I used to think of myself as a tough mom, a get-shit-done kind of mom, and above all, a mom who protects her brood to the degree that no one in their right mind would mess with her kids. To me, this was the definition of advocating on my kids’ behalf: being willing to unleash my inner mama bear to get my kids what they need.
Turns out, though, I was just being a well-intentioned asshole. It took me years of being kind of a dick before I began to understand what the fine art of advocacy truly is and how it actually works. I started yielding far better results for my child, and myself, when I took this new approach.
To learn a little bit about what advocacy in action looks like, I reached out to a well-known voice in the autism blog world, Eileen “Mama Fry” Shaklee who runs the wildly popular site Autism With a Side of Fries. In her experience, advocacy was the result of a crash course in life lessons after the birth of her son who was diagnosed with autism. She writes openly and honestly about her struggles with doctors and therapists, teachers and school administrators. Here is what she had to say when asked about the best advice she could give any parent on what it means to advocate for their children.
“My best advice on how to be the best advocate for your kid is to speak up and follow up every question with ‘Why?’ Ask and expect professionals to explain why their answers are the ones they have given. You will not only learn so much more about your situation, there’s a good chance there’s a solution or two to the challenges your child faces in those ‘No’ answers when you make them elaborate on why.”
She’s not wrong on that tip. According to Washington Post “On Parenting” editor Amy Joyce, parents and teachers can coexist in a working relationship based on healthy and robust communication skills. Joyce points out that there is a negative perception of parents who ask a lot of questions or voice concerns, but those qualities are not always a bad thing.
The website Understood.org, which is popular among parents of kids with learning and attention disorders, has some great tips on what effective and proactive advocacy looks like. They suggest that parents create a paper trail, study up on the situation, ask as many questions as you need to, form healthy and productive relationships with the experts in your child’s life, and stay calm.
When you advocate effectively for your child in any area of life — social, education, health, through a situation such as divorce or death or issues surrounding bullying — you are creating a safe space for your child to navigate through the world. You are also building a lasting sense of trust and respect with your child. Kids learn more from what you do than from what you say, and so when you take an otherwise tough situation and turn it into an opportunity to grow, your child is learning essential life skills from your example.
These days, I think of myself as a supportive mom, a get-shit-done kind of mom, and above all, a mom who protects her brood with knowledge, compassion, and a willingness to work and collaborate closely with the people in my kids’ lives who are experts in health, education, and safety.
Moral of the story? There is a difference between an advocate and an asshole. Don’t be the latter, unless you have to.