10/09/2015 08:07 EDT | Updated 10/09/2016 05:12 EDT

How to Advocate for Your Child Without Being a Jerk

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dad takes daughter to parents evening

It's no surprise that the word advocate comes from the French avocat which, in my rusty bilingual brain, loosely translates as "lawyer." The school year is now underway, and there may come a time when when you have to step up and become your child's attorney.

But, contrary to popular belief, you can be an advocate without being a jerk.

I generally regard myself as a Nice Person, until my son's needs are compromised. Until your kid is wronged or overlooked in some way, you have no idea how fiercely your mama bear will react. Whether it's a major incident or some minor trifle, your child does need to you to "fight" on their behalf until they are mature enough to do so of their own accord.

For some children, sadly, that day never comes. Some kids with developmental disorders like autism may need you to advocate for them until your last dying breath. So, it's important to learn the art of advocacy early and to practice it effectively.

Sometimes the trajectory will run smoothly. Your child will be surrounded by caring, supportive people. Other times -- when you least expect it -- your back will get up. Case in point: I had to speak up when my son was attending a camp this past summer. Instead of integrating my son in the program activities, turned out he was mostly wandering off with the support worker and doing whatever he felt like doing.

If I hadn't paid attention or stayed involved, I wouldn't have figured out what was going on. (Though he can speak, my son can't always communicate.) Although some programs have reporting methods in place, a little detective work goes a long way. I pieced together a picture of what was, and wasn't, happening at camp. And needless to say, I wasn't thrilled.

It's crucial not to jump the gun. Knee-jerk reactions tend to come from the heart, not the cooled head. Come up for air. Jot down some points. Resist the urge to pick up the phone. And whatever you do, don't hit "send" on any text or email until you've waited a good hour or run the scenario past a preferably objective person.

When you are ready for confrontation, make sure to present the situation in the most objective, least accusatory language possible. Invite clarification and confirmation. Don't rip anyone a new one. Use a positive, affirming tone that suggests you are all part of the same team, even if inside your own mind you are raging like DeNiro in Taxi Driver.

Don't open the floodgates. Stick to the facts as you know them, and avoid dredging up what happened last month or last year. Trust me on this. While it seems antithetical and somehow censorious, being adversarial will not get you the outcome you want -- and in fact, may actually hurt your child in the long run. I don't particularly care about winning friends, but I do care about how people treat my son and the relationships he has with any teacher/care giver/therapist/parent in the foreseeable future.

So, back to camp. I voiced my concerns with the manager. I could have been nasty. I could have been sarcastic. But there was no really need. I kept the focus on my son, and what needed to happen for him to have the best experience possible.

There's a big difference between assertive and aggressive. The last thing I want to see is my child messed around by some bully, so it's nice to know I don't need to become one in order to help him.

A version of this post originally appeared on


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