Why I Didn’t Let My Son Wear an Elsa Dress to School

It’s hard to believe it, but my son is now 5 years old. He loves to play, and his favourite games are imaginative. “Let’s be Octonauts” he will declare on the way to school.  “I’ll be Captain Barnacles, you be a Lemon Shark.”  Bathtime consits of repeatedly drowning Sir Topham Hatt (AKA Fat Controller) with cups of water as he heads off to Tidmouth Sheds.  At any time of day, our playroom could be a shopfront, (“Hang on” my son scratches his chin “We may have some in the back. Do you have a clubcard?”) the set of Masterchef, (“I like all the colours you’ve put on the plate Daddy, but sorry-you’re going home.”) or a dentists office. (They’re all rotten, but never mind, I’ll just take them out. You probably wont be able to eat anymore.” ) 

As you can imagine, he loves dress up, and he has an inclination towards the sparkles. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t provide for boys who want a bit more flair than a Darth Vader costume can provide, so when we’re out and about at friend’s houses and he pulls out a Cinderella dress or a ladybird costume from the dressing up box, I’ve always been pretty chilled about letting him explore his theatrical side. Take a moment to look around the Disney store next time you’re in there. At last count, I could see 22 different types of princess dresses and not one prince outfit. My son could be Olaf, Luke Skywalker, or a Pirate. (White, brown or more brown.) I wouldn’t be too impressed with that selection either. So when R asked me for an Elsa dress of his own this year, we only had to pause for a moment before we added it to his make believe collection.

And then we got the following invitation from school.

“As a class treat, the Reception children have voted for a dressing up party on Friday.  Could you please send in a dressing up outfit for your child.”

And he cocked his head to one side and asked quietly, “I can’t take Elsa… can I?” 

Oh.

Anyone who knows me knows that I take real exception to gendered toys of any kind. Play is play. Make believe is make believe. And if a girl can be a fireman without a raised eyebrow in sight, my son can be the prettiest, sparkliest princess in the room. You better believe I have all the pithiest, wittiest, scathingest replies necessary if you dare to tell me that my son can’t skip around your garden in your daughters Sleeping Beauty outfit.

But at school? Without me there to give him a reassuring nod and smile when the classroom assistant automatically smiles in surprise on instinct as he walks in? What if he doesn’t remember to say “there’s no such thing as boys toys and girls toys” in response to one of his peers saying “that’s for girls”? What if a child in his class says “You’re not a princess” and he’s too embarassed to remember to say “I know- and you’re not Spiderman either”?
And worst of all, what if he doesn’t realise what he’s asking?
At home, or out with me or C, he feels completely safe to express himself in any way he chooses. If he was ten or eleven years old and he wanted to wear a dress to school in play (or even not in play) then it may take some getting used to, but I wouldn’t be worried about being supportive. If my teen goes to school in sparkles and high heels, he knows what he’s letting himself in for, and has all the information in his arsenal to make that choice for himself. But at five, does he really know what he’s asking? As an introduction to ‘kids can be mean’, letting him walk in front of the firing squad without a warning, and risking him feeling embarrassed and unprepared….

Dear reader, I agonised.

I asked my husband, I asked my best friends, I asked his teachers and then I asked my  best friends again. And while I got a wealth of opinions when I broached the question, nearly everyone pursed their lips and and looked just as agonised as I felt. How I wish someone had been confused and asked me what I was worried about. But that’s not the world we live in, not yet anyway.
As a proud feminist I wanted to be able to say “Of course you can be Elsa!” As a proud parent I wanted to be able to say “You wear whatever makes you happy”. The reasons why I ultimately steered him away from that choice, out of fear that well-intentioned people would be mean, or that he would lose some trust in me if he ended up in tears, don’t make me feel proud to be either.

I did realise one important thing though. R doesn’t care about the world we live in. He isn’t looking to make a stand for gender equality, he isn’t trying to push boundaries. The kid just wants to wear a sparkly dress. He doesn’t need to face even the risk of a ruined day because his parents believe in giving him the gift of being anything he wants. He has plenty of time to be anything he wants, and if we can give him another year or two before he learns that kids (and indeed grown ups) can be mean, well thats a special gift too.

My little Gingerbread Man came out of school that day full of stories and excitement, the grin on his face the only thing more edible than the candy buttons on his outfit. And while the little voice inside me wonders if I made the right choice, it’s overwhemingly silenced by the feeling that my Elsa wouldn’t have come out anywhere near as happy. Can you tell me that I’m wrong?

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Keep Listening

I recently wrote an article about how difficult and frightening it can be as a parent of a child with a special need, when it comes to approaching your child’s teacher. I discussed the fears and the expectations we all try to balance daily, and the fierce ‘mama bear’ instinct that can be so hard to suppress when we are advocating for our children.

