At this very moment, K is walking around gazing in every direction and whispering, “Wow!” Why? Because she can actually see everything for the first time in a long time, that’s why.
This is where I confess a parenting fail: it seems that I haven’t had my kids’ eyesight checked in two and a half years. I didn’t have an appointment scheduled for anytime in the near future, either, but last week Mum called my attention to the fact that while K could see the shape of the wall clock, she couldn’t see any of the numbers or hands.
So this week I whisked her off to see our optometrist. Looking at the black-and-white letter chart, K announced that she couldn’t read any of the letters. The doctor switched to a chart with larger letters, this one starting with a giant E at the top, and K could read the top two lines. Everything below them was blurry.
“Don’t worry,” the optometrist said, “we have this instrument that verifies what the kids are telling us. They can’t fool us.”
Why on earth would a kid try to fool an optometrist? I thought. And then I thought, What has made him distrust children’s self-reporting? And then, How does it feel to be the kid in the chair, with the optometrist saying outright that he thinks you’d lie?
I felt insulted on K’s behalf, and on behalf of all the children who have come through that office. Then I realized that I’m equally guilty of disbelieving my kids, although I do like to think I’m less obvious about it.
One of my kids (I won’t name names here) was complaining about foot pain and couldn’t be more specific than that. There hadn’t been any kind of impact or accident that would have caused it, and since I mostly heard about it right at bedtime I shrugged it off as a stalling tactic. Two weeks later, when said child really couldn’t stop complaining, we went to the doctor who diagnosed it as something called Sever’s disease, which is inflammation in the growth plate of the heel. After lots of Advil and many weeks of physiotherapy and taping, the foot was feeling much better. I, on the other hand, was feeling like a total heel for not believing my child the first time. More than two weeks of pain for my child were my fault because I just didn’t believe the kid.
This post was going to be about believing children, but I think it’s a bigger issue than that. We don’t believe anyone, really. If you’re too sick to work, your boss doesn’t believe you until you present a note from your doctor. Heaven help you if you have an invisible disability or chronic illness; people with fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalitis (formerly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), mental health issues, and other invisible-but-disabling conditions are accustomed to hearing people suggest that they’re not sick, or not that sick, or that they could just pull up their socks and get better. I personally know people with chronic conditions who use mobility devices (usually a cane) not because they need them, strictly speaking, but because without some visible signifier, very few people will believe you if you tell them you need the “reserved for disabled” seating at the front of the bus.
How many individuals went through school being told that they were lazy and lying about being unable to do their work, when there were real learning disabilities affecting them? How often do we blame and punish children for their aggressive or impulsive behaviour when there are structural differences in areas of the brain that deal with self-control? How many adults believe that “problem” students could do better if only they wanted to?
We don’t believe what we can’t see. Not in others, and sometimes not even in ourselves. I can’t count the times I’ve pushed myself harder than I should: either because after months of good self-care I start to wonder if I imagined the whole pain-and-fatigue thing, or just because I’ve internalized the idea that to be sick or disabled you have to look miserable.
I hope that we can change this on a societal level. So many social issues could be tackled head-on if we believed people when they shared their experiences (instead of explaining them away.) I don’t have a proposal or idea of how we could effect this change; so in the spirit of being the change I wish to see in the world, I think I’ll start by believing my children… and myself.