Autism Acceptance Month: People First vs. Identity First Language

Most autistic people prefer Identity First Language. Respect their wish.

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A few years ago, I participated in a course called “Partners in Policymaking” where I learned very valuable things about how laws protecting disabled people were enacted and how new policy is created. One thing I didn’t like, though, was the insistence on using “People First Language” (PFL) because it “emphasizes the person first, not their disability.” This is advocated by all government agencies, including the CDC, and by some universities that offer courses related to autism.

While more and more people are seeing the bias implied in PFL and are advocating for the use of “Identity First Language” (IFL), it seems like this is an ongoing conversation. PFL vs. IFL has been discussed in many spheres and blogs. One good article is by Emily Ladau, who happens to be a Partners in Policymaking pal. Here are my two cents.

The original idea was good. It meant to stop the use of what became derogative terms to refer to disabled people. However, it is intermingled with medical connotations. The comparisons given in general are those to diseases (don’t call them deaf, that’s like calling someone a diabetic).

In fact some organizations, like Family to Family Network, states that “A disability has been defined as a body function that operates differently. It’s that simple! It’s just a body function that works differently.” Wait, what? What about neurodivergent people? What would be the body function that works differently in someone with anxiety? Autism? ADHD? It is the person as a whole that experiences the world in a particular way and responds also in a given way. We’re not speaking about their pinky.

Another issue I have with this is that people advocating for PFL speak about IFL as if one didn’t address the person by their name. One webpage stated that PFL is “defining a person by name (Jane) or role (Aunt, Sister, Friend) and not disability helps others see potential rather than limitations.” As if one called out: “Hey, you, the autistic one, come here!” Does that sound ridiculous? It is. You commonly call or refer to someone by their name or say they’re your friend/child/parent.

Note also the bias in the quote above: “see potential rather than limitations.” They are saying that by thinking someone is autistic they think of limitations. Not of the positive traits that autism brings, including loyalty and honesty. They think “attention deficit” for ADHD, instead of creativity.

It is true that some communities DO want to use PFL. Some people DO see their particular disability as something that doesn’t change their life in a crucial way. Having a chronic pain condition, which is a disability, can be considered as something separate from the core identity of the person.

Some other diagnoses are hard to use with IFL, even if you wanted to. For example with ADD/ADHD, Cerebral Palsy… how would you use it?

But many, especially in the neurodivergent communities, DO embrace their disability as an identity. Many also consider being neurodivergent is not a disability in and of itself; it is something that becomes a disability in a society that is built for neurotypical people. They like their type of brain. And want to talk about it as just another aspect of their personality. Some even see it as an advantage and as a positive trait.

IFL also celebrates being part of a community. Many Deaf people, for example, refer to themselves as Deaf, with capital D, because it is an identity they accept. Most autistic people prefer IFL too.

The bottom line is that PFL stops being respectful when it doesn’t consider the wishes of the people it wants to show respect to.

 

What would really be respectful?

  • It is crucial to value the person and show it—do not think you’re better than they are or that you’re fortunate because you don’t “have” whatever. This is hard to do, because we’ve been socialized through ableism. I dare say that we all, including disabled people, have interiorized ableism, subconsciously believing that being “able-bodied” or “neurotypical” is a desired, optimal condition.
  • Realize that the person has a myriad qualities and can offer great insights and value to the workplace, classroom, or group.
  • Stop using terms such as “afflicted,” “suffering from,” “confined to,” “victim.”
  • Accept and use the preferred language of the person (not the caregiver, though) that you are talking to, or referring to. If they say they want to be referred to as autistic, don’t correct them. You’ll end up digging yourself into a hole explaining to them why saying “I have autism” is better than “I’m autistic.” Explanations like “You’re a person first!” and “Autism doesn’t define you” don’t make the cut. They do know they’re a person. And… maybe they DO feel autism defines them. Just like being a woman does. Or a man. Or an architect, mother, mathematician.

 

A good list of tips on communicating with and thinking about disabled people (or people with disabilities, depending on their particular wishes) includes that if you offer assistance to the person, WAIT until the person accepts your offer. And that you speak directly to the person, not to their interpreter or companion. It does mention PFL later on, but in general it offers good ideas.

