A friend of mine who is a special education advocate, and who also happens to be the mother of a teenager with a disability, brought to my attention a few years ago that she finds it offensive when school district staff refer to her, and other mothers, as “mom.” As an example, during an IEP Team Meeting, someone will say, right in front of the mother of the student in question “well, mom says she’s not seeing that at home,” or “we didn’t want to implement that goal until we’d talked to mom,” or more pointedly “mom, what do you think?”
I’ll be candid, at first I thought she was, perhaps, being overly sensitive. Of course, usually when I have that reaction to someone telling me that something is offensive, it’s because the person is pointing out something that I, myself, have done and never thought was wrong before. And me being me, instead of just letting it go, chalking it up to a difference of opinion, I argued my point. (This is really one of my more charming personality traits; just ask my husband.)
I needed to convince her that she was wrong, that there was no offense in this: “well, in all honesty, they have lots and lots of IEP meetings, sometimes several a day, and they probably are just having a hard time remembering all of the mothers’ names” I said.
“That’s my point,” she said, “it’s a common courtesy, and I’m not THEIR mother, I find it offensive and belittling. What if you were in a meeting and you couldn’t remember the other lawyer’s name, would you just call them ‘lawyer’?'”
I tried a different angle. “Well, sometimes it may be that they’re used to using that term because they might be discussing cases in more public places or in the hallways or something, and they don’t want to use the family’s name for privacy reasons. So they are probably just accustomed to saying to each other, you know, ‘hey, the mom on that case with the child we discussed yesterday called back and she consents to the testing.’ I mean, I could see that. They’re just used to saying it that way and it comes out like that at the IEP meetings.”
I was sure I’d proven the point, and of course, demonstrated how very, very sensitive I am. See? Charming, right?
“Okay, I have no problem with that,” she responded, “saying ‘the mom’ is fine, not great, but better than ‘mom.’ Better would be to use my actual name, which is clearly written on the records sitting right in front of them at the meeting!”
When she has a point, she REALLY has a point, this friend of mine. So, we left it that I would consider what she said and she would consider what I said and we’d both think about it.
Ever since then, I have heard parents called “mom” or “dad” by teachers and administrators so often that I can’t believe it. And as I’ve tried listening to it through my friend’s ears, I have bristled more and more over time. I’ve become convinced that it IS belittling and dismissive, even though I really don’t believe most people intend for it to come off that way. Start listening for it, and I bet you’ll agree.
Words have power. What message does it send parents when the special education team doesn’t bother to try to call them by their name? The subtext is that the school staff see all parents of children with disabilities as ubiquitous and interchangeable. Which can’t help but make them wonder if they see children with special needs the same way.
It’s an intriguing subject, one on which I would really welcome comments. And no, it’s NOT because I’m trying to prove my friend wrong; on this one, she’s absolutely right!