The Upside of Normal

by Howard Bath

Normal is boring.

I came across this "thought for the week" in a local bar and coffee shop. It captures what we all think about being "normal." Our society values the original, the one-of-a kind, the exceptional, the distinctive, and the one who stands out from the crowd. "Normal" is more than just boring—it is something to avoid at all costs, something that will swallow up our identity and rob us of our place in the world. We know we all owe a great deal to those who are "unique," who see and do things in a new way, who challenge us, unsettle us, and sometimes inspire us.

But it is intriguing that so many of the young people with whom we work in our special care and education programs do not see it this way. James Anglin, in his research with young people in Canadian residential care programs, found, quite unexpectedly, that a very common theme was the "quest for normality"—their need to feel and be perceived as normal. He incorporated this insight into the title of his influential book.1

Normalization has long been a key driver in the disability services field, but apart from the long-standing policy of shifting children from residential care to more "normalized" family-based settings, it has received far less attention in the child protection, out-of-home care, and education sectors. 

These are some quotes from young graduates from the care system:

We all want to be normal, whatever that is.

Once I began to realise what normal people do and compare myself to them, I learned to lie to myself and others about who and what I was.

I wanted to have friends around, to have my own kitchen, to be a normal person.

In her compelling memoir Breaking Night, Liz Murray has written about growing up as the chronically neglected child of drug-affected parents. At elementary school, Liz felt that she did not belong with the other "normal" children. She felt:

…scattered, full of holes. Different. It was the feeling that I was different that gnawed at me in the classroom, pressing me deeper into my exhaustion…. I was always grateful for the end of the day, when I could finally go.2

So clearly, being "normal" does not carry such negative connotations for these young people.

Click here to read the complete article.

1. Anglin, J.P. (2002). Pain, normality, and the struggle for congruence: Reinterpreting Residential care for children and youth. New York, NY: Howarth.
2.  Murray, L. (2010). Breaking night: A memoir of forgiveness, survival, and my journey from homeless to Harvard. New York: Hachette Books. (p. 59)

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