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SocietyDecember 12, 2019

An end-of-year celebration of small miracles and everyday triumphs

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The success stories of people with extra struggles may not get awards and trophies, but they’re worth celebrating all the same, says Jai Breitnauer.

It’s the time of year for awards assemblies and prize-givings, for clubs and teams handing out certificates and trophies. It’s traditional, as we approach Christmas and the end of the school term, to talk about all we have achieved this year, and reward the high rollers for their efforts. And I don’t want to take anything away from them. They deserve congratulations. Trouble is, many people putting in the most effort are overlooked, because their achievements are seen as everyday, ordinary, or perhaps not even meeting the minimum standard.

I’m talking about the child whose anxiety and sensory needs are so high, it takes all their energy just to walk through the school gate – but what is seen is the meltdown after. The autistic teenager who built up their school attendance to a few days each week, but is given an “attendance unacceptable” report instead of a certificate. The people who, due to depression, chronic fatigue or some other invisible illness, may have to sleep for hours just to recover from work, but their colleagues see them clock-watching and never coming out for drinks. I’m talking about the parent who manages, mostly, to feed their family on a paltry beneficiary allowance, but is patronised with offers of cooking classes rather than celebrated for their creative use of limited resources.

I see you. I see all of you, and you deserve a round of applause.

My son struggles with group work. At school, his anxiety around group activities would lead him to sabotage his own involvement with poor behaviour so he could be sent to sit alone. A few weeks ago, I took him to a Lego workshop and we were told the children needed to work in pairs – an instruction that made me break into a sweat. But I watched with pride as for 40 of the 90 minutes he worked closely and effectively in his pair. When his anxiety spiked, he didn’t ask to leave but completed the challenges on his own. Ka rawe!

Many other parents would not understand why this was so special. I can’t imagine certificates being written out for doing half of what was expected. But our misunderstanding of those with complex and often invisible needs means our appreciation of the effort they put in to being actively involved can be disregarded. Many families have shared similar stories with me.

“My son, who is at Te Kura, has motivated himself to complete 1000 points per school week in Mathletics,” one parent told me. “So far he’s done 37 weeks and attended a social skills course that ran for four days in a row. This time two years ago, he wanted to be dead.”

“I enrolled my son into a mainstream school for the first time in four years. I thought he would only last two weeks but he has made it the whole year,” said another proud mum. “His attendance rate is only 38% and he’s had three stand downs, but still! To go from being home educated to navigating a busy high school with all the emotional difficulties he has, my son has been tremendously brave.”

“We are celebrating our 14-year-old, ASD daughter who has completed a successful first year in college,” another mum told me. “She has had no mental health days and has had academic successes – this from a child who has been several years behind her peers academically. Prize-giving is tomorrow night and her success will go unmarked in the eyes of the school.”

Although some families shared how their school, club or social group had come up with innovative ways to reward and reinforce values like kindness and perseverance, others felt sad that their child’s efforts were mostly off the radar. I believe now is the time to question the very way in which society measures success.

Recently, when a friend’s son did well in exams, friends responded to their social media posts with comments like, “with parents like you of course he would succeed!” and “well done Mum, hard work has paid off”. Reading these comments left me feeling downcast. I also put a lot of effort into parenting, but when my son has a meltdown at the mall, all I receive are scowls. My child doesn’t confirm to society’s version of positive behaviour, and therefore I am a failure as a parent in many people’s eyes. That’s pretty hard to swallow, and this fixed version of success is setting many people up to fail.

It’s possible my son will not achieve the same mainstream academic success as his peers – but he can, and no doubt will, achieve his own version of success. While I’m only really interested in his happiness, the fact that no one is rushing to give him an award certificate matters because it forces everyone else to adhere to the status quo. To the white, male, colonial version of success that says money, a degree and a well-cut suit are what we should all aspire to. It is this very version of success that is behind the destructive ecological cycle putting the planet at risk. It is this version of success that keeps people poor to make others rich in a capitalist system that equates human value with money. It is this version of success that causes us to overlook personal goals and social values in the quest for usable, transferable skills.

Fundamental systemic change is necessary, and it starts with each of us. By recognising personal goals, individual challenges and celebrating unique versions of success, we accept we are the sum of our own parts, not the product of a system that measures our financial worth alone.

If you are the parent whose child is always late for school, but it’s an effort to get them there at all – well done. If you are the kid who always completes their homework on time, but never receives an excellence, kia kaha, you’re doing good. If you’re the adult who has to work twice as hard as the rest just to meet minimum expectations, you’re my employee of the month. Let’s embrace difference, be more aware of individual struggles, and open our hearts to non-conformist stories of success. Let’s celebrate the tiny triumphs most of us take for granted, and make sure people know they’re doing great.

Keep going!