On “Camels in Bed”: How do we Label our Children?

Einstein once said, “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it’s stupid.”  One of the stories my father would always tell when he went around the country giving talks on education reform was the “Camel in Bed” story.  When my brother Peter started kindergarten, he came home with a picture of a red circle.  “What’d you do at school today?”  “I drew an apple.”  Every day, Peter would come home with a picture of different colored round fruit: apple, orange, lemon, grapes. . . . Finally, Dad said, “Let me show you how to draw something different.  I’ll show you how to draw  a house.”  So, Dad showed Pete how to draw a square for the house and triangle for the roof.  The next day, Peter came home with more fruit.  Then Dad said, “Did you try drawing a house?”  “Yes, but I got it wrong.  All I got was a camel in bed.”  Puzzled, my dad said, “Here, let’s try it again.”  Once again, Dad demonstrated the square and triangle on top.  “Now, you try.”  Peter drew a square.  “Good,” Dad said.  “Now draw the roof.”  When he went to draw the roof, instead of a triangle, he drew a half circle, so  it was a square with a half circle on top.  “Oops!” Pete exclaimed, “There’s another camel in bed!”  The teacher, meanwhile, had drawn a big red “X” over the “camel in bed” Peter drew at school.  So, Dad would talk about how important it is to see things through the child’s eyes, how a teacher could look at Peter’s picture and say, “Fail,” because he didn’t succeed at “drawing a house,” or else see it as he saw it and praise his creativity in perceiving it as a “camel in bed.”

Similarly, last year, at the virtual charter school she was attending, Alexandra  had to do an oral reading exam with her teacher on the phone.  She had to read a text to her teacher, and then answer questions.  The story concerned a little girl in a wheelchair.  The teacher asked what was “unusual” about the girl in the story.  Now, I forget what Allie said, but the intended answer was “She used a wheelchair.”  At the time, Allie stated as her answer something that was unusual for her, such as that the girl rode the school bus or that she attended brick-and-mortar school, or something like that.  The teacher commented that she got that question “wrong.”  I said, “Well, you asked what was ‘unusual.’  I use a wheelchair, so being in a wheelchair and using a ramp and all those details were everyday things for her, but since she’s attending a virtual school, riding a school bus and going to a brick-and-mortar school are ‘unusual’ to her.”

There’s another story educators like to tell.  Maybe it was a true story, and I just heard it once, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it from multiple sources over the years.  The story concerns a teacher who had two students named “Johnny.”  There was a “good Johnny,” who got straight “A’s” and always listened, and a “bad Johnny” who got failing grades, refused to listen, and often skipped class.  On parent conference night, a couple came very early and walked up to the teacher.  Presuming such involved and well-groomed parents must be the parents of a “good” student, the teacher was pleased when they said, “We’re Johnny’s parents.”  She began to talk about a wonderful student “Johnny” was.  The parents—the other Johnny’s parents–were pleasantly surprised, having come to the conference dreading a lecture on their son’s problems.  They went home and praised their son for doing a good job.  “Bad Johnny” was shocked that his teacher thought so highly of him, and was touched that his parents showed approval for the first time ever.  So motivated, he went to school the next day with a new attitude, and he started to show his teacher respect, and listen, and do his work, and he became a “Good Johnny.”  Again, I don’t know if it’s really a “true story” or just a well-meaning parable, but it makes the same point as the “Camel in Bed” story.

We often say that nobody rises to low expectations in regard to setting high standards, but it’s also true in terms of how we “label” people.  Once someone is labeled “bad,” he or she has no motivation to improve.  Everything in secular culture is competitive.  everything in secular culture is “how can we get you.”  Among adults, we make various behaviors criminal and make no distinction between genuine mistakes or intentional malice.  Look at how society wants to punish not just the bishops who carelessly “shuffled” corrupt priests but even the bishops who tried to discipline those priests internally and see if they were capable of reform before involving the police.  Employers look for every way to find fault with potential and current employees.  Schools, governed by the same lawmakers and wealthy employers, operate under the same principle of “how can we get you”, so that they can raise people to conform to the world’s standards.

Yet the God who told St. Faustina, “My name is Mercy,” intends people to live under the same principle.  Jesus teaches that we will be forgiven based upon our own capacity to forgive, to see others through His eyes.  He tells us that love of Neighbor is the second greatest commandment, and, in the story of the Good Samaritan, that we should see our neighbor as the one we most consider to be our enemies.  He tells us that we should love our enemies and bless those that persecute us, that we should turn the other cheek, etc.

If we wish to raise our children to be Saints, and certainly if we wish to be Saints ourselves, then we must treat others, especially children, the way God wants us to treat each other.  While admonishing a sinner is most certainly a spiritual work of mercy, we should also remember the importance of forgiveness.  When mitigating circumstances are at work, we should be willing to accept them and try to address the problems in the circumstances rather than “punish” the “bad” person who fell in a difficult situation.  After all, when we come to Christ in the Confessional, is that not how we ask Him to deal with us?

The Church teaches that our human nature is corrupted by Original Sin, both spiritually and physically.  Not only do we pass on an inheritance of concupiscence, but we pass on an inheritance of genetic defects that effect our minds and bodies.  Some of these may not even be defects but are indeed authentic differences intended by our Loving Father, which we only see as defects because our society forces people to fit the same mold.

It is important that we recognize the difference between consequences of genetic diversity and intentional behaviors people commit and have control over.  While we must encourage people to do better in fighting against intentional actions resulting from disordered inclinations, we must also be willing to tolerate and show understanding towards weaknesses and disabilities.  In a storyline on _House, MD_, where the title character was under treatment for his Vicodin addiction, his psychiatrist observed, “You recognize the importance of taking pain killers to address pain or other drugs to treat physiological illnesses, so why don’t you recognize the importance of using drugs to treat physiological illnesses in the brain?”

Of my four children, two are diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and the other two also probably suffer from some form of mental health issue or developmental disorder, in addition to the problems children experience just from having autistic siblings.  While we struggle to help our autistic children cope more functionally in society, we also recognize there are certain aspects of their behavior and temperament they have little control over, and that we must account for these and accommodate these problems.  The accommodation of these problems can lead to resentment on their siblings’ part, and an attitude, that “If he or she can ‘get away with’ this behavior, why  can’t I?”  This is a common attitude among siblings of children on the Spectrum.

People, even medical professionals, say to us, “Why do you want to label your children?”  People complain in general about children being overly medicated, while we can see the advantages that medication have had for our two children with diagnoses, such that the two who used to be our major discipline problems are now the easier ones to deal with.  Well, what kind of “label” would you rather have?  Is it better to “label” a child ADHD, or Asperger or autistic or bipolar or even schizophrenic, and to try your best to address issues in childhood that can be absolutely destructive in adults if not properly treated before it’s too late?  Or is it better to avoid those “labels” and choose instead labels like, “lazy,” “disobedient,” “wild,” “failure” and just plain “bad”?

Why is it that people are so willing to label children as “bad Johnny’s” and promote negative behavior by expecting it of children, rather than recognizing that, often, children’s inability to cope with society’s rules or expectations stem from genetic mental defects that are consequences of original sin, and then properly identify those disorders so as to treat them and work with them constructively, rather than simply punishing out of vengeance?

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One response to “On “Camels in Bed”: How do we Label our Children?

  1. I was “lazy,” “disobedient,” “wild,” “failure” and just plain “bad” for the first 30 years of my life. I was then diagnosed with Asperger’s, and the previous 30 years suddenly made sense. I still consider many of my autistic behaviors to be sinful; not intentionally so, but still sinful. But without the label, I would not be able to work constructively on those behaviors.

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