Thursday, January 27, 2011

wanted: Tufte, or possibly a skilled semaphore operator

I plonked my hands on my hips, and glared. The Man, on the other end of the glare, was infuriatingly stolid.

Fine. I flung my hands up, and stomped for emphasis. Be like that. Although, for the record, "I turned out just fine" is what you said about formula, also.  He winced slightly, remembering the MIL's lecture about his early babyhood and what, exactly, he'd been tippling at the time.

Actually, he said, there is something that we do agree upon.  Reached over, grabbed a pen and a pad of sticky notes.

Many sticky notes later, we were still quibbling over the details, but we had this:

Assume a graph.

One axis is P = a child's potential. Keeping in mind that a good chunk of this is bunk, because potential shifts, depending on any number of things, including that nasty 'use it or lose it' thing. Add in circumstance, opportunities available, etc, and you may feel yourself perfectly free to sneer at the axis in question.

The other axis is A = the child's achievement. The kid's five. I'd settle for consistent bottom-wiping on that axis, said one of us, maintaining deniability. Er, yes, said the other. Good point.  So, unless you think that achievement is something that can be pinned to a clear and appropriate standard, feel free to wave off that axis, too. Or, if you are Malcolm Gladwell, fling up your hands and consider stalking out of the room.

But, for the sake of argument, let's consider this: assuming that not all gifted kids are created equal. And that some of those kids will soar, no matter what. For them, P = A, and we all want to know how their parents did it. Or, possibly, how it was done despite, even irrespective to their parents. (I'm not just using Malcolm as a prop here, he really does have some fascinating thoughts on the subject.) See their happy, rising bubble? That's them.

Let's say that some kids aren't gifted. Blithely ignoring the question of the specifics of their education, the problems with how we identify giftedness, or any of the other things that make me inSANE where the concept of giftedness is concerned. Right. For these kids, ignoring a host of issues and a recent, smack-you-in-the-face documentary, let's have their P = A, although without the happy rising bit. See the square where the two axes meet? That's them. We've circled them for emphasis, and possibly in rebellion against the over-simplistic divide between the two groups.

At this point, I'm worked up into a seriously pissy maternal bundle, but our sticky's not done. Going back to the idea that not all gifted kids are equal - nor are they homogeneous - and for the sake of making a semi-clear point, ignoring the fact that we didn't extend this reasonable consideration to the non-gifted kids. The sticky be small, people. For this third group, the P is way ahead of their A, which means that in the classroom, these kids are likely to be one heck of a PIA. Or quietly miserable.

I wonder if those are the kids who drop out, one of us said, morose in the aftermath of an overdose on nastily personal statistics.

That's what I'm worried about. That he'll be in that group. At which point, his P slides back to smack him in the A.

The Man folded his arms and considered. Okay,  he said. I understand that.

We contemplated the sticky note, letting silence replace the discussion about why, how, and what the hell are we supposed to do now. So, if I show people the sticky, will that avoid all of these awful -  

No. But at least you'll be able to explain what you are worried about.

So, there you go.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I want my script back

Okay, so this is how it is supposed to go:
Congratulations, your child is gifted. You can stop worrying about how much you suck at saving for college, he's going to go anywhere he wants, on a full scholarship, partly because he's spent his summers doing some really astonishing and groundbreaking biochemical research or maybe something involving quantum physics, which you don't understand because you are just his mom - but that's okay. 

Oh, he's also going to be wonderfully happy, because he's going to have a rich intellectual life, energized by the pleasures of research and discovery. And yes, there will be grandchildren.
[end scene]

Except, this is how it really does go:
[scene 1]
Gifted? What about his brother? Are you saying that the Eldest isn't gifted?
[incoherent, defensive end to scene]

[scene 2]
Gifted? who isn't? 
[silence, end of scene]

[scene 3]
Gifted? I see. So what kind of learning environment are you looking for?
um. I don't know. In your experience, what works?
Depends on the child. 
[insert garbled explanation from the parent, shuffling of paperwork by expert hands, lapsing into silence by parent]
Well, there's a gifted school that we usually refer children like this to.
[flabbergasted end to scene. repeat with each school visited.]

