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Irrational Commitments

Family Engagement

When I first came into the special needs field in the mid-1970s I attended a conference for parents held at a local hospital. A very experienced community pediatrician gave a talk in which she referred to the irrational commitment of parents to their children, and she emphasized how much we professionals rely on that irrational commitment in our work with children with significant health and developmental difficulties. She tried to express her gratitude for this to all the parents in the hall that day, but a father who was present thought she was insulting parents, took very strong objection to being called ‘irrational’, and began to protest and disrupt the session. The doctor tried to keep things going and to explain that she was actually supporting and thanking parents, but in the end the talk was never finished, and there were tears in the room, not least from the pediatrician herself.

This was a galvanizing and embarrassing experience for me, one that has obviously remained vivid in my memory for forty years. From that event I learned, first of all, that whenever I was intending to say anything remotely controversial during a presentation it would be a good idea to do it with all the charm and humor I could summon! I also very quickly learned that what the pediatrician was attempting to share with us that day had a profound truth to it. Accepting and remembering that truth has helped me to work with, and work through, many complex situations, it has helped me to understand when parents make decisions which surprise me, and it really helps me to notice and appreciate the heroic deeds that parents carry out routinely in their day to day lives with their child.

Though I observe this irrational commitment all the time, I rarely talk to parents about it using those exact words, probably because of this powerful early memory of how badly the term can be misunderstood. I never hear other professionals using the term when they talk about parents, although they quite often allude to it in my conversations with them. Sadly, when the topic is brought up it is often given a negative connotation, the level of the parent’s commitment being perceived as a problem because it seems, in the professional’s opinion, to make the parent overly demanding, overly ambitious in their expectations, and overly emotional. This has always struck me as strange because I can appreciate where this passion is coming from, and I can also see that if it doesn’t come from the parent it is very unlikely to come from anybody else in the child’s world, and it is an essential part of a successful childhood for all children. As much as I enjoy and am fascinated by the children with whom I work, and as much as they inspire and lift and teach me, I never forget that it is the commitment of their parents that enables my work, that facilitates any success that I have, and that really keeps me going. I wonder why so many professionals feel this negative attitude, and close themselves off from what should be a significant source of energy and inspiration for their ongoing work.

In December the boy who taught me more than any other child I have ever known passed away from renal failure. He was 30 when he died and I had known him since he was 2 years old. I think of him and talk about the lessons he taught me all the time, but then his mother always comes into my mind. By her own account she was poorly educated and full of silly ideas, yet during the 13 years that I worked with her son she was the person who always set the scene perfectly for my involvement, who brought laughter to everyone she met, who never failed to make me feel good about myself and the things that I was doing, who kept going and loving and supporting through separation & divorce, financial problems, breast cancer and other health issues, housing issues, and many complex behavior issues with her extraordinary son. I once asked her how she did keep going with such dogged determination in the face of so many barriers and she looked surprised at the question. She really, genuinely, felt that everything was okay because it was all for her three children. That’s irrational commitment at work. Why is it so undervalued and so little talked about in the professional field?

David Brown

Posted Apr 13, 2015 by David Brown

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Comments (14)

I posted about this piece on several Face Book pages, and am pleased that so many people have responded to it, but sad that they responded to me on Face book rather than on here! Not surprised that several parents have told tales about how they felt opposed and excluded from information about their baby when the professionals perceived them as asking too many questions. I stick to what I say in the piece - this level of unconditional commitment is a priceless gift to my professional skills, and is an essential component in what makes me a successful teacher (when I am successful) - why ever would I want to block it and resist it???? That is a genuine question as I have never understood this kind of behavior in professionals. As Tim Hartshorne writes (see a future post) "Family resilience is facilitated when professionals encourage by their actions and attitudes".

