Priscilla Gilman, author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy, and I met online, traveling through similar virtual networks. She sent me a copy of her memoir, which I read and immediately fell in love with. It is a spectacular story aimed at parents to be sure, yet I could see so clearly as I lost myself in those pages, how powerfully her messages would resonate with educators, therapists, and medical professionals.
I invited Priscilla to chat with me as part of my series Conversations. I’m delighted she agreed to an interview.
Lynne: The experience of parenting is very personal, and disclosure as it relates to a child’s unique needs and learning style is particularly challenging. When did you know you needed to write your family’s story?
Priscilla: I never thought I would write a memoir. Academics don’t write memoirs. And writing about personal life is very scary and challenging. I didn’t set out with the goal of educating professionals either. I’d begun to do talks with the director of Benj’s school, and after a number of talks to educators about our experience, I sent the talks to my friend, who’d become a literary agent. She suggested I take my interest in romantic poetry and combine it with writing about advocacy for children.
Lynne: So it’s another unexpected joy then, that professionals are connecting with it?
Priscilla: It is! I didn’t write the book for professionals. I wrote it from the perspective of wanting to help, and to share my story to comfort others. I wanted and still do want anyone who reads the book to see how far my son has come. How amazing it is what he can do. I wish this for all children. This acknowledgement of history. Not every parent will write a memoir, but every parent can go in to talk to a teacher and share their child’s history, their milestones, how far they’ve come. The little things and the big things they’ve accomplished. Only parents can give providers this information, this perspective about what makes their child unique. And I want teachers to be encouraged to give the same to parents.
I wrote the book with an eye toward solidarity. I want readers to walk the journey with me, to learn from my experience.
Lynne: The book is not just a memoir aimed at sharing your experience with other parents, though we agree that regardless of one’s child’s needs, parenting is always an unexpected experience. I think so much of your story has relevance for professionals. And it’s been so positively received. What impact has telling your story had on professionals and what they can do for children?
Priscilla: I speak often to many different kinds of professionals—medical students, education students, literature students, nursery school teachers, preschool teachers, therapists, school administrators, the list is long—and there are really three actionable take-aways I offer that seem to resonate.
- I talk about the importance of collaboration. How necessary it is to work with parents, not against them. Create relationships that are not adversarial. As the result of one difficult interaction, it can be far too easy to become lined up on opposite sides.
- I urge professionals to look at children as individuals. There are some positives certainly to a child having a diagnostic label—the sense of community one gets from it and in some places access to the appropriate services—still, use labels only as context, not as a way to define or limit a child. Tune into the uniqueness of each child, what it is he or she can tell you. Watch for what you can learn from him or her.
- Remember the sanctity of what you are doing every day. I’ve taught; I am a teacher and I know the challenges. Teachers work hard every day. It’s sacred work. I remind them of the value of what they are doing and that it is something so much larger in the scheme of things. Teachers are helping individuals to bloom, creating individuals, really. Their work is infinitely valuable.
Lynne: I’d love to give you the opportunity to tell professionals what you want them to know. Fill in these phrases:
The best schools…
Priscilla: Work on their wording. They stay away from form letters, or if they do use them, they add in something handwritten. Be compassionate and warm, so parents see that you are not rejecting a child, but are in fact looking out for his best interest. Phrasing is everything. Don’t assess children based on one set of criteria. Be open minded. Look at a child’s strengths. Children will do better when environments are nurturing, safe, and there is personal attention.
Lynne: The best administrators…
Priscilla: Don’t judge parents and children. They are a combination of steady, poised, empathetic, warm. Good administrators are skilled listeners.
They are not removed. They work collaboratively with teachers and parents. Facilitate parent/professional partnerships by being in dialogue, by observing teachers and childrens, by being available. They know when to intervene to help others rise above controversy. They are good role models.
Lynne: The best teachers…
Priscilla: Are compassionate, energetic, curious, and tuned into the uniqueness of children. Great teachers are open to using different modalities to evaluate learning—not one essay, but rather choices: write a poem, a story, a song. Instead of a straight forward essay, let a child cast a play. Recognize and value that each child has a different best expression. Be at ease with having different expectations for children. Don’t push too hard or not at all, but rather encourage each child to stretch, to take his or her own personal risks.
Remember that all the things we do to help children with special needs, help all children. When teachers can reach the children with extreme needs, every child—really, all of us benefit.
Lynne: As I shared with you, I’m a strong believer in your messages to parents and professionals. We all have so much to learn from you about advocating for children and about the parents’ role in the parent/professional partnership. To that end, this semester while fulfilling my role as visiting scholar of education in Singapore, I invited my cohort of sixty three soon-to-be teachers enrolled in my Assessing Children with Special Needs course, to read The Anti-Romantic Child. Below you will find some of their insightful reflections.
Thank you, Priscilla, for making such a profound difference on behalf of children and those who educate them.
As an early childhood professional, we may be able to nurture or instill fundamental values, but I believe that we should never force children to conform, to become who we want them to be. Rather, it is our role to speak up for children, to be their voice so that we can make a positive difference in them and through them. As Priscilla says in The Anti-Romantic Child when talking to her son’s teachers, “Remember how far he has come rather than how far you still want or need him to go.”
—Ng Hui Jing Deborah
Not very ideally, our current education system instills in us a mindset of competitiveness, survival of the fittest; it teaches us to strive for excellence. We are judged by results and scores, through tests and assessments which are supposed to reveal our intelligence, our skills and our capabilities. If we are not up to the standards set by others, we are cast out and pushed aside. Despite systems like this, Priscilla continued to believe in her child and remained focused on helping others to see his strengths. Priscilla recognized her son’s talents and helped him to use them to express himself, to cope with overwhelming situations, to feel accepted and to connect with the world. As an educator, I hope to bear parents’ challenges in mind, to be more compassionate and kind.
—Grace Tan Shu’en
As a teacher, I am used to informal assessment such as observation and developmental checklists. When we started learning about formal assessment, it still all made sense to me. We assess children to look for information that will tell us more about behavior and learning. So it was thought provoking for me when I read that Priscilla “was struck by the harshness, the crudeness of the terminology” of various assessments. I had never paid conscious attention to the type of language used before. Not all parents will understand the terminology and we are talking about their children. I realize now how intimidating and scary this can be. It really made me rethink how I will approach parents about assessment and what other supports I can provide them.
—Jane Mayriel Singh
Often in our hurry to want children to be good at all aspects of learning and development, teachers and parents are tempted to spend much of their time concentrating on deficits. However it is increasingly important for us to look for and appreciate the individual value of each child in order to provide him or her with opportunities to maximize strengths in a personalized environment.
Having studied at Wheelock College for the last two years, I have a greater appreciation for difference, diversity, and individuality. Nevertheless, reading The Anti-Romantic Child only helped to cement this appreciation. The phrases: All children have special needs, all children are unique in their own way, and children with special needs are first and foremost children, will forever be imprinted in my mind.
Priscilla Gilman received her B.A. and Ph.D. in English and American literature from Yale University. She is a former professor of English literature at both Yale and Vassar College. Gilman writes regularly for publications including the Daily Beast, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, and speaks frequently at schools, conferences, and organizations about parenting, education, and the arts. You can find her online at www.PriscillaGilman.com.
Lynne Griffin is a nationally recognized expert on child development, behavioral assessment, and family relationships. She is the author of the family novels Sea Escape and Life Without Summer and the parenting guide Negotiation Generation. She is a faculty member at Wheelock College, teaching family studies, early childhood education and leadership at the undergraduate and graduate levels. You can find her online here: www.LynneGriffin.com, and atwww.twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin and at www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin.