On Reagan’s first visit with Cole’s family, she feels like she is “under the microscope.” Cole’s grandmother, Celia, seems wary of Reagan, and of early intervention. Cole’s physician recommended the referral due to delays with Cole’s communication, but his grandmother is not concerned. She has raised three children, all of whom, she says, “talked when they were ready and are fine now.” When Reagan asks Celia about which parts of the day go well for Cole and which parts are challenging, Celia laughs and asks “Do you even have kids?”
Reagan is 25 years old, recently completed her graduate program, and does not have children. Celia’s question makes her uncomfortable, but she answers honestly, saying that she doesn’t have children yet but has been lucky to work with many. She gets the sense that Celia is not satisfied with her answer, and thinks that she will have to try extra hard to build rapport here.
Have you been in Reagan’s shoes? Are you there now? How did getting asked this question feel to you?
If you’ve been asked this question before, then you know the awkwardness that comes with it. I remember being asked it many times, having worked in early intervention for 9 years before having my son. For some families, it was asked out of curiosity or just to make conversation. For others, it felt like a test of my competence. Finding the right way to answer was not always easy.
While I think this is a genuine question for some families who feel that people with children are the only ones who really “understand what it’s like” to parent, I think the real question is this:
Do you have to be a parent to be a good early interventionist?
I guess, from my own experience, I would reply with a hearty NO. I absolutely do think you can be an excellent early interventionist without being a parent. You can be a competent, skilled, and knowledgeable service provider without the experience of having raised an infant or toddler. In fact, you may be better able to remain objective when issues arise that are specific to parenting. You may be less biased than someone who has raised a child and had a different parenting style than the style of the parent in early intervention.
Interventionists who are not parents can bring the collective experiences of having worked with many parents and children to each visit. Since we know that the best way to support families is not by telling them what to do, you really don’t need to have done their job (parenting) first. Instead, you join them in their daily life and help them explore solutions to problems, plan for and practice how to embed intervention strategies into their experiences (not yours). Using these best practice strategies are universal, whether you’ve been a parent or not.
The reality is that raising any child is different from raising any other, and most of us who will be both parents and early interventionists will not be raising a child with delays or a disability. While having been a parent does give you the advantage of knowing what it’s like to care for a child 24/7, it does not give you liberty to assume that you “know what it’s like” for a family with whom you work. You can never truly know what it’s like for another family. You can only draw on your own knowledge, skills, and experiences to individualize the support you provide. If you haven’t been a parent, then you might have to work a little harder to be sensitive to what daily life is like for the parent. Really, though, we all need to do that, especially when developing intervention strategies and making suggestions that will hopefully “fit” into their everyday life.
We all take our experience and shape them to help us support families. You don’t automatically have a “leg up” if you’ve been a parent. What’s really important is understanding the role you play as a service provider, committing to individualizing your support, and focusing on the unique experiences of each family. How you use your experience and how confident you are in this does not need to depend on whether or not you have children.
What are your thoughts? How have you answered this question before?
Share your experiences in the comments below!