[scene 4]
Gifted? Are you saying that you want the school to take resources away from struggling kids for a gifted program?
um, no. Kids should get the help they need.
Differentiated instruction already has the teachers working with different kids, at different levels. I think you are making a fuss over nothing.  And is it really necessary? Lots of gifted kids turn out just fine.
[abashed end to scene]

[scene 5]
Gifted? Really. And you are asking schools to do what?
Well, see, the expert said - 
My kid is gifted, and I'm not asking the school to do that. What makes your child so special?
[abrupt silence. merciful end to scene]

And here is the short guide to the gifted conversation. Insert silent, notetaking mama with appropriate facial expressions as needed.

Well, so your child is gifted. Do you know what that means? No? We-ell, school is going to be a bit of a challenge. There's only one gifted school in your area, and it's oh, an hour away. You'll take him there, right? No? Well, then, most of his real learning will probably happen outside of school for a while. Most schools don't have gifted programs until the 6th grade, and right now, most of those are on the budgetary chopping block. So, even if he's willing to sit politely and be quietly bored - because, you know, boys are good at that - then he's likely still SOL, which means that you are going to have to keep a careful eye on behavior issues that arise. Setting aside, of course, that a good early education experience is pretty important, let's just assume that he's going to be fine, no matter what.** Work habits aren't really important, because, you know, he's so smart - and he's going to be really popular because he'll know the answers to all the questions. Oh yes, all. Because he's gifted, so by definition, he's going to be gifted at everything. 

Except sports. There's a rule about that somewhere.

And that 18-25% drop out rate for these kids? Don't worry about it. You can afford to pay for extracurriculars, right? Good. Resources for parents are online, and you should know that it's a really bad idea to talk about this to anyone in person, and most parents-of-gifteds will refuse to admit to anything of the sort if you ask them, in person. Talk about it with others, and you will be seen as elitist, bragging, a pain in the academic arse, and so on. Also, you'll have a sudden urge to sew suede patches onto perfectly whole sleeves, and start smudging your home with certain aromatic pipe tobaccos. Either that, or you will begin to explore marketing options for your child's artwork or other salable skills - he what? no, the arrangement of Star Wars scenes does *not* count.

[end scene in a whiff of disapproving silence]

or, if you prefer the condensed version:

Your kid is gifted. He - and you - are screwed.
[end scene]

Offended yet? I am.
Coming next: a conversation with graphs

**"The observations reported by Barbarin and Crawford (2006) are entirely consistent with numerous research studies that have shown the quality of the teacher-child relationship to be a major contributor to school success in the early childhood years (Birch & Ladd, 1998; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Howes et al., 2008). Howes and colleagues (2008) found that the best predictor of gains in academic outcomes for preschoolers was high quality instruction and close teacher-child relationships. Hamre and Pianta (2001) found that children's relationships with their kindergarten teachers predicted academic and behavioral outcomes through eighth grade. Combining scores on conflict and dependency scales into a variable they called relational negativity, they found that, "Particularly for boys, kindergarten teachers' perceptions of conflict and overdependency were significantly correlated with academic outcomes throughout elementary and middle school" (p. 634). "  more can be found here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

choosing an opinion

Some days, I think that everybody is testing their kid for this or that. Other days, I think that this must be impossible - if it takes 24 months to get an appointment for developmental testing at the local children's hospital, then how? where? are these tests being done?

I'm not sure if we can get to you before next fall, said the nice lady from the public schools. We've got quite a wait list. 
It's going to take a while to set up the appointments, said the friendly person from the pediatrician's chosen psych department. Do you need to see a psychiatrist, or a social worker? A developmental pediatrician?