I use and advocate for the use of IFL. To me it represents valuing the person as a whole, meaning WITH their disability or neuro-type. To me, PFL is the equivalent of “not seeing color.” If we all go with the flow and use PFL to avoid stereotypes, we actually perpetuate them. We collaborate to the thinking that a particular disability is a negative trait and the less spoken about, the better. We all can change the culture, but only if we dare to do so.

Autism Acceptance Month: Respect

Autistic people are listening. What are you saying?

When my daughter was about three years old, the social worker at the integrated school she attended told me a story. It was about a non-speaking autistic boy who was able to communicate when he was older. I don’t remember if it was typing or what means he used. Anyway, his mom asked him: “Where were you during all these years?” He answered: “I was here, listening.”

 

I froze. I started thinking and trying to remember absolutely everything I had ever said about my daughter in her presence.

 

My kiddo was diagnosed with a speech delay at two and stopped using baby jargon somewhat late, as I posted previously. Now, I absolutely adore her and think she’s incredibly beautiful, smart, silly, a climbing monkey… so most of the comments I’d made about her were surely positive. But it is possible I did say something to her teacher or to my husband (her dad), or to her brother, that could be hurtful.

 

This is something that not only parents of children with a speech or communication delay go through. Parents of all children, including those that know for a fact that their children hear and understand them perfectly, sometimes say really hurtful stuff about their children. Maybe the kids can take it. Maybe they build a thick skin. Maybe that’s the way their parents use to teach them about the awful, uncaring world out there.

 

But psychological studies have shown that it’s the opposite. Hurtful words hurt, period. They lower your self-esteem. They make you feel like you don’t belong and that you are not worthy. They deprive you of the “secure base” you deserve. Contrary to what some people think, being treated roughly doesn’t build resilience. Having a trusting, loving relationship with your parents does. Schools, by the way, should also strive to foster belonging and providing that secure base.

 

Having that secure base is very important for people in general. It is incredibly more important for autistic people, and especially so, for those who don’t communicate in a “typical” way and cannot immediately tell or show you that they’re being hurt by your words.

 

Speaking in a demeaning way about an autistic person who cannot respond immediately, especially when the person speaking is in a position of power (bus driver, teacher, therapist, parent…) is abuse. Autistic people do hear them. They do understand what these people are saying. If the situation is difficult, the demeaning language will escalate it. The person in charge is not helping the autistic person, and they are not helping themselves. Speaking that way doesn’t make them a better person. It just makes them a bully. Unfortunately, it does happen that children are subjected to this type of treatment. I know of a child who doesn’t speak, and for a long time didn’t communicate by other means. He has been abused by teachers, therapists and transportation staff. At the time, he could not communicate what he was feeling. Something that commonly happens in this situation is that the children will try to defend themselves; for example, they could refuse to enter a space, or they could push, shove, or hit someone. As can be expected, then they’re considered “problem kids” and aggressive. At the same time, they are still considered as unaware of what is going on around them, so their behavior is not seen as a response to mistreatment or verbal abuse. It is a terrible downward spiral, with negative treatment eliciting aggression in response, and that prompting more negative treatment…

 

But what if they don’t tell it to the autistic person? They only tell their friends, or other teachers, therapists, parents… they may feel they need to vent and complain. Or “process it” through humor and jokes. What’s the damage then? The damage is that they are creating and sustaining an environment that is hostile to autistic people. They are normalizing thinking that autistic people are “less than,” and they are normalizing hate speech.

 

People can start this behavior quite innocently, with minimal comments. But if it doesn’t stop there and escalates to the next level and then the next one… finally the people that work or live with autistic people end up feeling like they’re martyrs for, basically, doing their job, and they start looking down on their students, patients, children… and very bad things can happen. I’m really not exaggerating at all.

 

Unfortunately, many autistic people have lost their lives at school or at home. In some cases it’s been because they are held down with such force, that internal organs are damaged. In others, it’s been actual murder. I have witnessed how a group can become polarized and intensify this feeling of superiority in relation to autistic people, and of martyrdom among those that work or live with them. I left several online groups because of this.  It is easy to see the negative publicity and propaganda published by NGOs that use fear mongering to obtain funding. And there are internet sites and groups that can, definitely, be considered hate groups. It is awful. I cannot, don’t even want to imagine, what an autistic person feels reading what they post.