This instinct doesn’t only rear it’s head when we are facing a particularly difficult or frustrating situation, It is there all the time, and probably exists outside of the special needs world as well. It’s an overwhelming urge to do the most you can for your child; a surety that our children give so much just to get through what would be second nature to their peers, that they deserve to have equal opportunities, and sometimes perhaps more than the children around them. Like any parent, we want our kids to have everything. But they sometimes need that bit more help.

Once in a while, we meet a person or a teacher who goes above and beyond. Who waits outside the building to meet you in the morning, because the room looks different today and they know your son doesn’t like change. A friend who brings an extra copy of the story book to rhyme time so that your child doesn’t have to simply sit and listen to words which refer to pictures he can’t see. A teacher who takes the paperwork for his statement home to make sure all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted before an important deadline. Who never forgets to crouch down to his level to say good morning, so that he can see their facial expression clearly and know who is speaking to him. Someone in your life who phones you before booking their own child’s birthday party to see if it’s accessible for yours. A visual impairment specialist who somehow knows exactly how to bring your child out of themselves, help them learn confidence and social skills and pride in their own abilities. Who not only encourages your child to be the best they can, but encourages you to give them the freedom they need and simultaneously find confidence in your own parenting.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that my writing is broader than any specific person or place. I am overwhelmed by the response I have received for my special needs article, from parents in countries around the globe, whose children vary from toddlers to teens, all of whom have sadly experienced the emotions I wrote about. I am so glad that my words resonated with all of you, and I truly hope you’ll forgive my foray into the personal just this once, and that the following speaks to you too.

Because once in a while, as the parents of a special needs child, you have experiences that make you forget why it is ever difficult. This week, my 3 year old walked out of nursery with a ‘welcome to big school’ folder, with all the same photos and drawings as his peers. The only difference was that unbeknownst to me, his folder had been made 3 times the size of anyone else’s. My heart burst with joy as he easily showed me who he will be taking with to big school, and explained to me what every page in the folder meant. And the ‘mama bear’ inside me was proudly redundant.

This week, as my son says goodbye to his nursery, I am sad. He entered the building barely two years old, with no language, little confidence, and zero understanding of his own limitations. Among so many other incredible leaps, he can now clearly tell me when he cant see something, is strong enough to ask for help, and yet somehow still has no idea that there is anything in this world which he cannot do. I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

Being the parent of a child with additional needs is often hard, and there is no setting or person in the world who will know your son or daughter and what they need as well as you do. I can only hope I continue to find people in our life who go above and beyond to ensure he is always as happy and secure as I saw him this week.

Start Listening

I have never felt so helpless in front of another human being.

I have been a child, strapped into a highchair or a car seat, wriggling for freedom to run and play. I have been a teenager, full of angry hormones, shouting and demanding independence and insisting I know best, met with inflexible rigidity. I have been a woman, crippled with labour pains, fighting against my own body for release and comfort. But standing in front of you, I have never felt so acutely another persons hands wrapped casually around my heart.

You are my sons teacher. But I am his mother. To you, that title may not mean much. Yes I gave birth to him, but I do not have any qualifications or certificates to prove my worth. I don’t have years of experience or references from children now grown. I don’t have a shiny laminated badge with my credentials, and I can’t issue you a formal letter with expectations or give you any funding or resources.

But that title. That word. Being a mother to that little boy means I know. I know the obstinate way he mutters under his breath crossly when he’s done something naughty, I know that as soon as we walk in a room he will be counting the lightbulbs, (including which ones are faulty.) I know from how far his head is tilted to the right how much difficulty he is having seeing something, and I know from the subtle head wobble when he is too tired to try. I know when his frustration at being left out or overwhelmed is causing naughty or difficult behaviour, and I know when it’s just a symptom of the dreaded threenage years like any other fully sighted child.

You are his teacher. But I am his advocate. I’m the only one he has. And it’s a ferocious balancing act throughout which I’m scared nearly all the time.

Scared to argue my case, because I know that we’re paired together my son and I. Who knows how I could unintentionally offend you and without any malice on your part, have it taken out on my helpless child? Frightened of not saying enough, and leaving him without the same opportunities that so many other children and parents take for granted. Practising with my husband in the morning before I approach you, trying to find that elusive tone of voice, or expression that will make my words appeal to you. Hoping that you will put aside the issues of resources and check-boxes, and just look at this mother who has no pride, and would crawl over hot coals if it meant that you would believe she isn’t hysterical, she isn’t trying to upset you or make your life harder, she’s just acting on the most basic instinct on the planet, that of a mother protecting her young.

I am one of thousands of mothers whose child needs that bit of extra help. We shouldn’t have to write letters or shout loudest or cry tears to be heard. We shouldn’t have to pick our battles and decide which parts of our children’s school life aren’t as important for them to access if it turns out that we can’t fight for them all. We certainly shouldn’t have to feel scared that we’re going to be ignored or condescended to or fobbed off with excuses when we summon up the strength to stand our ground against the system.

