Gifts and Disabilities

My eldest child has a learning disability while his two younger siblings are “normal” learners. They are all in school and the younger ones have passed their older brother in virtually all areas of learning. Lately they have started to tease and belittle him when he says or does something “dumb.” They seem to have become so cruel, and I’m not sure how to handle this situation.

We live in a society which divides us into “winners” and “losers” on the basis of our success in competitive areas. The cartoon of Ms. and Mr. North America illustrates the winners, each physically beautiful. He has his hockey stick, his muscles, and his glasses and intellectual accomplishments; she has her briefcase and her baby. The process of sorting out the winners and losers begins early, in school, with the peer group and even the teachers, who encourage competition, and reward children for being “the best” in academics, sports, etc. Even children of parents who don’t buy society’s values will acquire them in school. I have seen this process in my own children, and remember it in myself as a child and a young adult.

True self-esteem is based not on competition with others, but on esteeming the self – liking yourself just as you are, with your own unique combination of gifts and disabilities. It is important that all three of your children learn this, and it may be harder for the “normal” ones, as society rewards them for excelling. Being “the best” is a very vulnerable basis for self-esteem; it has to be constantly maintained. “Winners” whose self-esteem is based on surpassing others feel anxious and vulnerable whenever anyone threatens their superiority, and have to put others down in order to maintain their self-esteem. “In-groups” in school are based on groupings of the children who consider themselves superior; they maintain their status and therefore their self-esteem by ridiculing the “losers.” Sooner or later, however, everybody is a loser; perhaps those who experience it earlier in life are luckier, if they can question the basis on which people evaluate one another.

The reality is that we are not our gifts. Our abilities, looks, body, intellect, and so on, are only the raw material we have to work with. That’s why they are called “gifts” – they are given to us; they are not us. The only real and lasting basis for self-esteem is to identify with and esteem the self, the person behind the gifts. This person can choose to use his or her gifts for good, or to waste them on trivial goals such as surpassing others. It isn’t what gifts we have that matters; it’s what we do with them. When we forget comparing ourselves with others, and give ourselves to goals such as helping other people and the world, self-esteem comes as a natural by-product.

As parents we need to teach this to our children, and demonstrate it in our own lives. We can talk about everyone as having abilities and disabilities; we all do. We can point out wheelchair athletes and others whose character shines despite their lack of apparent gifts. We can express our appreciation to all our children for who they are rather than for what they accomplish or how they surpass others. We can teach them to have empathy for others who are different. Empathy training is very important, teaching each child to imagine himself in another people’s shoes. There are games in which wealthy people learn to imagine being poor, or sighted people imagine being blind, or intellectually capable people imagine being learning disabled; these help us understand that it is chance which distributes our gifts, but it is we who create our character. As parents you need not only to explicitly teach these alternative values, but you also need to set limits on your “normal” children’s cruel behavior towards their brother : cruelty is simply not acceptable, and will have consequences such as removal of privileges. Perhaps you could set up a chart to count the insults, and reward them for each day of no insults. You can also teach your learning disabled son to stand up for himself, and equip him with some snappy comebacks, so that he does not feel so disabled in his interactions with his younger siblings.