Teach Your Children Well

(Benjamin gives Dolly a kiss)

It’s April, and not only are the birds singing and the pear trees blooming here at the Doublewide Ranch, but it’s once again National Autism Awareness Month.

As long-time readers know, my son Benjamin is autistic. Anyone who might be interested in reading about his experiences growing up autistic can click on “Autism” under “Categories” in my sidebar.

As I’ve looked over my previous posts about Benjamin, I’ve wondered if I’d painted too rosy a picture of his life now. Don’t get me wrong—he really has come a long way from the days when he’d rock back and forth, when he’d scream if I deviated even slightly from our usual route to the library, when he barely talked except to echo what others had said. Yes, a very long way indeed.

But when you go through the bullying and torment that Benjamin did growing up, simply because he was different, it leaves a permanent mark. Especially for a sensitive soul like his. Sensitivity can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you often see and hear and feel the beauty in this world that others overlook. But a curse, too—because this world is not always beautiful.

I’ve written before about the importance of teaching our children to embrace those who are different, as has Benjamin. But I thought it was worth repeating, because sometimes it seems that folks are becoming less and less tolerant and more and more disparaging of each other’s differences. So please forgive me for preaching once again (and,very likely, preaching to the choir).

My last post expressed the importance of not judging people by their outward image, by the things that hide the truth of who they are, and how we are all subject to the temptation of being judgmental. Sometimes those who congratulate themselves the most for their open-mindedness and eagerness to embrace diversity can be the least aware of how narrow their definition of diversity is.

When I was in my early twenties and far more naïve and innocent than I am now, I went to a party in Chapel Hill with the newspaper reporter that I was dating at the time. The party was a reunion of sorts of some of his classmates from the School of Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. They were mostly journalists in their 30’s from newspapers in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill who would have, for the most part, called themselves open-minded, tolerant, and progressive.

When Rob told me we were going to the party, I was really nervous. These people were all sophisticated college graduates, some of them with master’s degrees. I wasn’t. I pictured a party where everyone was having intellectual discussions and eating fancy hors d’oeuvres and drinking dry wine with their pinky fingers extended. So I dressed up in my Sunday best, with panty hose and heels and makeup and extra hair spray. Like I said, I was naïve.

When we got there, I saw right away that everyone else was in t-shirts and shorts, drinking beer and playing volleyball. My heart sank and my face turned crimson, but I was determined to make the best of it. Surely all these open-minded journalists wouldn’t care what I was wearing. Isn’t journalism all about looking beyond the outward appearance to find the truth?

The snickering started almost from the minute I got out of the car. At first, it was subtle–a snicker here, a snide remark there. But as they got drunker and drunker, the ridicule became more open, especially when I gamely tried to play volleyball. (Yes, I did look ridiculous, but like I said, I was trying to make the best of it.) One of them wondered where Rob had found the “redneck girl.” Another asked if I was looking for the Baptist church down the road. It would have helped a lot, I guess, if I’d gotten drunk, too. But I’ve never really been into that. Seems like it too often turns people into jerks.

My point is—even people who think they are enlightened and unbiased and open-minded can be provincial in a way that’s sometimes subtle, but no less bigoted than anybody else. In their case, it’s often hidden behind a thin veneer of political correctness, but all it takes is a naïve country bumpkin girl (as I was) to bring it out. Even our local progressive alternative weekly paper (that has many fine qualities otherwise) fairly often features cartoons that make fun of local white country people, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They’d never think of ridiculing minorities or gays (and that’s a good thing, of course) but uneducated country white people are fair game.

What I’m saying here is that we need to be teaching our children that it’s not okay to make fun of ANYBODY because they’re different from us, whether it’s their skin or the way they dress or even the way they talk. That is true “diversity” training. And we need to set an example by never ridiculing other people in front of our children, no matter who they are. Some of Benjamin’s worst bullies in elementary school were the children of highly educated professionals who, no doubt, taught their kids not to make fun of minorities or gays or people in wheelchairs. But apparently, they didn’t go far enough. I always made it clear to my children that they would be in some seriously deep doodoo if they EVER made fun of anyone.

But they never did. They have always been tolerant of differences (especially their weird mama!), and I’m happy to say that they both have friends who are black and white, gay and straight, loud and quiet, Buddhist and Baptist. And I think they know that their lives are far richer for having opened their minds and hearts to all kinds of people.

Benjamin really is doing well overall. He’ll be a senior in college next year in the Honors program and has so many friends that I sometimes can’t reach him on the phone. But he still bears the scars of the cruelty he endured. Sometimes the pain manifests as anger; sometimes, as depression. The wounds were deep and painful, and while the scars have faded some, they linger.  And seeing his sadness still breaks my heart in two.  