I had no idea. Who should we see? Who could look at the Toddles, and see through the carapace, and past any filters created by our fears? We were, after all, filling out the questionnaires - and I knew well how easy it is to talk our way into a diagnosis. At chez Imperfect, if we're not being pushed off-base by some parenting worry, some medical concern or other, would we know what to do with ourselves? Hemophilia, allergies, immunology, dermatology, rheumatology, neurology - by now, I think we're beyond worried, we've paddled around in skepticism, and now? Now, I fear, we might be in a rut. Diagnose our kid with something new? Sighhhh. Lacking the expertise to argue against it, all too vulnerable to our own worries, all we could do is stack the deck in the favor of clear-sightedness.

Test him? Fine. But not once - twice. That spring and summer, we talked to two thoughtful, careful women, one recommended by the Eldest's heme team, another by our pediatrician. Realizing their doubled role, the two talked to each other.

And they tested the kid.

It was three days of stomach twisting. The Toddles refused to enter any offices, so the testing happened in waiting rooms, on the floor. And I sat behind the child, silent and oh, scared shitless. Filling my hands with yarn, because, hey, it was something to do.

And stared.

I've only seen this once before, the developmental neuropsych told me, but he's beyond even that.  I watched the Toddles, and found nothing to say. I don't think there's a school in the area that can handle him,  the neuropsych said, gently. I'll give you the name of an educational specialist, and maybe she can help. 

Behind us, the Toddles was playing with three, four digit numbers. Flying airplanes. Whisking through school competency tests for 14 year olds. Giggling. Was this hiding in the carapace? Did it have a name?

Gifted, the neuropsych told me. Do IQ numbers mean anything to you? [name of tests] scores?
I shook my head. Breathed a bit. Not autistic? Not -  I rattled off the litany of our fears.
No. But, she said, you might think - and began explaining how this or that behavior looked like this or that psychiatric/developmental condition, but - but I was gone.

Not autistic. Nor normal. Going to be okay? The two developmental medical folks thought so, but offered qualifications. Footnotes. Gentle explanations of what their expertise did and did not cover. But didn't my expertise cover the kid? And what about -

I whipped out my phone.

Um, yeah.  the teacher replied. We knew that.
Oh,  I said. I didn't.

The kid curled into me. Let's go home, he breathed, and sank into his carapace. I carried him to the car, red curls tickling my chin, his legs wrapped around my hips. Can it be quiet now? he asked, and lost in my own thoughts, I agreed.

What lens do I need, to see him clearly? What lens had I wearing?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

testing an outcome, finding the kid

Fine, then. We'll test him. 
firm, parental nods all 'round. Then, a pause.
What kind of testing are we supposed to do?
Um. I dunno. Maybe the pediatrician knows? The school?

And then, there I was. Holding a list of bullet points that the Toddle's teacher had given me, the pediatrician on speed dial, and the local public school's phone number written carefully, clearly in my calendar. And I couldn't dial the bloody phone.

Three days later, I still couldn't dial the bloody phone.

It had been one hell of a year - and more - since the Toddles' preschool disaster. With QG to keep us sane, he'd been happy at home, loving his playdates, and generally growing into a snuggly, independent little terror. He missed his classmates, sure, but found joys aplenty in the world we were creating with him.  And, after visiting preschool after preschool, I had finally found two that felt they were up to the Toddles' challenge: an anaphylactic wheat allergy, plus rye, barley, spelt, egg and more! Enough to warrant a raid on the art supplies, enough to require some very, very careful thought about snack time, school events, and oh yes, coexistence with a parent who thinks she's an advocate. All things that the Toddles' first preschool didn't seem to want.

One offered us a spot on their waiting list. The other asked me to drop by and talk. And then there I was, talking, and the boss lady telling the preschool director, oh, yes. You can do this.  And then there I was again, talking, and the teachers were nodding. Sure, we can do that. One of them, delighted, clapping, Oh! I'm going to get to have the giggle boy in my class! And she did.

Thank you for bringing our boy, they said. And hugged me.

