The Sympathy Trap

I watched a short film the other day, while I was cooking the tea. (Actually, I watched it in two parts, because if I hadn’t I would have burnt said tea.) It made me cry, just a little bit. It touched me, partly because in it I recognised the heartache of a young mother and father when they received a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome in their baby, as yet unborn, and partly because I recognised something else. A tone of voice, a way of being, in another mother on the screen. The other mother, the one whose daughter was about the same age as my son, and who also had Down’s syndrome, like Sam.

Sometimes I think people must think I am the most hard-hearted person imaginable. I can feel their frowning glances, the pity they direct at my son, every time we go to the supermarket, every time we shop for shoes, or clothes; every time we are anywhere where there might be the temptation to pick up, to try on, to slip something random and unnecessary into the shopping basket. I feel their gazes as we go about our business, pitying and yet accusatory. How can she speak to that poor little disabled boy that way? Can’t she see he’s only having a bit of fun, poor thing?

It is wearing, I admit. Most times we go to the shops we make the same performance, and every time my voice, which started out so kind, so gentle, takes on the note I recognised in the woman in the film. Hard. Clipped. Tired. Lacking in patience. And Sam, he becomes an object of pity. The poor disabled boy with the horrible, cross mother.

In a way, I can relate to how they feel. Years ago I felt the same, the day I sat in a review meeting and we talked about cuddles. As he draped his small body around mine and my arm snaked around his tiny waist, I wondered why a ban was so important. Why shouldn’t he have a cuddle if he needed one? He was only little after all.

What I sense, though, is not the pity extended to all children of harsh, cross parents. You know, those kids we see, out and about at the shops and the park, on the receiving end of shouts and shoves, the hisses of barely contained rage and frustration, or the casual disregard for health or safety. That pity is easy to understand. I feel it myself (and sometimes towards the parents, the ones tiredly traipsing around the supermarket while their tired toddlers throw themselves to the floor over the chocolate biscuit or some other forbidden item).

As teachers we’ve all met those kids we feel sorry for. I remember one young lady, let’s call her Katy. While she was in my class her mummy died. A nice woman, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and died in the holidays. Everyone knew about it. One day, at the beginning of term, most of the parents of the children in my class went to the funeral. For a while there was quiet. A sense of awe at the enormity of what had happened to Katy and her little sister.

Or ‘Luisa’. One day, after school, I found her sitting in my classroom. She hadn’t gone home. Her mum was an alcoholic and, that day, Luisa had flatly refused to go home. She sat there, in her place, reading quietly, while she waited for her gran to pick her up. I could tell you about any number of kids I feel sorry for, whose wounds I would make better of only I could, just as I cure my own babies’ hurts with a kiss.

But you see, those people who pity Sam, they don’t just do it because they see someone being bossed about; they pity him because they fail to take into account the fact that he will not always be young. They have forgotten that learning disabled people, or any kind of person come to that, will eventually grow up. It’s as if they see him in a perpetual state of childhood, a life stuck, like the needle in a scratched record. They, like the me of years ago, do not see the consequences of actions left unchecked.

But I know that, unlike the children in my memory, unlike the illusion of constant childhood that teachers live with, making it difficult to imagine any of them any different than the day they were in our class, one day he will be grown up. And I don’t like to think of Sam, as a fully grown man, cuddling anyone he takes a fancy to, invading their space; acting inappropriately. I don’t like to think of grown up Sam, returning home with a bag of shopping, emptying out baseball hats and bananas, and wondering why he hasn’t enough food for the week, because no one ever told him ‘no’ and used that sharp, tired voice.

Experience has taught me that it takes Sam a while to learn. And learn all sorts of kinds of self-control he has – and will. He may as well start now. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy.

20 thoughts on “The Sympathy Trap

  1. You write so well Nancy. It is important for this to be said. Now life chances are improving for many people with learning and other disabilities, we need to remember that they are adults for far longer than they are children. Giving them the skills to function well and as independently as possible as an adult will do them a great service. You are wonderful! Sam is very blessed (even when you both don’t feel that!)

    1. Thanks Lynn. I think it’s such a universal message that I picked up as a bog standard classroom teacher. Children won’t be children all of the time, even though it feels like it when we work with a constant stream of them, all of the same age, and neither will children like Sam forever be. We are in the business of laying foundations for the future, and for that, even though it feels harsh, we need to put our feelings to one side, in their interest, don’t we?

      1. Putting feelings aside is difficult. (Especially when you’re mum!). I think it helps to meet adults with the same condition as good role models. My work with adults at church has helped a lot. Is there someone like this that Sam could meet?

      2. I think it will happen, tbh, as he moves more into adult society. He will meet more people – of all sorts. And hopefully make lots of new friends.

  2. Nodded all the way through reading this! Particularly remember when my son was 11 and used a walking frame, pushed past someone in a supermarket and they turned, all ready to have a go, and then realised it was a kid with a frame and stopped. I was 2 steps behind him and asked him to hang on for a second because my son owed him an apology, grabbed Smiler, turned him back round and told him (by voice and sign) that he had to be careful, and he had bumped into this person. The adult was almost begging me not to but I stood there, translating as Smiler apologised. ‘It’s fine’ said the guy, ‘he couldn’t help it’. ‘Yes he could!’ I replied. I don’t expect him to behave in line with his chronological age, but do expect him to behave in line with his understanding. Would it have been okay if he had sent a toddler flying? Or an elderly man?
    Smiler is now starting to shake hands with new people instead of cuddling them, but is still very physically affectionate with family and close friends – my thinking is that if he can draw that distinction then I’m happy. He gets so much from that physical contact that I don’t want to have to stop, but wondering how it will work when he’s taller than me!