 

It is very enriching for everyone to read what non-speaking autistic people write. They state that they are hurt by demeaning comments, and that they can hear & understand what is going around them. Emma’s mom, Ariane Zucher, wrote in Emma’s Hope Book about a situation where Emma was taken to the wrong school and was seen as being aggressive because she refused to get off the bus. Rami Kripke-Ludwig wrote a very insightful article on about hurtful language, Carly’s Cafe by Carly Fleishman shows her point of view about what happens during a coffee shop interaction, Ido Kedar has written books and has a blog. Amy Sequenzia writes in several outlets and also blogs. And there is an anthology written by autistic people who type to communicate: Typed Words, Loud voices.

 

So, this month… be mindful of how you speak about autistic people, both in their presence and to others. Look for websites that respect them and avoid those that speak about them in a demeaning or hurtful manner. Don’t donate to organizations that use propaganda based on fear. If you do want to donate, donate to organizations founded by autistic people and/or that have acceptance and inclusion as a goal.

Autism Spirit Week – Day 4

Celebrating Autism and Neurodiversity

Today is a colorful day. Many autistic people identify with a rainbow-colored infinity symbol. Please join in by wearing colorful clothes or wearing anything (a ribbon, a hair bow, tie) with many colors…  This is a way to celebrate the multiple ways of being autistic and, more broadly, to celebrate neurodiversity. Neurodiversity includes all types of neurology, by the by. If you are talking about “neurodiverse” people you’re including everything—ADHD, dyslexia, autism, OCD, “typical,” and so on.

People with a neurologically-based diagnosis are neurodivergent. Neurotypical means the person has no such diagnosis. I’ve posted before that “neurotypical” would need to be a diagnosis by exclusion as in “you seem to have no… and we can rule out… so for the time being we can give you a presumptive diagnosis of neurotypicality.”

You’re a so-called neurotypical? Or autistic? Have ADD? ADHD? Tourette’s? Down Syndrome? All neurotypes are amazing. All can contribute to make this world a better place. What we need for that to happen is to provide the support and accommodations that each person needs, so the person can thrive. We need to really interiorize that by providing accommodations to someone you’re not giving them an advantage and you are not providing preferential treatment. You’re just believing that they want to do their best and respecting & supporting their needs. That’s all.

April begins! Autism Spirit Week-Day 1

April is the Month of Autism Acceptance. I’m joining an Autism Spirit Week, with some slight changes.

Day 1, April first, is to celebrate autistic inventors, creators, actors, and those who are changing the world. Among the autistic people who are diagnosed and have shared their diagnosis and that are changing how we see the world and autism are:

Satoshi Tajiri, creator of Pokemon. I must confess that my Pokemon knowledge is very limited but I’m obviously aware of how incredible famous Pokemon is, as well as Pokemon Go. A great bio is offered by The Art of Autism.

Greta Thunberg, climate activist. She states that her autism kept her from giving up, and that it pushed her to go ahead and start her campaign, rather than using her energy in trying to create an organization, which is what she envisions a non-autistic person would do. A good article on her was published by The Guardian.

Temple Grandin, autism activist and animal scientist. She has written several books including her memoir, Emergence: Labeled Autistic; Thinking in Pictures, Animals in Translation and many others. Her life was portrayed on screen by Claire Danes. Temple Grandin gives talks on both animal welfare and autism all over the world.

Dan Aykroyd considers his obsession with Ghosts and Ghostbusters to be the inspiration to the very famous movies he produced. Information on his movies, bio and trivia is found in IMDb.

John Elder Robison has written several books about his life and about autism. He is extremely creative and designed the first special effect guitars for the rock band KISS. He had a very successful career in electronics and now owns a high-end European automobile service and restoration. He is also the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary. More information about his life, books and appearances is found in his blog.

Alexis Wineman I think is a good myth buster. She was Miss Montana  and competed in Miss America in 2013. Beauty Pageants are one of those activities where social skills are crucial, and Alexis proved that autistic people can be successful in this area too. A news article about her was published in Disability Scoop.

 

Among the autistic people who type to communicate and have shown the inner life of people on the spectrum are:

Ido Kedar, who writes the blog Ido in Autismland and has written two books.

Carly Fleischmann has been actively engaging in outreach and advocacy. The Autism Support Network published an article written by Carly that also shows a video of her typing. Carly also created a talk show, Speechless, where she was able to show her witticism and amazing sense of humor.