I spent months staring, wandering around and trying to grasp this. The school provides all snacks for the children, and with the arrival of the Toddles and a few other allergic kidlets, decided to avoid all of the relevant allergens. They checked their art supplies. They were polite about my first efforts at lighter, sweeter faux-challah, and offered generous quantities of honey to the dubious children. When I set the fire alarm off while baking for the Toddles' birthday celebration, they told me their own embarrassing mom-stories, and took photos of the kids with the fire truck. And wrote it up in the newsletter, as part of the birthday fun. And hung a big sign on the doors: WARNING! ALLERGIC CHILDREN. DO NOT BRING FOOD INTO THIS AREA. Atmosphere wasn't a problem here: one of the teachers made the sign with collage. Lovely, creative, and very, very clear.

It was unreal, wonderful, humbling. There was so much oxygen, I was gasping. But the Toddles saw none of this. When am I leaving preschool? he asked, but didn't believe the answer.  He pulled in, curling tight and then tighter inside himself, avoiding eye contact, sound, touch, as if he could create a perfect, protective carapace. Huddle inside. His balancing touch-and-suck had become a place to vanish, and its gravitational pull was immense. Time to get dressed? He'd have to pull himself out of the carapace twice: once to take his jammies off, and once to put the day's clothes on. Going somewhere? He'd need to pull himself out to get his jacket one, again to get into the car, and yet again, agonizingly, to get out of the car.

It's like you are inside of a box, and can't hear me, I told him. He nodded. This did not trouble him - the carapace was good. I need that, sometimes, he explained. I nodded. But sometimes, love, you get stuck in there. He thought this over.

I think we need some balance in this one.

But balance had been trumped by a need. Snuggled into his carapace, the Toddles didn't mind that he was alone, riding 'round and 'round on the playground. He was untroubled, if a bit wistful, by his lack of friends. Friends vanish, he knew. This was safer. And, in his safety, he pulled in the tendrils of connection, avoiding eye contact, hiding from hands, hugs, hesitating once, twice, fifteen times before trusting the adults around him. He was safe.

Except, of course, he wasn't. Humming quietly, wrapped in his carapace, he couldn't hear me tell him not to run into the street - with a car coming. I heard your sounds, but not the words, he said. Or just stared, bemused and puzzled by my gasping horror. He grabbed at knife blades, broken glass, rolled on challah-crumbed floors, and from deep in the carapace, he stared, bewildered, when I gritted my teeth and explained. Why. That. Was. Not. Good.

But this was a parenting problem, and not a developmental one. I was sure. I had experience with this dance between parenting, the kid and the yardstick of the normal. I knew. I was also a mess. And holding a phone.

Maybe it's wiring. Neurology.
Maybe it isn't.
Maybe, I admitted to the other parental pair of worried eyes, maybe it's me.

We watched the Toddles lining up number flashcards in some mysterious order. And again. And again.

Maybe it's not.

And I made the call.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


[standing at the sink, toothbrush in hand]

Eldest: ...and then, there was the time that I almost broke my ankle.
Mama: [mid-scrub, the Toddles trying to wiggle away from the shampooing hands] mm, hm. [blinks] wha- ankle?
Eldest: [nods] yes. I was climbing on the car - not our car, J's car.
[in the tub, the Toddles sits still, listening. A slow grin creeps onto his face.]
Mama: you - you were? [clears throat] That's really not a good idea. You can damage the car that way.
Eldest: Yes, I know. And I caught my ankle in an open window.... [tilts head, looks thoughtful] This was back in first grade, you know. And kids that young don't always make the best decisions.


Eldest: Why are you laughing? What's so funny? 

Saturday, January 01, 2011

a tangle of threads (and clearing a clog)

I think 2011 slipped in when I blinked - or possibly while I was lighting shabbat candles. Nonetheless, hiya! Time to flip that page in the calendar, eh?

