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The Thin Line Between Wrong and Wrong

photoI have a confession to make. As a special needs parent and advocate for my kid, I’m wrong a lot.

Okay, that’s not much of a confession. First of all, it’s hardly the first time I’ve admitted that. And really, it’s kind of like confessing that the earth is mostly covered with water, or that I have a nose. My mistakes aren’t usually hard to spot.

But perhaps more importantly, for special needs parents, it’s not always as simply the choice between right and wrong. Sometimes, you just have to shoot for the choices that will probably turn out to be wrong, but just perhaps a little less wrong than others. Less damage to undo, fewer apologies, maybe even marginally more restful nights.

Schuyler has been in middle school band for three academic years now. She has fun, and she contributes to the band in a meaningful way, so it’s been a pretty successful experience for her. Next year, however, she will join the high school band, and here in Texas, that means a level of competition that make accommodating a kid like Schuyler more challenging.

To prepare new students for their first experience with the marching band, and to properly place the percussionists on the correct instruments, auditions for the drumline are held in mid-May. The school holds a weekly clinic for about two months, and Schuyler attended almost all those clinics. Even so, she’s struggling with the material, enough so that we emailed the directors and asked them for some extra time, or possibly a different process for placement. Simply put, we requested an accommodation.

To be honest, I wasn’t 100% okay with doing this, although Schuyler was in something close to a panic about having to take this audition. The response from the band directors was very positive, agreeing to a delayed and even accommodated audition process if we really felt it necessary, but encouraging Schuyler to come and take the audition with everyone else if she could.

Basically, the choice was left to us.

So. What to do? Accept the accommodation that was offered to us (which we had even asked for), or let Schuyler step up and try with everyone else, even at the risk of failure? I’ve written of this before, and I still firmly believe that sometimes, many times, the best thing for Schuyler is failure. As a parent, it’s hard to watch, but without failure, she doesn’t learn. Many times, this represents the best plan. But something in my gut told me that this time, it was too much. She was too far from being ready, the stakes were too high, and there would be too many people watching.

Not this time, a little voice whispered. You need to protect your little girl. This time, it’s going to hurt.

But with all that my gut was telling me, we asked her to take the audition anyway. And because she trusts her parents, she did.

I’d like to tell you that it went well, that she stepped up and surprised everyone, and that we felt like fools for ever doubting her. But the reality is that as badly as I feared it might go, the audition went even worse. She was terrified beforehand, and as we watched through the window from the hallway, she became increasingly unravelled as the audition went on. I’ve never seen her so upset, so demoralized. She didn’t cry, and she didn’t quit, because she’s Schuyler and she’s a steely-eyed ninja. I was immensely proud of her, even as I was deeply ashamed of myself.

But it was awful, and she was in that room because I ignored my gut feeling and my dadly protective intuition, and I sent her in to fail. And while I did so in part because I thought it might be good for her to get an idea of what was in store for her next year, and to see how failing wasn’t the end of the world, I have to confess that I also probably did so because I didn’t want to be perceived as “those parents”. Overprotective, entitled helicopter pilots. I didn’t want Schuyler to start off with a huge accommodation, but as much for my own reputation as for hers.

It’s hard for me to admit that, but it’s true. In a crap week filled with moments in which I’d willingly give a toe or two in exchange for a do-over, this decision was the one I regret the very most.

When I think about it, though, I think that if we’d chosen to take the accommodation, I’d likely be writing about how I failed Schuyler by not “overbelieving” in her in the way that a parent should. I’d feel like I sold her cheaply, that I didn’t give her the chance to stumble, and to fail on her own terms.

It’s entirely possible that there wasn’t a right answer here. Schuyler wants to continue in band next year. Now she knows how much work that’s going to take, and her new band directors just got a crash course in what kind of work they’re going to need to do with her. (Have fun with that, guys.) So in my head, I can see how perhaps it was, if not the right choice, at least the lesser wrong one.

In my heart, though, I feel like I need to apologize to her. Again and again. Maybe tough love isn’t my strong point. Maybe I stepped on the wrong side of the line this time, but perhaps not too far over the line. Maybe I’ll get it right next time. Or less wrong.

Parents of special needs kids find ourselves in this position a lot. A good friend and fellow disability parent responded to this situation perfectly. “Special needs parenting is so hard,” she said. “I mean, all parenting is hard, but it’s a different hard. There’s that double-edged sword that we all swallow. ‘My kid doesn’t need your special treatment’ until it becomes ‘My kid requires your special treatment, and you had better pony up.'”

We don’t want that special treatment for our kids, because we don’t want them to need it. And we often don’t even want to admit to ourselves that they need it. Our fears about whether or not they will be ready to move through a rough and largely unaccommodating world lead us to push them to as much independence and typical life as they can stand, and often beyond that sometimes. At the same time, our protective impulses, creeping hand in hand with our deeply felt conviction that the world has been especially unfair to our children, inspire us to demand, and fight for, as many smoothed pathways as the world can possibly provide.

A lot of parents with typical kids watch this chaotic ballet that we do as we wobble and teeter on a tightrope of choices, and they either believe that we’re doing something heroic that they could never do, or that we are out of our broken little minds. The first conclusion is undoubtedly false; the second is quite possibly true.

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    May 19, 2014 |
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    May 19, 2014 |