My eleven-year-old daughter, the one who self-identifies as an “Aspie,” sits at the table with her art instructor and fellow students. Today, they discuss community art and make plans to create posters to hang around our town. They brainstorm advice they’d give from their eighty-year-old selves. Because they are children from nine to eleven, the answers prove hilarious and wise.
My daughter’s advice on her poster: “Don’t be ashamed of what you look like or how you think.”
[Image description: The photograph shows a child’s poster written in green, blue, black, and red paint on a white background. The text reads, “Don’t be ashamed of what you look like or how you think.” The word “think” has a yellow squiggly circle around it.]
For my daughter, who is Autistic and Latina, there is a fluidity between her body and her mind. She does not see them as separate, but as part of one physical entity: her body. It surprises me that she knows this at such a young age. Myself? I did not learn that my body is an intricate part of my mind until I was much older. And I still carry shame for being fat, low class, and depressed. What, I wonder, did I do differently as a parent to raise a child who feels pride in her Latina heritage and her Autistic mind, the things society often tries to make shameful?
I wish I could take credit for my child’s pride, a pride I see reflected in all of my five children. But my children inhabit a world that is not always available to me. You see, I am a white woman raising Latino/a children. I do not have the same disabilities as my children (epilepsy, autism, Down Syndrome). Through these differences, I came to realize quite early on that children are not carbon copies of their parents. They are complete human beings with their own perceptions, experiences, and interpretations of the world. It seems like that would be obvious, but it was not obvious to me as a parent. It is difficult to see a being who lived in your body for nine months as separate.
But as my children grew, they experienced things for which I had no reference. My son heard that all Mexicans carried guns in their pockets. A group of girls rudely asked my daughter what language she spoke. And all of them heard an eleven-year-old boy, in a Wal-Mart parking lot, tell my husband to go back to Mexico. Alongside these racial interpellations came the ones about disability. My daughter especially felt the sting as the adults around her — including me, for a time — tried to shape her body and behaviors into “normal.” While I understood the pain that came from this attempt to reshape, I did not know how to do things differently.
John Holt summed up perfectly what has become my parenting mantra: “All I am saying… can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” As a child, I had never learned to trust myself, my body, my mind, my way of being in the world. Thinking about my childhood felt like a constant recall of the ways I’d stood out. My loudness. My weirdness. My fat. I’d learned from a very young age that there wasn’t much good about me and, as a result, it took me many years to trust myself. When I had children, I knew that I had to rethink this way of parenting, but I’d never anticipated the ways that race and disability would add another layer to the act of trusting.
My second parenting mantra I saw repeated in critical disability and race studies: Shut up and listen. This is not easy for a talker like me. Nor was it easy to recognize my own privilege. I struggled especially with race as my husband worked through his own identity from immigrant to Latino. I felt threatened, as if he would carve out a space that didn’t include me.
But when I stopped arguing and started to listen to his words, I realized that my listening was an act of trust. I didn’t know what it meant to be Latino in this society. I couldn’t experience what it meant to be the target of racist assumptions. But I could listen, and I could attempt to understand. What I realized is that listening is an active involvement in a process that could be easily misconstrued as exclusionary, because the listener is no longer front and center.
This listening trust extended to my children. They were fully capable of working through their experiences, learning to frame them in various ways. They could be trusted to answer our questions, our challenges. We had thoughtful conversations about abuses of people of color and those with disabilities. I would argue that my children grew confident because they witnessed trust and listening in action. The adults closest to them respected them enough to give value to their ways of seeing.
My children exist in a world that often sees them as broken. When the police and civilians murder young people of color, the assumption is that the victims were somehow not to be trusted. When we accept therapies that encourage abusive methods to make children with intellectual and cognitive disabilities act like their typical peers, we tell children their bodies cannot be trusted. When my youngest daughter was born with Down Syndrome, I had already learned to listen to and trust my Autistic daughter. After attempting to impose upon her what I saw as normal behavior, I realized that her tantrums, anger, and aggression were words telling me to stop.
I did. I listened. I began to move to her rhythms.
I knew I would do the same with my baby with Down Syndrome. Just as I would never change the brownness of her skin or make assumptions about her based on it, neither would I change who she is or make assumptions about the way her mind works. I trust her enough to help her make her way through the world.
[Headline image: The photograph features a young light-skinned child with short black hair, a white shirt, and blue glasses. The child is playing with bright and colorful toys.]