I'm not calendrically aligned enough to have new year's resolutions, nor do I really have the will to rehash that goes with a year-in-review post. Still, I do have the collected points of determination, or fed-upness that compose my Change This, Dammit list. That list sort of blurs into my Things I Want To Do Daily list. Which combined, look something like this:
  • do less
  • sleep more
  • prioritizing is great, but first? learn how to estimate how LONG it will take me to do things. Remember that in so many things, I work slowly.
  • play with my sons. More.
  • learn to love Lego. (see above)
  • eat chocolate every day. (can I use chocolate as a bribe for getting up in the morning?)
  • make food that I want to eat
  • budget!!!!
  • remember that a tired child is tired. And can't do better, even if he tries. Remember that the same is true of me.
  • have dedicated home maintenance and writing days in each week - and be stubborn about them.
  • have dedicated time with my friends - and be stubborn about that, too.
  • get hugged. A lot.
  • start washing dishes with The Man. Talk about inconsequentialities. (is baseball an inconsequentiality?) Hell, talk about anything. Have I mentioned that the guy is wonderful and funny and generally fabulous? 
  • go on dates (note: find a babysitter?)
  • learn how to listen to podcasts.
  • every single day:
    • make something
    • write something
    • fix something
  • be loving and loved.
I've been working on my make/write/fix challenge for a little while now, and I'm loving it. But I have to admit that I've been making and fixing far, far more than I've been writing. To my chagrin, I seem to lack a crucial degree of recklessness, or possibly a degree of ruthlessness needed to write some stories down. Or, to put those particular posts up on the blog. And, that not doing the writing and putting up can clog up the rest of the works, so that I can't push past the things I'm not-saying, or not-writing, and silence ensues.

I am not good at silence.

So, I'm going to inaugurate 2011 with the first of the clogged posts. I suspect that the blog's current quiet state will serve me well here - this is going to lead to a subject that seems, oddly, to piss people off. Which makes the following all the more appropriate.
March, 2010

Peace, this month, is two hours of sitting on a nicely lichened rock by a lake, a glow of sunshine, and a suspicious mother duck herding her wee bits of fluff away from the two chatting persons.

I did go home and need to scrub bits of me, having noted all of that lovely, flourishing poison ivy - and later, admired the odd, itchy pattern on one leg. But all is well now, and the 80's style shocking pink arms (and nose) have faded to a merely retro hot pink shade. And, well, I may or may not have spent the past 40 minutes looking up bug bites, thanks to a casual hey, did you get bit? from the Man, glancing at the back of my neck. Solid, big swelling. Hot. Ow. (note to self: not brown recluse spider. Also not tick. Whew.)

With the Toddles leashed to the toilet by some really appalling GI virus, I've got a whole lot of indoors ahead of me. So I'm storing up that sunshine, the warmth of the rock and the patterns of the lichen. And the wry grin in her voice, as she narrated the odd rock and shoal of her days. Followed by a quiet thoughtfulness as I told her: the preschool wants us to get the Toddles evaluated. We had a meeting yesterday, and I've started making calls.

I tell this story badly, choosing details that can only prove how wrong we all are (your child sits on the toilet for 45 minutes? mine has sat there for an hour - and he's just fine) and how flawed our idea of 'normal,' or 'age appropriate' must be. We must need reassurance that the Toddles is fine. Or perhaps we need perspective on his age - or refocusing on his strengths, and the things that make our boy that wonderful twirl of light and joy. Or maybe we just need a nice barbituate and a glass of wine, hm?

I never thought that he was autistic, our pediatrician said. I nodded - but knew from her response that I'd told the story badly, said the wrong things, my chosen details pointing in the wrong direction. Oh, I don't think he is, either, I said.

Kids are just like that, said a lovely person. They grow out of these things. I shrugged, resisting the urge to degenerate into a defensive whine.

Oh - but my son/daughter/goldfish is just like that, said another, worriedly. I watched that parent reassessing their child/parakeet/magazine rack, looking for the cracks that suddenly might be there - particularly now that she's heard me worry that 'normal' has sidled away, excluding the Toddles. The gulping lump of sadness in my throat is sidelined, and you know what? I'm slightly irked by being upstaged. I'm going to focus on that, rather than on the familiar, edged fear and sadness that come from watching your child for fragile, ruthless flaws.

