Melinda Hildebrandt: The Deaf parenting situation that reminded me of David Brent in The Office

Posted on July 2, 2014



I recently found myself in a situation that reminded me of one of my favourite David Brent moments (and there are many) from The Office.

Brent (played by Ricky Gervais with depths of pathos unseen since the days of W.C. Fields) is told by his boss, Jennifer Taylor-Clarke, that Wernham Hogg is under a financial cloud.

Changes to the Slough branch will need to be made in the lead up to an internal merger. It’s serious business, but Brent has his mind on other things – like hiring a new forklift driver and setting Dawn the receptionist up in front of a new co-worker to think she has been fired.

All in a day’s work on the best cringe-comedy series ever made.

By episode two, Jennifer is back to find out what changes or cuts Brent has made. “Can you give me, let’s say, five practical changes that you’ve actually made?”, she quite reasonably asks. The question elicits that now-familiar flicker of panic across Brent’s face when under actual work pressure.

Then the strategy of the uber-procrastinator: pause, repeat the question back to the person and try to change the rules. “Five changes? Let me give you three, and then another two if you need ‘em….. Efficiency, turnover, profitability…”

Brent’s pathetic attempt to offer up ‘three things’ when only five would do always makes me and my husband laugh so hard. We quote it endlessly and, I’m sure, annoyingly to anyone not familiar with the series. But some days I feel Brent’s obvious pain at being cornered by a question requiring a deeper response or by an answer that just doesn’t come as easily as I would like.

One such occasion struck me a few weeks ago when I was sitting around a table with the other participants in a program called ‘Signposts for building better behaviour’, designed for parents of children with a disability.

My daughter Amelia attends a primary school for the deaf which has organised for a small number of families to access this impressive six-week program. We are learning more about why our children – all of whom have multiple special needs – behave the way they do, develop better strategies for managing their behaviour and perhaps, fingers and toes tightly crossed until the circulation cuts off, prevent such challenging behaviours down the track.

There’s no black magic here. No sacrificial lambs taken out the back and slaughtered at midnight to appease the mighty parenting gods. Nope, it’s good old fashioned practical advice backed by sound research.

But that doesn’t mean it’s short on, dare I say it, Oprah-style light-bulb moments. Take this exercise as an example. We were sitting around talking about how to describe our child’s behaviour. Not just generic terms like ‘naughty’ but using greater detail such as, “Amelia sat on her Dad’s lap and repeatedly hit him over the head and scratched his face.” You get the Tokyo drift.

We could have riffed all day about the bad stuff, the negative tales, the images of difficulty, the specific definitions of what is hard. Then, and here comes the Jennifer Taylor-Clarke spinner, write down five things your child has done recently that you LIKE.

Cue crickets.

I was asked to name five things, five easy pieces that Amelia has delighted me with, and for more than a minute I was completely flummoxed.

I have never felt more like quoting David Brent in my life.

We were all in the same, rocky boat, me and the other parents. I looked across the table at one Mum whose wonderful son has similar challenges to Amelia and we shared a rueful smile. That we like, huh? This was going to be tough. But in truth, once you switch your mind on to the positives, once you sift out the detritus that sits on the surface all day polluting your thoughts with grim despair, you find that you can’t stop accentuating the things you like.

My blue pen scratched across my workbook until the words were flying onto the page. What do I like? It turns out I like plenty:

  1. Amelia slept until 7am this morning;
  2. Amelia gave us a big hug and said ‘I love you’;
  3. Amelia taught me how to sign ‘Cinderella’;
  4. Amelia did not scream when I said no to more breakfast;
  5. Amelia played by herself in her trampoline for 20 minutes.

Growing stronger and more confident everyday

I love the way the program asked us to do this exercise. It had multiple purposes but its real gift to me was the time and space to sit and think about the many things Amelia has done recently that I like. That make me do little fist-pumps of celebration when no-one is looking.

When I look at my list I see how much progress she has made. Living inside the all-encompassing bubble that surrounds families raising a child with special needs, it can be difficult to notice progress and development.

You only feel weight and pressure and, frankly, under-equipped to raise such a complex person who needs so much love and support.

It is unfortunately too easy to forget to celebrate the good things, the small efforts that are a sign of better times to come.

When I went home, my positive reflections travelled with me and they stuck around.

‘Signposts’ is not offering some kind of silver bullet solution to the ever-vexed experience of parentingany child, least of all someone like Amelia, an alpha girl who is both deaf and on the autism spectrum.

Yet it’s no less revolutionary in my mind. Now, when I sit down at the end of another long day and I think back on how it all went with Amelia, I’m just as likely to start making a mental note of the things she did that I liked, instead of a black list of ‘bad things’.

But more than that, in the moment I am now able to recognise those pleasing things and tell her right then how helpful she is, how clever, how kind or how funny.

I see the impact of my words on Amelia’s shining face; I haven’t starved her of positive feedback but her obvious hunger for more has made me rethink what my child needs on a daily basis.

So when Amelia asks me what she is good at or why she won a prize at school for being responsible (last week’s massive score), I will never again be lost for words. I’ll just take a variation on the Brent route and say, baby, I’ll give you three things and then a million more if you want ‘em.

By Melinda Hildebrandt. Melinda is author of the blog ‘Moderate-severe / profound … quirky’ and the mother of her deaf daughter Amelia.

Follow her on Twitter @drmel76

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