Confessions Of A Special Needs Helicopter Parent
The following essay is by Gary Dietz, dad to Alex, 14, who has multiple disabilities. It’s from a wonderful new book of essays and poems Gary edited, Dads of Disability: Stores for, by, and about fathers of children who experience disability (and the women who love them). Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there with helicopter parent urges!
In the third grade, Alexander had an assignment to dress up as a famous inventor and give a presentation to his class. At that time, one of his favorite things was helicopters. So he chose Igor Sikorsky, father of the modern helicopter, as the inventor to dress up as for his report. Because his reading and writing skills were not up to level, I wanted to help him show his classmates and his teachers that he was indeed capable.
I made a phone call to the press relations contact at the Sikorsky company and asked if there was someone who could help me get some special materials for my son’s project. I told the press person about Alexander, his love of helicopters, a bit about his challenges, and what we were trying to do.
Less than a day later, I received an e-mail from Elena Sikorsky, wife of Sergei Sikorsky, Igor’s son (Igor died in 1972). She let me know that Sergei would send Alexander a package with helicopter-related stuff. Soon, we received a package with a selection of trinkets and keepsakes from Sergei’s attendance at an airshow in Europe as well as a copy of Sergei’s biography about his father. The book was autographed for Alexander and had a hand drawing of a helicopter in the inscription.
Alexander and his mother and I worked with him using large letters and pictures in a three-ring binder to remember some sentences for his presentation. We practiced getting dressed in the Igor Sikorsky suit and hat. And drawing on a mustache. All very challenging things due to sensory issues. But we practiced and had a lot of fun and he really liked it.
The day of the presentation was a very busy one in Alexander’s classroom. Lots of kids dressed up as Ben Franklin, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and other famous inventors. It was a very busy room, and Alexander and I left because of the commotion. I helped him prep in another room. Alexander was fairly anxiety filled. At home, he could do his presentation well. But it didn’t seem like it would go as well in the classroom with all of his classmates and a lot of parents watching.
I was able to convince him to leave the room, and together, we walked back into the classroom. His mom started to videotape us. And the teacher walked us up and introduced Alexander as “Igor Sikorsky.” I stood behind him to coach him on his lines, and, just before he was to start, he shrieked and then butted his head backward abruptly. Right into my nose. Crack!
In front of 25 kids, all the teachers, and a bunch of parents. On videotape. You could hear a pin drop. And Alexander saying quite emphatically “All Done!” I believe if you listened closely enough you may have heard me whimper in pain. I think my nose was fractured. It didn’t bleed, but it was pretty clear that I was hurt and it was definitely sore for a few days.
This was one of my earlier lessons in meeting a child where he needs to be met. He really didn’t want to do his project in front of the class. I usually pushed him maybe 10 percent past where he thought he could be. That is what a good dad does, right? A slight, but not obnoxious, nudge to help a child learn and move forward? Push him a little outside his zone in order to learn. It usually worked. Except in this case, I guess I read him wrong and apparently pushed him a bit beyond his usual comfort zone.
So, after proving to half of the third grade parents in our small town that I could take a hard head butt to the nose and gracefully exiting the room with Alexander, we decided to adapt Alexander’s project in an edited video. We taped it at home, I edited it, and he showed it to his class. We enjoyed dressing up again, making the video, and he enjoyed watching his classmates watch his video. We also sent the video to Sergei and Elena Sikorsky.
My son, within one degree of separation from the inventor of the modern helicopter. And me, with a sore nose and an evolving perspective on parenting.
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