All because of children who weren’t taught that all souls have worth and value—no matter how they look or talk or dress or worship. No matter what drumbeat they march to. Even those who march just a little out of step.

15 Responses to “Teach Your Children Well”

  1. Martha Says:

    I truly believe, Beth, that parents play a monumental role in teaching their children to be thoughtful and sensitive towards others. And although society and outside negative forces can get in the way, if the foundation of the home is strong, even if the children stray, they’ll return to it as they get older. In my opinion, even if a child is not born sensitive, they can be taught to be thoughtful and respectful, and to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And as parents, we have an obligation to raise moral, decent children to send out into the world. My kids knew that the type of behaviour you describe above (to bully and ridicule) would never be tolerated in our home. There were consequences, for sure. The constant statement I made to my children over the years is “You don’t have to like everyone, but you have no right to make fun of them. Being a bully or being mean to someone is nothing to be proud of”

    My heart goes out to you for the way you feel about your son’s horrible experiences, but it goes out even more to your son for what he’s gone through. I can’t only imagine the pain it caused him. And yet, he turned out to be a wonderful soul – just like his mama (you may be weird, but it’s a the kind of weird this world needs :).

  2. southernlady64 Says:

    This is so true Beth. We all need to teach our children, our grandchildren, and anyone else in our life to be kind to others. Children can be so cruel to other children. Adults can be very cruel as well. I always told my children to be aware of other people’s feelings. I remember once in 5th grade when this boy wrote a hurtful poem about me and read it to the class. I still remember every word of that poem today. We do not realize how cruelty can impact someone’s life for years to come.
    By the way, I read your comment at the end of your last post. I love the “Y all”. Spoken like a true Southerner!

  3. betsyfromtennessee Says:

    Hi Beth, Bullying today has gotten SO bad—and it’s scary to read about things like that girl who recently committed suicide due to the bullying she received. I keep asking myself: “Where are the parents? How could they have NOT known something was wrong with their daughter?” Adults just don’t communicate with their children much anymore. That’s what is so sad.

    I raised three sons –two of them by myself (since I got a divorce). It was hell at times—but I was a great parent, and we had and still have a great relationship. I didn’t always like what my kids did –but at least, they trusted me enough to tell me what was going on—and we worked through the issues. All three of them have become wonderful adults and fathers.

    About bullying –I have been ridiculed so much due to my weight problem. Even my mother made fun of me once –trying to shame me into losing weight. All I needed was for someone to tell me I was a good person no matter what I looked like. It was rough —so I definitely know about bullying. People with weight problems are OBVIOUS… I always laughed and said “Why couldn’t I have a problem that wasn’t so obvious???” I still struggle with my weight and my self-esteem —but George has helped me more than anyone ever has… I finally can say that I love myself —and I’m just me.. Take me–or leave me….

    Hugs,
    Betsy

  4. june Says:

    Beth, do you ever think about submitting your posts to the local newspaper…not just as letters to the editor, but perhaps as a freelance contributor? You write so well and what you have to say is either poignant or entertaining.

  5. Sweetflutterbys3 Says:

    My son was autistic as well and even though he has been “cured”, he still has odd behaviors and is rigid in his thinking. My biggest fear sending him to Kindergarten this year was that he would be made fun of. It was rocky in the beginning, but I think it’s getting better. Just knowing he was “different” was hard.

    I think your post was terrific. I think about the intolerence you described all the time and wondered if I was the only one who noticed. And you say it so well, putting into words exactly how I feel about it.

    I could not agree more that you should publish your posts as articles. You touch me so much every time you write, you could touch so many more people out there!

  6. Sharon Says:

    Never mind the “education” those people who made fun of you had–they had to have been raised in a barn–no, a barn is too good for them. No one behaved that way or as far as I know, even thought that way when I was growing up. When I was a child, there were two kids in my class who had disabilities: one was Henry, who had cerebral palsy, and one was Patsy, who was born without the lower part of her left arm. Everyone accepted them exactly as they were, just as blue eyes and brown eyes were noted and then forgotten about. In fact, Patsy is a friend of mine to this day. She is a beloved high school teacher and a beautiful woman with a devoted husband. I had friends whose parents were millionaires and friends who lived in houses with dirt floors. When I was a teenager, a neighbor girl had fairly severe Downs’ syndrome. She was welcome in every house on the street. I do think that bullying has become more and more predominant as the years go by, and it breaks my heart. It has to be the parents who are responsible for this behavior and attitude. Just like the Columbine killers–why did their parents not know what they were up to? My daughter said at the time, “You guys would certainly know if I were building a bomb in the garage.” We all make mistakes as parents, and we can’t control everything about our kids, but I think there is a big lack of conversation in these families. Also, many teachers seem to turn a blind eye to the things they see and hear. Where are their conversations in the classroom and outside of it?

