Monday, November 4, 2013

Language and the pictures we paint

Shakespeare told us that "A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet".  

And while it is true that, in spite what you name it, a rose would retain its essential characteristics regardless, modern psychology has confirmed time and time again that our impressions of that rose would be highly subject to influence by the words that we use to describe it. 

The fact is that words, and how we use them, are incredible tools for influencing perception, understanding, and social definition. How an item, situation, or person, is described unquestionably impacts the idea we have of them. 

Fog, in the context of a horror story, is terrifying. But strolling through a foggy morning with the one you love creates a picture of romance and peacefulness. 

In both cases, the fog stays the same. But the impression surrounding it changes dramatically. 

I've been giving a lot of thought lately on language, particularly when it comes to describing my child. Being the parent of a minimally-verbal three year old forces me to often have to speak "of him" and "on his behalf". Often- almost always, even- I have to do this in his presence. 

Sometimes, I am speaking to his school friends or peers at a playground. Other times, I am describing him to our friends and family members. And, lately, I've frequently had to do it to professionals- doctors, therapists, teachers, aides- all of whom have varying degrees of first hand experience with my son. 

And all too often, these conversations revolve around one key topic: Sammie's development, aka: Autism (or something like it, as it should be noted that Sammie is still officially undiagnosed).

It is an incredibly odd thing to have to speak on someone else's behalf. I am not in my son's mind. I have nothing but his non-verbal language, body and behaviour cues to guide me. At best, I am only guessing as to what he is thinking and feeling. Often, these guesses are shown to be relatively accurate. But sometimes, I wonder how much of my own mind I am projecting onto his. 

In any case, I know from my background in sociology that the words that I choose to describe Sammie will create lasting impressions on those to whom I describe him. This can, and often does, impact their interactions with him in ways that, consequently, lead him to react in kind. This is known as labeling theory.  We internalize the labels that are ascribed to us and these lead us to acting in ways that fulfill these labels, like a psychological self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Jason and I chose to parent our children with one central philosophy at the heart of it all: Our children are human beings, from birth, with wants, needs, feelings, and opinions of their own that merit respect and consideration. This has led us to parent with practices that are often lumped under titles like "Attachment Parenting", "Peaceful Parenting", "Evolutionary Parenting", "Permissive Parenting" and so on. 

In truth, we've never really related to any of these terms. We didn't choose our parenting tactics out of a book. We have always simply sought to identify the need that our child had, and meet these in a way that is respectful of them. More than any other term, we have related to the concept of "collaboration"- working together to find the solution that meets everyone's needs

In our quest to parent with respect and consideration, we have committed (as often as we can, as we all slip up once in a while) to adopting language that is either a) neutral or b) positive when we speak of our kids. We do this when they are present, and we do it when they are not (more out of habit than anything).  So, for example, instead of saying our child is having a "bad" day, we talk about them being "sensitive", "off", "tired", "dis-regulated", "overwhelmed", etc. These descriptors, aside from being more accurate, remove the negative connotations associated with "bad" behaviour. 

It has worked for us. We find that, for the most part, when others speak about Sammie they tend to use the same language that we have modelled and focus on the positive aspects of his behaviour.  

Curious to know what other parents thought about the impact of language on their kids, I tossed the question out to the interwebs on two different forums, one for parents of children with Autism and another for parents of children with diverse and complex exceptional needs. The answers that I got were interesting, and generally consistent with my own point of view on the subject. However, one person's reaction definitely made me pause to think. 

She wrote: "I think it is a fine balance. I also need to vent about the things that make my son more difficult because if I keep it in I will explode. I would never vent in front of him, but to my husband, friends, and you guys well... I also need the world to see that my son has both challenges ( that require extra supports) and strengths (limitless potential). If the government investes in our kids they will get productive members of society (taxpayers) rather than lifelong dependents."

She definitely brought up a few interesting points: 1) that negative language can be therapeutic, as a form of release and can be properly utilized in appropriate contexts, and 2) that, when we choose our language, we need to also remember to paint an accurate picture of the challenges that are faced. 

Another poster gave an even more raw and incredibly human response: "I still haven't mastered positive language. It's a trend in all my life. I feel like part of me needs others to acknowledge how hard things are for me."

Another point to consider. If we use positive language, do we somehow create a situation where we are minimizing the struggles that we face, and therefore creating an unrealistic impression of our challenges and lived realities?

On many levels, I can relate to these posters. I have definitely struggled with family members telling me that it's "not that bad" because I have chosen words carefully in order to ensure that they do not judge or misrepresent my son. I have even been accused of "sugar coating" things, or of only talking about the "hard times" when it is convenient for me. 

But on the other hand, I have a child to consider, and the weight of being his only voice in a world where spoken language is deemed to be the only valid form of communication bears down on me. Sammie has no control over what I say, and therefore has only minimal control over how he is perceived. What I say matters a great deal to him. 

I think the first poster is right when she says it is a fine balance, and I have come to the conclusion that there is, in fact, a way to blend the two and to walk the fine line between presenting the cold hard facts, while not labelling the child and impacting the perceptions of who he is. This comes down to something I was taught in grade school: Using "I" language.

When I am asked to describe the challenges and difficulties that are present in our lives, I am actually not speaking only on Sammie's behalf. At that point, I am speaking of my own lived experiences as well, and on the impact that these have on my own life. By refocusing my language towards the "I", I am shifting the focal point away from him and onto myself. 

For example: 

"Sammie had a bad day. He kept melting down and wouldn't calm down no matter what I tried. He hit me in the face, and can not be controlled when he is like this

can very easily become 

"Sammie and I really struggled today. I wasn't able to help him through his meltdown no matter what I tried. I wound up getting hurt trying to help him control his body and emotions. We need more supports to learn how to get through these challenging times together."

By utilizing "I" and "We", and rethinking some of the context ("I wound up getting hurt" instead of "He hit me"), we shift the negative impact away from the child and onto the situation. We still clearly outline the challenges and accurately describe the situation, but do so in a way that is more solution focused, pro-active and respectful of the impact that negative words can have on our child and those who work with them. 

I fully admit, these are still very preliminary thoughts on an aspect of the topic that I hadn't fully considered before today.  I would love to hear some feedback from others on how they navigate the fine lines.

Do you find venting negativity, unhindered, to be therapeutic? 

Do you worry about how it will impact how others treat/view your kids? 

How do you draw the line between telling the "ugly truth", and keeping things positive and optimistic?

I leave you to ponder ;)


Mama Dulock  

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