Future Reflections Summer/Fall 2005
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by Barbara Pierce
Editorís Note: There is little that can sadden
a parentís heart more than a friendless child. No amount of parental love is
a substitute for the lack of companionship or friendship of children their own
age. Parents canít ďforceĒ friendships, but neither are they powerless. Barbara
Pierce, who grew up as a blind child in the fifties and is a prominent leader
in the Federation, has become well known to Future Reflections readers
for her gentle but frank advice to parents about social skills development.
Here are the comments she recently delivered to a national audience of parents
and teachers on that topic:
Barbara Cheadle has given you some of my credentials for talking today. The other thing you should know is that I am the mother of three children, so Iím aware that the role of parent is totally impossible. You are expected to keep your children from killing each other while helping them to survive. On top of that, you have to see that they get educated. And, if that were not enough, you have to civilize them. That series of tasks is daunting for every parent. We all do some parts of it better than others, but all of them are really important for you to accomplish.
Grammy Pierce is very good about sharing her Ďtoysí with her grandchildren Jackson and Miranda Schaum. Jackson, who loves balls of all types and sizes, is convinced that Grammyís exercise ball was made just for him.
Today we are talking about the last of those efforts--to civilize children and to equip them to function in a world with other people where they have to engage in give-and-take, where they have to learn how to sell themselves, communicate their interest in and concern for other people, and generally get along. We engage in a kind of balancing act when we try to help our children to achieve all this because on the one hand is the necessity for our children to master social skills of various kinds (and there are many), and on the other hand is the fact that kids are generally miserable when you want them to dress up or engage in activities they find difficult or complicated or boring. Somehow you have to discover the childís interests and abilities and capitalize on those in order to enable him or her to grow and mature and learn and teach other people.
Letís take music lessons for example. This is one of those things that provide a new dimension to a childís life. We fought through music lessons for I canít tell you how many years. If you added together all the years of instruction for my three kids, I probably suffered through about thirty-five years of pushing kids through music lessons. By and large they hated them, but all three are now grateful that they learned to play the piano and have music in their lives. So how do you decide when to force the music lessons?
Or take athletics. Some kids are natural athletes. My little grandsonís ambition in life from the time he could hold a ball was to have at least two balls in his possession at all times. I know this kid will end up being a ball player. His daddy loves baseball. His mom loves baseball. Heís already interested in athletics. I donít know that he has any particular athletic ability, but he likes playing with balls. So athletics will be part of his life. What about the kid who is the last one chosen for the team and doesnít care to perspire? That kid is miserable in gym class and preferably spends his time not engaged in athletic activities. The less engaged he or she is, the less he or she learns about athletics. So he or she doesnít improve and is likely to spend less time at sports and usually goes off and takes up reading or chess or computer games or something else.
We try lots of different activities and interests with our kids, and they begin to show us what they like and donít like. The dilemma is that peopleís interests are shaped by the things we are exposed to, so in my athletics example the more you do it, the better you get at it. The more you play the piano, the better you get at it. The more you read books, the more comfortable you are reading. Parents have some responsibility, I think, to keep pushing a little further than that initial, ďI donít like that, I donít want to,Ē because we can help to shape our kidsí capacities and interests by what we expose them to.
We live in a college town and when our kids were little we had friends in the college math department. My husband Bob was in the English department, and we discovered sort of by accident that, when we traveled with the kids, we played word games. We were word people. When our math department friends traveled with their kids, they played number games. They added up license plates and found the square roots of things--weird things I would never have thought to do. But it came naturally to the kids, and more than that, it came naturally to the parents, who communicated to the kids that playing with numbers was fun and easy.
So think about your responsibility to encourage your children to develop different social skills and interests. Encourage them to try things more than once or twice, to keep at them and give themselves a chance. Out of such experiences grow the interactions and interests they will share with other people as they grow up.
Playing with dolls is one of the earliest social playing experiences for most children. These two little girls are having a good time with their dolls while they learn important lessons about sharing and taking turns.
The social pendulum in child rearing swings from one extreme to the other. At one time children were seen and not heard, treated more or less like small adults. They were expected to be quiet and courteous and speak only when spoken to. We donít treat kids like that today. In fact I think we are at the other end of the pendulum swing. We tend to give kids their head. You donít want to take piano lessons? Okay, you donít have to do piano lessons. You want to try T-ball? Okay, you can try T-ball--whatever you want.
Rational parental guidance lies somewhere between these two extremes. So I urge you parents to be clear with your blind kids about needing to stick for a while with the activities they start in order to learn whether or not they are interested, because often they canít tell at first how well they will do. We all experience a learning curve in mastering new skills. Blind kids especially find that starting something new is tough. Youíre at sea with the unfamiliar; itís hard. You donít know what you are doing or even which way is up. It takes awhile to settle in and figure out whether or not you like the activity. So donít be too quick to say, ďOh well, things are already so hard for Johnny that I donít want to make his life even harder.Ē Keep blind youngsters coming back to the activity.
