I write today as a cynic. I’m not proud of my cynicism, but I accept it and I’ve worked hard to earn it. It’s taken decades to wear down the bright and shiny optimism of youth, a process something like pulling back the curtain in Oz ever so slowly, simultaneously eager and terrified to discover the fat, bald guy pulling the strings. But here I am, face to face with a reality that I must share. It’s just too important to wait for you to figure it out on your own:
If YOU don’t advocate for your child, no one will.
There, I’ve said it.
Did you hear the bubble bursting? That was your idealism being shattered, and not a bit too soon. Parenting in the naïve belief that the world will automatically and spontaneously serve your children’s needs, that they’re more than just another face filling another seat in another classroom, that the pediatrician will volunteer to do that extra test and the dentist will offer to explain the procedure and the music teacher will go the extra mile is … well … naïve. Sure, there are some outstanding teachers and medical professionals and coaches and tutors and mentors out there. There will always be those miraculous connections that foster hope and trust and faith. You know, those right place-right time meetings that opened just the right doors so that Baryshnikov became a dancer rather than a waiter, so Michelangelo did more than scribble on napkins, and so that Bill Gates got access to the family garage.
Those strokes of good fortune do happen and I hope that they happen to your children, but they are probably even rarer than the strokes of bad fortune that make the news: kidnappings and car wrecks and diseases and assaults. You don’t leave it up to luck to protect your kids from the bad -You insist on seat belts and you teach them about 9-1-1 and stranger danger; you make them wear bike helmets and life preservers and you monitor their digital media- so why wouldn’t you take every step to assure the good?
This is not a plea to buy your kids more or bigger or better. This is not about money or getting into the right preschool so they can go to the right high school so they can go the right college. This is about advocacy. Speaking up. Stepping in. Getting involved and being heard. Being polite and respectful and insistent and, in so doing, teaching your kids how to do the same.
School is a great example. Do you sit back when your child comes home with a bad grade? When your son complains of playground bullies or when your daughter talks about drugs in the school bathroom? No, you get the facts and you keep your calm but you schedule an ASAP meeting. You take a stand. You insist on safety and you exercise your rights.
Imagine that you’re taking the family out to dinner. Your daughter ordered her double cheese burger well done, hold the mustard with onion rings rather than fries. The order arrives with no cheese, smothered in mustard and surrounded by fries. What do you do? And how do the choices that you make effect your daughter? If you ignore the problem and her complaints, if you cower in your seat because you don’t want to cause a fuss, she’ll hate her meal and learn to accept what she gets in the world. If you try to flag the waiter down but fail, if you scrape the mustard off and share your onion rings with her, she might learn to settle or perhaps to pick her battles.
If you stand up and shout, knock the meal to the floor, swear at the waiter and stomp out without paying, she might learn rage but she’ll still be hungry and she won’t be allowed back.
Advocacy means picking your battles, standing up for what you believe in. Being clear and assertive, calm but insistent. Speaking to the waiter and then the manager, if you must. Writing to the owner. Sitting on hold listening to infinitely looping phone trees (“press one to speak to…”). Advocacy may not get what you need, but it teaches that the effort is worthwhile; that dignity is important.
Knowing your rights is critically important to advocacy. Know what you deserve and what you are entitled to. If it’s about grades and teachers and special education, the school should tell you about your rights.
Health care and health insurance are great examples. There are many skilled, conscientious and responsive medical professionals in our world. Are yours among them?
· Do you get the time and attention and respect that you deserve?
· Do you feel valued and listened to?
· Are your questions answered promptly and completely and in English or in jargon?
You have every right to get an explanation for your child’s healthcare needs that is clear and makes sense. Don’t let the letters after a person’s name or the diplomas on the wall or a haughty and rushed attitude intimidate you. Be a good advocate for your child.
The same dilemmas can come up when your children join sports teams (at school or in the community), dance troops and karate dojos and clubs and interest groups and faith-based youth organizations. Unless you speak up about what your kids need and want, unless you voice an opinion politely and respectfully, firmly and clearly, it’s unlikely that you’ll get what you need.
Of course, healthy and strong advocacy is not a guarantee that you’ll get what you need. You may be asking for something that’s not possible here and now (which probably means it’s time to look elsewhere). You may be asking for something unrealistic. Standing up for yourself may even ruffle some feathers. Aggravate some neighbors. Rile up the school board. Aggravate the office staff. That’s okay. So long as you’re always polite and respectful, so long as you listen at least as much as you talk, and so long as you are genuinely fighting for what your kids need (which is, of course, usually different from what they want), then you’re on solid ground.
And as your kids age? Urge them to advocate for themselves first before you step in. Help your daughter summon up the courage to ask the teacher to reconsider her grade. Help your son practice approaching the principle about changing the date of the game. Prompt your kids to tell the doctor or nurse about what hurts, what they fear, what they think and what they feel. As they get older, your job is to play second fiddle, always there if they need you, but deferring to their growing skills and emerging voice and impressive confidence as much as you can.
One of the greatest tragedies of our world is that the people who need advocacy the most—the poor and uneducated, the disabled and immigrants who don’t speak the common language, the anxious and depressed and confused among us—these people are least able to advocate for themselves. If you need help advocating for yourself, ask at school about educational advocates. Ask the pediatrician how to get a translator or where to learn more about a particular condition or medication.
Here are a few basics:
1. Write everything down.
2. Date every page that you write.
3. Keep notes about who you talk to (“Could you please spell your name for me?”). Get their phone number and extension. Get their boss’ name, also.
4. Read everything carefully. No matter what you’re advocating for, you will get paper by the pound and more websites than you can imagine. Be patient. Read slowly. Take notes. The more you learn, the more likely you are to succeed.
5. Join support groups online and in person. Ask around the school or the doctor’s office or Google the topic. Support groups and listervs and chat rooms can save you hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars.
6. Take singer Kenny Rogers’ advice: “know when to fold ‘em.” Fight the most important battles (health, for example) tirelessly and endlessly. Other battles are worth lesser efforts but must all come to an end. There’s no shame in quitting if you’ve put up a good fight.
Dr. Benjamin D. Garber has advanced degrees in child and family development, clinical psychology, and psycholinguistics from the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Michigan. Dr. Garber can often be found kayaking and fishing on the remote lakes and rivers of Northern New England and occasionally scuba diving in warmer waters to the south. Find his most recent book here: Holding Tight/Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times.