I can't tell the story well, and I'm not going to try to do it here. It's all tangled up, each thread complexly looped and knotted somewhere on that complex spectrum** of kid. I can't imagine picking the right threads, can't figure out where I'd need to start, but I also can't stop trying. And being told not to worry, to read a book, to get perspective, to get a life, a hobby, some sleep, or to learn how to parent without slapping diagnoses on everything. Or heck, just learn how to parent. Wouldn't he be easier to manage, if I were only better at my job? Which may be fair, and I hope that you'll excuse me if I start throwing things. While shrieking.

Don't you think that I've already asked those questions? Don't you think that those questions have weighed in my reasoning, etching their bitter shapes on my answers? The translation to 'but he's so normal' might just be, 'don't diagnose him for your convenience,' or 'don't label him for your failures.' I know that. It might even be true.

Mine is the sweet kid, who loves to be carried - but doesn't want to hug you. Not yet. Maybe not ever. He's a crackling bundle of energy, but doesn't want to leave the house - even to go to the park. He's the friendly kid, who helps you find a chair at circle time, but he doesn't know how to say hello, and definitely doesn't know how to join a game. Or what to do, if invited, but if you could read the script that he's worked out for this interaction, then maybe it'll all be okay.

He's the caring kid, who asks me if I need a hug on the tough days, but is shocked by your tears when he kicks over your sandcastle, draws slashing lines across your carefully lettered homework. He's still waiting for me to explain why it's not okay to bite, or scratch when angry, or that a pinch isn't just a different kind of handhold.

True, he's the silent kid at music time, but he knows all of the words to the songs, and sings them to himself when we're alone in the car. The bloodmobile is a silly idea, he says, criticizing the lyrics. It's confusing! You have blood and it moves through you, but it's not a bloodmobile. But his favorite books are the simpler board and picture books, more rhythm than language, more picture than narrative. And many days, he asks me to shut the music off, because it's too much sound. Unless, of course, you let him listen to the same song over and over and over.

He's the kid who makes the same, simple, two-dimensional shapes with Lego - until he's built one, and then he adorns it elaborately. He's a lover of complex kinetic puzzles like this one, plotting complex, counter-intuitive routes to his goal - and also can't figure out which article of clothing to put on first in the morning. Or what to put on his toothbrush first, the paste or water. But he'll light up with pleasure if you show him.

He's the oh-so verbal kid, eloquent and fascinating, but his words can spill out, shocking him. I'll hiss at an insult, then realize that he's near tears. I said the wrong words, he wails, and his distress is so sudden and raw that I pull him into my lap. Slowly, he tells me what he meant to say, or what tangled around his words, and I thank my lucky stars for my insightful, communicative son. But that flow of thought and language vanishes three, four times daily, when he shuts down so absolutely that he cannot speak. Doesn't know that you've spoken, even if you stand in front of him.

You can try talking to him, maybe say his name, or even put a hand on his shoulder, but his eyes are wide and distant, and they don't really see you. He's somewhere else, his mouth sucking and his skin focussed on the specific touch of a specific, worn fabric, brushed just so over his cheek.

When the Eldest does that, feeling for the rub of my skin over bone, he's balancing himself. But he's there. I can crack a joke, catch his eye, lift a wry eyebrow, and he'll respond. The Toddles goes deeper, maybe, to balance himself. My boys are points on a spectrum, but I couldn't tell you where the center lies. Not sure it matters.

I'm not afraid of your child, someone told me, gently. He looked me in the eye. But my tongue tangled, remembering the OT, the Eldest's rebellion, and my belief in that damned bucket. And the Toddles' face, earnest, bewildered, intent, gleeful, or lost in a need for balance.

I am, I wanted to say, but it wasn't true - was too melodramatic to be true. Besides, fear is just one thread in this story, and couldn't possibly be the right one to choose.

** often, when people talk about a "spectrum" in relation to children, they are, of course, talking about the autism spectrum. I think people should talk more about autism, but I wince at the casual use of "on the spectrum" for autism-specific descriptions. Autism has a spectrum, hemophilia has a spectrum, metabolisms have a spectrum, temperaments....etc. So, when I say, "spectrum of kid," I mean exactly that.