I have seen parents trying to introduce two- and three-year-old blind toddlers to groups of other small children. They are disappointed when the child takes a toy into a corner, sits down alone, and doesnít interact with the other kids. The parents conclude, ďThat didnít work very well; I guess I will try it again next year.Ē It isnít going to work very well until the parent engages in the play and helps the sighted kids get used to playing with the blind child and the blind youngster used to dealing with the sighted kids. In the midst of the play the adult can figure out what information the blind child needs in order to understand whatís going on.
To some degree all parents engage in this struggle toward socialization and civilization, trying to help their kids figure out what they want to do with their lives and what they are going to be interested in. Parents of blind children have a compound problem because, not only do you have to accomplish that goal for your children, you have to figure out what blind kids can actually do. Your blind child will never be the star of the Little League baseball team, but blind kids do and can do lots of things. And the NFB can help you learn what is possible. If you get to know competent blind adults, you will begin to find out. If you read the Braille Monitor and Future Reflections, you will meet kids who are in Scouting, 4-H, and marching band.
Angela Wolf, who made the announcement earlier about the student division, is an artist. Art was never something I thought I could do. I was certain in school that a blind kid could not be an artist. Now Angela has convinced me that my uninterest and inability in art result from the fact that I am not artistic. It isnít blindness-related. So, if your child loves to draw, find out ways to work on coloring. The NFB is your repository of information, your source for expertise on how to do all kinds of things. This is available to you absolutely free of charge. Just put your questions out there on the grapevine, and you will find somebody who can tell you how to do whatever it is. And if you figure something out, pass the information along because we donít know everything. We all trade information.
Count on the NFB to be a help in enabling you to encourage your child to try the things that are useful and interesting to him or her. But when it comes to the decisive moment, itís you and your child. You get all the advice, you get all the information, you get all the encouragement, but in the end, when it comes down to helping your child to become integrated into social settings, it is up to you and your child.
So the earlier you start, the better off you are going to be. If you let Susie stay home playing with her three favorite toys, thanking your lucky stars that sheís pretty good and quiet, promising yourself that when she gets to nursery school or kindergarten weíll start working on social interaction, you have lost valuable years, and you have also established some pretty unhealthy habits. Lots of blind kids are uneasy in social settings; big, unfamiliar spaces; unfamiliar voices; things that theyíre not used to. All such uncertainties make things difficult, so itís no wonder that a blind two-year-old may suddenly cling to you in an unfamiliar room.
Thatís not a reason to quit for now and try again next week or next month. Instead itís your cue to sit down on the floor with the child and describe the space and whatís going on and talk about the new toys around us. ďHereís Mary Ellen, who is playing with a doll, and Jennifer, who is playing house with Jason. There is a kitchen with a stove. Letís go over and check this out.Ē Try to spend enough time breaking the ice so that your child begins to be confident in the setting. It might be helpful to put together a little play group of sighted kids for your blind child, kids who will be happy to play around in the same area. All two-year-olds wander around, interact with each other, and play together now and then. If you can build such a group, the other youngsters will get used to your blind child and he or she will get used to having different sighted children around and playing. Thatís a good start.
So, as I say, the earlier you construct these social interactions, the better off your child will be. It is also fair to say that the youngster who reaches adolescence or even ten or eleven before becoming blind also has some advantages, because the foundation of interests and social skills is already established. As a parent of an older blind child, you will have to change some of the ways to structure social interactions that I have been describing, but you do have some real advantages if your child has already established some of the skills and interests I have been talking about.
If you are dealing with adjusting to blindness in the late elementary school years or middle school or high school, the important thing is to help your son or daughter develop a circle of kids that he or she feels comfortable with and who are willing to have a blind friend, not just a group project--the one they all feel sorry for and are nice to because they are good kids. At every age your job as the parent is to expect your child to be involved with peers and to help that happen.
My mother did this quite naturally. I can remember at the age of four working with her on how to jump rope. It was quite a mystery to me, holding the ends of the rope in both hands, throwing it over your head, and then jumping over it at the right moment. She taught me by sound what to do--how to move my hands and jump into the air when I heard the rope hit the ground. It took lots of time to teach me to coordinate all the actions. She did a lot of rope-jumping herself when I was four in order to help me master the skill. But in the fifties jumping rope was a rite of passage for elementary school girls. I donít know if it still is, but when I was in grade school, we did a lot of jumping rope. My friends and I modified the game until I got pretty good at running in. At first I was what we called a ďstand-in.Ē The two turners would stop turning the rope and let me stand beside it. Then they would begin turning again so that I didnít have to time my running in.
