The story came out slowly, over a period of several hours. Julia had been hanging quietly on the periphery of a group at camp, as she often does. Henry, one of the class ringleaders, confronted her about her silence. "I don't think you even know how
to talk," he apparently accused her. Then he told Maddie, Julia's one true friend in the class, that she shouldn't be Julia's friend any more. And Julia, my nonstop talker who can't seem to bring herself to utter a word in school, said absolutely nothing. "He made me feel sad," she told me later. "Why didn't you tell him that," I asked her gently. "There was too much noise going on," she replied quietly.
Maddie, who will forever be my favorite child on earth from here on out, defended Julia. "She does too talk," she told Henry. "She talks a lot at my house. And she's my friend." I could kiss that Maddie. "She made me feel special," Julia confided when she told me the story.
It's awful to watch your children struggle through social situations, but I know this is far from the last time that I'll feel traumatized by what I know intellectually should be Julia's battle and not my own. As I struggled to find the words to respond to my child's pain, I was terribly afraid that if I implied, even indirectly, that she'd made the wrong choice in remaining quiet, I would be saying something really negative about the kind of person she is. And so I found myself really reaching for the right words to be supportive and yet encouraging.
"I don't care how much you do or don't talk at school," I finally told her. "Your true friends, like Maddie, know you and like you no matter what. But it seems like it really bothered you when Henry said you couldn't talk, so I want to know... do you WANT to talk more at school?" Her whole face flooded with relief. "I really do," she said. "Will you help me?"
Uh, sure. Open up your mouth and talk... that's what I do. Just keep saying what's on your mind louder and louder until people listen. No? Well, then what was I supposed to say? "Why don't we talk to your teacher tomorrow and see if the 3 of us can come up with some ideas to help make it easier for you to speak up," I suggested.
Julia's teacher was supportive of the idea, so after camp today, we all sat down to talk. I watched her teacher try to engage her, asking good questions about topics that interest Julia and really focusing on her responses. Julia's hands were in her mouth, blocking her words. Her answers were short and so quiet I had to strain to hear her. She simply wasn't engaged. After a good effort, her teacher let her off the hook. "We're going to start slowly," her teacher told her. "Every morning, you and I are going to have a special conversation. I want you to come up with one thing to tell me about every day when we talk. And we'll see how that goes." Julia nodded quietly. I thanked her teacher and we left. The second we were out of the classroom, Julia began to talk to me in her regular, clear voice. The words tumbled out of her as she shared the ideas for discussion topics she had been unable to bring up in front of her teacher. "I hope by the end of the summer that I'll be talking a LOT at camp," she told me enthusiastically. I wanted to cry. From what I'd just seen, I really doubted it.
I know that Julia's teacher will make a special effort with her this summer, but I suspect that the payoff will be far less dramatic than Julia hopes it will be. I don't know what it is that keeps my vivacious child silent at school and camp, but I have the feeling it runs much deeper than I can comprehend. It worries me. A lot. A quiet child who is by nature quiet is simply exerting his or her personality, as surely as I exert mine loudly. But what of a child who talks nonstop at home, who facilitates relationships with the children in her playgroup, who bosses around the children on the playground and then refuses to say a single word to those same children at school? Something's simply wrong there.
Every indication says that Julia's school is a warm, enriching place; she herself says that she loves everything about attending class there. So why is her personality so dramatically different in that building? It's always taken Julia a long time to warm to new people and situations, and the way she acts at school is not unlike how she acts with people she doesn't know well. But she clearly knows her classmates and teachers well by now. So what gives?
We've been dealing with these kinds of issues for a full year now, but this is the first time that Julia's actually voiced a desire to speak up more. Is this a sign of increasing self-awareness and maturity or a sign that she's far less happy than she's been letting on? I'm just so unsure whether I'm looking at a red flag or a 3 year old quirk here. Am I supposed to be seeking out a therapist? Looking into different schools for next fall? Simply waiting out what might be the longest adjustment period on earth? I spent the whole school year quietly watching Julia find her way and trying to find ways to help her connect with her classmates in situations where she felt comfortable. Clearly, that made a big difference with Maddie. Was it enough?
I've read about selective mutism, I've obsessed over the autism spectrum, I've wondered if she's simply socially immature and I've considered the notion that Julia is just always going to be a quiet kid who stays on the fringes socially. And in the end, I'm just confused. I don't understand how Julia can be so articulate one moment and so silent the next and I have no idea whether what I'm looking at here is a personality or a problem. I want my daughter to be happy, and I want to do the very best I can by her. But I'm damned if I can figure out when to speak up on her behalf and when to take a cue from her and stay silent. And I'm terribly afraid of making the wrong choice -- either by making a mountain out of a molehill or by overlooking a really serious issue. In the end, I guess I'm as paralyzed by the situation as Julia is. I wish my social worker/former preschool teacher mother wasn't on vacation this week. Sometimes, Mother needs to know best. And since I don't seem to be able to display that kind of mother's intuition for my daughter right now, I'm hoping my own mother will.