Pitting parents against each other is a crude bully tactic
Someone asked me last weekend if my daughter was looking forward to going back to school as part of the partial reopening for children with special needs. No, I told them, we haven’t breathed a word of it to her, and we wouldn’t be until we were heading out the door to bring her there. Or, perhaps, at the school gate. Or, just to be on the safe side, actually in the classroom.
t’s hard to know how to respond in these situations, as all parents of a child with special needs will know.
Someone comes at you with an upbeat ‘isn’t it great?’ and you immediately slap it down with the response that you’ll believe it when you see it. All too easily, you can seem negative and churlish. Or, worse again, ungrateful. Or, worst of all, impossible to please.
We take no pleasure in it, but it’s borne out of practise in protecting oneself from disappointment.
Of course, last week only bore that out. The schools might have been prepping classrooms and organising safety measures for their staff and pupils, but I’d bet that few parents were laying out uniforms or digging out the lunch boxes.
It’s a demoralising place to live, in a position of such utter powerlessness while seeking to protect someone vulnerable. It’s heartbreaking to experience, over and over, how parents of children with special needs have to parade out their children in order to attain any bit of understanding.
It’s enraging to observe how the power brokers – in this case the Government and the unions – failed to get organised and get their act together much earlier on an issue they’ve known last summer was coming down the tracks.
Worst of all, however, was to see last week how eagerly imagination lighted on the image of in-fighting among parents of children, as if this was further proof of just how difficult we are and impossible to please.
Fight! Fight! Fight! It was like a schoolyard, where a certain glee is taken in seeing the weakest fight among themselves, while the actual bullies – who no one feels able to stand up to – get off scot-free.
This notion of the community of parents of children with special needs surfaced on Tuesday, when Eleanor McSherry, of the Special Needs Parents Association, said that parents were starting to “turn on each other”.
She’d never seen the like of it in 16 years of being a parent of a child with special needs. Parents were “all at sea”, she said, and some had left social media groups because of the upsetting content.
Without doubt, there were differences of opinion among these parents of the approximately 18,000 children with special needs who didn’t dare hope to get back to special and mainstream schools last week.
Some of that, inevitably, got heated, and, as is the case with social media, the loudest voices can drown out the rest and there is the risk of saying things online that you’d never say to someone in person. Also there are, always, those who need or want a row.
When McSherry spoke of parents under extreme stress on Morning Ireland, she wasn’t trying to make a big thing out of in-fighting. She was trying to convey the deep stress of last week’s uncertainty, and how this stress was pushing parents to the limit.
The danger in the context of that stress was that the whole issue – instead of being about making the reopening happen – could turn into a competition as to whose needs are greatest.
Is one cohort better or worse in terms of disability than the other, more or less deserving of getting back into a space of support? No. But in times of intense stress, compassion can go out the door.
On Wednesday’s Drivetime, Sarah McInerney read out a tweet that professed horror at how “entitled” parents of children with special needs sounded. This sense of entitlement didn’t give a hoot about putting teachers and SNAs at risk, of course, which was another element of the distracting and destructive narrative last week.
The notion that parents didn’t care about the safety of teachers and SNAs was distracting because, again, it took the heat off those with the actual ability to make partial reopening happen.
It was insulting because it fed into this bubbling-under idea that parents of kids with special needs just want them off the premises and minded elsewhere, at any cost. As if what we want is a break for ourselves, as opposed to what’s best for our children.
As if it’s some sort of extraordinary nerve to ask for basic human rights of care and education.
Again, however, this in-fighting narrative pits the weakest of the power brokers against one another – and that’s to everyone’s shame. School is, for many children with special needs, the only place outside of home where they get support, education and care.
In this world, school, teachers and SNAs are the only support network outside of the home. In many cases, if a child is lucky, they are almost extensions of the family and they are, a lot of the time, going above and beyond the call of duty for these children.
To pit parents against the teachers and SNAs is to shamefully undermine this connection. It’s also typical of how both the parents and the educators and support staff are generally perceived as doing the care for the love of it, or out of some saintly sense of charity. And if any of us pipe up to make demands, we’re entitled.
Parents were last week entitled to ask why services for adults with special needs can be safely open, and how schools for children with special needs are managing to operate in Northern Ireland. Teachers and SNAs were allowed to ask for reassurance that they would work as safely as humanly possible.
We were all allowed to make demands without it being perceived as being demanding, getting stroppy and getting stuck into each other.
Let the Government and the unions get into a scrap if they want, if it serves to bring about what most parents and educators want, which is a safe and supportive environment for our children.
But don’t draw us parents in. And, this time, don’t call us until you’ve finished fighting. We have no time for it ourselves.