This meant that jumping rope was an activity I could do, which in turn meant I was part of the group. Then in third or fourth grade we began doing double-Dutch. Now I have to tell you, I was a real flop at double-Dutch. I am sure that some blind kid somewhere can jump double-Dutch, but that kid is not here, at least not at the podium. What I could do was turn the ropes. I was a great double-Dutch turner. Nobody enjoys turning double-Dutch because itís hard work. Everybody wants a chance to jump. But if the group has one steady turner, they only have to find one other girl dumb enough to agree to turn the rope. Signing on to be a steady turner might not have been a good decision for some kids, but for me being part of the group, serving a function that the group appreciated, and doing the job well were enough of a social attraction that I did a lot of double-Dutch turning. Because it made me part of the group, it was worth the effort.
What wasnít worth the effort to me was the jacks tournament. I donít know whether kids play jacks today. Do you remember jacks, the little ball and odd-shaped things to pick up? Well somewhere along the line, maybe in third or fourth grade, the girls had a jacks tournament in my elementary school. I donít remember how it all worked, but we had to play games of jacks, and the more you won, the higher you moved on the pyramid chart. I was never very good at jacks. It requires eye-hand coordination. If you havenít got the eye part, you are at a distinct disadvantage. But I wanted to be part of this recess activity, so I started playing. I hung in, mostly losing, until the day we were playing after a rain storm, and I scooped up four jacks and a dead worm. At that moment I decided the jacks tournament was not for me. That was the end of my jacks-playing career. I had never been good at it anyway, so I wasnít heartbroken.
The Indian wrestling tournament was another matter altogether. I was a strong kid, and I drew a pretty high number to start with. I held off all female comers, except for Harveen. Harveen ended up as number one, and I ended as number two. But I was terrific in the Indian wrestling tournament. Those things in which you can participate put you on an even footing with everybody else, or at least on some footing. Those sorts of experiences are really helpful socially.
I want to say a word in favor of church groups, Scouting, clubs--all of these are kidsí activities outside of school. In school of course the main activity is education, and beyond that you have more or less unstructured social activity on the playground. Church groups, Scouts, clubs like 4-H are all structured social activities. An adult supervises these activities, and, if you can establish a good relationship with the leader so that he or she is not motivated by pity and inclined to spoon feed but will urge everybody to let Susie in, such a group is often a better way to integrate a blind child than games on the playground.
When I was in the third grade, I was chosen to be Mary in the church Christmas pageant. I assumed that Mary was the center of the whole program. After all, she was a big deal in the story. In our pageant Mary just sat holding the baby. The shepherds, the angels, the wise men all came and went, so of course the director made me Mary so she could plop me down and not worry about me any further. I didnít have a clue about what was going on, so during the rehearsal I hung around under foot, impatiently waiting to be told what the star was to do. When they finally came at the end of the rehearsal, my instructions were simple: ďGo sit on the stool and stay there.Ē When my family left the rehearsal and were in the car, my mother said, ďI was so embarrassed for you. You were just hanging around, getting in everybodyís way without having anything to do.Ē I can still remember the mortification that I felt at having been clueless about what was really going on. It was a salutary experience, but for years the memory brought only mortification for having behaved that way.
On the other hand, when the girls in my Scout troop were in the fifth grade, we mounted a production of The Littlest Angel, a childrenís Christmas story. Troop members created the mural backdrop, acted the story in mime, and sang various carols. The Scout leader went to my mother and said, ďHow about having Barbara memorize the book and sit on a stool to recite the story?Ē Everybody thought I had an extraordinary memory. You know, all blind children have wonderful powers of memory. My mother, bless her, worked with me for hours to memorize that book. On the big night I sat on my stool and recited the entire book while the rest of the troop acted it out. That time I really was the star, and everybody thought I was extraordinary. I had a part to play that was as important as anybody elseís. That experience happened because I was in Scouts. Looking back, I recognize that this experience at the age of ten was critical to my learning to do public speaking.
I will conclude by pointing out that blind boys and girls benefit greatly from learning skills like knitting or repairing bikes. Becoming an expert on any subject develops fields of interest that can be shared with others. The investment a parent or older friend makes helping a blind youngster learn to cook or sew or build bird houses provides quality time, opportunities to sharpen skills of many kinds, and the chance to share confidences and insights.
Learning statistics about sports teams or facts about indigenous birds or the details about the lives of the Greek gods and goddesses can all be interesting and useful activities for blind kids. But as a parent you need to monitor the way such learning is shared. Sometimes it is necessary to say quietly, ďThatís enough about batting averages; your cousin Jane is not as interested in baseball as you are.Ē Your child cannot see Janeís eyes roll in boredom, but he somehow has to learn restraint in the name of social acceptability.
The point I have been making all along is that you should encourage your blind youngster to learn and grow and interact with others. At the beginning you will have to help break the ice in creating social interactions. But the more your child knows and the more varied experiences he or she has, the more confident and able he or she will be to get along with others and find common ground.
Good luck. Yours is a big job, but nothing is more rewarding.
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