Sarah R. Callender

Normal

In General, Parenting on April 9, 2012 at 7:07 am

The other day, Sweetie came downstairs wearing a rainbow-striped sweater, a many-colored floral dress, rainbow leggings, intentionally mismatched socks, and a hairstyle that involved six different accessories, including a piece of rainbow yarn for gift wrapping and another big poofy rainbow bow. The girl likes her rainbows.

What I thought upon seeing her: Please God, let kids not make fun of her today.

What I forced myself to say: “Wowww. You sure have a LOT of color in your outfit and a LOT of very interesting things going on in your hairstyle. You, Sweetie-girl, are definitely going to add some color to this gray day!”

I paused, watching her look down through her green and purple glasses, so pleased and proud of her unorthodox outfit. And while I still am not sure whether I should have said this next thing, I couldn’t help it.

“There is,” I said, “a small-to-medium chance that a kid might say something like, ‘Why are you wearing your hair all weird like that?’ Or ‘That outfit is craaaazy!'”

She gave me a look of exasperation. “But Mommy, I WANT kids to say that.” Then she twirled her way out of my office, right into the bathroom, where she smiled at her beautiful reflection in the  bathroom mirror.

My momentary anxiety over Sweetie’s unorthodox style (a style which has been unorthodox for years) made me think about the things we wish most for our children.

I’m pretty sure that at the heart of our hopes and wishes is this: we want our kids to be normal. To fit in socially, emotionally and physically. To be at peace with who they are, yes, but never stray too far from the norm. We want our kids to be special and unique but not weird.

No one wants a weird kid.

The reason for that is obvious. When you march to the beat of a different drummer, other people notice your rhythmic differences, often with irritation. A bunch of unique rhythms, even one unique rhythm, tends to threaten the whole song.

To be honest, I’d feel a whole lot better with Buddy and Sweetie taking well-traveled I-90 across the country than I would with them forging their own less-traveled roads. The untraveled road is bumpy and unpaved. Deep ruts and potholes can really do a number on one’s tires.  Boogeymen and Whomping Willows and moral eels abound on roads less traveled.

This Guy Was Last Seen on a Road Less Traveled near Spokane, WA

On the roads more traveled, there’s a Starbucks and a McDonald’s every few miles. The pavement is mostly even. Friendly police patrol the area, monitoring reckless driving, helping when there’s car trouble. Gas stations and rest stops with hot coffee line well-traveled roads. There’s not a moral eel for miles.

Moral Eels Terrify Me, but for Some Reason, I Love Putting Them in My Blog Posts.

I have a friend who assumes her young son is gay. “That’s fine with us,” she says. “We don’t have any problem with that.” She’s 100% sincere when she says that. But then she continues. “It’s just that being gay means life will be harder for him. That’s what’s hard.”

Indeed.

Same goes for kids who are transgendered. Kids with Asperger’s or Tourette’s or birthmarks on their face. Kids who are super intelligent or super tall or super unathletic. Life is harder for kids who aren’t physically or socially or intellectually normal.

But what is “normal” and why do we care so much about it?

A recent NY Times article titled “Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’?” discussed the plight of Tracee Sioux, the mother of a young girl who had started developing early, getting pubic hair at age six, followed by breast buds and woman curves. The article explains:

Over the past three years, [mother] Tracee had taken [daughter] Ainsley to see several doctors. They ordered blood tests and bone-age X-rays and turned up nothing unusual. “The doctors always come back with these blank looks on their faces, and then they start redefining what normal is,” Tracee said . . . “And I always just sit there thinking, What are you talking about, normal? Who gets pubic hair in first grade?”

In this case, Tracee’s concern with “normal” is rational. She wants to know if something medical or environmental has caused her daughter’s precocious puberty. I can understand that. Tracee also worries about her daughter’s self esteem, her daughter’s discomfort with developing so early. I can understand that, too.

Sometimes, when our children are clearly are not normal, getting a label of “Yep, your kid is just fine!” is utterly frustrating. When a medical professional tells Tracee her daughter is “normal,” he is really saying Tracee should not worry, that she’s being neurotic and alarmist.

