Five lessons I learned about special needs parenting from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Parenting is hard. Special needs parenting is harder. If you’ve been there, you know that it can get intense. And serious. And it takes a lot of reading, research, and dedication. But you know what? Special needs parenting doesn’t have to be a totally serious endeavor all the time. Sometimes, we can take a lighthearted approach, right? So, without futher ado:

Five lessons I learned about special needs parenting from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

The value of taking charge of my reality.

From the very beginning of the film, Cameron is painted as a kid with a problem, maybe even a raging case of depression. Paralyzed by fear, he is completely unwilling to do anything that might upset the balance of his tenuous life with his controlling parents. His watershed moment comes when he takes his dad’s Ferrari out for the day and discovers that he cannot roll back the odometer and erase the reality. At that moment, he says, “I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.”

I had the same kind of epiphany in the early years of my special needs parenting journey. I had never expected to be a parent of a special needs child, but despite my anger, fear, and outright denial, it was my reality. My watershed moment was when I realized that my panic and other negative emotions were preventing me from parenting with the kind of power my son needed to reach his potential. I accepted that I could not be a passive participant and began to fight for the best for my son.

Sometimes you need a change of perspective.

While touring the city, Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron find themselves at the top of the Sears Tower. As the city of Chicago whirrs and buzzes below, Ferris and friends peer silently through the glass.  After a quiet moment, Sloane says, “The city looks so peaceful from up here.” Ferris replies, “Anything is peaceful from one thousand, three hundred and fifty-three feet.”

Special needs parenting is often like the bustle of the city: noisy, frantic, and harsh. It is easy to get swept up in the rush of therapy and doctor’s appointments and forget to see the beautiful parts of parenting a special kiddo. Taking a break from therapy or spending a day when you don’t think about the next accommodation needed for school can be exactly the new perspective needed to see things more clearly. 

It’s okay to push when it’s right. 

Ferris has plenty going for him: a winning attitude, tons of friends, and a beautiful girlfriend, but he doesn’t have a car. That’s where sick and miserable Cameron comes in; he has a car, but he thinks he’s too sick to get out of bed and pick Ferris up for the day. Ferris tries a number of tactics to get Cameron to do what he thinks is best. He gives him a pep talk first, and nags for a little while, but he eventually gets frustrated and knows that his only option is to push Cameron. He says, “If you aren’t here in 15 minutes, you can find a new best friend.” That’s the catalyst that gets Cameron in the car and starts the epic day off.

Dealing with the limitations of special needs, like meltdowns or learning new tasks, can often be a delicate dance. It is hard to know when a pep talk is the best line of defense or when I need to pull out the big guns. Sometimes there is a still small voice inside me that reminds me it is okay to push my son to get him to learn the next task or that it is okay to push his teachers to get the needed accommodations. 

Don’t waste energy worrying about others.

Lessons from Ferris Bueller can even come from the bad boy with the drug problem. In her attempt to foil Ferris’ plan, his sister Jeannie ends up at the police station. There she meets a very young Charlie Sheen who offers this sage advice: “You ought to spend a little more time dealing with yourself, a little less time worrying about what your brother does.”

If only I could have back all the energy I spend worrying about what other people thought of me and my son in our journey. As a child with high functioning autism, public meltdowns were a common occurrence. During these meltdowns, I fretted about what others would think of me and cowered at the disapproving looks. One day, I realized that I didn’t owe more consideration to a stranger than I did to my son, and vowed that I would never again spend time worrying about what others thought. 

Limitations are often false and meant to be broken.

Once Ferris puts his “day off” plan in motion, there is nothing that can stop him. Even with his naysaying friend Cameron nagging him about the potential pitfalls of his plan, Ferris is unwavering.  When the snooty waiter tries to turn him away from the fancy restaurant, Ferris assumes a new personality and enjoys his lunch as Abe Froman. When he encounters police barriers on a parade route, he not only busts right through them, but joins the parade and sings his heart out. 

The special needs world sometimes feels like it is nothing but police barriers and snooty waiters. There are so many setbacks that it can be easy to become the naysayer in your own head. Often those barriers aren’t unmovable; they just need to be hurdled with a bit of creativity. Special needs kids rarely go “by the book” and that applies to their accomplishments just as much as to their milestones.  As a mom to my special boy, my job is to ignore the supposed limitations and find a way to get around them or bust right through them. And you can bet, every time we conquer another hurdle, I’ll be throwing my own little personal parade and leading the chorus in celebration. 

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Five lessons I learned about special needs parenting (which you can utilize too!).

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