  7. Jeff Says:

    Beth, you’ve written about a very complex topic that likely stems from the human desire for group identity. Once part of a group, those in the group stereotype and demean those outside the group and conflict starts. You are absolutely correct that it is wrong and you are also correct that everyone is guilty of the practice. Just a personal example that I experienced very recently. I overcame some personal fears and started attending the Presbyterian Church that I was raised in, which, to this day, turns out to be fairly conservative. Not a good move on my part. Anyway, during the last service that I attended, the preacher made the astonishing claim (to me, anyway) that the only way to salvation was through Jesus Christ. Stunned by the blatant display of in-group/out-group speech, I sat silently until the sermon was over and then fled, never to return. I sent the preacher an e-mail, stating my objections and he thanked me for it, but did not retract his words. Discrimination and stereotyping is never, ever acceptable. It leads,ultimately, to hatred and then violence. Perhaps the only reasonable response to such behavior is to reflect on how it leads to conflict and incivility.

    As a nation, we could all benefit from doing some serious reflection on the hatred and divisiveness that stereotyping produces. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, France, Israel, Muslims … the list is endless.

    I agree with many of the commenters that intolerance and in-group/out-group behavior has gotten worse in the last 50 years. My personal thought on the reason for that is the rise of materialism and status-seeking that has led to both parents working and neither having the time or energy to properly parent their children. Certainly, the pervasiveness of television, video games, iPods and the Internet have not helped matters any. Engaging in any of these activities does not involve true community or interaction on a face-to-face basis with other people. If you have to engage in personal interaction with other people, it is easier to see the true nature of those you are with and you are less likely (I said, less) to engage in stereotyping.

    As I said at the beginning of this comment — you’ve written about a very difficult and complex topic that is not easily resolved.

    I did follow the link to the Mountain Express cartoon that you used as an example and I read the comments about the cartoon. Personally, I think the MX used the cartoon as a cheap, sensationalistic “draw” for readers. I don’t have much patience for such “journalism”, but then, I don’t think much of the National Enquirer, either.

    The bottom line is that we could all stand to read and reflect on the words of The Sermon on the Mount again.

  8. Benjamin Says:

    Sounds painful about the party :-\

    Thank you for these words we all need to hear.

  9. Jayne Says:

    Thank you for this post Beth. Thankfully, and maybe because Sam has been so protected at school, we’ve not had any bullying issues. It would simply break my heart to see anyone prey on his differences. Funny, but we no longer see them as differences, but rather as just “Sam.” After all, is any of us “normal?” :c)

    I cringed when I read about your experience at the party. People can be so very cruel, and I think all of us have been in situations where we felt like the odd man out. You have articulated the issue so well and I agree that you should share this with the newspaper.

  10. colleen Says:

    You make a great point, Beth. I think we all know not to cross the line as it relates to race, sexual orientation, mental retardation etc. but the more subtle differences like how one dresses, economic background, or an accent can seem fair game but it shouldn’t. Thanks for sharing your story. It can help to open eyes to more subtle judgments and stereotypes.

  11. Cathy Says:

    Wonderful piece. Although my son (now 22) is not autistic, he does have ADD/Tourette’s/OCD. The Tourettes and OCD (inherited from Dad as well as the ADD) are mild, thankfully, but he struggled and we struggled as we went the medicine/no medicine routes as he grew up. He has had some difficulty focusing on what path/career he would like to pursue, but right now is a CNA/GNA and working in an assisted living facility. Since he was always somewhat sensitive about his “issues,” as he put it, he was very perceptive to the needs of others from a young age, and I think his experiences have made him a more compassionate person.
    I would not have wished him to have the disabilities that he does, but I am proud of the caring young adult he was turned out to be, like your Benjamin.
    I also believe your thoughts would make a great addition to a newpaper column!!!
    Cathy

  12. Cathy Says:

    That should be…
    …caring young adult he HAS turned out to be..

    not

    …WAS turned out to be.

    (Not that I’m vying to get MY writing in the paper, but I DID used to work as an editor, so had to point it out!)

  13. CountryDew Says:

    Well said! Bravo.

  14. Debi Kelly Van Cleave Says:

    Oh my goodness, that is terrible what happened at the party! They sound like mean highschool kids!

    I was really proud of Kelly tonight. She’s 13. We were watching American Idol and hubby said something negative about Adam Lambert being gay. Kelly snapped, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay!”

  15. blueridgebluecollargirl Says:

    Again, I wanted to thank everyone who commented. And again…I wanted to say how much I appreciate the time and effort you put into your comments, especially considering how long it takes just to read my lengthy posts!

    Bravo, y’all!

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