Why all the labels?


Tom Dunn - Contributing Columnist



A few months ago I wrote an article about my grandson, Carter, and his delay in acquiring the speaking skills a 2-to-3-year-old child typically exhibits. Carter’s journey during this past year has solidified much of what I already knew to be true about child development, but it was a valuable lesson in other ways, too, proving, once again, that you are never too old to learn new things. Hopefully, by sharing what I learned I can help someone else who may be searching for a way to help a child overcome some obstacles he/she is facing.

But, first, an update on Carter. If you were to walk past his room during his afternoon “nap” today, you may well hear him singing one of his favorite songs. He is partial to “Believer,” by Imagine Dragons, “Paradise,” by Coldplay, and “Get Along,” by Kenny Chesney. He’ll even occasionally belt out a mean rendition of “Rocky Top,” which happens to be one of his dad’s favorite tunes. When he’s not singing, he’s asking us a million questions and is generally not quiet for more than a few seconds at a time.

In other words, he is a typical 3-year-old little boy, so he’s come a long way from that child who didn’t utter a word for so long, and for that we are very thankful.

Carter’s development hasn’t occurred by accident. The adults in his life, beginning with his parents, were relentless in their efforts to provide him with the supports solid research has taught us help children develop their speaking skills, and Carter himself has worked extremely hard on acquiring those skills. We were fortunate that his delay wasn’t due to a genetic abnormality or physical or mental disability that a little hard work couldn’t overcome. Some children and families face challenges far greater than those Carter has faced. Having said that, the challenges he faced were real.

So, what did I learn?

First of all, Help Me Grow is an incredible FREE service available to every child in Miami County under the age of 3 who is not developing as one might expect. Carter benefited from this program by working with a marvelous speech therapist by the name of Diane Dynes, who he adores, as she does him. Not only was she a godsend for Carter, but his parents and grandparents learned many strategies from her that allowed us to supplement what she was teaching him. Every child deserves the kind of support Carter has received from his parents as well as the other adults in his life, but, sadly, not all receive it.

Second, Carter’s experience has confirmed for me how children develop and the importance a child’s caregivers play in that development before he or she ever sets foot in a school. We have witnessed firsthand how important the first three years of a child’s life is, educationally. That is why I always have and always will summarily reject legislation that is developed as if learning occurs only in a school. It is simply not true. What happens very early in a child’s life often dictates his or her future success, and that is why it was OUR job to provide the support Carter deserved as early in his life as possible and no one else’s.

Third, our society seems to be obsessed with slapping labels on children (and adults, too, for that matter) who fall outside generally accepted norms, as if labeling people somehow solves a problem. I realize some labels are necessary, but we now have a name for nearly every human condition, and it’s impossible to keep up with them all. And, really, what good are they?

We were careful not to saddle Carter with a label for his delay. I have seen classifications such as “learning disabled” rob smart children of the confidence they will need to succeed just as I have watched children who are told they are “gifted” develop a false sense of superiority or security that doesn’t serve them well. Neither, in my opinion, is healthy. After all, being labeled “learning disabled” doesn’t guarantee failure any more than being called “gifted” guarantees success, so, really, what’s the point? Every human being has strengths and weaknesses, so why can’t we just work on building on our strengths and improving our weaknesses instead of worrying about giving them some fancy name?

Look, there was no doubt that Carter was slower in acquiring speech than the statistics indicated he should be, but we were much more interested in figuring out how we could help him than we were slapping a label on him that may stick with him for a lifetime. We wanted to help our grandson learn to talk, not label him. And, that’s what we did, and I believe, but cannot prove, that this approach is largely responsible for his success. The truth is, he may have learned to speak without our intense work, or he may not have improved despite our best efforts. But, we gave him his best opportunity to succeed, because that’s what adults are supposed to do for children.

But, more important than all of that is the sweet little boy Carter always has been and continues to be, an attribute that will serve him well for a lifetime, an attribute that we refused to allow to be overshadowed by some label. Before he was uttering a word, he would occasionally, without warning, sidle up to a family member and give a silent little “I love you” hug. We knew what he meant without him saying a word. Today, he still hands out free hugs with the words, “I love you” attached, and that is music to our ears.

Maybe we ought to invent a label for that.

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Tom Dunn

Contributing Columnist

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.