Because I Said So

Take a kid who’s smart, add a dash of “highly focused on certain things”, a few handfuls of stubborn, a little bit of emotion control difficulty, and some “doesn’t have the social skills to figure out there are better ways of getting what he/she wants than arguing.” Mix, dress, and let sit in front of a computer for a few days. What do you get? A kid with Asperger’s/high functioning autism.

Yes, I know, a lot of kids argue with their parents, not just those who are on the spectrum. But our kids take it to another level. They are extra-good at arguing. They are smart enough to come up with good reasons why you should let them do/have what they want, they aren’t good at seeing other people’s point of view, and they are persistent enough to drive you to insanity. If you’ve got a choice between arguing with a kid with Asperger’s/HFA or a mule, pick the mule. You might not settle the argument any faster, but at least you can in good conscience swear at the mule.

But you already know this. You’ve had the arguments about what your child will eat, what he’ll wear, going to school, doing homework, playing video games and whether it makes sense for him to give up his room to Grandma when she visits (“but if she sleeps on the couch she’ll be closer to the bathroom and I can also make sure she doesn’t mess with my Legos.”)

You know your child is strong-willed. For his sake, I hope you are too.

Our kids need us to be just as stubborn as they are. Jennifer McIlwee Myers, author of “How to Teach Life Skills to Kids with Autism or Asperger’s” has a great way of putting it: you need to outstubborn your child. You cannot let them wear you down. She’s right. You have to be strong enough to set the rules in your house and strong enough to enforce them. If you are not the authority figure in your house, you are cheating your child.

Kids need to learn there are limits in life. They need to know that society expects certain behavior out of them. I’m not just talking about the little rules, like always use your napkin and don’t bore people by talking incessantly about light bulbs. I also mean the big stuff, the stuff that can seriously affect their lives. If kids are lucky, their parents teach them these limits. That’s the easy way. The hard way is when their parents don’t and leave their kids to deal with whatever society dishes out to those who break its rules.

For instance, if we teach our kids that they can wear us down and we’ll give in if they argue long enough, when they’re grown they’re going to have a rude awakening the first time they try it with a police officer. Mr. Officer isn’t going to throw up his hands in disgust, walk away and ignore whatever our sweet Johnny is doing. More than likely Mr. Officer is going to bonk Johnny on the head, put him in handcuffs and take him to jail.

Likewise, if we allow our kids to refuse to do or weasel out of homework and chores, they grow up thinking they don’t have to live up to their responsibilities. While that may keep the peace at home, it doesn’t do our kids any favors once they’re adults. Employees who neglect their work or whine excessively turn into ex-employees. College students who don’t do their assignments fail classes. Debts that don’t get paid can land us in a lot of trouble. In the real world, sometimes we have to do what other people tell us to, whether we like it or not.

If our kids can get what they want by being more stubborn than we are, they also don’t learn to respect other people. Why does it matter what other people want if I can just get around them? If I throw tantrums to get out of my responsibilities at home, I learn to throw fits to get what I want. If I ignore my parents when they tell me to do things, I learn that ignoring people works. If never-ending arguments eventually get me what I want, then that’s what I’ll do. If you don’t teach your child to respect you and other people, where do you think he’s going to learn it? As an adult? From the legal system after his date tells him no and he doesn’t believe her? In a bar when he argues with a big, hairy, scary dude and ends up in the hospital? Or when he lives out his adult life alone because no one can stand to be around him?

I am not saying that teaching our kids boundaries and limits is easy. It’s not easy with typical kids and it’s even harder with kids on the spectrum. It’s exhausting and it takes a really long time. Years. Not only does it mean putting up with the fallout after we tell our kids no, it also means we have to walk the tightrope between being an authority figure and a control freak. We don’t want to squash them completely. We need to allow them to make some decisions and negotiate sometimes, while at the same time retaining the ability to make no mean no – whether they argue or not, whether they pout, tantrum or try to outwait us. For their own good, we have to be the person in charge.

My solution? My kids can give me their two best reasons why they think the decision should go their way. Then I decide and explain why. If they don’t like it, they can argue all they want – quietly in their bedroom, with the door shut so I don’t have to hear them. Disrespectful behavior results in unpleasant consequences. I may not be able to take the argument out of the Aspie (or the teenager), but usually I can make the argument not worth pursuing. My solution hasn’t always been easy to implement – it took years for my kids to figure out that I meant it and more years for them to develop the self-control to avoid getting into trouble. We went through a lot of tears and a lot of notebook paper. (Fifty sentences at a time: “I will do my homework without arguing.”)

Does my solution work? I don’t know yet. I know I did not get to be the nice, sweet mommy that I had planned – the one who always lives in peace and harmony with her children. On the other hand, my kids do their homework now without me telling them to. Arguing with teachers has gone down 95%. (We’ve moved past writing sentences and are now on five paragraph essays.) And my children have discovered that at 6’3” they’re not too big to stand in the corner for time out. They argue enough with me that I know they’re not browbeaten wimps and that they’re developing along normal teenager timelines. And amidst the all the “have-to”s of life, we still have a lot of “want-to”s, hugs and good times.

Is that success? Is that good enough? I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.

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One Foot in Front of the Other

Sometimes life bites you on the butt.

You’re going along in your normal routine and things are going well. Everyone’s getting fed each day, everyone’s going off to school and work (if not happily, at least without too much drama or trauma) and every once in a while you can get folks together to do something fun. You’re enjoying yourself. You are accomplishing things, moving forward, and so are your family members. Life is great. Then all of a sudden, it isn’t.

