A few years back, we were invited to vacation at my husband’s boss’s beach house. One evening we were dining out on the patio, which happened to abutt the path down to the shore, when two ladies from the neighborhood attempted to pass us while taking their nightly stroll to the beach. As the ladies passed, and before Giorgio and I knew what was happening, our then four year old son hopped up and said, “Ladies, would you like to join us for a bottle of wine?” Being the persistent little fellow he is, when the ladies giggled and declined, my dear Jack then continued, “Well then, how about a brandy?” This is the same little boy, who very recently at the age of seven, alarmed us by asking, “What if we don’t really exist? What if this is all a dream?” He has been described as an old soul and free spirit, and, yes, he is in fact both. He is charming and precocious and very intelligent, and he HATES school. He has learning differences and sensory issues which have made his experiences with school quite unpleasant and continue to make finding an appropriate educational setting a challenge. As an educator, it drives me mad to think that learning has become such an unpleasant, onerous task for my bright and curious little boy, and I have made it my mission to find a way to make learning and life, as joyful and wonderous as is realistically possible.
In fulfilling this mission, Giorgio and I have learned is that there are an awful lot of experts and specialists out there. I mean there are specialists that super specialize in the specialists’ specialities. There are soooo many people who want to help out there. What I also figured out is that “helping” our children has become and industry and a lucrative one at that. I mean one family with one child with learning differences can spend thousands, upon thousands of dollars. We pay the college tuitions of our specialist’s children while we ourselves become increasingly stressed because after we dole out all our money to special schools and experts and specialists, we can’t even afford to register our kids for dance class much less pay for their education, which was our main concern to begin.
I don’t mean to sound cynical, and I certainly don’t want anyone to think that I believe there is no place for specialists and experts. When our children are struggling it is our obligation as parents to seek help. It’s just that we need to be cautious. We need to be savvy consumers. WE need to determine when our work with a specialist has run its course. We also need to discern when we really need the services of another party and when we as parents can, with time and research, provide appropriate services ourselves.
When we began our quest to help our son, we dove in a rabbit hole and into a surreal world where everyone is an “expert” and where the only thing “experts” can do for you is refer you to other “experts” (with whom they share an office) whereupon they hand you a bill and where only one thing is certain…all experts charge fees that are staggering.
Just this past week, Giorgio and I had an appointment with one of the many specialists we have consulted over the past few years. Prior to our appointment, I spent two hours filling out a twelve page questionnaire, which was to be reviewed by said specialist prior to our meeting. Two hours! Twelve Pages! Prior to meeting! Giorgio was immediately suspicious and repeatedly asked me why we were writing answers to questions about topics we should be discussing in person. I reassured him, certain that this was just preliminary “stuff” and that we would elaborate on our answers during our $300 per one hour not covered by insurance appointment, an appointment which required Giorgio to rearrange his work schedule and me to make childcare arrangements.
Well, Mr. Specialist’s office is an hour plus away from our home, so we frantically raced out of our house, dropped the kids with my parents and arrived ten minutes early. So you can imagine my disappointment when ten minutes after appointment time, our specialist hadn’t come into the waiting room to greet us. I have to say, I’ve got a real “thing” about waiting…it pisses me off. I just believe that we are called upon to wait much too often. For the majority of us, if we are late for an appointment, we are deeply disturbed and apologetic towards whoever we have kept waiting. Yet, doctors, specialists and so many others seem to feel as if our time is less valuable than their time. Anyway, the receptionist must have heard me bitching to Giorgio because she quickly disappeared and promptly returned to tell us that Mr. Specialist was in a meeting and would be with us soon. Five minutes later, he emerged, alone, so I wonder who the hell he was meeting. One thing was for sure, I was going to make damned sure he gave us the full hour, the $300 hour, the hour of gold.
Since I now have a significant amount of experience, I have changed my approach. While I am always nice and respectful, it is no longer important that the specialist likes me. I make my needs clear up front. This time I informed him that we are not wealthy people and that we are frustrated because everyone we consult refers us to someone else. Well do you know how the meeting turned out? At some point during our visit it became painfully clear that Mr. Specialist never read our two hours worth of paperwork. He perseverated on one topic, of only minor interest to my husband and I, and, in the end, he referred us to an educational consultant who works in his office. With a bit of research we learned that this consultant would charge us a minimum of $750 for her services. Oh yeah, after only forty minutes he started to look at his watch. When he attempted to end the appointment at the scheduled time, despite the fact that he was fifteen minutes late,I kept him talking until the full hour was up. Go girl.
After our appointment, Giorgio headed off to work, and I returned home, frazzled and anxious. And I got to thinking. All that time lost. I could and should have been home with my kids, teaching, playing, mothering! Instead, I wasted time. And I have wasted soooo much time visiting specialists and special schools.
I once visited a school, a thirty thousand plus a year school, which is located in a very affluent community in Connecticut. It seemed great. Prior to my visit, I read their website which explained that they incorporate original play into their curriculum. Play! Great! We love to play (I either didn’t notice or completely ignored the word original)! Jack will love a school that allows a little bit of fun! During my visit everything looked great:students appeared happy, teachers seemed nice. There was nothing strange about the place at all…until the discussion turned to original play. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Silly me for thinking it was normal human play because, as it was explained to me, it actually mirrors animal play. The kids roll around on a mat; a teacher facilitates. And guess what? In eighth grade, if they’re really good at this original play thing, the kids get to travel to Florida to swim with the manatees. Are you kidding, you ask? No, sadly I am not. Strange right? Of course when I got home I researched original play and let me tell you, it is very hard to find out anything other than a clip on YouTube where a big bearded burly man demonstrates how it’s done. Perhaps I am a sceptic, but I prefer to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and educated. Evaluating research was a big part of my graduate studies. You know; instruction should be researched based and good research studies require thousands of subjects and a control group and blah, blah, blah. Why is it then that educators are engaging in practices when there clearly is not enough research to support those practices.
A larger question is how do specialists and educators get parents to subscribe to their practices? The answer, I believe, is that desperate parents are easy to exploit. I don’t mean to suggest that these professionals are intentionally exploiting parents; most are well meaning. Regardless, parents are being exploited. When we as parents see that our children are struggling and are told that we need to do something about it, we desperately seek out those who can help. I am beginning to realize, however, that there may be something fundamentally wrong with our process. Sometimes because our children are different we are made to feel that they are broken and that they need to be fixed and changed and altered by experts and specialists. What would have happened if teams of professionals “fixed” the young Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill, both of whom were quirky kids and bad students?
Professional educators, therapists and specialists do have an important role to play. They can help. They have helped me. I have met some great specialists. We shouldn’t feel that in order to be good parents or viewed as good parents we need to constantly seek the help of “experts.” We as parents are the only TRUE experts of our children. Sometimes, rather than shuttling our kids from one appointment to another to be evaluated, analyzed and over analyzed and spending hours on the computer and telephone searching for professional help, our children would be better served if we just spent those extra hours with them , learning their patterns, understanding what works for them and what doesn’t. In a world full of experts, we have lost our confidence as parents, and we need to reclaim that. No one will ever know or love our children as we do. Our instincts and opinions count. We know when our children are just different, when they just need another approach or another way to learn and when we need the help of knowledgable professionals. We know. We know when it’s a matter of doing something different or better as parents and when we need to seek outside help because we just don’t know what to do. We know when to say “help” and we know when to say “enough!” We must trust ourselves and know.