I once asked my toddler’s teacher for help: “how do you discipline a deaf child?” Her answer? “The same as any other child.”
The simplicity of this answer shows just how little some people know of the hardships of being a hearing parent of a deaf child. Certainly I understand her point that you treat a deaf child just like any other child; you love him just the same, and treat him the same by not letting him get away with misbehaving simply because “he doesn’t understand.” But the way you have to go about doing that is very different. My son may have learned the sign for “no,” but not many parents teach their children just by saying yes or no. If Aaron tried to reach for the oven knob, I could tell him no, but I couldn’t explain to him that the oven is hot and that he will get hurt if he touches it. In a deaf family, this is not a problem because the parents and children are both fluent in the same language. But in the few short months that we had been learning ASL, neither Aaron nor I had enough understanding for complex explanation and comprehension of the language for him to understand why I was asking him not to touch the stove.
As my toddler grew, discipline became a more complicated issue. I knew how I would handle an issue with a hearing child. For instance, I might use reverse psychology: “You don’t want to go in the car? Okay, well Mommy’s going to have to go without you then.” This would likely prompt a hearing child to come running after me. But for Aaron and our limited communication, he didn’t understand. I couldn’t reason with him. I couldn’t explain. I couldn’t even yell out to him when he was in danger. So how could this teacher tell me there was nothing different I needed to do to help discipline and teach a deaf child?
Today, Aaron is a little older and we know more ASL. He also has a cochlear implant, so some of these struggles are lessened. He can hear my tone of voice, and he knows when I’m serious and when he’s in trouble. His understanding of spoken English is improving, so explanations of misbehavior are easier. We still have struggles with him though that wouldn’t likely apply to a hearing child, or to a deaf child with deaf parents. Aaron cannot wear his processor in the tub, nor at night. We rely on his lip reading and our limited ASL during those times. But if he has a nightmare in the middle of the night, it’s not easy to reassure and soothe him when he cannot hear and it is too dark for him to see us sign.
More importantly than simple daily interactions with him, I struggle with the hardships he may face all his life, mainly a lack of understanding from the hearing world. I fear the difficulties he may face in school as we battle with the board and administration to assure he has access to a speech therapist, and possibly an interpreter in the beginning as his English vocabulary still develops. I fear possible hardships in his social interactions. Already at age three, I see the difficulties he has making friends and playing with other kids. In a play room full of kids, Aaron is usually the one off in the corner, playing by himself. When other kids do try to interact with him, they don’t understand that he can’t verbally communicate with them yet, and so most get frustrated and don’t want to play with him. Hopefully as these communication barriers begin to break down as Aaron learns to talk, his social interactions will improve. In the meantime, Aaron is a happy little boy who is very visually oriented and loves tasks he can master on his own, like puzzles, coloring, painting, and other arts and crafts. Still, his future ability to make friends and “fit in” is a concern facing us as parents.
Even if he becomes mostly oral and is mainstreamed into a public school, Aaron’s cochlear implant will always make him “different.” Will the kids tease him because of his implant? Will they make fun of the way he talks, if it isn’t perfectly clear? Will he feel awkward having to ask people to clarify or repeat themselves? Will having an implant make him different among his hearing peers, while not attending deaf school and using ASL as a primary language will make him different among his deaf peers? Will he find trouble fitting into both worlds? Aaron’s deafness will always be a part of him, but will he be “not deaf enough” because we have chosen a cochlear implant for him?
Perhaps these will seem like minor issues when Aaron is an adult, when he better understands his deafness and is more self-aware and self-confident. But for first-time parents, these are real issues that feel trivialized by those who do not understand; raising a deaf child is not the same.