There is Only This Child

A wise [parent] knows:

There is no good child and no bad child.

There is only this child.

–Vimala McClure, The Tao of Motherhood

When professionals provide a diagnosis for a child a label is applied.  Unfortunately the label often becomes much more important than the child.   My child is autistic, dyslexic, bipolar, cognitively limited, physically impaired, ADD, or any label becomes the focus instead of the child. Then we expect children to behave based on what the label implies.  It can become a self fulfilling prophecy. I can hear children silently screaming or behaving in ways that imply, “This is not who I am.  My label does not define me.  Won’t someone please see me for who I am?  I am so much more.”  A wise adult knows a child is not their label. “There is only this child.”

After one of the sermons I gave last October, a man came up to me crying.  He said that he hardly ever cried, but the message in my sermon was a transforming experience for him.  He related that he had an 18 year old son who had struggled with behavioral problems all his life.  For eighteen years the father said that he had only focused on what was wrong with his son, never on his son’s gifts and strengths.  It never occurred to him to look past the diagnoses and behavior and embrace the truth of his son, to see his divine spirit.  I say over and over again in my speaking engagements that we do not have to like a child’s behavior in order to embrace a child.  When we can say to our children, “I see you, not the behavior, not the condition or the label; I see the truth of you” this is when healing begins.

In most parenting workshops and books about children with special-needs labels, time is spent on the idea that parents must mourn the loss of the child they thought they were going to get in order to appreciate the child they did get.  It is a constant challenge to take what life gives us and find meaning.  A well-known story by Emily Pearl Kingsley describes what it is like for parents when they discover their child has a disability.  Imagine you have planned a trip to Italy.  You have learned the language and the culture, and you are excited about being in Italy.  But when you finally arrive and get off the plane, you realize that you have landed in Holland instead.  Now you have to plan differently, learn a whole new language, get to know a whole new set of people with different customs and ways of being, and you also have to give up on your dream of being in Italy.[i] But as Kingsley writes, “if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely, things about Holland.”[ii]

Another way to lessen the grip of mourning for the child you hoped for and expected to have is to see the world through your child’s eyes.  The grief may feel real but it has nothing to do with the child. Too often when we label a child with a disability we follow by saying I wish my child did not have autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder, or whatever is your child’s label.  What parents are actually saying is they wish their child did not exist and they had a different “normal” child. Imagine what this conveys to your child and how s/he feels.  Loving your child unconditionally means loving all parts of your child, the stuff you do not understand that makes you uncomfortable as well as the good stuff.  We do not want to get sucked into the shame and blame game; however, children’s behavior changes when they are accepted for who they are.

People within the autism spectrum have been around long enough for the adults to now write about and express what it is like to grow up with autism and they have much wisdom to impart, which is applicable to all the different labels we give children. Jim Sinclair, an adult with autism writes, “You didn’t lose a child to autism.  You lost a child because the child you waited for never came into existence.  That isn’t the fault of the autistic child who does exist, and it shouldn’t be our burden.  We need and deserve families who can see us and value us for ourselves, not families whose vision of us is obscured by the ghosts of children who never lived.  Grieve if you must, for your own lost dreams.  But don’t mourn us. We are alive.  We are real, and we’re here waiting for you.”[iii] “There is only this child.”

[i] Sally Patton, Welcoming Children with Special Needs: A Guidebook for Faith Communities (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2004) p. 20.

[ii] Emily Pearl Kingsley, “Welcome to Holland,”

[iii] Jim Sinclair, Don’t Mourn for Us (Syracuse, NY: Autism Network International Newsletter, Our Voice, Vol. 1 #3, 1993)

Categories Spiritual Parenting and Children | Tags: | Posted on October 27, 2010

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