 

There are so, so many more autistic people to portray. Who do you know that I should have mentioned?

Culture clashes

…when you are “neurotypical” and are raising a child who is neurodivergent, it is like raising them in a different culture.

As parents, we try to do what we believe is the best for our kids. Some of us read lots of books, some consult with psychologists, some with school staff, or go to workshops (maybe watch parenting videos too?). We try.

When we are raising a child in a different culture, it gets more complicated than usual. Maybe manners are different. Like how you interact with people when you enter a room. Do you say hi to everyone? or each person? Kiss, hug, look them in the eye or not? In Mexico we kiss everyone on the cheek (normally the right one, by the by, all need to go in the same direction to avoid… uh… accidents). But in Italy is on both cheeks, Switzerland it’s three kisses, US… none.

I would argue that when you are “neurotypical” and are raising a child who is neurodivergent, it is like raising them in a different culture. Their culture is different from yours. Only, they don’t need society to instill those manners or behaviors in them, they are born knowing that culture and behaving consequently.

If you have lived abroad or immersed in a different culture, you’ll agree with me that there are tons of behaviors, customs and phrases that don’t make sense to you. You can *understand* that it is important for *them,* but you won’t *feel* it in the same way. People from Germany and other “orderly” countries can suffer in Mexico because there seems to be chaos all the time. People say they will come to your birthday party but won’t show up. Or they come two hours later and won’t realize they need to apologize. They say “maybe” when they mean no.

So… imagine you’re a Mexican raising a German. It can be very, very frustrating, especially since you’re Mexican, and you had another child who behaves like a proper Mexican and you don’t understand why this one is behaving like a German.

Your neurodivergent child comes in a nice neurodivergence package. Unfortunately, some parents don’t realize this (they don’t know about neurodivergence or they have been told their child is “neurotypical,” aka not having any neurodivergence). These parents then keep trying to raise the child as “neurotypical” but they will invariably become frustrated, because the child cannot understand the reasoning behind the manners or behaviors their parents are trying to instill in them. Or can understand the reasoning but don’t really “feel” it and will commit faux pas after faux pas.

Now, there are parents who DO know their child is neurodivergent. Then the options are basically to educate them as if they were “neurotypical,” which will lead to frustrations like those experienced by parents who aren’t aware of their child’s neurology. Or they could raise them keeping in consideration that they are neurodivergent. A third option is to keep in consideration that they are neurodivergent BUT try to have them adapt to “neurotypical” ways, manners and behaviors.

There are many therapies that try to “help” achieve an “optimal outcome” that means that the child will be “indistinguishable from peers.” This, arguably, would lead to societal acceptance, better treatment from peers, a good job, better grades and better quality of life.

But… it does not. What is achieved with “indistinguishability” is actually what neurodivergent people call masking. Basically, it means playing a role all day in front of others, fearing that being themselves will lead to societal rejection, poor treatment from peers, bad grades, no job and low quality of life. The person inside doesn’t change. It’s only what is shown to others that is portrayed differently.

Does masking lead to societal acceptance? Hmm. Probably some, but not enough to be worth it. Masking is hard work, and it would require to keep in mind all types of situations. You’re bound to mess up sometimes (just as one does in a different culture). The more time you spend with someone, the more likely they’ll detect a crack on your façade.

What about treatment from peers, romantic relationships, raising your children? I’d believe it’s the same as above. Plus, the added stresses from any relationship would put a strain, and masking can become even more difficult (again, I’m drawing from my experience in other cultures, or even different types of society—imagine living for a week with a family with a very different socioeconomic status from yours, pretending you’re “one of them.”) Child rearing is extremely stressful as it is, and you’ll have different perspectives on how, why and when to discipline your children than your partner’s. This is specially draining if your partner doesn’t have your same neurology.

Bad grades? Actually, probably your grades in college would suffer if instead of playing to your strengths by studying what you like and are good at, you study whatever you think society is demanding of you. Or if you don’t study in the way that makes you learn better, because you’re trying to study like the rest. And masking would imply that you don’t request necessary accommodations, which will take a toll on your academic performance.

Job? Are you kidding me? People who were diagnosed as adults say they suffered because they were not receiving accommodations, peers were not patient with them, they could not keep a job. People who mask have reported similar situations.

