Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why I Think We All Could Use A "Special" Someone In Our Lives

"If I Cannot Win, Let Me Be Brave in the Attempt"

The Rio 2016 Summer Olympics have been done for over two weeks now, and I'm assuming we've all gotten back to our regularly scheduled programming (thank goodness the football season has restarted, right?).  For the most part, they seemed to be a success - the Russian delegation, Ryan Lochte, and Hope Solo notwithstanding.  The Olympics came at the perfect time for our house, as we had our third bout of the stomach flu this year during the first week of competition.  When you are awake at 3:30am because your child doesn't want to fall back asleep for fear that she will throw-up in bed (again), the Olympic weightlifting competition can serve as a great distraction.

Just before the Olympics kicked off, I was reminded via social media that it was two years ago that I had the chance to work with the Minnesota Special Olympics and their Summer Sports Camp, which was hosted at the college I used to work at.  The post reminded me that among all of the various events and groups I had the opportunity to work with during my tenure at the school, the Summer Sports Camp was hands down one of the most inspiring groups I had the privilege of working with.  While the athletes that participate in the Special Olympics may not have the same level of athletic prowess as those competing in the Olympics, from my experience, their passion for competition is just as strong.

The reminder also popped up just as I was finishing Martha Beck's fantastic book, Expecting Adam.  I had never heard of the book, and it was given to me somewhat by accident, when a friend offered to loan me a book she thought I'd enjoy, only to discover that she couldn't find it.  She gave me Expecting Adam in it's place, and it has become one of my (many) favorites.  The book centers around the author and her husband, finding themselves expecting their second child at a very inconvenient time in their lives - trying to balance graduate coursework and teaching responsibilities at one of the most prestigious universities in the world while also raising a toddler.  Martha has a very difficult pregnancy, and when they find out that their unborn son has Down Syndrome, the emotional toll of defending their decision not to terminate the pregnancy, despite nearly unanimous suggestions from family and colleagues to do so, compounds on Martha's constant nausea and dehydration.  In the end the author concludes that she must "unlearn virtually everything Harvard taught her about what is precious and what is garbage."  I would highly recommend it to anyone - parents with special needs children, parents without special needs children, people who don't even have kids.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is when Martha observes that in contrast to the cut-throat, accomplishment-obsessed culture of a place like Harvard, "it is amazing to live with someone who genuinely couldn't care less about Getting Ahead, someone who is absolutely committed to finding joy in the present moment."  That quote recalled a vivid memory of one of the athletes from the Summer Sports Camp a few years ago.  Participating in a flag football game, and decked out in a Minnesota Vikings jersey with a matching headband, armbands and receiver gloves, he made a diving catch in the corner of the end zone to score a touchdown for his team.  Had it taken place in an NFL or major college game, it might not have made Sportscenter's Top 10, but for this young man, this was his moment.  His reaction and the subsequent mobbing by his teammates could have had you conclude that he just caught the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds of the Super Bowl.  Never mind that it was ten in the morning on a Thursday at a tiny school in central Minnesota, hardly a fan in sight.

As someone who (typically) possesses the cognitive ability to put something like that guy's catch into context and the physical ability to (likely) do something similar, it gives me goosebumps to watch the emotion that follows something that might seem relatively ordinary from my perspective.  Interacting with people who have physical or intellectual disabilities is a humbling reminder of the many ways in which I am blessed in many abilities that I often take for granted, even if I'm not LeBron James or Albert Einstein.  I think these abilities, the ability to go about my day, cognitively and physically capable of doing most anything I need to be self-sufficient with relative ease are the privileges that I most often overlook^ because they come as such second nature.  To see someone struggle through what seems like a routine daily function can be a real eye-opener as to just how good you have it.    

Now if I were in any way suggesting that we should use those who with special needs to develop a pious mindset that things could always be worse, it would be incredibly callous and insensitive.  Or, if I attempted to claim that I wish I had a special needs child for all of the nuggets of big-picture wisdom they could bestow upon me, I would be naively lying through my teeth.  We are blessed with three healthy, relatively highly functioning (at this point) children, and we feel very fortunate that that is the case.  My interactions with special needs kids or adults is very limited and is definitely not a daily, or even weekly occurrence for me.  While I'm sure the parents, siblings, and caretakers of those with special needs have learned a great deal about life, just as Martha has from Adam, the challenges are no doubt overwhelming and both physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.

What I do think though, is that we as a society would be better served if all of us had more frequent interaction with those who have special needs, whether they are physical or intellectual disabilities.  I think that we could learn a lot about how to better develop feelings of empathy and understanding, and exercise the virtue of patience - all things that often seem to be in short supply in our frenetic, fast-paced and relatively selfie-absorbed world.  When we take time to think about the ways in which we are more fortunate than others, it makes us mindful of those privileges, helping us to (hopefully) not take them for granted and recognize that others often struggle with things that are instinctive to us.  Often times, our inability to empathize with others comes from our lack of understanding or indifference to those who are faced with different circumstances than we are.