But in a world where these situations are often the sad reality, please acknowledge how it takes immeasurable courage for me to approach you. I am the advocate for my son. I’m the only one he has. For the time being, I am not only his eyes, but also his voice. And I’m asking you to stop simply hearing me, and start listening.

Why Kanye is a moron, and other stories.

“I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non reader.”

At first look, these seem like the words of a idiot. But after closer inspection, Kanye West is so much more than just your average moronic individual.

Being a ‘fan’, wanting an ‘autograph’, that language means more today than it ever has done. We have more access to celebrities, more ways to stalk them, more insight into their lives and their comings and goings than any generation before us. We aren’t standing in the front row of a concert, waving a “marry me” banner and screaming ourselves hoarse. We’re looking up info on the internet, scouting out our celeb’s home on google maps, climbing the tree outside their window and whispering subliminal messages while they sleep, carefully crouching in that blind spot between the security cameras, to film our own foundation for a heavily iMovie edited fan fiction blog.

For a celebrity himself to talk about being a fan, wanting an autograph, being proud, is dangerous language to use. If Kanye believes one tenth of the things he says about himself, being the next Nelson Mandela, the next Steve Jobs, the next sliced bread, he must be aware that he has influence. Influence over young minds and actions alike. To make the idea of being a ‘fan’ of books into a joke is not only ignorant to the billion dollar industry he is bad mouthing, but also putting an idea into motion, that books are not cool, that reading is not worth pursuing or getting excited over.

Mid twenties, I’m past the age of infatuation with celebrities, and like any generation worth it’s salt, I like to think that even if I were a teen right now, the so called music of today would not be worth my adoration. Sorry, can anyone understand what Tinchy Stryder is saying? Can someone tell Justin Beiber to get a haircut? Don’t One Direction have homework to be getting on with?

But hyperbole aside, I’m not so far gone that I don’t remember what it felt like. I had massive posters of BSB and Boyzone on my wall, and was secretly sad when I found out Steven Gately was gay. (Like that was the main obstacle to us living happily ever after). I cut out pics of unlikely teen heart-throbs Evan and Jaron (anyone?!) and stuck them in clumsily drawn hearts. I religiously read articles and interviews in Shout and Cosmo girl, just in case I ever bumped into Craig David and could wow him with my knowledge that his favourite ice cream flavour is vanilla. (In case he wasn’t already aware.)

But nowadays, I fan girl in a different way. Lionel Shriver spoke at this years London book fair, and I got there an hour and a half early to save myself the best seat. I tweet authors obsessively, and get almost unbearably excited when they reply. If I had to write a list of the books I would love the autograph of? Let’s just say we would be here a while. Books have changed my life, have made me cry far more than any ex-boyfriend, have brought me to tears of uncontrollable laughter, and have taught me more about myself than any one person. I would be proud to cover my notebooks with “Mrs Elisheva Books”, heart-ing the i, and cutting out glossy pictures of libraries across the globe. Just try and stop me from stripping naked and hiding out in a book’s trailer for when the show finishes.

“I am a fan of books, I would most definitely want a books autograph. I am a proud reader.”

I don’t expect my opinion to make the youth of today run off to Foyles, and I’m sure that some of my childhood ‘heroes’ are also non readers, just like Kanye. You don’t have to be a bookworm to write or perform great music. Certainly not to write popular music. But the point is, I don’t know whether Ronan has a volume of short stories on his bedside cabinet. I’m not sure if the A1 boys like a bit of Bronte after a long day. They never lifted themselves off the 2D background of my bedroom walls to tell me. To make me less literate, to encourage me to learn less, to take less notice of better minds than my own.

Well done Kanye! you don’t read. Frankly, no one is surprised to learn that you’re not a Dickens fan, or even a Katie Price fan, with your almost agonisingly poor verbal and written skills. But you are self aware enough to know that people are listening to you, people are emulating you, for the same reason that I know that Aaron Carter’s middle name is Charles and he has a twin sister called Angel. You’re famous. And unlike many other celebrities who say they don’t want the responsibility of being a role model, you actively seek it out. It’s not just fame you’re after. “I got the answers, I understand culture, I am the nucleus.” Every word out of your mouth is another sound bite or bumper sticker for kids looking for guidance. You WANT to be a role model.

It’s an inescapable part of celebrity in this day and age that fame will almost inadvertently turn a person into a role model of sorts, whether positive or otherwise. But this kind of subtle propaganda against literacy and reading is in many ways more dangerous than any dry humping of a wrecking ball. Your average teenager might think Miley Cyrus is cool, but the furthest the adoration is likely to go is a bit of harmless twerking at a school disco. Fashions change, trends come and go, and teenage girls grow up and realise that without the help of an airbrush, they really don’t have the legs for it.

But a fatwa on books? On reading? On one of the fundamentals of any form of education?

Careful Kanye, or the next generation of easily swayed youth will be incapable of reading your mindless drivel to start wi… On second thoughts, as you were.

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