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Mom Talk: Accepting My “Different” Son

Written by Sara Smola Pope

Photography by Photo Courtesy of Sara Smola Pope

Today’s Mom Talk is surely a relatable one for so many fellow parents. SoCal-based writer, editor, and mother of a preschooler Sara Smola Pope discusses one of those painful moments of witnessing your child from the outside world and having their behavior surprise you. Plus, the multitude of feelings that ensue.

My 3-year-old son just started going to a new preschool and, so far, he’s been enjoying school. I’ve been equally enjoying having some quiet time to work at home without answering emails with someone climbing on my head. As an only child at home, he’s glad to finally have friends to play with and while I fear some negative backlash from family due to COVID, my husband and I fully believe it was the right decision for his mental health. For ALL of our mental healths, if I’m being honest.

In this modern era of technology, his teacher sends parents a series of updates throughout the week as a “check in” in the form of photos and videos in an app. This week, I received a notification that the teacher has uploaded a new video for all the parents. Armed with a (still warm!) cup of coffee, I settled in on the couch to watch.

Cheerful music blared as the children marched in unison, clockwise, single file around the “Circle Time” rug…well, except one child who seemed to be dancing to his own beat, waving his arms above his head and shaking his hips while the perfectly behaved other children did exactly what they were supposed to be doing.

Then my son started to march around counterclockwise, weaving in and out of the perfectly behaved marchers—nowhere near close to following the group. I winced. Well, at least he’s having fun, I thought.

Then, the music stopped. By default, the children stopped as well, standing still on whatever shape (circle, star, square) that was lined around the rug. Well…I’m sure you know where this is going. Mine kept going as though there was music only he could hear.

Then the teacher started to ask each student, one by one, which shape they were standing on. One by one, each child answered correctly. After everyone had a turn, the teacher prompted my son to pick a shape, he finally galloped over to the purple square. By this time I was afraid to watch, clutching my coffee with white knuckles. I already knew how the scene would play out. Sure enough, the word “rectangle” came out of his mouth before the teacher gently corrected him and I could feel my face reddening as though I was the one who had been chastised.

Staring at the screen, I wondered why the heck he couldn’t have picked literally any other shape that he did know? He can spot and name a circle, triangle, and star a mile away but of course, life never seems to work like that.

I’ve heard some people say having a child is like having your heart outside your body and while I always prided myself on being a “chill parent,” watching those children made it so clear how much my son stood out. All the feelings of my own childhood—every single situation throughout my life of feeling inadequate and different from my peers growing up—came through in a flood of tears.

It is funny to realize that even though years pass and our bodies grow older, it’s all too easy for our feelings to revert back to our younger selves.

Instead of feeling proud of my child for being true to himself (a trait I have encouraged and continuously try to instill in him), I felt shame. I felt embarrassed. I wondered what the other parents who saw the video thought about my child. I wondered what they thought about ME. Would the other parents think I wasn’t a good mom? Would they think my child was different? Would they think I was different? That I didn’t fit in with them?

But then, I wiped my eyes, took a breath, and reminded myself that there is nothing wrong with my child. Or me. There is nothing wrong with you, I whispered to my small child self in my adult body.

A 3-year-old not knowing the difference between rectangle and square will not make a difference on his college applications nor is a tangible measurement of his sweet and generous spirit, nor is it a measurement of his fearlessness as he jumps off the couch or into the pool, ready to take on the world he barely knows. Nor is it an adequate measurement of his gentle patience with me as I struggle not to lose mine daily.

I am so lucky to be his mama and someday when he’s older, he will certainly learn the difference between a rectangle and a square…but then, as he grows up, he may also lose his fearlessness, his lack of inhibition to dance when he is expected to march like everyone else, and most worriedly to me, he may lose his sweet gentleness with his mama. So until then, I am so grateful for and proud of my little boy, exactly the way he is and as he chooses to be.

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  1. Sadie says...

    You appear to be implying that your son is “different” because, at three years old, when you have actively encouraged him to be “true to himself,” he did a silly dance when the other kiddos were marching? He’s 3. That’s what 3 year olds do. It appears that, based on your own description, your son is an absolutely normal (and delightful!) three-year-old. It is entirely unclear how you could possibly be surprised by this.

  2. Laura says...

    Sounds like he was having a joyful moment! I love it! And teachers are so used to corralling kids. It’s hard to see our kids make mistakes, even tiny ones like not noticing that four lines are equal length, I tell myself that it’s all to help build our strength for the big mistakes they will make later.

  3. Lynn says...

    This article is a bit weird. Or maybe it’s just the title? I expected something quite different from the title which references a “different” son. Perhaps a better title would have been something about parent’s expectations? I don’t know, it’s weird. But gorgeous photo!

  4. Well, this definitely gave me all the feels. I think your little boy and my three year old would enjoy each others company quite a bit ;-) As a speech language pathologist (someone whose job is centered around detecting pathologies in children’s communication development) I’m often asking myself ‘is {insert whatever behavior she’s exhibiting} within the typical range?’ and at the end of it all I find myself saying, ‘Is she enjoying life? Is she happy? Are we enjoying life? Are we happy?’ and usually the answer is yes. I challenge my desire to beat myself up for judging her behavior, because it is that kind of curious exploration that gets children (and parents) the help they need early and can change the trajectory of a child’s life <3

  5. Hattie says...

    I can totally relate. You pretty much summed up my experience as a preschool mom. I laughed knowing I wasn’t the only mom out there !

  6. Amber says...

    Very odd article…the child is 3, the normal age where learning shapes is a daily practice. Rectangles and squares are very similar, and easily confused in a moment of play & dance. What is this article meant to accomplish? There are far, far better examples of “differentness” that could be explored. Is the parent feeling pressure from the school that this should be considered “odd”? If so, find another school that understands child development. If the parent isn’t feeling comfortable or is confused with three year old behavior (perplexing at times!), find some excellent books about child cognition. Overall, I recommend taking a deep breath.

    • Nicole says...

      Here, Here.

  7. Amanda says...


  8. Alex says...

    Okay, maybe I need to go back to preschool, but isn’t a square also a kind of rectangle? :)

  9. Naomi says...

    As a parent of a child who is on the Autism Spectrum, I was thinking that’s what this article was going to be about. My 3 year old son definitely dances to the beat of his own drum, especially in classroom settings. But, I don’t worry what others think. I can’t. My son IS different. And I would hope other parents wouldn’t judge my son or any other child for not doing exactly as they’re supposed to. There are a lot of neurodiverse children learning at their own pace in their own way. And is it so terrible to actually be different? I hope more places have more inclusive settings with a mix of neurotypical and neurodiverse children, so that the majority can learn from their wonderful and unique children.

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