David Brown

Posted Apr 22, 2015 by David Brown

David, what a rich conversation you've started with this piece! I have listened to you ponder these same thoughts and questions during our long TA drives and while sitting around in the office and so I am thrilled to see these thoughts, reflections, and questions about the topic of a family's commitment to and care for their child in print and being read by so many people. I think that language is so powerful and I agree with many of the previous comments that it is term "irrational" itself that is problematic. For many the term irrational means "misguided" or "dangerous" or "without reason" and what parent wants to be labeled in those terms?! However, when I think of the parents you are describing the words that come to mind are "remarkable", "unimaginable" or "unfathomable" or even "ferocious"--although some might find that final term leads to negative connotations or images as well. I think what the doctor you heard meant by her statements is that it is not easy for anyone else to truly understand this level of commitment and advocacy of these parents, but we can still marvel at it, applaud the efforts, and really in the end the best thing we can do, is support this commitment and enter into a shared partnership with the family. I don't think is instinctive or easy for many professionals in the field, who as Katie pointed out entered into the field to "fix problems". I also don't think that collaborative partnerships with families and study of family dynamics receive nearly enough attention in professional training programs (with the exception of early childhood education) and if new professionals are not lucky enough to be trained by someone who models the values of family partnerships and the practices to build and sustain them, then many professionals continue to view themselves the trained "experts" who know what is best for the child and even the family. However, I don't think those professionals will ever understand, let alone appreciate, what it takes for families to care, support and advocate for their children 24/7 from day one without the desire to know the family, their hopes, their fears, and goals for their child's life. Using a person-centered and family-centered approaches certainly help, but it does mean that the professional has to let go of their ego a bit and realize that every child, family, and situation is different and what families are often looking for and need is a professional who will genuinely listen and empathize and provide supportive advice. I think humility on the part of professionals could go a long way. We don't know all of the answers and that is okay. Instead we should try to look for solutions and answers together with the family rather than forcing parents to accept the same answers/solutions we can so easily to provide. This a quote from Maya Angelou that I share with teachers in our teacher training program, "At our best levels of existence we are part of a family, at our highest levels of achievement, we work to keep the family alive." These words resonate with me as I truly believe that every child will achieve more if the child's foundation is intact--and that foundation is family. Thank you again for starting this conversation, David.

Julie Maier

Posted Apr 20, 2015 by Julie Maier

David, I am reading this conversation with interest and reflecting on my own experience as a professional. (As soon as I write that word, "professional," I realize that my experiences as a sister, an aunt and a daughter of individuals with complex needs also inform my thinking.) My first thought is that professionals have boundaries for our own emotional well-being. This enables us to meet lots of families over the years, offer our skills and expertise, learn from the children, and still have enough left to care for our own family members. I once worked at a non-profit with a bookkeeper who had reputation for being so strict she made people cry. (It was true. I cried the first time she barked at me.) After I'd been there a few years, she read in our newsletter about one of the children we served. She said "I could never do what you do. Too hard." She was trying not to cry. I learned from this that I had something that she didn't have. Maybe an ability to feel empathy and also go about my own life. Maybe people who feel uncomfortable with the unconditional commitment of family members feel they themselves should be doing more; there are problem-solvers who like to fix problems and don't like the grey area of "doing the best we can with what we have." Here's a phrase that I have heard from doctors and educators - "We don't want to give them false hope." Who is to say what is "false?" If it's my mother (or child) recovering from a brain injury, give me the facts, but let me have my own hope.

Katie  Humes

Posted Apr 17, 2015 by Katie Humes

Tracy, thank you for making this a conversation! That was the original point of this post so I am pleased that it has worked. I really like your post. I chose the word 'irrational' partly because that was the word used by the doctor all those years ago. I also knew it was controversial so might stimulate interest if it appeared in the title of the piece. I do think this commitment goes beyond the rational, as I said, but I agree that to most people now the word 'irrational' only has negative connotations. I had already thought that 'unconditional' might be a better, certainly a more acceptable, word and now you have validated that. The last point in my piece still stands - why do so many professionals seem to fear and disapprove of this unconditional commitment rather than see it as something that will support and extend their own work? Any thoughts from any professionals out there?

David Brown

Posted Apr 16, 2015 by David Brown

I have to say it's not a phrase I've ever come across before and I think irrational just has too many negative connotations to sit well with a lot of people, but wouldn't argue that there is something that drives parents, in some cases aided by specialists and in other despite them. I think there must be a word between irrational and unconditional that might describe it better. I just love it when we are told she shouldn't be able to do x or y, or that she's picked up z far quicker than would have been expected whatever you want to call my motivation for helping her achieve those things.