So yes. There is a time and place for the concept of normal, for the boundaries of what is and what is not normal. But I think we humans can rely too heavily and seek too much comfort from a hard and fast definition of what is normal. After all, we like labels. Labels are comforting in the same way fences, walls, security systems, country clubs and private schools are comforting. But why?

An article in Psychology Today titled “Why We Fear the Unknown” explains:

The drive to completely and quickly divide the world into “us” and “them” is so powerful that it must surely come from some deep-seated need. The exact identity of that need, however, has been subject to debate. The late Henri Tajfel, of the University of Bristol in England, and John Turner, of the Australian National University, devised a theory to explain the psychology behind a range of prejudices and biases, not just xenophobia. Their theory was based, in part, on the desire to think highly of oneself. One way to lift your self-esteem is to be part of a distinctive group, like a winning team; another is to play up the qualities of your own group and denigrate the attributes of others so that you feel your group is better.

So labeling may be a natural reaction when we come across those who seem not like us. We’re likely not even aware that we do it. But perhaps we should start being more aware of the things of which we are not aware. After all, when we slap a quick label on someone, we immediately limit what we think they have to offer the world.

When Buddy opted to switch to another school in the district, other moms were not shy about sharing their concerns with our decision to let Buddy make his decision.

You’re going to let Buddy go to a school with a bunch of intellectual weirdos?

You’re going to let Buddy go to a school where kids have no social skills?

I wouldn’t want my child going to a school where all the kids just play chess and talk about chemistry!

That’s a whole lot of fear and discomfort going on there. Not from his peers, but from his peers’ parents. Kids aren’t nearly as adept as labeling and judging those who are different as adults. Interesting, no?

The other day, I dropped Sweetie off in her classroom to see that in her teacher’s place was a substitute teacher. The sub had long hair and breasts and feminine clothes. But her voice was Barry White-ish, and her face and hands were masculine. Along her chin was faint stubble. She walked like a linebacker, her broad shoulders thick and muscled.

My first (unkind, judgmental) thought: Jeepers!

My second thought:  Bless your heart. Your life is about infinity times harder than mine.

I also wondered whether Sweetie would notice the blurred lines of this teacher’s gender.

So that afternoon, when Sweetie and a pal were having an afternoon snack at our house, I casually asked. “So how was the sub today?”

“Not so good,” Sweetie said immediately. “She didn’t really know what to do. And Mary kept telling him–I mean, her–how to do stuff. Because she didn’t really know what to do.”

“Yeah!” Sweetie’s friend chimed in. “And she talked like a man!”

Sweetie agreed. “Her voice was verrrrrrrry low.”

So yes, the girls noticed some gender blurring, but there was no judgment. Judgment of her sub skills, yes, but not in the fact that she looked like a woman yet had the voice and the posture of a man. Kids notice difference, but there’s often little judgment and certainly no discomfort.

Maybe we should be more kid-like in this way. After all, when we avoid anyone who is different, might that be our loss? I’m not suggesting that I’d suddenly like to hang with Ann Coulter or a mom who home schools her nine children. I’m not saying you should should invite a schizophrenic homeless gentleman over for dinner. I’m just saying that maybe people who are different shouldn’t be labeled as oddball nut-jobs.  (Even though it is very difficult for me to think of Ann Coulter as anything other than a nut-job.) As difficult as it is, maybe we should be better about recognizing that each human, however weird or unorthodox, has something valuable to share.

In this article, “The Upside of Autism,” the author makes this point:

When it comes to disorders of the mind, our society has a tendency to seek out the safety of clear-cut categories. We want there to be a bright line separating normal from abnormal, health from sickness.

Alas, the human brain is a category buster, an organ so complicated that it continues to surprise and confound.

Consider autism. In recent years, autism has received an increasing amount of attention, largely because of a dramatic increase in its incidence. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, which include “classic” autism as well as Asperger syndrome.

These diagnoses are often based on observed deficits in social interaction, such as a lack of eye contact or verbal conversation . . . Because of these obvious shortcomings—humans are supposed to be social animals, after all—most people regard autism as a disease, a straightforward example of an impaired mind.

