A few weeks ago, the Son of Never Stops Eating started complaining about the sidewalks around our house. He'd tripped on the pavement while walking the family mutt. He came home and pointed out his skinned knee and indignantly informed the Dad of No and I that someone needed to fix the sidewalks because it was hard to ride his scooter and walk the dog.
Don't complain to me, I told him. I'm your mother, not the sidewalk repair fairy. You need to complain to the city. They're the ones responsible for repairing sidewalks.
How do I do that? he asked me. I suppose I could have done it for him via e-mail, but at that moment I realized that I was being presented with a valuable Mom Teaching Opportunity.
It's interesting to ask people what personal skills or qualities they think are most important for children to learn. Often, people will say kindness, resilience, independence, inclusion, how to stand up to bullying, or how to handle adversity. All of these are good and important. As a parent of a young man with a developmental disability, I think one of the most essential skills I need to teach him is self-advocacy. It's important for all kids to learn this, but it's especially important for my son to learn how to speak up for himself, especially as he approaches adulthood. One day his mother won't be around to watch out for him, and he'll need to make his needs and wants known in a world that isn't always willing to listen.
I suggested to him that he go to the next City Council meeting and tell them about the sidewalks. Public speaking is something that makes a lot of people nervous, so I expected him to turn my suggestion down flat. But he surprised me by expressing a desire to do exactly that.
OK, I told him. You'll need to work on a speech. You only have a few minutes so you have to get to the point. You can't ramble or talk about Legos or The Simpsons, and you have to make sure you wear a clean shirt.
I know what to do, Mom! You don't have to tell me everything! he told me, in his best exasperated adolescent voice. I even got an eye roll.
I thought he'd probably forget about my suggestion, but when I reminded him a few weeks later that the council meeting was coming up, it turned out that he'd been practicing at school and that he had a speech all prepared, which he recited for me. He was really serious about his sidewalk cause.
Do you think there will be a lot of people there? he asked me. I told him I didn't know, and asked him if a crowd would make him not want to speak. No, he told me. I still want to do it. Even if there are a lot of people.
We went to the meeting, filled out a speaker card, and he waited patiently for his turn as we watched our city government at work. When his name was called, he went up to the podium, said what he'd come to say, and sat back down. A city employee came over and talked to us about the area of concern. I asked the Son of Never Stops Eating how he felt now that his speech was finished, and he told me he felt like he'd done a good job and that he was happy it was over.
I was full of Mom Pride. I recalled to myself that when he was a toddler, he barely spoke. It wasn't until after he started public preschool and began getting speech therapy that he began to talk. Now here he was, several years later, voluntarily speaking in public to a room full of people about something he was concerned about. He was learning that he has the right to speak up for himself, and to have his concerns heard. It was a very important learning experience for him.
I actually suspect he might have enjoyed it just a bit. I wouldn't be completely surprised if he decides to take up another cause dear to his heart: more Legos for the library, a 24 hour Simpsons cartoon watching marathon in the town plaza, or a later start to the school day so that he can sleep in. Watch out, world- here he comes.