My 27-month-old doesn’t walk, talk, or eat non-puréed food, but he goes to college.
Actually, he is in a preschool for toddlers program in the Speech, Language, and Hearing Center of our state’s flagship university, in which the teachers (called “clinicians”) are learning to be speech language pathologists.
About half the toddlers in the program have special needs or speech delays, and all the children enjoy a 2-to-1 teacher-student ratio – unheard of in typical childcare or early education settings.
Even so, I don’t let my son go to school alone. I’ve been attending every class with him. And I feel bad about it.
It’s not that I have a selfish wish to hit the gym, grocery shop kid-free, or enjoy a much-needed coffee break like many moms I know get to do when their little ones reach school age. I believe such desires will likely remain unfulfilled for me. I just live with that.
My guilt stems from not being able to give my child the dignity he deserves. I’m talking about the dignity to attend school without interference. About truly treating my child like just a normal kid – indeed, the way I want the whole world to treat him.
My older son, Elijah, attended the same childhood learning program a couple years back. His role was to model typical 2-year-old communication and interactions. We loved the program then and couldn’t wait for Raphael’s turn. I now realize that it had been relatively easy to take that uncomfortable leap of faith all parents must take when dropping their precious child into another’s care.
For Raphael, there is intrinsic tension between wanting him to do all the things other 2-year-olds do but not being able to give him the dignity of indulging the necessary risks toward independence.
I reason that he could too easily bring a cup from the sensory/water table to his lips and inadvertently send liquid straight into his lungs. The boy still gets all his fluids thickened to slow their passage and prevent aspiration.
I rationalize that he could too easily fall from a chair or climbing obstacle because his balance is so wonky and his muscle tone too low.
He could put a pebble form the sandbox into his mouth and too easily choke because he has such an uncoordinated swallow. Not to mention what a disaster he would make with a spoon and cup of applesauce at snack time because self feeding is a challenge Raphael has long to go to master.
So it isn’t really a trust issue or Raphael’s tender age but rather his developmental delays that make me want to protect. Surely, no one would fault me for that. But I do.
There were plenty of dangers for my first child when he attended the toddler program, yet they were the normal concerns, and therefore, easier to stomach.
With Raphael, worries perpetually steep below the surface. And I am sad that it is I – not society at large – who may already be holding him back.
So yesterday I left the room and watched Raphael’s class through the one-way glass of the student observation area. Raphael wasn’t sitting the way his PT and I position him for optimal trunk stabilization and lung freedom. He didn’t get spoon fed the way his OT has fine-tuned our feeding maneuvers to maximize oral motor development. No one changed his wet diaper.
But he enjoyed himself. He signed along with his hands happily to the songs and got carried around while the other kids ran around the playground.
I made it through the hour in one piece, and we both earned some dignity.
From the moment our children leave our womb, parenting them is about letting go. Yesterday I did just that.
I can learn a lot at preschool.