If parenting, in general, is a more-than-full-time job, parenting a child with hearing loss can sometimes feel like an exhausting marathon. While we as professionals need to know when to put “good pressure” on parents of children with hearing loss (encouraging all waking hours use of hearing devices, increasing parent talk, emphasizing the importance of reading, etc.), we must be very careful of striking the right balance. After all, a mom’s got to eat, and shower, and breathe sometimes, too! Parents should not be made to feel guilty for taking some time for self-care. It’s an investment, not an indulgence. So how can we make this happen in a way that’s best for everyone in the family?
Without question, increasing the number of words a child hears per day, or the number of stories read, or the time engaged with parents in language-building activities is very important to the growth and success of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. But constant chatter is not necessarily a cure-all, and exposing children to an endless stream of parent-led entertainment may actually do more harm than good. Children need to learn to be bored, to create their own amusements, to play independently. They also need to learn to respect the needs of others — including their parents. If professionals make parents feel like they must be a 24/7 cruise director, we hurt both sides of the equation: We cheat parents out of much needed time to rest and focus on other aspects of their lives, and cheat children out of time and space to develop these crucial skills. How can we create realistic solutions that serve everyone well?
In general, what I tell parents is: As long as your tune-out time is not your child’s plug-in time, it is fine to take a break! This means that it is fine for Dad to read the newspaper, or Mom to sit and have coffee with a friend as long as the child is also engaged in a positive, creative, pro-social activity. In plain English: don’t pacify your child with electronics just to get a moment to yourself. If you do this, you’re fulfilling one half of the equation (parent gets some rest time), but sacrificing the other (child learns to play creatively without adult intervention). Screen time is the opposite of language-growing creative play.
Try boredom. Can your child read a book, color, play with blocks, investigate the contents of a kitchen cupboard by herself? You might think, “My child would never stand for that. Any break I would have gotten would be filled with my child’s whining, and in five minutes it would be back to mommy-led playtime again. That defeats the point of getting me some peace!” It’s true, children who have only learned to engage in adult-led play might not be so keen to be left on their own to amuse themselves. Like anything, boredom and child-directed play are skills that must be learned. Day One might not be pretty, but keep at it! If you never give your child time alone to play with toys, he will never learn. If your child is always surrounded by entertainment, he will lose the ability to entertain himself. All babies are born with this — think about how long your infant would stare in amazement at his own hands. It’s only when we, the adults, get over-involved that we can ruin things for them… and ourselves. Take it day by day, little by little, increasing a few minutes at a time. Offer alone time with toys (or household objects) and let your child explore without intervention from you. HERE are some great tips for getting things done around the house without resorting to screens to amuse your child.
Get help. AVT is parent- led, which means that you are your child’s first and best language teacher. But note that that sentence doesn’t say first, best, and only language teacher. Don’t be afraid to get help. You shouldn’t be the only ones growing your child’s speech, language, and listening skills. A friendly neighbor, great babysitter, or high-quality preschool or childcare facility can give you the break you need while still placing your child in a wonderful environment for language learning. If you’re having a hard time finding a babysitter, see if a local university has a speech pathology or deaf education program. These students are often eager to get experience with children with hearing loss, and some even have required volunteer hours for their degree programs. This way, your tune out becomes your child’s time to tune in, just in a different way or with different people.
Watch your own use of electronics. Of course, sometimes parents want to take a break to answer a few emails, catch up with a friend on Facebook, or read the news online. That’s normal. Just make sure that all of your breaks aren’t plug-in times. Children notice parents’ use of technology, and if your child starts to get the picture that your smartphone is the reason you don’t want to play with him right now, he’ll quickly come to the conclusion that it is more important to you than he is. Be sure to model other ways of relaxing for your child: reading a book, participating in a hobby, talking to a friend.
Take care of yourself. Taking time to rest and refresh yourself isn’t selfish. If taking an hour to two to yourself means that you come back more able to talk, sing, and read to your child, it is time well spent. It’s much better to know your limits and take time-outs accordingly than to run yourself into the ground. You will be a more effective listening and language teacher for your child, and you’re modeling appropriate boundaries and good self-care.