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Next Step Therapy Blog: ‘What You Grew Up With Is Normal for You’

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 @ 12:02 AM

Posted by Joanne Bauer

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article:


Some fifteen years ago, my crew and I were required to attend a training on “Cultural Competency.” Looking back, I cannot help but giggle. There we were, ten white people from Franklin with Bachelor’s degrees or above, each making forty dollars an hour, each of us pretty close to the same age, each of us with children. We were being trained by a gorgeous African American woman from a big city on learning to respect cultural differences. I fully expected a lecture on how badly whites treated blacks.

That didn’t happen at all.

What did happen was this lovely lady helped the ten of us see our commonalities (which were pretty obvious), and then gave us questions and exercises to do that clearly defined our differences. Yes, we were all white and college educated…. worked in the same field, even. But those who grew up with one sibling were likely to have only two children of their own, while those who grew up with multiple siblings were likely to have 3 children or more. Those who grew up closer to poverty tended to be more careful with their money, while those who grew up with money were more likely to be risk takers. Those who had a stay at home mom were more likely to work part-time.

The message was so simple. “What you grew up with is ‘normal’ for you. That is what you are comfortable with. Anything else seems strange. So, the next time you feel uncomfortable in a situation, take a step back, and ask yourself why you are uncomfortable with it.”

I really enjoyed the presentation but didn’t see how I would apply it to my Early Intervention career. Like so many other things, six weeks later, there it was. I got a referral to go to a home for a two-year-old that wasn’t talking. No big deal. Happened forty times before. But, this time, when I arrived at the house, I entered the twilight zone.

This family had six kids from a high school senior to the two-year-old. They also took in foster kids, and currently had two, one of whom had special needs. They also ran a home daycare. So, when I arrived, there were 8 kids in the home. Six for daycare (under five), the toddler I was supposed to see, and an intellectually impaired pre-teen foster child being homeschooled. Plus, three dogs and two cats. So, I spend an hour in this house, while the TV blared, and seven toddlers fought over toys and cried, while three dogs wrestled and barked, while I tried to get a two-year-old to talk to me. Her lips moved, but I heard nothing.

I left that house, got in my car, drove away, and thought, “I am not a good fit here. I cannot do my job here. This is utter chaos, and I can’t be expected to perform miracles here. I’m going to call the office and request that this “case” get transferred to someone else.” As I drove, the words of the African American trainer came back to me. “If you are uncomfortable, take a step back, and ask yourself why.”

So I did, and it wasn’t hard. I had never, ever, walked into a house with six biological kids, two foster kids and a daycare. I grew up in a house with me and my younger sister. My mom was a stay at home mom, and she did watch my cousin and a neighbor boy after school. One of her favorite stories was taking the four of us to the Hallmark Card Store/Daffin Candy Store in Oil City in the early 1970’s. Four of us, under the age of five. She took each one of us by the hand, and put each of the four us on the corners of the mud carpet just inside the store. “You…stand here. Don’t move.” Four kids, under the age of five, on four corners of a carpet inside a store. And none of us moved, while she shopped, and checked out. Because, if we had, she would have spanked us when we left.

So, when I had my first kid at 30 years old, as a supposed child specialist, I kind of expected obedience, and I was not disappointed. I got an easy kid who followed most of the rules, ate everything including Cole slaw and crab legs at two years old, and never, ever wanted to see mommy’s stink eye. Five years later, when I had my second son, I had a well-behaved, overly mature five-year-old to help me, and the second child turned out to be a “rule-bound” child who NEVER EVER wanted to break a rule and be in trouble. My whole life from childhood to adulthood involved two kid households with absolute obedience. No wonder my new “family” felt like chaos on fire. However, this new family, with this mom who could handle six biological kids, two fosters, and a daycare – she turned out to be my hero. What would I not give, to handle what she handled, without medication?

It took me some time, and mental gymnastics, to reverse our positions, and realize that if she became “mom” at my house, with only two well-behaved kids, she would lose her mind. A person used to dealing with noise, and always on high alert for an injury, would, honest to God, find my house too quiet, too calm, too…. not normal. My house would not be normal for her.

Instead of calling the office and asking this kid to be transferred, I made a solemn promise to myself that I would become the therapist that this family needed. No judgement. So, I went back the next week and asked the mom if we could talk. I told her the truth, that I found her house overwhelming and out of my experience level, but I admired her, and wished I had her skills. I asked if she could trust me enough to let me take the two-year-old to a private room so that I could hear her, and she did. So, two sessions alone in a bedroom, with the door open. Turns out baby girl is talking in full phrases and sentences, no language or articulation problems…she’s just quiet, whispering, in a loud environment. Three months of telling her to use her big girl voice, training her mom and siblings to tell her to use her big girl voice…. she gets discharged well short of her 3rd birthday. Success!

The above experience made me a better therapist overall, and certainly a better home visiting therapist. When I opened my own company, it became part of the training, both verbally, and in the company manual.

Therefore, when the following experience occurred, I was gratified to have my employee handle it so very, very well. A couple of Asian descent relocated to the US, and because their child would be speaking English as a second language, they were referred to the Early Intervention program. Next Step caught the referral. We sent an older, well-experienced teacher into this home. She arrived, she greeted, and she plopped herself onto the floor to start working with the child, while the parents gasped, and put their hands over their mouths. She was in tune, was paying attention, and said, “Oh my, I’ve just done something wrong in your home and offended you. I’m so sorry. Please tell me what I’ve done!” The Asian couple didn’t want to say, didn’t want to offend. My therapist insisted. “This is your home, and I am a guest. It is very important that you trust me, and want me to come back, so please, tell me what is wrong.”

Finally, the dad said, “In our country, the teacher is revered. Beloved. Respected. They are the most important people in our society. In our country, a teacher coming to our home would be a great honor. She would sit in a chair, be offered a beverage and refreshments, and we would sit on the floor.”

So, my therapist, with tears in her eyes, said, “Oh, that might be one of most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. In the United States, teachers are not revered. Being a teacher is considered to be ‘just a job,’ like any other job. In the United States, in the Early Intervention program, it is expected that therapists will sit on the floor to be down at the child’s level. So, I am so very sorry that I offended you, but…. I am most comfortable sitting on the floor with your child. I would be honored to accept a beverage and a refreshment from you, and then, if you would be so kind, join me on the floor with your son, while we work together to teach him English.”

Mom beamed and went to the kitchen for refreshments. Dad sat on the floor. A successful session was had. They reached an agreement, with great respect. My therapist was in that home for a very long time, and because she was bold, and respected the cultural differences, they soon began to ask her to explain American culture to them. They didn’t understand their electric bill. The grocery store was frightening. They didn’t understand American figurative language such as “you are pulling my leg.” My therapist lovingly obliged. My therapist also reminded them that children of normal or above normal intelligence were quite capable of learning two languages at once and that they did not need to stop speaking their language to allow him to be successful here. At my therapists’ suggestion, Saturdays became “Asian culture day” where the parents only spoke their first language. It was my therapist that reminded the parents that someday they would at least “go home” for a visit, and maybe the boy should be able to understand and speak the language. The parents were beyond grateful to have a person in their lives who “thought ahead” and “gave them permission” to embrace both worlds.

A lot of harm is done in this world by being judgmental and not giving “those people” a chance, and a lot of people miss out on experiences that might truly enhance their lives, simply by being uncomfortable because it is new.


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