    1. Exactly my thinking. I have always had a thing about bed time. Bed time is bed time, learning disability or no. Not that I haven’t been caught out, but there you are…

  3. I adore this Nancy and believe you have it totally right. This is why.

    A couple of years ago, one of my students’ mum died. Not only did she lose her mum, but she had no dad and at 16 with a brother at 18 was basically left to fend for herself. She was super bright and this was a month before her GCSEs started. Of all the teachers in the school, she would often come and sit and chat with me and I didn’t really know why. One day I asked her why she came to me (I’m a bit nosey and just wanted to know!) She said that it was because everyone just smiled at her, or hugged her, but I would ask her what she was doing that evening, or help her plan things she could do with friends that she could look forward to, or work out finances or talk about rubbish like tv programmes or listen to music. I naively thought that other people were doing the same. But I guess the point was this, I could see that she was depressed and so treated her like I would want people to treat me, not with sympathy but with empathy. The worst thing that people could do to me when I told them I had a mental illness was say ‘Oh poor you’ or ‘I’m sorry’ and so part of me automatically treated other humans in the same way and I’ve never forgotten that moment when I realised that was exactly what that student needed at that point in time.

    So I guess, in my roundabout way, what I’m trying to say is that I totally agree that the kinder thing to do for anyone, and particularly our children is to empathise and not sympathise, Children need boundaries and need to have all the foundations in place for them to become ‘good’ adults. Although a completely different situation to yours, I am lucky that I can look at my 2 pretty much adult children and know that the foundations are there for them to be well-rounded members of society, who are self sufficient and able to manage finances etc. A lot of that comes from being a single mum and having to say no – they learnt the value of money and having to save if you wanted something, but also learnt to value the precious time that I could give them. We shouldn’t feel guilty for saying no, we should realise that it is what is needed to make them ‘good’ adults.

    That student got an A* in her English GCSE a month after her mum died, despite breaking down in the exam when a poem about a dying mother came up. We employed her in our department for the last few weeks of the Summer term, so she could earn some extra money and we made sure that we were at results day, telling her how proud we were of her, but also always making sure that she was pointed in the right direction for the future and not just allowed to be surrounded with people who would just show her sympathy all the time. She has just won a place at Cambridge – we are very proud and also know that is exactly what her mum would have wanted. Empathy rather than sympathy can be very powerful.

    1. Oh Becky, that is exactly it. Thank you so much for sharing.

      You know that little girl, ‘Katy’? The day she came back to school we looked at each other, one of those quiet moments across the hurly burly of the cloakroom. I mouthed to her, ‘you OK?’, she nodded – and then we got on with the daily stuff of school. She needed me, not to make her better – I couldn’t after all – but to give her that safe sameness of school, where, for the time she was there, she could leave her grief behind. It was a privilege to do that for her, and I will never forget her. I expect she has a baby of her own now.

  4. The kind and very lovely ladies at school need to remember that the little boy they cuddle will soon grow into a large young man who may not understand that the physical contact he has grown used to is no longer appropriate. Dealing with this very issue at the moment!

  5. Thank you for writing and sharing this piece. It’s the first time I’ve experienced someone who ‘gets’ what it’s like and why we don’t give in to everything.
    I remember being exasperated at the teacher, head teacher, and my mother, when they dismissed my protestations that my son, then aged 8, needed help because if he was still throwing chairs in the classroom at 16 there would be serious consequences. He didn’t get much help professionally and the behaviours did sadly escalate. Eventually he was diagnosed with Asperger’s.
    Our world fell apart when he died suddenly in his teens. I remember crying to a friend in the days that followed and telling her I wished I had never insisted on laying boundaries. I said if only I had known he would be gone so soon I would have let him have the earth!
    She gently told me that if I hadn’t raised him to learn manners and how to consider other people, he wouldn’t have been the wonderful young man that he was, who was so loved by many. I realised she was right.
    You are giving your son a gift that is priceless. No one else can teach him these lessons, and the people who tut are the same people who will expect him to behave in public in years to come.
    Blessings to you and your family X

    1. I know I’ve said it before, but I thought it was worth saying again. I do get annoyed when people can’t see the difference between RE two things.

  6. Great blog Nancy and couldn’t agree more. I wrote a blog last year about this but it was quite generic and I think that it would have benefitted from more specific examples. It’s true that if we don’t want children to grow up to be helpless dependent adults then we need to do something about it while they are children. No switch is flicked at 18 that suddenly makes anyone different!!

    We know this yet at times it seems easier to pretend, to be ‘kind’ means to tolerate behaviours but I can’t think of many adults who are happy about learning habits that have made life harder and which have had to be unlearnt.

    As for the folk who judge.. well people will think what they will and little can be done to control it. The only way I have learnt to stop it from controlling me is to think about whether I am doing the right thing as best I can but it’s not easy!

    1. You’re absolutely right. The great thing about parenting is that I have no one with a judgement sheet….as a parent I can do what I know is right, and thumb my nose at judgement. Iyswim.

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