Deborah Reber is a parenting activist, New York Times bestselling author and founder of TiLT Parenting, a podcast series and online community. The TiLT Parenting Podcast is in the iTunes top 20 in Kids & Family New and Noteworthy, and regularly features high-profile parenting experts and educators, as well as insightful conversations between Debbie and her 14-year-old son Asher. Debbie’s book DIFFERENTLY WIRED: Raising an Extraordinary Child in a Conventional World, was published with Workman in June 2018.
WEG is proud to present a conversation with this inspiring thought-leader – on topics ranging from effective advocacy and educational approaches, to self-care and embracing your own neurodiversity.
The 9th Annual Diamonds in the Rough Conference is focusing attention on successfully launching differently wired kids at every major stage. We’re all excited to hear your keynote address this year. What does that term “launching” mean to you?
I think a lot about launching in terms of zooming out with our kids, because when you are in the thick of it, we can get hung up on timelines and where they are with their peers.
And what we’re really trying to do is raise a human being. So, really looking at what it takes to create kids that are self-directed and understand their strengths and weaknesses, when they are ready to pursue their own goals. As parents we can be asking ourselves at each age and stage, “What does my child need? How can I help my child build those critical executive functioning skills?”
Launching is also about letting them fail to some extent. You know, going to school without their coat or homework done and paying the price, letting them figure some stuff out on their own. Giving kids room to be uncomfortable, not doing everything for them, so they can build resilience.
As a parent, I’ve highlighted and dog-eared your book like mad. Something I wish I learned faster was to find my people, and ditch the rest. How can parents get to a place of acceptance faster?
I was talking with a group of parents and they were saying, “We need to get t-shirts made that say, ‘My son has an IEP’ so we can find each other on the playground.” You just know that people in the pick-up line are struggling with the very same things as you are, but many people keep it private.
I think a big responsibility, and something easy that we can do, is just be more open. The more we talk about neurodiversity and normalize it instead of thinking it is a bad thing, the better. Bring it out in the open. That’s a powerful action that each one of us can take. I say this in my book, you don’t have to get a megaphone and announce to everyone, but there is something to be said for being very open.
Also, we all need those people who are further down the road. I’ve been thinking about how great it would be to have a mentor program of sorts for parents of differently wired children. It could be very powerful.
I love your idea of “practicing relentless self-care.” Why is this so critically important when parenting a differently wired kid?
I hear from many people on this one - some dads, but mostly moms. I call it being selfish, and I don’t apologize. I take my time, because I cannot show up for my son if I am stressed out. My husband can tell the difference if I haven’t had been running for a few days, and sends me out the door. The more you practice self-care and you create what you need, it just becomes something you cannot do without.
For so many reasons, self-care helps to remind you of your own importance when you are doing so many things for other people. It is also modeling for our kids. You show your child that your personal needs and feelings matter. In a sense, taking some “me time” is demonstrating to your child that your life and your body are yours to take care of. It is a great way for kids to grow up, knowing they have value. If we don’t take that time, there’s really no good that can come from it. They don’t get the best of us if we are not taking that time.
For many parents who are very intentionally raising a differently wired child, I’d suggest that one of the worst aspects of the traditional education model is fear of the unknown. There are those 8 hours of the day when we’re not sure what is really going on. You ultimately chose homeschooling for your son, but for those of us with kids in the “system” – what would you suggest we do to feel more informed and connected?
I’m interested in this idea of compassionately educating people. With the school system, I think you’ve got to go in the spirit of trying to design an alliance and not have an adversarial relationship. Keep pushing for partnership and being respectful.
If you can go into a school meeting with a firm but softer voice and not be defensive, it changes the tone of the whole meeting. I know that isn’t always easy stuff to do, especially when things are not going well at school, and believe me, I have been there. But I think you’ve got try to go in with the position that your teacher has the best interests of your child a heart - start there, and then try to design a plan for your child in collaboration.
You strongly advocate for parents to find their voice and “make a ruckus when you need to.” What can parents do when they need to speak truth to power?
Just in the last year since publishing my book, I’ve realized that some people can have a knee-jerk reaction. People can feel uncomfortable when we bring attention to the challenges our kids are having, and maybe that’s because they are feeling that these systemic problems are on them to solve. And in other instances, people can shut down and just not listen because they think we’re just complaining or that what we’re talking about isn’t relevant to their own lives and families.
The more we can give people the benefit of the doubt, recognize where other people are, and have that respectful tone as opposed of going in with our fists up, the better. That can still allow us to make a ruckus but from a place of truth, knowing and compassion.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Most parents of neurodiverse kids have their own struggles, diagnosed or not. Some days, who we are can get in the way of being a great parent. How can we address our own brain wiring so we can be better parents?
I’m having a podcast just to discuss this very thing! Many parents are discovering their own neurodivergence in the process of discovering more about their child. For some people, it is really traumatic because they are connecting all these dots from their childhood that caused them pain or recalling people who mistreated them.
That same thing has happened in our own family. I think its actually great because these are the conversations, we should be happening around the dinner table. I say, make it part of everyday conversation. This is our family, this is who we are, and we’re all working on things. Try asking your child for advice, “What have you found that works?” Or share something tricky that happened to you at work, and talk about how you dealt with it.
So many people have gone through life thinking they just didn’t fit in, or they were the “weirdos.” They were misunderstood because of their neurodivergence. I think now there can be some fun ownership that can be really empowering to say, “Yes that tie has to perfectly straight or I’m just not going to wear it!” As an adult, knowing who you are and owning it can be a great lesson for your child. Being able to say, “There’s a reason I am this way, there is nothing wrong with it, and I’m just going to go all in.”
You state in your book that the traditional educational model in the U.S. is a broken system that was “initially designed to teach compliant, neurotypical students who learn in a very specific way.” It seems that the number of children who are outside that mold is rapidly increasing, and yet our education systems change at a glacial pace. Are you seeing any trends in education that give you some hope?
Generally speaking, there seems to be more understanding and a desire to meet the needs of unique learners. The nonviolent communication model and whole child approach really serve differently wired students well because they respect every individual for who they are.
We are starting to see more schools where kids can have a more individualized approach, where they are not being held up to some identical standard, but rather they can access the learning through their strengths. That is certainly the direction where differently wired kids thrive, so it would be great if all schools could do more of that.
As parents, we need to de-tangle ourselves from feeling that our job is to fit our differently wired child into a traditional education model, to not make noise and just somehow push them through.
And even if you are in a traditional school system, parents can think about how to build in more learning through supplemental activities that really play on their child’s strengths. We can help keep that love of learning alive and they can discover who they are, even if we are in a system that doesn’t naturally do that.
Through your popular podcast series, you’ve interviewed so many experts. Can you share any people who remain on your ‘bucket list’ for interviews?
When I launched TiLT Parenting in 2016, I had a dream list of guests, and I’ve been really fortunate to have interviewed most of them, but there are always a few I’m working on. Andrew Solomon (author of Far From the Tree) and I have been trading emails for a year now, and he was once actually scheduled and then couldn’t make it, so he’s high on my list. I’d love to have Carol Dwek on to talk about mindsets, and I would love to have Susan Kane on to talk about introverts. And I’d love to talk with Brene Brown at some point!
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