In recent weeks, stuttering has received increased media attention because of former Vice President Joe Biden’s history of stuttering. His political foes have pounced on this perceived weakness to offer unkind comments that reek of schoolyard bullying. Sarah Huckabee ridiculed Biden’s speech via tweet following a Democratic debate, and Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, derided him while she was being interviewed on television. “Every time he comes on stage or they turn to him,” she said, “I’m like ‘Joe can you get it out? Let’s get the words out Joe.’”
As the parent of a teenager who’s had a long struggle with bumpy speech, it hurts my heart to hear powerful, educated adults mocking others who face this obstacle. It calls to memory all the times my son came home from elementary school devastated because supposed “friends” taunted him for his disfluency, or even the time in middle school when his foreign language teacher parroted his choppy words back to him in front of the whole class.
Why is it that with all the empathy training and political correctness that has become a part of American society over the years, people still feel that it’s acceptable to make fun of speech impediments? Approximately 70 million people suffer from some form of speech disfluency, and yet, too many people still think it’s okay to tease, mimic, and insult children who struggle with stuttering.
We hate to watch our children suffer, but with something as tricky as stuttering, what can we even do? We can’t squash all the bullies. Nor can we shun the teachers who inadvertently do more harm than good. We can’t successfully avoid every last movie and show that still uses stuttering as the butt of too many jokes. But should we just throw up our hands? Not at all. Read on for some ideas.
Spread the message.
Teach friends and family to pay attention to what your child has to say, rather than how they are saying it. Go ahead and remind Grandma and Grandpa that your child doesn’t like to be told to “slow down,” or “relax” — and that, by the way, those instructions won’t help anyway. If stuttering could be resolved by simply relaxing (whatever that even means), there wouldn’t be 70 million people worldwide who struggle to get their words out. While your child is speaking, others should be instructed to maintain normal eye contact, to refrain from interrupting, and please, please, please tell them not to finish sentences for her. She won’t view it as a favor when others try to put words in her mouth.
Find role models.
The list of celebrities who have struggled with stuttering is super long. From actors and rock stars to athletes and politicians, so many people have battled some form of sticky words. These people have gone on to achieve enormous success despite, and perhaps even because of, their stutters. James Earl Jones was plagued by stuttering throughout his childhood. A high school teacher finally helped him overcome his difficulties by encouraging him to recite poetry. Practicing poetry sparked his interest in acting; fast forward a few decades, and he is now recognized for some of the most famous lines ever spoken in American movie history. And I mean, who’s cooler than Darth Vader and Mufasa? Does your child prefer sports to movies? Okay, tell them about George Springer, MLB superstar on the Houston Astros. Politics? Winston Churchill and a former King of England. Flying planes? How about the heroic Captain Sully Sullenberger who saved so lives by landing a plane on the Hudson River? Music? Elvis!
Remind them, over and over again, that they can achieve anything.
Prepare for the bullies.
As much as we might wish otherwise, kids will tease each other about whatever they can. Explain to your child that children often tease out of ignorance, that they will mock what they do not understand. Your child can simply explain to other children, “Sometimes my words get stuck. This is just how I talk.” That will often be enough to motivate kids to move on. And for the times when civilized conversation won’t do the trick, why not arm your kid with a few snarky comments of her own? “Sometimes I stutter. So what?” “Why do you care so much about me?” Or, if the bully has actually imitated the stutter, perhaps your child can respond, “I can stutter so much better than that. Want lessons?”
Call out bad behavior.
Some people say hurtful things about stuttering without necessarily having bad intentions. Adult friends of mine have imitated my child back to him, thinking perhaps that they are being cute with each other or funny. Either you or your child can explain that she doesn’t like it when people copy the way she speaks and ask the adult not to do it again. Showing your child that there is nothing to be embarrassed about, and that we can speak to others about behaviors we don’t like, provides valuable lessons about self-advocacy. Reasonable people will generally apologize and amend their ways. Sometimes people just need to be told.
If your child is uncomfortable with the way she speaks, find other activities where she can actively enjoy successes. Whether it’s sports or art or volunteering at an animal shelter, search out non speech-based ways for your child to build up her confidence and learn to excel at new skills. Let her realize that she is full of all sorts of potential, and that the way she speaks need not impact how much she can achieve.
Make sure your child knows that her home is a place of acceptance and love where she is free to speak any which way, and that her family will listen with open ears and hearts. Ways to send this message include slowing down the pace of your family life. If the child is less rushed to get dressed, to finish eating, to race out the door to school, speech will also feel like an area where the child can take all the time she needs. Slow down your own speech to model fluency-generating behavior. Consider getting siblings and caregivers more involved in your child’s speech therapy and at-home practice. Let the home be a place that is full of compliments and positive feedback.
With literally millions of people who stutter out there in the world, it’s no surprise that there are a wealth of resources for children facing this challenge. Find these services and use them. As a jumping off point, check out the following non-profit organizations that offer summer camps, after school programs, and other productive and supportive activities to build confidence and relationships among children who stutter: The National Stuttering Association www.westutter.org; SAY (Stuttering Association for the Young) www.say.org; and The Stuttering Foundation www.stutteringhelp.org.
Your child deserves people who can look past their stutter and hear their words. Be one of those people, and then help others to be, too.