By Teresa Kazemir
When I look back on how we raised our three kids, there are of course many things I now think we might have done differently. For example, it was a good idea to hide vegetables in their pancakes, but why did I start them off with sweetened peanut butter?
I think we were more intentional in our parenting than many of our friends because our first child, Jesse, was born hard of hearing. We were concerned about him feeling different, not being included, or even being bullied, and so we sought advice from others. We consulted parenting books, early interventionists and other parents of children who were deaf and hard of hearing. We also took advantage of opportunities to learn from older children and adults who were themselves deaf or hard of hearing. Figuring out how to parent our children was an active process that evolved constantly over the years. We certainly weren’t perfect parents, but there were several pieces of advice that we received from others that turned out to be “golden nuggets,” worthy of passing on to the next generation of parents.
- Provide rich accessible communication from infancy
For our son this meant a combination of sign language and spoken language right from the beginning. We talked and signed to him all the time, about everything that was happening around him, and he soaked it all up! This strong foundation in language definitely helped him later in school, and it also led to good, open communication within our family, as we talked about anything and everything.
- Turn off the TV and background music
It was clear even as a young baby that Jesse loved to listen as well as watch, so one of the biggest changes we had to make early on was to become more thoughtful about when we played background music and had the TV on. We understood that even though we loved music, it competed with the sound of our voices when we talked to our baby. We found ways to make it work – we would listen to music with Jesse, but if it was time to read a book, we would turn off the music. We also found that signing naturally filled in those gaps in auditory access in situations where we couldn’t control the level of background noise.
2. Encourage your child to self–advocate from a young age
This started by talking openly and positively about Jesse’s hearing equipment when showing others or answering their questions. We encouraged him to contribute whatever he could to these conversations. Initially we asked him to show people his hearing aid. Later we asked him to tell others what he was wearing – “It’s my hearing aid.” Over time he added more and more information, until gradually he took over, and we just supplemented with anything he might have missed. To this day Jesse is very comfortable talking about his ears, hearing aids, access, etc.
3. Embrace early literacy activities
When Jesse was a baby, there were some pretty scary articles circulating about deaf and hard of hearing children graduating from high school with very low reading levels. This motivated us to be pro-active in terms of literacy, and think about what we could do to encourage a love of books from a young age. I hadn’t really stopped to think about how many opportunities there are to promote early literacy with young children before Jesse was born, but we discovered there are lots of ways to do this. We started looking at books together when he was an infant, and incorporated this into our daily routines. We got a library card and borrowed books every week. We wrote his name on every piece of toddler artwork. It was a real eye opener when 2 ½ year old Jesse, while out in the car with my husband, pointed at a sign with an amazed expression and said “Letters are everywhere!!!” That led to making our own signs when we played store, writing words together on the grocery list, and writing letters to grandparents. We realized that Jesse was right – letters are everywhere!
4. Make it OK to express sadness or frustration
While Jesse has said that his hearing difference created more positive interactions and opportunities than negative while growing up, that doesn’t mean there weren’t times when he was frustrated or sad. We were advised that it was good to acknowledge his feelings, and let him know it was OK to feel that way. I wasn’t always quite sure how to do that, when my natural instinct is to reassure and look at the bright side of everything, but we muddled through. Honestly, any time he was sad, I would go back to that piece of advice, take a deep breath, push aside my natural response, and instead just sit with those feelings for a bit. Luckily he always seemed to come around after a few minutes of chatting, and I could relax back into my comfort zone.
5. Prioritize opportunities to meet other families with kids who are DHH
We heard this message loud and clear from our early intervention providers, so we made an effort to take advantage of family events and groups whenever we could. As Jesse grew older, this settled at a couple of family events each year (which were also great for our other two children), in addition to a couple of fun activities at school where his Teacher of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing would bring together a few kids within the school district. Even though Jesse never really bonded with any one particular friend who was deaf or hard of hearing, these experiences provided something important for him. I remember him saying when he was about 12, after attending a family conference, that it was always so nice to get together with that group because all the other kids “just get it.” He said it was really great not to have to explain anything. I think those events recharged him, and then he’d be happy to go back to his daily life once again. As parents, we highly valued those opportunities to connect with other parents. There seemed to be an instant bond – it’s amazing how fast you can connect with another parent in a similar situation, and get right to the real, heart-felt conversations. Most of the best support and practical advice we’ve received has come from other parents.
Parenting is much more complicated than I realized before having children. It can be terrifying, humbling, amazing and rewarding – sometimes all at the same time! All we can do as parents is try our best, and then pay it forward to others by sharing what worked. These are a few “golden nuggets” that we picked up along the way – I’m sure others can add to the list!