In my family’s case it started out with a few health issues. Nothing horrible, just things that needed to be taken care of or things that knocked us off our feet for a week or two. Taken singly, they would have been no big deal, but combined they meant a lot of time spent driving to doctors’ offices, money spent on prescriptions and co-pays, tests and more tests, and a lot of time in bed. They meant several months of playing “are any kids healthy enough to go to school today, and if so, which adult is well enough to drive them?” There was a ton of homework missed and a lot of scrambling to keep up at work and on the home front. Life wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t easy either. And although each of the issues were small, they just kept coming, one after the other for six months straight.

Then the funerals came. Two of them in fact, both surprises. First one, then when I’d stopped crying a few months later, another. Fortunately neither were for my husband or children, but they were for family members I love very much. People who weren’t a part of my daily life but once had been; people who I treasure and will miss.

Life got even harder for a while. Not only were we dealing with the day-to-day and the extra health difficulties, now we were mourning and helping family members through their grief. We were away from home repeatedly, traveling for hospice and funerals. Suddenly, all the balls we were juggling – school, work, social obligations, regular home chores – started slipping. Kids missed enough school that couldn’t be made up that their grades plummeted. Hubby had to work long hours to catch up at work. I was canceling my volunteer activities left and right, while tearfully trying to find enough clean laundry to dress my family to attend my father’s funeral. Quite simply, for a while there life was really hard.

There is a reason I’m telling you all this. It’s not to garner sympathy (though it does explain why I abandoned my blog for a while.) After all, you have difficulties in your life as well. You have your ups and downs, your hard times and good times. Life isn’t always easy for you either. That’s my point.

As parents we expect that we should always be able to take care of our family. That whatever is going on in our lives, we should be at every one of our kids’ soccer games, every music performance, every karate class. That we should be able to heal every bruise and bump, our kids should pass every class they take, and that everyone should have clean socks every day. We should ensure our kids eat their vegetables and brush their teeth. Heaven forbid they grow up in a house with a bathtub ring or go a day without phone service because we forgot to pay the bill or have to take Oreos to the school bake sale. Heaven forbid that we fail as parents.

Most of the time we can do it. We have enough time, enough energy, enough skills to make it work. If things get a little tight somewhere, we can let something else slide for a short time, then we’re back on our feet and going. Like someone who’s hurrying down an icy sidewalk; we take a few steps, slip a bit, tap dance until we get our footing again, catch our breath then start moving forward again. Run, slip, slide, recover and run some more.

Most of the time it works, but not always. Sometimes the ice is just too slippery. We start walking, our legs go out from under us and we fall. Head first, into a snow bank, and snow goes down the back of our jacket all the way to our socks. Oww.

As parents, most of us don’t have a lot of extra resources; meaning time, money and parenting skills. We’re generally working close to the edge. If we’ve got more time, we do more. If we’ve got more money, we spend more. If we’ve got more parenting skills, we expect more from ourselves and our children. We’re constantly trying to do the best we can with what we have. It just comes with the territory.

As parents of special needs kids we’ve got even more demands on us. There’s more homework, more doctor’s visits, and more decisions to be made. Finances are tighter and the future is scarier. All the struggles and heartaches of parenthood are ours, only they’re amplified. Unfortunately, our resources aren’t. Our tank is always running near empty. If we plan our day right and everything works out well, we can get everyone out the door and back again, homework and dishes done, a hug and a snuggle, then get them tucked into bed so we can start again the next day. As long as there are no hiccups or bumps in the road, we can make it. But sometimes we can’t.

This is the part where I’m supposed to say, “But that’s okay. Do the best you can and it will all work out sunshine and roses.” That’s what most parenting advice articles say. But you know what? Sometimes it doesn’t work out. You know that. Sometimes when you hit the snow bank there’s a great big block of ice in the middle and you get smacked good and hard. Someone gets kicked out of school or gets arrested or ends up in the emergency room. Sometimes life hands us some pretty hard knocks that we can’t make all better, as much as we’d like too.

I wish I had something wonderful to write next. Some magic words that would tell you what to do when those things happen, so you could make the bad stuff go away and get back to your wonderful, boring, normal routine. But I can’t. There are no such words. I can’t tell you how to make things better.

What I can tell you though, is how to not make things worse.

One those (hopefully) rare days when you find yourself bleeding in the snow: 1) don’t sit there screaming in panic and, 2) don’t ignore the bleeding and start staggering back down the sidewalk. Put everything else on hold, deal with the bad stuff, then get up and start moving forward again.

Now this is the part where you say, “Um, duh. I already know that. That’s what I do. When bad stuff happens, I prioritize and take care of the vital stuff first, then try to pick up the pieces of everything else the best I can.”

And that’s the real point to this whole story. When we’re already doing all that we can do in the situation we’re in, we can’t beat ourselves up when sometimes it’s not enough. All we can do is do the best we’re able to stop the bleeding, mop up the blood, blot the tears and get back on the road. Our lives are not easy. We’re going to collect bumps and bruises along the way. Success for us is not going to be getting to the end of the road unscathed – it’s getting to the end of the road. Success is us not ending up sitting in the snow somewhere with soggy undies. Success is every time we fall down, we get back up.

My family life is going better now. Children and hubby and myself are healthy enough to enjoy the glorious freedom of warm weather and no homework. We made it through our latest patch of hard times and we’re back to having fun.

We’re back on our feet, but I want you to take a moment to think about the advice you would have given me if my family and I were still smack dab in the middle of it all. If you and I were sitting down for a cup of coffee and I told you I was feeling like a failure because things were falling apart, what would you have told me? Think about it. Then write those words down. Keep them in a safe place. And the next time you find yourself sprawled out in the snow, with your tuckus in the air and a bump on your head, pull them out and read them.

You’re doing the best you can do in a hard situation. You’re not failing. Do what you can do. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Things would be worse off for everyone without your efforts. Hang in there. You can do this.

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