The children entered the classroom with halting speech and slow, stumbling steps. Some came in wheelchairs; others with mobility walkers. Only a few made it under their own power. It wasn’t your typical crowd of boisterous schoolkids.
I was in my son’s classroom as a volunteer. Watching the children find their places, I thought about the awesome responsibility that parents of special-needs children have in helping them to face the world.
We bring children into a world of good and bad. Unfortunately, the bad seems to seek out children with special needs, and it often makes their lives unpleasant, even miserable. Their able-bodied peers, who see them as vulnerable, often shun them, call them names and even physically harm them. We may not always be able to isolate children with disabilities from such harsh treatment, but we can equip them to work with the hand life dealt them—and come out winners.
Jean Little, noted Canadian author, in her book Little by Little, tells of encounters with other children’s snubs while she was growing up as the child of missionary doctors in Taiwan. Born with poor eyesight, Jean had difficulty reading or even seeing everyday objects. One day, her six-year-old playmate, Marilyn, refused to let her climb up onto a tree limb where she was sitting because, “You have bad eyes.” Jean was crushed and put up a vigorous denial, but no amount of protest could change Marilyn’s mind.
Jean ran to her mother, explained what had happened and asked if it was true.
“Yes, you do have bad eyes”, Dr Little told her daughter, “but go right ahead and climb the tree.” Jean went back, climbed the tree and later ascended the heights of the literary world.
Not all children with disabilities will become as successful as Jean Little, but many have been just as triumphant, for which supportive parenting can take the credit. Through our words and actions, we can give children with disabilities a realistic outlook and a determined attitude that will outfit them to combat life’s challenges and be victorious. All parents should apply the following eight suggestions to their relationships with their children, but they are especially important for dealing with children who have special needs.
1. Build a foundation for success
In Jean Little’s case, and I’m sure in many others, it was her mother who provided the strong foundation of her child’s personal development.
Although a busy medical doctor, Jean’s mother devoted time to her child. She read to her, selecting stories that stirred her daughter’s imagination and awakened her creative impulses. It’s little wonder that Jean became a successful writer! What special gift does your child seem to possess? Help him or her discover it and nurture it in every way possible. Provide constant positive reinforcement to help your child expand and strengthen that gift.
2. Affirm your child as a person
Impairment in no way diminishes a child’s humanity. Empower your child with a “You can!” attitude. Look for your child’s strengths and correct the weaknesses. Jean’s mother didn’t emphasise limitations. She helped her look past that and exercise her power to live creatively despite the disability. The secret of success is the right to take one event at a time and give it your best effort. Affirm your child. Let them know they don’t carry a burden and that they aren’t a burden, but that they have the potential to cope with life’s drawbacks. The success may not be measurable in terms of professional accomplishments, but learning to become a well-adjusted, pleasant and contented child is a measurable achievement.
3. Give your child hope
Life goes better with a hopeful outlook. Instead of playing the role of victim, a hopeful person sees a tomorrow in which dreams can become a reality. Take the focus off your child’s impairment and place it on the possibility.
Introduce your child to the optimism that an association with Christ brings. Devote time to helping him or her build faith in a Divine Guide for his or her life.
4. Prepare your child to fight back
This advice is not a call to aggression. Some parents have taught their children that aggressive fighting is the way to get back at their tormentors. Not long ago, a politician laughingly recounted for his audience his mother’s instruction to go and “bloody the noses” of the boys who had threatened to beat him. But the peaceful, disarming approach works best for special-needs children. They’re seldom able to take on those who taunt them, but they can fight back with a smile, kindness and compliments. Wise adults have used these tactics successfully, and if children can learn to apply these principles early in life, they will make a peaceable spirit a part of their personality. Help your child look for the good in his or her enemies and use it to create peace.
5. Take an active, defensive stance whenever possible
I once took my son to a meeting of my college alumni association chapter. He wandered over to a group of children and tried to interact with them. These were bright children who attended private schools. When I came upon the group, they were dancing around my son and mocking him because he walked on tiptoes and couldn’t speak plainly, even though he was eight years old. I calmed the group, explained to them that he had a disability, and told them not to be unkind to those who were different from them. The children listened and seemed to understand. They never teased my son again.
We must be alert to situations when our child is being mocked, and in a tactful way, set things right. We can defend without being aggressive.
6. Make home a place of safety
We owe it to the child with special needs to provide for them a safe, welcoming place at home. Out in the world, children may hurl their taunts, but none of that should ever occur at home. Make your child feel safe emotionally as well as physically in your home.
Do we ever become impatient with a special-needs child? Certainly, but at such times there should be no name-calling or ridicule because of the disability. A loving, caring atmosphere at home is conducive to any child’s progress, but the special-needs child needs it even more. While siblings are generally very loyal to their special-needs brother or sister, parents should intervene to stop any cases of taunting or bullying.
7. Expose your child to the good things in the world
These are often things that don’t cost a lot of money—a beach sunset, a pebbled mountain creek, a visit to a public library and other memorable experiences. For those who live in the city, there are parks and museums to visit. Free concerts are available at colleges and churches. These have been excellent for extending my learning-disabled son’s knowledge and awareness. When I was unable to take him to a concert, I found friends who were willing to take him along. From an early age, he knew the names of the great composers and could identify complex classical pieces.
Don’t neglect the aesthetic development of your special-needs child. Like anyone else, he or she can benefit from exposure to all things good and beautiful.
8. Involve your child in service to others
Take your child along to help distribute food baskets to those unable to leave their home, or to give clothing to a burned-out family. Goodness is caught more easily than taught. Involving our special-needs children in service to others helps integrate them into the wider human family. Help these children take the focus off themselves by teaching them to care about others.
Making life smooth and easy for a child with disabilities is something we parents cannot do, but we can prepare the child to face life and deal with the difficulties that lie in his or her path. We should do everything possible to achieve that objective. We cannot promise our children miracles to solve their disabilities. Jean Little, Helen Keller, Wilma Rudolph and Thomas Edison are among the fortunate ones who triumphed dramatically over their disability. And by working diligently with our special-needs children, we can help them to achieve a realistic and satisfying life.
Judith Nembhard is an award-winning writer of both professional and popular articles, as well as Christian fiction. A public speaker and workshop facilitator, she lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.