I can never really get my head round the need people have to label their children. OK, so I understand the immediate labels of ‘male’ and ‘female’; after all, gender is one of the first ways in which we categorise the world, but really, those labels, when you think about them are enormously troublesome. Take ‘girl’, for instance. It’s an insidious little label. You wouldn’t think it would make so much difference, but before you know where you are you have fallen into a sea of pink frills and even more pink plastic, of hair bobbles and sit up nicelies and don’t get that dress dirties. ‘Boy’ is just as bad. Man Up. Little Monster. Beige and navy blue.
The big one for me, of course, is Down’s syndrome. Even without the banner ‘red hair’ or ‘boy’, Sam has a stereotype to contend with every day; one that tries its hardest to lock him into loving everyone and music, regardless. I lay the blame firmly at the feet of my mother. Like generations of teachers before her, concerned for the wellbeing of a child (me), she was at pains to point out that we were in the business of proving everyone wrong, and I maybe took it a bit far.
The thing about these labels, though, is that we need them. In a medical context, the diagnosis of Down’s syndrome meant that we, baby Sam and I, entered a protocol that checked him out for all sorts of things, his heart, his guts, his thyroid, and, as he grows, his eyes and ears and feet; anything, in fact, that might cause him trouble, or hold him back, or make life more difficult for him than it needs to be is under scrutiny. I might find the number of appointments a drag, a hassle and a cause for fear, but they are there to ensure his health is as good as possible.
In my professional world, in education, the labels hold the key to all manner of things. Understanding of why things aren’t progressing the way they ought. Adjustments, special resources to make mainstream life a little easier, more copable. Extra help. These labels, the ones that unlock the treasure trove of additional funding are highly sought after. Everyone, after all, wants the best for their children, and particularly those with Special Educational Needs. There’s a tension, a balancing act to be had, a delicate wielding of a double edged sword.
There is always an undercurrent, though, always a story that hardly dare speak its name; a nameless, spectral guest at the feast, or elephant in the room if you prefer, whenever that label is applied, and its name is Blame.
It’s not very nice, is Blame. He, or she, I can never quite decide, is a nasty piece of work. S/he stalks about the place pointing the long, bony finger of accusation at whoever is the latest victim of displeasure and heaven help you if it’s you. If you’re carrying a child and you happen to find out that they have the added benefit of an extra chromosome, BANG. There you are. Pointy pointy. And there is no Get Out of Jail Free Card if the diagnosis is made post birth, either. Then, instead of the subtle pressure of talk about risk, there is genetic counselling and further tests, but it all comes down to the same thing; just who is responsible, just who is to blame?
The strange thing is, though, that outside the world of the medical diagnosis, out there where most of us go about our business, the Blame Game works in a different way. That finger, that nasty, long, bony accusatory finger needs no label to attract its notice there. All it needs is a quirk, or a difference, or those moments when you tear your hair out in frustration that the child just won’t do as it’s told and it starts to wag.
And before we know where we are, we are fingering the labels again. Poor child. FSM. Pupil Premuim. ADHD. Austism. Naughty. Even with all the negative stereotypes, the excuses, the lowering of expectations, the effect of over intervention, the censure of the behaviour and not of the child, we riffle our fingers through the pack, to find the one that will stick, to find the one that will let us off the hook.
I wonder what would happen if everyone stopped pointing the finger; if we stopped blaming each other and started working together?