Our Words Matter
March 17, 2022 § 1 Comment
Surprising as this may sound, my son will tell you that one of his happiest memories is the day we told him he had ADHD. (He has given me his blessing to share this story here.) After years of angry outbursts, struggles to complete assignments, feeling like he didn’t fit in, and an approach to writing defined largely by paralysis, suddenly he had answers. He had clarity. He had a path before him that was not without more struggle but was also well-trodden, ripe with options, ready with support. Plus, he had a community—the Percy Jacksons of the world—who had this in common with him, many of them with inspiring stories of success to share.
All of this relieved a burden he had carried around, often without realizing it, for years. Overnight, he had been given a missing piece to the puzzle of himself.
But when I consider that this moment held so much joy for him, when it just as easily could have spurred fear, shame, or intimidation, I also credit the way we presented the diagnosis. After years of meeting his behavior with exasperation, concern, and (gulp) disappointment, this time we got it right.
On the heels of a neuro-psychological evaluation, my husband and I sat on my son’s bed, on a Saturday morning, and shared a colorful diagram I’d penned the night before. This single piece of paper attempted to capture my son’s learning profile: what his ADHD makes difficult, alongside the litany of strengths his unique wiring offers, like creativity, empathy, an insatiable quest for knowledge, and the superpower of hyper-focus when it comes to things he loves. His neurodiverse brain was all there, in its colorful, complex magnificence.
Bless second chances in parenting, because it was the magnificence piece that came through loud and clear that morning. In many ways, the process of having our son tested was as re-framing for us as it was for him. It helped us to see all of him, instead of just the parts that had monopolized the emotional space in our house in recent years. Somewhere along the way, in our obsession with trying to puzzle him out, we’d lost sight of reminding him, with our words and our actions, how deeply loved he is. How special he is. How miraculous he is.
Progress is rarely a straight line, and I won’t pretend my words don’t sometimes still veer too far in the direction of annoyance over acceptance. But I have become more cognizant of the power my words wield over the way my children see themselves. And that sometimes I need to check my own expectations at the door—my own ideas of what success or bravery or “normal” looks like—to land on the words my kids most need to hear.
Lala’s Words (Ages 4-8) isn’t about a child with any particular diagnosis. In fact, author-illustrator Gracey Zhang, a rising star just awarded the 2022 Ezra Jack Keats Medal for this brilliant and perceptive debut picture book, dedicates her book to “The Lala in All of Us,” a tribute to the universal desire to be seen, loved, and believed in for who we are. At the same time, it’s a story about a girl who doesn’t fit the model of success that her mother sets out for her. A girl who meets with more exasperation than encouragement. It’s a story that resonates deeply with me, a parent who once nearly lost sight of the magic in her own child.
And it’s a reminder that, if we look closely enough, our children will tell us exactly what they need to hear to blossom and thrive.
Lala is a big-hearted girl who can’t sit still. She quite literally explodes into life, leaving a trail of chaos behind her. She somersaults off couches, her clothes are always torn, and she flies from one pursuit to the next without any regard for the mess she’s created. Even in the middle of an intense summer heat wave—when “the sidewalks steamed and the sun hung heavy in the sky”—Lala is in constant motion.
“Lala, stay still!” “You’re covered in dirt!” “What child is as rough as you?” These are the things Lala hears from her mother on any given day. And Lala doesn’t have any answers. She only knows she’s compelled to jump and twist and run and, sometimes, fall.
Right away, Zhang tells us something with the book’s color palette: predominantly black and grey, with splashes of yellow that show up only on and around Lala. It’s as if Zhang is telling her readers, Watch Lala. Follow Lala. The others can’t see it but she’s literally bringing the light wherever she goes.
There’s one additional color that only shows up in proximity to Lala, and some readers won’t notice it until it begins to dominate many of the expressive spreads. It’s the bright green of new growth, and we find it initially in the pots on a neighbor’s windowsill as Lala sprints past, or in the weeds poking through sidewalk cracks that she pauses to admire. Eventually, Lala is drawn to a large patch of leaves pushing through the concrete behind a fence in her neighborhood.
If Lala doesn’t know how to give her mother what she wants, she knows exactly what to give these previously neglected plants. After sprinting home, she finds the largest soup pot, fills it with water, then hustles it back to the abandoned lot. Every morning and every evening, she tends to her secret plants.
Alongside the water and dirt and sun, she speaks to them. “You are stripy and lovely,” she tells them. “Grow strong and tall.” Lala may not realize it, but we readers do: she speaks the words she longs to hear herself. “You are so very special,” she tells them.
But on the hottest day of the summer, Lala’s mother forbids her from leaving the house. “No more, Lala! No more jibber-jabber in dirt and grass!” And Lala is beside herself, because who will visit her green friends? She whispers words out her window in hopes that they will reach them. By the light of the full moon, she bids her friends goodnight and “I love you very much.”
It turns out Lala’s leafy friends have been listening, each and every time Lala has been speaking to them. And they’ve flourished under her words all summer long. So much so that, overnight, something magical happens. Something transformative. Something so “magnificent” that, even before Lala herself sees it, it catches the attention of her mother, who suddenly regards her daughter in a new light.
Zhang draws out this moment of connection between mother and daughter for three whole page turns. I won’t spoil it, but it’s everything we want it to be. More importantly, it’s everything Lala needs it to be. As her mother unleashes her daughter into the world to be who she is and do what she does best, we’re left to celebrate the possibilities when language delivers on love.
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