March 1, 2016

Individuals, Not Labels

I’m not a fan of labels.

I understand that getting a diagnosis may provide some level of comfort for parents of children who appear to have learning or processing differences; after all, pinning a name on a struggle can help an out-of-control situation feel more manageable.

However, as John Taylor Gatto points out in his excellent, prescient treatise, The UndergroundHistory of American Education, labels box us in. Specifically, labeling children according to their “disorders” tragically empowers educational and medical bureaucrats to pigeonhole them, even to the point of forcing the most “damaged” ones aside so they might never reach their full potential. This labeling frenzy has reached fever pitch in recent decades. And at its worst Gatto explains the very real prospect of turning every minor individual difference into a subtle but especially vile form of eugenics.

Thus, I urge home educating parents to exercise great caution with labels. For starters, read the parenting books that describe “normal development” with a grain salt. Vet every author’s worldview perspective, knowing that some medical and educational “experts” – even those who are very popular or trendy - are really propagandists for twisted, collectivist thinking. And remember that there’s actually a very broad range for “normal” in regards to every “milestone” and behavior. For example, it’s patently false that every child “must” read fluently by age five in order to find academic success, and the work of anyone suggesting the validity of such thinking should be immediately discarded.

Secondly, if you do seek and obtain a diagnosis of some sort, avoid equating the label with your child’s entire identity. For example, decide to say, “My child has autism,” rather than calling him “my autistic child.” This may seem like a small distinction, but semantics really do matter. In the latter construction, “autistic” is a descriptive adjective that locks a child into a narrow identity. But saying that a child “has” something provides distance between the label and the child and signifies that one characteristic is not his entire identity. Choosing to speak in this way – and insisting that others do as well – also redirects our interactions with the child. Whereas equating his whole identity with a disorder or difficulty discourages both the child and his parents, purposing to see it as only one small piece of the glorious, intricate puzzle of his mind and heart keeps a “problem” in proper perspective.

One of my daughters may very well have been labeled and boxed in if she’d spent any time in an institutional school. In fact, when she struggled to remember basic blends and digraphs, couldn’t seem to decode or spell even simple words for the longest time, and wrestled with memorizing her math facts, I spent quite a bit of time worrying that she might have a “problem.” And on several occasions I wondered if I should seek a diagnosis. But every time I came close to asking where to find the “right” people, she’d make a noticeable improvement. So I decided to avoid labeling her even in my own mind and, instead, we simply pressed on, diligently but gently. We tried various strategies – for example, I discovered she could remember exponentially more spelling words and math facts when we used picture cues – and she kept learning, sometimes step-by-step and other times in broad leaps. Now 14, she still doesn’t prefer math, but she understands the concepts and can manage the necessary computations. And in terms of literacy…well, she devours books, writes deeply reflective essays for her own blog, and is in the process of drafting several short stories and even a novel or two. As it turns out, it appears that she really only has two “situations,” not any sort of disorder. First, she’s a little far-sighted. But, of course, regular eye exams and updated prescriptions take care of that. Second, she’s probably a right-brained learner, which is simply a way of being, not a disorder. But if I’d allowed myself – or others – to label her instead of choosing to learn about her and giving her time to mature, we may never have discovered her significant literary potential.

Every child has a particular, unique set of strengths and weaknesses. But our culture – particularly with its current penchant toward stupefying “standardization” – seems bent on stifling individuality. So “experts” slap labels on any “unusual” characteristic or behavior and try to convince us as parents that any individual variation is a diagnosable sickness. Indeed, some children really do have physical, mental, and biochemical problems that make learning and coping difficult. However, let’s remember that our kids are…our kids. Every one of their behaviors and characteristics exists for a purpose and can, indeed, be used for ultimate good. Strengths can be utilized to shore up and redirect weaknesses. And over time, each child can find his purpose, most especially if he knows that his parents see him as an individual, not a label.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD,
‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.’”
~ Jeremiah 29.11 (NLT)

Photo Credit: Vilseskogen


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