For one day my seventh-grade son was in a class for gifted math students.
When I received the voicemail from his math teacher explaining they needed to remove him from the class, I wondered, What on earth could he have done in one hour to get kicked out of math class?
His teacher reluctantly reported that the class met at the same time as the language class where he was receiving extra assistance. The school was bound, she explained, to honor the Individualized Education Plan that had first been implemented to help my son thrive.
I didn’t agree with the change.
I’d seen what a boost the math class had been for my son’s confidence and also that—three years after his need had been identified—he was doing well in all his classes. Though I felt anxious and entirely ill-prepared for the task, something in my gut now told me I needed to advocate for my child.
Propelled by Instinct
Like bears in the wild that instinctively protect their young from predators, moms are hardwired to protect and to advocate for their own cubs.
Heidi Stern, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who serves children and families in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, explains, “I think that the instinct to protect our children taps into the most fundamental part of our beings and activates the ‘fight’ part of the ‘fight or flight’ instinct. It is important to recognize the rage and instinct to protect and harness that energy to protect and advocate for our children.”
As the mother of several children with special needs, Tina has had ample opportunity to do just that. In her very first meeting about one of her son’s educational needs, she says she felt a bit stunned, like a deer caught in the headlights. But when she began to realize her son was being treated unjustly, her feisty mama bear instinct flared up in anger. Over the years, though, Tina has learned you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Now she comes into the room as a team player. “I always try to go into those meetings open. And listen,” she explains. “I tell them, ‘I want to figure out how we can do this together.’ I always use that first-person plural pronoun.”
If anger motivated Tina, Janae’s instinct to protect her children was propelled by maternal fear. As soon as Janae released her sons from the clothing store where she was shopping with her daughter in order to play with trains at a nearby toy store, she began to feel uneasy. As an African American mother, Janae knew from experience that the boys’ presence in the high-end toy store might not elicit the same affectionate glances from employees or shoppers that other boys might enjoy. They might even be viewed as objects of suspicion. She didn’t want her sons to have to deal with that possibility. Instinctively longing to protect her boys, Janae hurried her daughter along so she could join her sons.
When we notice that mama bear instinct in our guts—as rage or as fear—it moves us to action. What it might not do is make us popular.
No More Miss Nice Girl
Although Christine had worked as a nurse for years at a university hospital, her daughter Staci’s diagnosis suddenly put her on the other side of the examination table. When Staci was three, with knees the size of navel oranges and unable to walk, her parents—both medical professionals—suspected she had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA). Unfortunately, they were right.
When Staci was ten, Christine noticed her mouth appeared a bit crooked, and it was Staci’s dentist who diagnosed JRA in Staci’s jaw. Three separate professionals—one at one of the world’s leading hospitals!—concurred that when Staci reached puberty she would need a grizzly operation to reconstruct her entire jaw with bone from her ribcage. Desperate for any other option, Christine continued to search. She finally found an orthodontist who’d recently discovered a jaw appliance developed in Germany that might help. Amazingly, it did.
Christine offers guidance to other parents: “I guess the biggest thing is always go with your intuition and stick with it. A mom has to be her child’s biggest advocate.” Christine realizes this doesn’t always make you the most popular mom! “I was not there for them to like me,” she says. “My job was to be a mama bear to provide the best care for my child. I always started out very nice: kind and respectful. But the minute I felt like they were not listening to me, as no one knew my child more than me, my approach became a little firmer.”
Too Far or Not Far Enough?
For some moms, striking the right balance between ferocious and timid can be a challenge. Some of us worry we’ve not done enough while others go overboard.
My friend Lisa noticed the mom of her sixth-grade son’s friend going too far. “She was always calling the school when she thought her son was getting left out,” she says. “It was terrible.” Unfortunately, when parents aren’t healthy our codependency and insecurity can impact children. Heidi confirms: “There is a delicate line between out-of-control, raging mama bear—who will be disregarded as being ‘overprotective’ or crazy—and assertive, strong mama bear who advocates on behalf of her child and does all that is within her power to protect.”
Helen, the mother of three teens, became concerned when her daughter Bethany brought home a new friend. Helen regularly overheard this girl spewing gossip and comments that tore down other girls. When Helen mentioned this to her daughter, Bethany would change the subject. It wasn’t long before this girl began bullying Bethany, making awful comments about her clothing and appearance. As they processed it together, Bethany begged her mother not to call the girl’s mom or the school.
Helen decided to honor her daughter’s wishes.
Keeping a close eye on Bethany, Bethany’s friends, and her social media accounts—one of which they decided to shut down—Helen chose to quietly monitor the situation. Helen’s main objective was to keep her daughter’s trust. She offers, “I think the most important thing I did right—and I’m still not sure whether I should have called the school—was that Bethany does trust me.”
Every mom knows that’s no small thing.
Here are a few tips from moms who’ve gone to bat for their kids:
1. Be a Team Player
When you advocate for your child, bring a “We all want to do what’s best” attitude to the table. Let the other adults know you’re working with them.
2. Do Your Homework
When you have a meeting with professionals, go prepared. “I always did my homework in advance,” Christine says, “so I always knew what I was taking about.”
3. Work for Change that Serves Others
After several negative racial incidents at a private school, Janae and her husband chose to homeschool. And they shared their concerns with the school principal. A few years later Janae helped to develop and implement a diversity plan for the school. She remarks, “The Lord gave me the ability to look beyond our experience to help others.”
4. Assure Your Child You Are for Him or Her
Whether or not you're able to change your child's situation entirely, communicating that you are for her or for him builds a bridge of trust with your child.
5. Trust Your Gut
Though you may be dealing with professionals who have much more expertise than you in a particular area, no one knows your child better than you! Give yourself permission to trust your gut as you go to bat for your child.
When I realized I needed to go to bat for my son, I’d felt intimidated and ill-equipped. I didn’t know how the system worked and didn’t know how to be strategic about helping my boy. Feeling lost at sea, I turned to moms who’d already traveled the same road. One explained more about the process and said I could ask for my son to be reevaluated. Another told me how to appeal if the professionals did not agree. And one lit a fire of courage under me by reminding me it’s my job to serve my son. (It was my idea to take snacks to hungry educators, which may actually have been the linchpin to the whole operation.) Together we discovered it was time for my son to be reevaluated and the evidence pointed to what I’d known in my gut: he’d do fine in a typical language class and could be moved back into gifted math.
I suspect I’ll find myself in a similar spot again, and when I do I’ll feel a bit more equipped. Better yet, I’ll be able to help another mama on the journey.