Yes, we are supposed to be social animals. Therefore we value other social animals. Therefore someone who seems anti-social or socially awkward is labeled as weird or different or abnormal. The article goes on:

But there’s compelling evidence that autism is not merely a list of deficits. Rather, it represents an alternate way of making sense of the world, a cognitive difference that, in many instances, comes with unexpected benefits.

An alternate way of making sense of the world. How refreshing! Shouldn’t we, a nation born of a desire to be free and to have freedoms not afforded in other places, celebrate new ways of making sense of the world?

Or, do we really mean this: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. UNLESS they are weird. Or mentally ill. Or have an autism diagnosis. Or make art that makes no sense to me. Or prefer to wear a thousand rainbow patterns and mismatched socks.

Many artists and composers and writers struggle with mental health issues, but the world would certainly be less colorful without Van Gogh’s Starry Night, without Abe Lincoln’s Four Score and Seven Years Ago speech, without Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. All works created by people with oddball brains.

So today, on yet another gray Seattle morning, I say this:

Give me your mentally ill artists and writers and musicians, your rainbow-clad, crazy hairstyled children, your transgendered substitute teachers, your Aspergery inventors. Send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed to us. For it’s they who add color and music and ideas to our broken, messy planet.

The least I can do, the best way to thank them, is to show my compassion and encouragement in return.

Scary moray eel photos courtesy of Flickr’s Intova and Kumukulanui.

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  1. Although I can imagine a world without Ode to Joy after my kid has practiced it on the recorder for the 97th time. Thanks for another compassionate post.

  2. Bah — you write and I think there is a parallel me –only she writes much better than I ever did…. It’s like these thoughts occurred at one time in my head and then I read about it…. Thanks for the post and contributing these little people to the world… Can you now just tell the majority to think this way? It’ll be the new normal…..

  3. As a woman who has fancied herself an odd duck most of her life, I can relate to Sweetie. It’s strange to have become a parent with all of those fears for my kids that I never had for myself. I want them to be unconventional but I don’t want them to be sent to the principal’s office or be told by another parent that they are rude or weird. I don’t want someone informing me that they don’t want their children to play with mine.
    What I do want is for them to be different but in a cool, interesting way. I want them to travel the roads less traveled but to be able to hop on the highway when it’s convenient. I want them to live near the edge–just not right on it. Ah, hypocrisy!
    Thanks for the morning’s reflection.
    Cheers,
    Vro

    • I love this, Vro! I totally know what you mean about loving kids who are a little offbeat. The image of hopping on the freeway (on days when it’s necessary and helpful and just plain easier) is perfect. Thanks so much, you lovely duck!

  4. “For it’s they who add color and music and ideas to our broken, messy planet.” To which I can only add, Amen Sister!

  5. I smiled so much at the beginning of this post — my eldest daughter, Rainbow Girl, has the same fashion sense as Sweetie. Mismatched socks are a favorite in our house, as are stripes with very different stripes — or vivid floral patterns, pants with skirts, abundant jewelry . . . ah, the list goes on. And I’ve had those moments, too, where I’ve thought, “what if someone laughs or mocks or teases?”

    Rainbow Girl is also like Sweetie in that she simply doesn’t care, and I love that. She’s already learned that different is just different, not better or worse. At eight, she’s a vegetarian (has been all her life) and we homeschool (and I don’t think I’m weirder than anyone else I know, if that’s a comfort). Both girls, ages 8 and 5, are happy with who they are. To me, that matters more than pretty much anything else.

    We all end up being “different” at some point, singled out in one way or another, no matter how “normal” or mainstream our lives are until that point. The world’s too big for those categories to bear weight in the long run. Let the Rainbows shine.

    • I love this. Thanks so much for the empathy! It’s so strange . . . I wouldn’t want Sweetie to be any other way; I also don’t want anyone to make fun of her. Sigh. Three cheers for kids who are happy with who they are. They get that from their parents! 🙂

  6. I love this post, Sarah! Thanks for writing it, and voicing not only the anxieties that some might hide because they aren’t “PC” to say, and also the gifts that come with being “odd.” There’s a great book along those lines–I believe it’s called “The Geeks Shall Inherit.” I recommend checking that one out…

    Also worth watching is “Bully,” which I saw last night. Tough film, but it highlights the unfortunate truth that for some of those that see difference as a deficit, cruelty is the next logical step, and for too many of the rest of us, inaction/denial/paralysis is a common response.

