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Do You Have to Be a Parent to Be a Good Early Interventionist?

On Reagan’s first visit with Cole’s family, she feels like she is “under the microscope.” Cole’s grandmother, Celia, seems wary of Reagan, and of early intervention. Cole’s physician shutterstock_73268149recommended the referral due to delays with Cole’s communication, but his grandmother is not concerned. She has raised three children, all of whom, she says, “talked when they were ready and are fine now.” When Reagan asks Celia about which parts of the day go well for Cole and which parts are challenging, Celia laughs and asks “Do you even have kids?”

Reagan is 25 years old, recently completed her graduate program, and does not have children. Celia’s question makes her uncomfortable, but she answers honestly, saying that she doesn’t have children yet but has been lucky to work with many. She gets the sense that Celia is not satisfied with her answer, and thinks that she will have to try extra hard to build rapport here.

Have you been in Reagan’s shoes? Are you there now? How did getting asked this question feel to you?

If you’ve been asked this question before, then you know the awkwardness that comes with it. I remember being asked it many times, having worked in early intervention for 9 years before having my son. For some families, it was asked out of curiosity or just to make conversation. For others, it felt like a test of my competence. Finding the right way to answer was not always easy.

While I think this is a genuine question for some families who feel that people with children are the only ones who really “understand what it’s like” to parent, I think the real question is this:

Do you have to be a parent to be a good early interventionist?

I guess, from my own experience, I would reply with a hearty NO. I absolutely do think you can be an excellent early interventionist without being a parent. You can be a competent, skilled, and knowledgeable service provider without the experience of having raised an infant or toddler. In fact, you may be better able to remain objective when issues arise that are specific to parenting. You may be less biased than someone who has raised a child and had a different parenting style than the style of the parent in early intervention.

Interventionists who are not parents can bring the collective experiences of having worked with many parents and children to each visit. Since we know that the best way to support families is not by telling them what to do, you really don’t need to have done their job (parenting) first. Instead, you join them in their daily life and help them explore solutions to problems, plan for and practice how to embed intervention strategies into their experiences (not yours). Using these best practice strategies are universal, whether you’ve been a parent or not.

Reality Check

The reality is that raising any child is different from raising any other, and most of us who will be both parents and early interventionists will not be raising a child with delays or a disability. While having been a parent does give you the advantage of knowing what it’s like to care for a child 24/7, it does not give you liberty to assume that you “know what it’s like” for a family with whom you work. You can never truly know what it’s like for another family. You can only draw on your own knowledge, skills, and experiences to individualize the support you provide. If you haven’t been a parent, then you might have to work a little harder to be sensitive to what daily life is like for the parent. Really, though, we all need to do that, especially when developing intervention strategies and making suggestions that will hopefully “fit” into their everyday life.

We all take our experience and shape them to help us support families. You don’t automatically have a “leg up” if you’ve been a parent. What’s really important is understanding the role you play as a service provider, committing to individualizing your support, and focusing on the unique experiences of each family. How you use your experience and how confident you are in this does not need to depend on whether or not you have children.

What are your thoughts? How have you answered this question before? 

Share your experiences in the comments below!

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10 Comments to “Do You Have to Be a Parent to Be a Good Early Interventionist?”

  1. This is an exact summary of my life as an early interventionist! I was a newlywed, just out of college, and working with families with lived experiences I wanted to relate to but couldn’t always find that understanding. Looking back, I think it was more about my lack of life experience in general than my lack of children. Regardless, I love that you tackled this in the blog, Dana. You’re amazing.

    • Thanks Jen! 🙂 I started in EI when I was 21 and same as you, fresh out of college and rearing to go. I love your point about the awkwardness being more about overall lack of experience. I remember that I had a saying I used all the time when I was a newbie – “I don’t know but I’ll find out!” It helped me grow and built trust with the parent who asked the original question.

  2. Being a parent who received EI services in Vermont, I had several early interventionists who did not have children. At times I was frustrated with the specialist because she was giving me strategies that I had tried and did not work. I felt at the time that they could not possibly know what it was like to struggle and none of the strategies worked. At times I felt I was being judged by the way I parent my children to asking too many questions. I was one of those parents who asked the question to early interventionist or to my daughter’s mental health case manager if they had children. My thinking was how in the world could these folks know what it was like to raise a child with multiple disabilities which also include behavioral challenges if they never raised a child themselves. In hindsight and now I am older, I realized that perhaps I did not fully trust the specialist and perhaps could have established a better working relationship. I also realize now that whether you are a specialist in early intervention or case manager to families in other programs, if you don’t have children of you own, you have to start somewhere to gain the necessary experience to do your job well. Great topic!

    • It’s so wonderful to hear a parent’s perspective on this question, Michelle. You have a unique perspective being a receiving of EI and now a service coordinator. I really appreciate your honesty and I agree, we all have to start somewhere. Being really sensitive to what real life might be like for the family is so important. I think back and cringe when I think of suggestions I gave that were probably just not even realistic. It’s all a learning process. What’s so important now is that we have more knowledge of what works best when supporting families. If we are coaching them and joining them in their activities, maybe we’ll be less likely to throw out unrealistic expectations and strategies.