Better quality of life… imagine living in a lie. Pretending to be religious in a super conservative society. Gay in a homophobic one. “Neurotypical” in an ableist one. People who mask have seen that their self-worth is hurt; they suffer from depression and anxiety. It has been studied in girls and is believed to be a main cause of late diagnosis, which in turn cause these girls to receive services and help later on in life than otherwise. As Kieran writes, masking is not adapting to change. Masking is tiring and causes anxiety. Ryan Boren links masking to burnout.

If you were masking, you would always be wary of new people. What if they like you, you become friends, and then you lower your guard, they see the real you, get freaked out and you never see them again. You’re never able to relax with a friend. It’s like being undercover, always in danger of being discovered.

When we train (or drill) our kids to become “indistinguishable from peers,” we are teaching them to mask (or camouflage, as it is also called). We’re leading them in the wrong direction. We’re leading them to low self-esteem and exhaustion. They don’t deserve that. They deserve to love themselves as they are, and to be loved without masks. Maybe they’ll have fewer friends. So what? Those few will be real friends. They’ll be able to relax and actually enjoy being with them.

We should teach our children how to interact with “neurotypicals,” for sure. But never at the expense of their individuality and dignity. “Neurotypicality” should be shown as just another culture and not as the correct and best way of being. Because it simply isn’t.

Otomi Dolls
Since I mentioned Mexico… shown are two dolls made by Otomi women in my home state of Queretaro. On the left is a boy, wearing a whitish hat, his black hair is showing a little bit and he is smiling. On the right is a girl, her hair is black and long, braided with ribbons. She’s also smiling.

Inclusive gadgets, tools and toys

A few days ago, an article came out talking about weighted blankets. It explained how the fact that they are becoming a fad is actually useful, rather than detrimental, to the autism community. The writer, Sara Luterman, is totally right. Having a hundred people using a weighted blanket doesn’t prevent yours from helping you. And it doesn’t minimize its intrinsic value as a sensory tool. And they won’t decrease the offer; on the contrary, the fad has increased the variety, and the number of blankets on the market. And it has made them much, much cheaper.

When my daughter was in Kindergarten, we were told about the blankets’ benefits. And in her classroom they had one, which she loved. After researching online and finding out they were prohibitively expensive, I naively decided to make it myself (I don’t sew at all). I found some instructions online and spoke to her teacher. She, who is an amazing human being, told me it was actually fairly difficult to make, even for experienced people, because as you start making “pockets” filled with beads, the blanket starts weighing more and more and pulls on the sewing machine’s needle. She generously offered to make it herself,  for which I’ll be eternally grateful.  I got the materials and just the materials were expensive enough.

Now, five years later, a weighted blanket was considered a doorbuster during Black Friday! You can find several types in different colors and styles in Amazon! You can go to your local Target and buy one! This would never have happened if it had remained confined to a niche market.

Furthermore, the relief it provides is not restricted to autistic people. Many non-autistic people have sensory processing disorder or sensory differences that make it so a weighted blanket helps them relax, go to sleep, and feel better (it is believed to promote release of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” that produce a sense of wellbeing and calm). It can also be useful for people with ADHD or anxiety, and for people with certain medical conditions, including fibromyalgia, some connective tissue disorders, low muscle tone and more. Sensacalm offers a good explanation on how it is believed to work.

It does not help everybody. I have fibromyalgia and have my children sit on my tights as my home deep-pressure therapy. But fibro also makes my joints very touchy and the weight hurts my knees and feet (I get cramps if I sleep with anything heavy on top). My son, ADHDer, didn’t really feel the weighted blanket was useful to him. But my daughter… Oh, yes, it makes her nights much nicer.

A gadget that got the evil eye a while back because they were thought to be useful to only a few and maybe damaging to most, are fidget toys. Especially fidget spinners. Many educators, from elementary school teachers to university professors, have banned them. I believe they provide enormous benefits not just for retention but also for wellbeing. There is controversy about their usefulness for increasing capacity to focus in people with anxiety,  ADHD and autism, but some research does show it helps. Same with other fidget toys like stress balls.

Using your hands while you are listening to someone speak helps with retention (and I would argue with understanding, which is crucial for retention). That’s one of the reasons it has been seen it is better to write notes by hand rather than typing them. Of course writing notes by hand includes other aspects, such as only writing important points, rather than “copying” verbatim what you hear. But even just doodling helps.

