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Parents of special needs kids offer parenting advice

“Don't sweat the small stuff,” parents of special needs children advise parents of typical kids.
by Heather Warlick Published: June 12, 2012

At some time in their lives, most parents will question themselves, wondering if they are doing everything “right.” Am I mom enough? Was my child breast-fed long enough? Am I strict enough or too strict? Am I helping my child live up to his or her emotional and intellectual potential?

And most parents will, at some point, find themselves comparing their parenting styles to other parents', whether in TV shows, at Parent Teacher Association meetings or just at the grocery store. It doesn't help when the cover of Time magazine features an “attachment” parent breast-feeding her 3½-year-old son, inciting a worldwide debate over whether that's appropriate or not.

Comparing your own parenting style to others' is natural, experts say. But don't go overboard.

And don't sweat the small stuff.

That message comes courtesy of Laura Rossi Totten, a New England author and publicity specialist, and several local moms agree. These moms have kids with special needs and say they've learned some valuable parenting lessons from their experiences.

“Don't sweat the small stuff” is one point in Totten's “Special Needs Mommy Manifesto,” a list of things she's learned from being the parent of a child with special needs. She wrote the manifesto last month, indirectly in response to the controversy caused by Time Magazine's May cover featuring a woman breast-feeding her large toddler.

‘Mommy War' controversy

Totten has two children — one with special needs and one without. Totten's children are 9-year-old twins, a boy with Tourette syndrome whom she refers to as J, and a “typical” daughter, M. “Typical” is a common word used by parents of special needs children to refer to kids without special needs.

At first, Totten didn't want to respond to the controversy on her Huffington Post blog, “My So-Called Sensory Life.” She didn't want to perpetuate the “Mommy War” she was seeing in the media. But she said she couldn't ignore the question of where special needs parents fit in to the picture.

“We are always trying to teach our children acceptance, being open minded and not judging people,” she said in a phone interview. “But judging is exactly what we're doing when we get into the mommy wars.”

She started to realize that parents of special needs kids had a lot of positive lessons they could share with the rest of us. Hence, her manifesto took form.

“I really learned quickly to not try to compete with other moms, comparing myself to other moms,” Totten said. “I just don't have room for that stuff.”

Celebrating accomplishments

Parenting choices are as diverse as we are, Totten said. She thinks some parents, especially young and inexperienced ones, are especially susceptible to the 24/7 news cycle through which a dire parenting warning surfaces almost daily.

She said parents need to keep in mind that every child is different, has a unique personality and learning style and that what works well for one parent doesn't mean it's the only way.

“There really isn't a right or wrong,” she said. “If the child is being harmed or there is something dangerous going on, then it's time to speak up. But if the kids are happy, healthy, safe, loved, who are we to judge?”

Some local parents of special needs kids say they can identify with Totten. These parents have an unspoken affinity with each other that seems to run through the community of parents with kids with special needs.

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by Heather Warlick
Life & Style Editor
Since graduating from University of Central Oklahoma with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, Staff Writer Heather Warlick has written stories for The Oklahoman's Life section. Her beats have included science, health, home and garden, family,...
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