I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to remember that my goal is to teach my child how to socialize with other people so that when he wants to or needs to, he can. It is not, nor can it be, to have him socialize as much as I want him to.
My son enjoys his solitude. He likes being on the computer and reading interesting facts. His interaction with his siblings and parents satisfy most of his social needs. He has a few friends that he occasionally spends time with and that’s enough for him. He’s happy.
His social skills are enough that he can navigate high school. He can go to the movies, buy something at a store, and interact politely with people in the community. He has enough social skills to meet his immediate needs.
So why do I keep pushing him to do more?
Because I want him to be safe. I want him to be able to tell when someone is lying or taking advantage of him. I want him to know when a girl is receptive to his romantic interests and when to leave her alone. I want him to be able to spot a bad relationship or friendship and know how to avoid them. I want him to be loved, have friends and not be lonely. I don’t want him to be hurt, not ever. But that’s not realistic.
The fact is, our children are going to get hurt. Our children with special needs will get hurt and our typical children will, too. They’re going to get dumped, broken hearted, cheated out of money, and maybe even beat up. That’s a sad fact of life. It’s part of growing up. All we can do, as parents and teachers, is try to teach them how to make the best decisions they can and what to do when they make mistakes. We can teach them to try to figure out why they made a mistake and how to avoid making it again. All we can do is try to teach them how to learn as they go along, just like we do, just like everyone does. The fact that they’re starting with less skills than other people is regrettable, but it’s something we can’t change. All we can do is move forward from where they are now. But in the process, we have to try not to make them miserable.
So, the question is: when do I push my son to be more social and when do I leave him alone? When do I accept that this is who he is? After all, if I continually push him into social situations that he doesn’t want, I’m not letting him learn to make his own social decisions – who to hang out with and when, also an important skill. I don’t want him to believe that he has to stay in the company of people he doesn’t want to be around.
Generally my solution is a compromise. I insist that he participate for a while in particular social activities, then when that time is up, allow him to choose when to leave. Sometimes he stays; sometimes he goes. That way he has the opportunity to learn whatever social skills he will from the engagement, but he’s not continually forced into situations where he’s uncomfortable or downright miserable.
The trick to this, is for me to remember that when he wants to leave, I have to let him leave. And I have to be okay with that. I have to remember that what I like may not be what he likes. I have to not be unhappy because he’s choosing solitude over society. I have to give him the dignity of making his own social choices and allow him to develop the skills to do it.
And my fears for his safety and happiness? I guess I have to deal with them just like most other parents do. A lot of hope, a little delusion, and lending a hand when he needs it.