Tracy Cook

Posted Apr 15, 2015 by Tracy Cook

A comment about my piece from my close ex-colleague at Sense in the UK, Teacher of the Deaf Jo Franklin - "I think the bottom line is that there is nothing rational about Love and that's what we are privileged to see in all its weird and wonderful glory up close and personal with 'our' families".

David Brown

Posted Apr 15, 2015 by David Brown

Mr. David, I think this topic is brilliant. In our early days when I was grossly overwhelmed by Dr./Specialists and therapy appointments, I often heard from them how well Andi would do because of my commitment. They reiterated that a lot of kids aren't as lucky to have parents involved to such a devoted level. "We do what we do for the love of our child." I used to say. She won the genetic lottery, I can't change that. However, I can help her become the best version of herself that she can be. My kid is pretty great, and I don't attribute it to anything more than her own levels of genius, our love, my former good insurance and employer who enabled me to work from home, and the hope that my child will make future families not have to endure so many layers of hell. We do what we have to do, for them. For us. For the future. ...and to dazzle you, of course! :)

Anna Miller

Posted Apr 14, 2015 by Anna Miller

Following from that Tracy, I often remark to parents that yes indeed, their child is smart, adaptive, inquisitive, surprisingly organized and able, and is confounding all those early devastatingly negative predictions, The big BUT is that the child would never be anywhere near this current level of achievement if the parents and close family members had not put in the heroic efforts that I mentioned earlier. Even having a great professional team around the child will have a muted impact on their progress if the family is not there to support and sustain and promote what the individual professionals are doing & recommending. I think it is an indicator of the irrational commitment when a parent insists to me that their child has more or less done it all while they have just been around to do what was necessary to keep the child fed and healthy and safe.

David Brown

Posted Apr 14, 2015 by David Brown

In response to Tracy (thanks for the comment, its nice to see someone from the UK on here) - I am not calling parents irrational, and neither do I think that particular actions such as the one you mention ("...striving to get answers and get the best for your child...") is at all irrational. It is the overall commitment to the child that goes way beyond rational thought and planning, having a deep and powerful instinctive (if that is the right word) force to it that facilitates things like the finding of energy when there seems to be none left, the battling against barriers over and over again when they seem insuperable, the ability to find and focus on the positive when the negatives seem everywhere, and the okay (if sad) acceptance that if you don't do this nobody else will. I agree that this is common to parents in general, not only to those who have special needs. As for the heroic efforts and achievements of the parents I have worked with these past 40 years, again you are absolutely right - I have never yet found a parent who agrees with me or sees it the way that I do. They all say variants of what you wrote earlier today ie. " just do what you have to."

David Brown

Posted Apr 14, 2015 by David Brown

With irrational commitment, we as parents, are able to find the most caring and wonderful professionals who truly care about our children as a whole, not just as a diagnosis. Thank you David Brown for being one of those professionals!

Audrey Dwyer

Posted Apr 14, 2015 by Audrey Dwyer

I can understand why that dad took offence, I do find myself wondering at times whether I am so mired in fighting for my child and what she needs that I lose perspective and that professionals might find me hard work but I don't think there is anything irrational about striving to get answers and get the best for your child - most parents do the same but ours is just a different experience to the norm. I also don't think you'd find many parents who would say that what they do is heroic, you just do what you have to. If that helps the professionals we work with then great.

Tracy Cook

Posted Apr 14, 2015 by Tracy Cook

Hi Minnie, I am not sure that the term 'irrational parent' is correct. but I do believe very much in the irrational commitment that parents demonstrate almost all the time. I think the dad in my anecdote who got so angry thought that he was being called irrational and criticized for it, but that really wasn't what the doctor was saying at all. I do think "a special kind of crazy" could be a more colloquial South Carolina way of saying the same thing!

David Brown

Posted Apr 14, 2015 by David Brown

I often say that it takes a "special kind of crazy" to put up with all that us parents have to put up with. Never heard of the term "irrational parent" but I will gladly wear and accept that title with no offense taken! Thank you for sharing this story!

Minnie Lambert

Posted Apr 14, 2015 by Minnie Lambert

I would proudly be called irrational by you any day, David Brown! Thanks for the encouragement.

Ingrid Lobaugh

Posted Apr 13, 2015 by Ingrid Lobaugh

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