  3. As I supervise students, I hear them talk about their discomfort and exactly this issue. They feel that parents may ‘respect them less’ because they don’t have children. I agree that the more important issue is having various life experiences. And the truth is, the only way to have life experiences is to…well…live ’em. Being honest and confident that you can learn WITH the parent is key.

    And…when we think about it…would we think a doctor couldn’t treat us if she/he had never had a particular health condition?

    • Wow, such food for thought, Cori! Same could be asked about ongoing professional development. We wouldn’t want to see a doctor who had never learned anything else from the moment he graduated either. Our life and professional experiences and the efforts we make to develop our own knowledge and skills are so important. We all have to start somewhere. It’s what we do with ourselves, the experiences we go after and the knowledge that we develop and use that make such a difference – with or without children of our own.

  4. How ironic…I was just having this same discussion the other day!

    Fresh out of college, at the tender age of 22, I was providing EI services to families who were so diverse in every way imaginable. In just one day, my home visits would bring me to a college professor’s home and, next, I would be visiting a family who was worried about finding money to get their heat turned back on.

    Now and again I would get the hairy eyeball…and the question…”Do you have any children?” Most times, however, I was surprised by their reaction when I answered, “No.” Most families welcomed me, appreciated the interest I had in them and in their child…and, overall, they held great value in being listened to…being heard.

    However, now being a mom of two (and being twice the age I was when I first started in EI, gasp!) I reflect on my early years in EI. I, too, cringe thinking about suggestions that I gave to families…not having any idea of how overwhelming and exhausting it could be being a new parent…especially a parent of a child with special needs. Would some of my suggestions been different had I been a Mom then? Probably…most likely. Perspective and experience do play a part in how you present yourself as an early educator, but those two things certainly don’t limit your capabilities or your effectiveness.

    I am so grateful for my EI families in my “early years.” They were so kind and open-minded welcoming that young girl into their homes…into their lives. I learned more from them than they will ever know. They shaped me into the educator and…the Mom…I am now!

    • How happy I am to “hear” your voice on here, Shannon! I completely agree with what you write about perspective and experience playing a part. You’ve said it beautifully. I think back on so many families who taught me so many things I’ve used in my own life – with other families and with my own. It’s supposed to be our job to help families learn but isn’t is awesome when we take away nuggets of experience from THEM that change our lives too?

  5. I agree you do not have to be a parent to be a good interventionist. I have come across several that would be my top choice for my own kids if they needed therapy. It seems to be more about an interventionist’s confidence and consideration of what is important to the family.

    I have been both Service Coordinator and Educator. From the Service Coordinator side, a lot of families seem to have a hard time when an interventionist firmly tells them to take away their pacifier or stop doing something. It seems the parents do not feel like they understand how hard that is to just do or it is not the priority for the family. That is generally when I have heard parents ask if they have children because there is a level of understanding they feel is lacking. That is when parents usually say you will see one day. That may be experience, but it seems the way the message is presented may be the underlying problem.

    My co-worker and I used to joke around that there are several things interventionists would gawk at with our own kids. One thing I love most about early intervention is the ability to empower the parents. When I take my child to the doctor, I do not like it when they come in the room acting high and mighty, quickly assess my child and ask some brief yes or no questions. I want to leave there feeling like my concerns have been heard before giving me their clinical opinion. I like it when they take their time to listen to my concerns. I am more open to following their suggestions.

    I would love for someone to come to my house to help empower me to deal with my three year old’s tantrums. Why? Because life is busy. I know all of the techniques, but life is busy and it is not always on the forefront of my mind. Empowerment is everything despite how much you know sometimes.

    This post reminded me of a friend’s blog post. It is the perspective of someone working with children and then having children. Here is the link to it 🙂

    http://www.blog.brooketuckerphotography.com/2013/11/13/the-difference-between-a-background-in-children-and-having-a-child/

    • Gosh, Lisa, this is so true. When I think back to suggestions I gave families before I had children, sometimes I cringe because I didn’t understand what everyday life was like for a parent. Even without that knowledge, I think what I could have done better is make room for what I didn’t know. I could have more purposefully asked the parent what daily life was like, what she had already tried and then built strategies from there. Instead, I remember years ago just shooting off ideas – the “have you tried…?” thing we’ve all done. Now I know how empty those suggestions can be without more knowledge of the parent’s everyday life. You don’t have to live it to be a good interventionist. In fact, you can’t live each family’s life anyway, and having your own children doesn’t give you room to assume that “you know what it’s like.” Sometimes, new interventionists right out of school are the most energetic and creative. They bring wonderful things to the EI relationship that empower and support families too. It’s all about what we do with what we know and how we use it to help families…that’s the key!

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