Over the years I have heard the phrase “you, as the parent, are the expert on your child”. Certainly, as the definition above suggests, I do have special skills and knowledge when it comes to both my children. By virtue of raising my children since they were born, of course I have knowledge and detailed information about who they are, their likes, dislikes, quirks, gifts and more. I also have been on a learning journey myself in discovering the best approaches that will work for my children. I know that if I (or you) respond in a certain way with one of my kids, I (or you) will get a very predictable response, and sometimes it’s not so pleasant. I have learned this through trial and error, through exploring different ways to capture my child’s interest, researching alternate ways to show learning. Even though there have been many times I have wanted to give up, I have persisted forward. Our family has been praised by a number of different professionals for our courage, for the depth of our knowledge about our child.
And yet, I have a real problem with the term “expert”, and I’m going to tell you why.
First of all, even though I know a great deal about my child I still do not consider myself an expert. I think I have more to learn and understand. My child will keep growing and changing, new dynamics will come into play. So while I may know much about him now, that could change quickly. This role of mine is very fluid, and while there is some consistency in it, I have to be flexible, keep my mind open, always be curious.
Influencing my dislike of the term “expert” is that despite all our knowledge and expertise about our child, we have participated in meetings and conversations where the other person(s) clearly did not value our family perspective. When providing information we were met with: placating nods with no intent to collect the information, let alone do anything with it; defensiveness; or outright refusal to even ask us for information. We have even been told in these meetings that we are the experts on our child! You can imagine how “expert” we have felt in these situations. Thankfully we have also had experiences where we have felt valued for our knowledge and I plan to write a future post on the factors that contributed to this, as well as tips on how to survive challenging meetings.
I also wonder if “expert” can sometimes be a divisive term. I’m the “expert” on parenting my child; I’m the “expert” on [system] practices. Hmmm.
When we say we are an “expert”, does that discourage us from acknowledging we are struggling? Do we feel like we have to live up to an image of knowledge? Do we feel judged if we have to ask for help? I am reflecting on this from the perspective of all parties at the table, not just the family. What about the clinician who may feel like he/she is having a hard time figuring out how to reach a child? If s/he is perceived as an expert in that area of practice, does s/he risk judgement for not having the answers? What about the educator who may be so overwhelmed with information on hundreds of students that s/he simply cannot possibly remember everything? What kind of assumptions might be made about his/her practice?
What if we simply acknowledge that we ALL bring valuable information to the table that can benefit the child? What if we create a space where everyone can freely speak about successes and challenges without fear of judgement? What if we create the conditions to pool our knowledge, to pull information from each other to design a plan of support that works for the child and family?
Finally, we need to reflect on what we really mean when we say “parents are experts on their child”. Is it a phrase that is used to placate, to simply parrot out in order to show we value families? Or do we actively pursue opportunities to hear their expertise?
I recall a conversation I had with a parent who was pondering this. We were discussing various conferences and workshops we had attended where we heard from a panel of experts – those experts being professionals. The parent suggested it would be wonderful to have professionals hear from a panel of experts – parents! I am really proud to say we made this happen! In my previous role with The F.O.R.C.E. Society for Kids’ Mental Health, I collaborated with Laurie Schulz and Brian Gross from Impact Youth Substance Use Services to create a parent panel for the Continuous Quality Improvement Congress hosted by the Ministry of Child and Family Development of the Fraser East/South Regions.
Four parents with diverse experiences in mental health and substance use sat on a panel in front of a room full of clinicians, practitioners, and students. The parents shared their experiences and thoughts of what was helpful, hindering and what they wished for in their relationships with professionals. The feedback from the session was positive on all accounts. Professionals valued the information that was shared and how it could influence (or reinforce) their current practices. The parents walked away from the session feeling empowered because not only did they feel listened to, but heard. There was a great amount of courage in that session – not only from the parents who shared their thoughts and experiences, but also from the professionals who had the courage to hear the information and reflect on it. This was a great demonstration of putting “parents are experts” into practice. The conditions were created to encourage a safe place to venture towards curiousity and everyone benefited.
How do you feel about categorizing people as experts? Should we? In what ways do you (or can you) create opportunities to hear from parents? Please share in the comments.