I believe fidget toys help with retention AND with lowering anxiety, which can in turn allow people to pay more attention. In my experience as an educator, I have found they are extremely useful in providing comfort and lowering anxiety. I meet with undergraduate students on a daily basis. Some of them are going through extremely difficult times. I have a basket full of fidget toys on my desk, thus making them fully available to whoever needs them. Now… they don’t need a diagnosis to need them. And I (or you, or anybody) cannot judge if a person “really” needs them. People who don’t need them (emotionally or physically) ignore them. But some do benefit!

And when I teach, I also have them available for students. They can grab one as they come into the classroom. And guess what? I’ve never felt distracted by them. I don’t even know who is using one (unless they are sitting in the front row, obviously). I hope more professors and teachers start allowing students to use them, and even in regular life, I hope people get used to having others fidget with a toy. I’ve seen women knit during a conference and think that’s fantastic, though I know some of the other attendees thought it was a bit disrespectful.

Fidget toys have also become easier to find, with more varieties, cheaper and with better quality thanks to being offered to a bigger audience. And for that we should be thankful.

Fidget stuff
On a plate there are little rocks and gemstones of different types, with distinct textures. They are meant to work as “worry stones.” In the background there is a small magnetic puzzle with little silver-colored balls and some fish. Behind the puzzle, on the same stand, is a red button that states “Disability Ally. Ask Me” meant to let disabled students know they are in a safe space. And so non-disabled students know they can ask me about their disability-related questions or concerns.
img_8529
A grey basket with a flower pattern filled with different types of fidget toys including fidget spinners, stress balls, some small puzzles, a soft but spiky bracelet, tangle, Rubik’s cube, etc. Students are free to play with whatever they want. I have some of the same toys at home for my children.

 

 

My argumentative children

“Spirited” children, or maybe “strong-willed” or, yup, “difficult.” There are courses, books, blogs dedicated to them. But… what is really a strong-willed child, and is that a bad thing?

In a blurb for a course for parents, they speak about challenging behavior, tantrums, and blow ups, power struggles… and “The spirited child can easily overwhelm parents, leaving them feeling frustrated and ineffective.” I don’t think we’re quite there, but yes, it can be tiring having kids who will not hesitate to point out the weaknesses in your argument or request. It can be annoying. And exhausting.

One of the characteristics observed in very young children on the spectrum, and in those with ADHD (and other diagnoses, I’m sure), is that “they want to do things their way” and they are “stubborn.” Neurodivergent children (and people) do see life differently. And, consequently, they react differently. Some norms and rules make no sense to them, and, under scrutiny, some of those rules would make no sense to many neurotypicals, either.

Yes, when I was constantly trying to have them do things my way and when I wanted it, I ended up frustrated. A couple of years ago, I was trying to get my son to clean his room. I was sure that cleaning your room was a crucial life skill. A basic rule of life, right? My arguing with him and asking him to clean his room would lead to arguments and more arguments, and a couple of times I ended up crying. What it didn’t lead to is a consistently clean room. He and I managed to clean his room twice, after many sessions of many hours spread over several days. I even took a picture! And a couple of days later, then the room went back to its usual state.

But then a couple of things happened: one is that I spoke to his amazing speech therapist—who was helping him with executive function: organizing, planning and carrying out tasks and projects, among other skills—and, while talking about his challenges with executive function, she commented, nonchalantly: “and I bet his room is a mess.” Her explanation is that for people with ADHD it is extremely hard to decide, for example, what to discard or give away; or to decide between two items. In ways, I was subjecting my son to torture, because part of my frustration was based on assuming my son thinks like I do, so I was forcing him to do stuff like I would do it.

Then I thought about myself. Normally, I have absolutely no problem with decision making. Some years ago, though, I would go to the grocery store at night, after waking up very early to go to work, coming home to help with whatever was needed and to take care of my toddler and my son, who was in his terrible twos at the time (my husband was with them during the workday). Anyway, I would go to the store and would be looking at yogurt and, for the life of me, I could not decide between strawberry yogurt and raspberry yogurt. And I would tell myself that it was ridiculous that I had already spent ten minutes looking at yogurt, for Heaven’s sake, and could not make up my mind. My solution was to stop going to the supermarket at night. Period. But… what if there was no escape? What if it doesn’t matter how tired you are, what time of the day it is, or how much you worked that day? What if every single time you go to the store you struggle like that? Was I adding one more frustration to my son’s day? Was it needed? Is cleaning your room decisive to your success as an adult?

