07/10/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

A New Home: Accepting Ourselves and Others


A few short weeks ago, my family moved to Denver, CO and began the process of settling in. Now that the unpacking is complete and the kids are happily attending theatre camp, we are beginning to feel like this is, indeed, "home." More importantly, we've found a place where the kids feel they belong.

Growing up in Kentucky, Andrew never felt understood. We raised him more as an intellectual Yankee than as a outdoorsy Southerner, simply because that's who we are. It just rubbed off. Unlike his peers, he didn't follow college basketball or go camping. Unlike Andrew, his peers didn't attend theatre or get excited about quantum physics. Andrew refused to conform in order to fit in, and suffered the consequences.

Here in Denver, his new friends are familiar with the movie and book references he makes. They even laugh at his jokes! He feels accepted exactly as he is: a sports-phobic, computer-programming, science-and-math nerd with encyclopedic knowledge of odd trivia. No doubt the confidence he is building will help him find more friends when he starts at his new high school.

We are thrilled that Andrew can experience a feeling of acceptance at such a young age, and without sacrificing any part of his identity. My husband, David, and I both grew up desperately aware of the fact that we didn't fit in. At some point during early adulthood, we stopped caring, began accepting ourselves and enjoyed the hunt for other open-minded people to befriend. Andrew is years ahead of us, and for that, we are grateful.

Our daughter, Caitlin, also feels more at home in Denver. On the surface, she looks like an easy fit anywhere. Caitlin loves fashion, excels in art and reads voraciously. Like Andrew, she has a strong sense of who she is and refuses to change for others. She doesn't care if no one else is wearing a sequined hat and fingerless gloves; standing out works well for her.

Sometimes, Caitlin has felt different in a bad way. Just yesterday, we received her standardized test scores in the mail, along with a final report card from her very expensive private school.  Caitlin's scores rank her in the 99th percentile in almost every academic area. She is a conscientious and detail-oriented student, so you would think she would have all A's, right?  Not even close.
All year long, poor Caitlin felt "stupid," despite being extremely gifted. Other kids managed to hand everything in on time, and other kids didn't spend as long on homework. Other kids didn't have messy lockers or get marked down for losing assignments. What was wrong with her?

There is nothing 'wrong' with her! The school program was designed for average, rule-following children; there were few tools in place for children who learn a little differently, question everything and occasionally drift out of focus. Most of the teachers failed to comprehend how she could be so disorganized (despite the diagnosis of ADD) or why she couldn't "just get it done like everyone else," when she is unusually bright and observant. Instead of celebrating my brilliant girl, it seemed they found her a burden.

The school was paid for, so we wanted/had to finish out the year. Until the move to Denver, Caitlin would have to stay. Then she would attend a school that specializes in learning differences. No stigma, no shame -- just a bright child who learns differently.

In the meantime, we tried to help her ride out the year as comfortably as possible. We told Caitlin that her grades for this year did not count. She was forbidden to worry about them!  When she brought home a test or quiz with a bad grade to be signed by a parent, I smiled and sang out, "Doesn't count! Doesn't matter!" As for her equally gifted brother, who suffers from a lazy streak... his grades counted and we made sure he knew it. Every child is different.

Finding the right atmosphere for both of our children has been an exciting and gratifying process. Along the way, we have always reassured them that they are wonderful just as they are, and that one day they would come to see themselves as we see them: Perfect in their imperfections. The other half of the lesson we teach is that they should try to accept others -- regardless of disability, apparent intelligence, economic standing, appearance, color, nationality, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Everyone is different... so no one really is. And eventually, everyone can find a place where they feel at home.