Empathy, Not Discipline


It was the week before the 2016-17 school year began. The Friday before first day of school, I sat on a folding chair at the elementary school, a pink paisley purse by my side, watching the office manager answer the phone, jest around with the teachers and smile at me. I could hear the deep voice of the school psychologist ask questions and the low voice of my daughter answer. To me, it seemed like she was unsure of the question as much as the answer. To my relief, I heard him say, “Good job! Here’s your sticker” and shuffle until they appeared at the door to my side.

Any hour later, I drove along winding roads empty of traffic. The radio was on and my daughter kept time with the music. I was not sure how I felt. We reached home and I focused on the routine, the mundane, the safe things that made up my life in order to figure out what I was feeling.

Relief? Definitely.

Sadness? Not sure.

Anger? No!

Closure? A big yes!

I noticed it perhaps when the twins were two years old, walking, running and jumping. I would notice other toddlers  their age actually have conversations with their caregivers while mine spoke but did not make much sense. By the time they were three, I was starting to get concerned about potty training. At near 4, my husband and I each took a week off from work to potty train the girls. The exultant relief when they finally got it compared to one of the best moments of my life. It was a good two weeks later that we did away with potty training aids and dreamt of road trips and freedom from all things toddler. We gave away high chairs, cribs and two wheeled scooters and invested in booster seats, bicycles and spanking new full size beds. They were in pre-school and each time I brought up concerns about how there was no cogency in their speech, it was brushed away.

Finally one teacher agreed. There was something off. I brought it up at a pediatrician visit. She had me fill an autism questionnaire, talked to the kids, tested their motor skills, peered into their eyes and gave me a referral to a developmental psychologist. I called dutifully, listening to hold music for about five minutes. A crisp voice spoke at the other end.

“There is a year and half waitlist. We can send you intake paperwork six months prior. Please give me your address.”

I hung up and brooded. I wrote in my journal and ended up on the county website looking for services. I called them up on a hunch and was asked to get a referral from the school as well. Fast forward a few months, tons of paperwork and in-school evaluation and two bulky manila envelopes arrived in the mail.

The conclusion? My children were fine. They were not on the spectrum, they did not exhibit behaviors that would allow them to qualify for services. Elated, I took them to the teacher at the pre-school. She skimmed them over, thoughtfully chewing on her lower lip. “You know the limits for being diagnosed are pretty high right? They want to limit the number of people who would qualify for services.”

She left it open-ended. I returned home, the elation evaporating with each mile the car covered. I filed the report in our document drawer and decided to forget about it. Our children had had a rough start in life. They will probably get better I figured. Which child does not test boundaries or engage in power struggles with their parent? Only the potty regression had me worried. They’ll outgrow it my husband reassured me.

They started kindergarten and the notes started showing up every once in a while.Twin A has trouble focusing, Twin B has trouble switching between tasks. You should separate them next year, put them in different classes. The potty accidents occurred with alarming frequency. I was patient, I raged, I reasoned. They turned six and started first grade at a different school. I put them in different classes. The teachers sent glowing notes. I relaxed. The end was in sight. It was the school I told myself regretting having sent them to a charter school for full day kindergarten.

Then there was a note from one of the teachers. Could I meet her after school? I drove up wondering if she was going to raise focus issues. She did. She sat with me, meticulously showing things that needed help. I could ask for additional help with reading she said. By the end of the year, one twin had help with reading and math and the other with reading. I watched five year olds read chapter books while my children squealed and had fun flipping pages with giant illustrations and sparse text.

The anxiety that has been building inside me peaked and I sought a meeting with the principal. I walked out with a form that I could use to request a clinical evaluation by the school psychologist. I did.

Assessments were set for the last week of summer, a ploy to get them tested against second grade levels instead of first grade in the hope that it would allow them greater scope for a diagnosis. The tests took place over two days. I dutifully dropped and picked up each child and waited outside the door listening to teachers catch up and prepare for the school year.

“Can you step inside for a moment?” the kind doctor asked me. I walked inside letting my seven year old know she had to stay within sight of the school nurse until I came back. I sat on a functional chair, my heart hammering in fear. The doctor removed his glasses, shuffled a sheaf of papers in his hand and cleared his throat. The moment was anticlimactic.

“I definitely see signs that they need help” he began. He walked me through IQ scores, scatter in charts and areas where they deviated from the norm. He capped it all with the words I had been waiting four years to hear.

“They will qualify for services.”

I felt years of instinct sing in agreement. I hesitated before I asked “Is this fixable?”

“This is who they are. Yes, we can work with them, help them with strategies to learn better. We can help the teachers teach differently. They will go on to catch up and do well but I am afraid it is not fixable” he said the air quotes shimmering in the air between us.

As I bathed my children that night, yet another potty accident behind us, I found a voice whispering in my head that urged me to be kind, to recognize that this is who they are, that they need empathy not discipline. What needed changing was not them but me. Those lessons are often forgotten in the rush of the morning but they come back, etching themselves deeper in my mind with each passing day. It took a doctor to teach me what parenting should be about.


21 thoughts on “Empathy, Not Discipline

  1. With you in spirit – they’ll go on to do great, just you see. With such family support and a school system which will teach teachers to do things differently, they’ll thrive too. Good on you for keeping those instincts alive and working, when it is so tempting to put it to rest and be like everyone else.

    By the way, chapter books for 5 year olds is a bit over the top. Quite okay if kids don’t do that.

    1. I am positive they will go on to do well in whatever area interests them. My biggest learning has been in letting go of aspirations and seeing them for what they are. Artists and incredibly intelligent girls who get the big things very easily.

      1. It was. I debated a lot before I posted it. Then I realize I write as therapy. This was something I needed to write for me to revisit it again when the going is tough, to remind me that I need to see things from their point of view.

      2. Very true. I feel most of us struggle with some thing or the other but feel talking about it will make us feel ‘less’ in some sense. I think issues like these are great levelers because they make you think about what is truly important. As parents, we all want our children to do well. If we removed markers for traditional success, then it boils down to the non material. Successful relationships, ability to hold down a job, equanimity in feelings.

  2. Laksh, I wanted to say more but said very little in a state of sleepiness as I read the post last night. Sorry, if my comment came across as being abrupt.

    I do feel like not knowing is the hardest part, then, with time, practice and experience, we learn to see things in perspective. You as a family, have tackled challenging issues and times, you will figure this one out too. It is this thought that triggered my earlier comment.

  3. Laksh..I have been a long time lurker and admirer of your writing. But I could not let this one go without comment. I face similar issues with my daughter who is almost 8. It is a struggle to balance your aspirations with your understanding of who your children are EVERY single day. As you rightly said, admonishments to oneself are often lost in the morning rush. But self reflection helps. And love and kindness always helps. Hugs!!

  4. Thank you for sharing. My thought is that this is just one dimension of life – cognitive ability. If you look at the other dimensions like emotional intelligence, empathy etc. aren’t we all catching up, and eternally learning to cope?

    How succinctly you said, what success in life is – Successful relationships, ability to hold down a job, equanimity in feelings. These, I think, will lead to a state of ease with life.


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