process.

Advocacy is a vital and under-anticipated aspect of parenting. Life as a parent consists of seemingly benign bits of decision-making which, strung together, significantly impact the people our children become. The experience of building a life based on personal preferences and reflection rather than following along and reacting to whatever flows our way is unusual in our culture. Consider this: Were you taught and encouraged to deeply consider the situation and act on your knowledge and instincts, or were you led to accept some aspects of life as a given?

Digging deeper, certain truths become apparent. The most obvious is the lack of external roles that foster the expression of self in parental decision-making. The guides in our community for the most part represent systems and bureaucracies, whether intentionally or not. How would these systems function if we each took time to think before jumping through that next hoop? While the individual standing before us—the doctor, the teacher, the principal— may relate to and work with us well, the systems themselves are often not designed to accommodate differences. They are designed to do our thinking for us—to make things easy for us, and efficient for them.

What do parents need to advocate for themselves and their families?

Successful advocacy requires:

  • Confidence
  • Options
  • Skill in relating to others
  • Access to information

This is why you need community—your group, your tribe, your loved-in family. Creating community, ideally early on, will provide most of these.

Confidence: Confidence doesn’t come from others telling us what to do. It is the result of doing for ourselves, trying things out. It is built through failure: Idea, execution, failure. Idea, execution, failure. Idea, execution…success. Yes! We’ve got this one down. We know for certain that it works because we built it ourselves. And just as important, we built it with the support of our community. Our parenting peers observed our trials without criticism, appreciating the process. They cheered on our successes. They led— and failed—by example. Being accepted builds confidence. And confidence helps you realize that, while others may be experts in their fields, you are the expert on your family. No one knows your family as individuals, or as one organism, as intimately as you. Confidence will let you honor your opinion as an important one.

Options: In order to do something different, we must first know that the option exists. Other people have questioned and explored, and others are still exploring. They have already begun the idea/execution/failure process ahead of you. They are happy to share. They know who you can talk to, and what you might want to read. If your present group doesn’t have the information you need, someone in it will likely know someone who does. If not, find another group to augment your first one. Keep building your resource community, and your options will grow.

Skill in relating to others: Being a part of a social group means learning to navigate interpersonal relationships. What makes people lean in? What makes them cross their arms and lean away? The more time you spend exploring concepts socially, the better you’ll be at communicating, including having hard conversations. Those skills will be necessary whenever you advocate for your family. When you interact with someone—a teacher, another parent, a pediatrician—consider their experiences as you talk with them. That will take you far. Weigh their words and body language carefully. These skills will develop as you question and explore ideas with your peers.

Access to accurate information: Finding and vetting information is a life skill learned as you go. Your parenting community can help you find accurate information, but in the end, the responsibility is yours. Too often, it’s a case of not knowing what you don’t know. Do you know how to tease evidence-based information out of online chatter? There are times when official-seeming information is actually a corporate marketing tool. At the same time, people with no lobbying interest might have impressive-sounding arguments that can be persuasive, yet inaccurate. Learning to differentiate fact from falsehood is a skill that requires ongoing effort.

One step you can take is to investigate your sources of information. Are there reviews? Are they considered to have a particular bent? Who are the sources funded by? Another step is to learn to read scholarly studies at a basic level. You don’t need to be a statistician, but understanding whether a study is valid and who funded it will take you far. A great resource for this is Tricia Greenhalgh’s book How to Read a Paper. It’s written for those of us who aren’t researchers but want to understand the information we are being fed as fact.

There you have it: a basic primer on pulling yourself up, opening your eyes, and actively living the choices that work for your family. Once we know how to investigate, we have options not mentioned by the experts. Second opinions, networking, consulting, and researching all foster options. Active decision-making requires ongoing work, and will challenge you in ways that blindly following along will not. Living an authentic life, and passing that ability along to your children, is the reward…and it is a profound one.

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