    • This means so much, coming from you, Andrea. Thank you! And, I really appreciate your book and movie recs. I have a Bully post brewing so I’d love to see it. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your comment. 🙂

  7. My kids are much younger than yours (the oldest is just in preschool) but already I find it so hard to contemplate how they’ll eventually have to join the world…how will they be affected if their quirky little desires and interests fall outside the norm? Yet it’s impossible to shelter them from human nature (also their own nature, of course), which seeks to categorize and judge…

  8. Great post Sarah. Although I probably fall more on the “normal” end of the spectrum, growing up I had friends in both realms. I always found that those on the “offbeat” side were much less guarded and true to themselves. In other words – what you saw was what you got – and often that was a great friend who would always remain loyal. On the other side, not always the case. Fortunately as the normals and the offbeats grow up they tend find a way to coexist and sometimes even come together in ways they never thought possible when they were in their formative years. Thanks again for such an eloquently written message.

  9. Long time comin’ but here I am!

    My daughter was a Sweetie. She’s 16 now. Still a Sweetie, but with a knock-out personality that is all her own. She is surrounded by great friends in her life, guys and girls alike. And she is loved and respected for WHO SHE IS.

    I worried, at three, when she cut her hair and looked so much like a boy that kids said so on the playground equipment at the park. She regretted ferreting away my scissors.

    I worried, at four, when she openly spoke in public (the video store lobby) about her
    V-A-G-I-N-A and then literally danced when she heard me giggle over her precious precociousness. I was secretly proud that she didn’t call it her “Va-J-J”, her “special place” or any number of other equally ludicrous monikers.

    I worried, at five or so, when she arrived in the living room before school one morning wearing three pair of underwear over top of her shorts. This was suitable first grade attire, in her mind. I admired her spunk. I suggested she save them for after school so they didn’t get dirty on the playground.

    I have worried practically every day since, that she will arrive on our doorstep with yet another critter that needs a home, friend that needs a home, or new and improved argument in defense of said borders. I love her for loving so much.

    Regarding Autism… my nephew, my dear-speaks-the-truth-has-no-personal-boundaries-outside-of-his-own-incredibly-intelligent-and-sensitive-nephew… was diagnosed on the spectrum at six. He is now eight years old and is currently being home-schooled because he’s been incapable, thus far, of assimilating into the public classroom or Montessori.

    My brother and his wife, and their daughter, live in constant fear that he will be laughed at (of course he will), that he will be discriminated against (it is a possibility), that he will never know what it’s like to have “normal” relationships in his life (whatever “normal” is).

    The thing is, and let me be crystal clear… I am not a parent of a child with autism…

    perhaps HIS NORMAL (inside his beautiful brain) is no different than OUR NORMAL. Yes, he will more than likely notice that he is different from other boys and girls the older he gets. But, don’t we all. He will likely experience most, if not all, of the feelings that we each experience growing up. Shame, Humiliation, Sadness, Anger… BUT ALSO, Joy, and Happiness, and contentedness. Why weigh him down, or themselves, with such low, defeatist expectations? It seems, quite a bit of blowing off steam aside, that embracing WHAT IS, is the only resolution to these very real fears.

    Weird is AWESOME! Weird is also hard. But whoever said it was going to be easy?

    What HE perceives as HIS NORMAL, may in fact be completely different than what WE perceive as HIS NORMAL. I believe it may all be simply a matter of perspective.

    Everyone experiences pain. Everyone experiences joy, of one kind or another, though the definition of this is somewhat fuzzier than the other. We, as parents, simply don’t want our beloved children to feel it, just like we didn’t want them to scrape their little knees when they rode their bike down the driveway too fast. OR when we didn’t want them to have their heart broken by that kid that said they liked them yesterday. OR when we didn’t want them to actually drive with that license the state gave them, ’cause we KNOW this kid better than any dumb state!

    ~ The least I can do, the best way to thank them, is to show my compassion and encouragement in return. ~

    BRAVA, Sarah!

    Love! and Peace and Color… LOTS of Color!

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