The other thing that happened is that I’ve been teaching a summer class at the university where I work. The class focuses on study skills and success as a college student. One of the things we emphasize is the need to be intrinsically motivated. That is one of the main factors that will lead to success in life. Extrinsic motivation, which is given by others, can be given in the guise of prizes or punishment. It has been demonstrated that neither works. Even when it apparently leads to continuous improvement of a skill—think tiger moms and piano—it will not lead to the person enjoying that skill or way of living. And it definitely doesn’t create intrinsic motivation and doesn’t foster resilience or grit, or a growth mindset—the belief that you can improve in any subject or skill, if you work at it, and that intelligence and talent are not fixed and unchangeable.

So… I was trying to embed ideas about intrinsic motivation, a growth mindset and grit to my students, but wanted my son to do something he didn’t see a point in doing and that was extremely tough for him, just for the sake of… what? His room is not open to the public. I don’t spend much time in it. I don’t read the books that are inside, nor do I wear the clothes in his closet. So, at that point, I explained to him what I was thinking, and why I thought it was important to have a clean room, etc., and we reached a compromise: his room does have to have space for me to walk on, so I can go in and say good night. And it has to have a clear path to the window where we have the emergency ladder. Other than that, it is his room and he has the authority to decide what gets done in there. Common areas, however, do fall under my authority, and he has to do the chores related to those spaces, and try to keep them tidy. I bet some parents would frown upon our idea of “tidy” but, well, they have their own house they can keep impeccable.

That episode with the room cleaning has been, as far as I remember, the most prolonged and exhausting with my son. Others have been frustrating too, but I’ve come to realize that it depends a great deal on my perspective and how I deal with it. For instance, he is in charge of the dishes that have to be hand-washed. I was nagging him and he would totally forget anyway (really totally forget; he’s not the type to pretend in order to get out of a chore. If he doesn’t want to do it, he’ll argue about it and let you know what he thinks). Instead of getting angry, washing the pans myself, lecturing him, what started happening was that, hey, we have no clean pans, meaning I cannot cook breakfast. Natural consequences are great teachers! He’s doing much, much better in that respect. And yes, there are many more examples, with both kids.

Overall, I must say I prefer my kids to be argumentative. In fact, it sort of worries me when they give in too easily (just don’t tell them I said that!). It looks like I like it difficult, eh?

Well… on one side, there are many, many benefits for teens and adults who were argumentative, stubborn and pigheaded as children. I do believe it shows that they put more thought into their actions. They don’t just do whatever you tell them, they evaluate the request, and decide if it is actually something that should be done. Sure, it is frustrating for me, but I know (hope?) that if they react like that to me, one of the biggest authorities in their lives, they will do the same with other authority figures and other commands or requests. It also helps to withstand peer pressure: strong-willed (stubborn, pigheaded, obstinate) children will not give in as easily as others who are comfortable with compliance and following others’ lead. Strong-willed people are more likely to stay on the path they want to follow, despite being told they won’t succeed, or that society will not approve, or that it is impossible. They will just keep on going.

On the other side… I was like that. Well, probably a bit more obedient. After all, I did clean my room. Or maybe my parents were less willing to debate with me, than I am with my kiddos. In any case, I’ve heard enough stories of me not giving in one inch as a kid, to know I was fairly stubborn. And still am. I do believe that being pigheaded has helped me to be daring and just take the risk in my academic, personal, and professional endeavors. It has allowed me to change jobs and professional paths, to live abroad several times and, finally, immigrate and establish myself with my family in the US (my husband is American).

I want my children to take risks, to study whatever they really want, without fear of what other people may think or how much money they will earn (or the money they won’t earn), or how hard it is. I want them to go ahead and live abroad and face different cultures and life styles. I want them to work, intern, and volunteer in anything that calls them. I want them to become self-advocates and request the accommodations and services they deserve and need.

I don’t want them to be obedient. I want them to decide what they want to do, and to think twice before following orders. I want them to take advantage of their thinking styles, of the unique wiring of their brains. I don’t want them to extinguish their sparkle and doubt themselves and their decisions. I am not raising them to be my “good” compliant son and daughter. I’m raising them to become autonomous adults, and independent thinkers. Leaders, not followers.