There exists, I believe, a unique opportunity to help our kids overcome these attitudes.  I read an article a while ago about raising a "respectful" child, someone who is mindful of others. It highlighted a family who had decided to enroll their preschool son in a school that was half students with special needs and half students without special needs.  When I originally read about this, I wondered about the quality of the education their son was getting, assuming that a lot of time was spent addressing the behavior of the special needs students or providing them extra assistance for any physical disabilities.  But then I thought about the incredible emotional intelligence (EQ) those students are building, and how a high EQ is often a better predictor of future success than a high IQ.  No doubt it can be a powerful experience, at any age, to watch your classmate struggle through something you can do with ease, like wash your hands, even if you don't completely understand why.

The article also discussed the importance of talking about differences that your kids observe; skin color, language, physical ability, behavior, etc, and exposing them to diversity at a young age.  As much as we might not always think it, kids are cognizant* of those differences.  The great thing though, is that the differences they observe do not come with any preconceived notions about what those differences can mean.  They will notice someone with a different skin color, but (typically, hopefully) at an early age, it carries no connotations for them, negative or positive.  A child might notice that their peer with Down Syndrome looks different than they do, but can't necessarily grasp what that means.  We have an opportunity to teach our kids and help them understand that different doesn't have to be bad or scary.  If we're nervous to talk about those differences with them, because of our own preconceived notions or "uncomfortable-ness", then we allow them an opportunity to fall into a prejudiced mindset that can only become harder to change with time.  

I also see the opportunity of exposing my children to diversity as a conduit to overcoming my own fears and lack of comfort in those settings.  Growing up in a very small, very homogeneous area, I had very little exposure to any sort of diversity.  Over the years, as I've had more first hand experiences, with people with physical or intellectual disabilities or people of a different race, ethnicity, religion or political persuasion, my comfort level with those interactions has increased, but I certainly still have a long way to go.  My preconceived prejudices were allowed to become ingrained in my beliefs for a good chunk of my adolescence.  However, when I see my kids interacting with other kids who may look or act different then what they do, it pushes me to overcome my fears and anxieties about those differences.  It can serve as a way to break the ice to talk to the parent who might look different than you, or speak a different language, or be experiencing parenthood in a completely different way because of their circumstances.  I can't imagine what it is like to be a parent of a special needs child, but I can't let my fear of being insensitive to that parent, deter me from engaging with him/her and trying to understand their experience so that I can attempt to better empathize with them.

This past spring, we attended an Early Childhood class that was geared toward parenting across cultures.  Not only was I the only dad in the class, I was the only Caucasian, and one of two parents who was not a recent immigrant or refugee.  This class was a phenomenal experience for me, because it gave me an opportunity to interact with and discuss parenting topics with other parents who had a completely different outlook on parenting based on the experiences they've had in their lives.  It also allowed my kids to be immersed in that diversity.  It was great to see them comfortable playing with kids who looked and acted differently than they do, or trying to navigate informal play dynamics with kids who didn't speak the same language as them.  Because they lack the knowledge of how our differences can create anxiety among each other, they're not worried about saying or doing something that could be construed as insensitive or offensive.

Without doubt, our kids are aware of the differences that are around them, especially when it comes to other people, and most especially their peers.  Think of the adage, "mind like a sponge".  As parents, we have the opportunity to help our kids feel comfortable with those differences, and see them through a lens that makes our world brighter and, by trying to understand those differences, a more inclusive and peaceful place.  Or, we can choose to ignore those differences or try to tell ourselves that our kids don't really notice them.  While it is good to allow them to come up with their own conclusions, those conclusions can often be influenced by their friends and the narrative advanced by the "cool" kids - who don't usually seem to be the ones with the highest EQs.  If we allow our anxieties and fears of difference trickle down to our kids, undoubtedly they will become their anxieties and fears too.  I try to be proactive in exposing my children to diversity and diverse situations, so they can hopefully avoid developing the fears and anxieties that I have as an adult.

But if we take the time to talk with our children about it, and even take the time to proactively address the our own fears and anxieties that may come with interacting with those who are different than us, we can hopefully increase our children's empathy and understanding, and our own.  It is most certainly not easy, and as I liked to say to the student employees in the office where I worked; "uncomfortable situations won't get any more comfortable until you continually put yourself in them."  It takes time, but I think it is something we could all benefit from - having a little more patience, a little more understanding.  We may not always get it right, but we can at least try, and we can always be brave.
Subtitle of this post comes from a speech by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and is the motto for the Special Olympics.  If you have any interest in supporting the Special Olympics, you can do so via their website.  I would also encourage you to help "Spread the Word to End the Word" by taking the R-word pledge.    

Isla carrying the torch during the Opening Ceremony
of our good friends' annual Yardlympics competition.

Gus has been showing some promise on the rings.

^Beyond my white-privilege, male-privilege, socio-economic privilege and all of the other privilege I have that I'm unaware of.  We'll probably get to those later.

*Cognizant used to be one of my favorite words to use when I was working, and my staff would mock me relentlessly for it.  I think this is the first time I've had the opportunity to use it in a post.  


  1. Man, every time I read your blog, I am like, did I even know this guy. I mean the depth in this stuff is mind blowing. Also, you and about 3 or 4 other male role models are the reasons why I am better father to Levi.