This post is in honor of St. John Bosco, whose feast day is January 31, and who had a soft spot in his heart for the kids who didn't behave.
It was one of those conversations that I’ll never forget, and it completely changed my perspective on parenting.
“This is hard,” she began, and I knew at that moment that this phone call from one of my closest friends was not going to be pleasant.
Two days before, she and I and a couple of other mothers with small children had gathered at the playground for one of our weekly play dates. We’d formed a tight-knit group of friends who were all stay-at-home moms navigating the challenges of parenting young children. We all had so much in common. We believed in letting children learn through play, we loved the outdoors, we practiced healthy lifestyles, and we all wanted to instill in our children a sense of adventure. Even more, we were all transplants in this small community where making new friends was difficult, so we greatly valued the friendship we’d found in each other.
But that day at the playground, everything changed when my son got rough with my friend’s child at the top of the slide. I saw none of it, as I sat on a blanket with my 8 month old and fed him crackers, but my friend saw it, and it frightened her as she watched her 2 year old nearly get pushed off the top of the slide by my 6 year old. Nobody got hurt that day. My son was reprimanded by me when I learned that he was bullying at the top of the slide, and then he and the 2 year old played nicely the rest of the morning. But for my friend, who had witnessed my son’s aggressiveness and extreme behaviors before, it was enough. She was calling me now to tell me that she would no longer be allowing her children to play with mine.
I hung up the phone and my husband walked in. I looked at him and began sobbing as I shared the conversation with him. My son saw me crying and when I explained to him that his closest friends would no longer be playing with them anymore, he began sobbing, too. “Why?”, he'd asked. “Because of the way you behave,” I told him, and he just looked puzzled. My heart broke, not only because I had lost one of my closest friends, but also because I knew my son had no idea what he had done wrong. I couldn’t tell my friend it wouldn’t happen again because I knew it could, and there was nothing I could really do about that. No amount of consequence, discipline, or reprimand was going to turn my special needs child into a child like hers.
That was the end of that play group. The other moms and my friend continued to meet for play dates after that, but we were no longer invited. To my friend’s credit, she at least had the courage to call and explain to me why she was ending our relationship. The other mothers simply became silent, and the efforts I made over the next few months to continue those friendships went unrequited. I had thought we had so much in common, but I now knew there was one very big difference, and that difference had changed everything.
I had tried to explain that to my friend that day on the phone. I tried to explain that my son would never want to hurt anyone, that he has moments of anxiety that take control of him. I apologized for his behavior that day at the playground and all the many times before. I assured her we were working on it, that we were seeing psychiatrists, doctors, therapists, and that we were still trying to find the right cocktail of medications and diet changes that would help. I promised to try harder to keep an eye on him on play dates. I agreed that she had every right to be upset. I understood why she’d want to put distance between her children and mine. I really did.
That was the last time we really spoke. She retreated to her world of neurotypical children, and I retreated to mine. After that, I stopped trying to form friendships with mothers of young children. We stopped going to story hour at the library, stopped having friends over to play, took our kids out of CCD, and didn’t even consider having them involved in Boy Scouts or most other group activities. I was grateful we homeschooled for many reasons, not the least of which, I would not be getting phone calls from the school about my child’s behaviors, and rumors about my children would not circulate in the public school system of our small town.
I isolated myself and my children, convinced that no mother would want their children influenced by mine. They did not live in the world I was living in and would not understand. So, instead of finding friendship with other mothers of young children, I began to look for friendship with older women who did not have children at home. I was blessed to find a few, and these sweet older ladies accompanied me and my kids on hikes, field trips, and sometimes just visited my home to play with my boys and give me a break. They did not judge my kids or throw away our friendship, in part because they were past the days of raising their own children (days that they truly missed), and in part, because they valued their friendship with me and weren’t just in it for their kids.
As time went on, my son’s behavior slowly began to improve. Two years now since that phone call, I’m proud to say that he plays well with others and is a real charmer. The anxiety is still there, but he works hard to keep it in check, especially in social situations. With time, we are optimistic that he will get even better at channeling it in less destructive and aggressive ways. We have started having friends with young children again, we've returned to CCD class, and we go to the library programs regularly. They love having friends over to our home to play, and they look forward to homeschool co-op every week.
But I will never forget that phone call. The pain that came when another mother, for whom I had the utmost respect, decided that my children were a bad influence on hers, was a blow that I never saw coming. We were both giving 110% to parenting our children, and her children reflected that, but mine did not, and that hit me like a ton of bricks. For two years after that, I felt like a parenting failure, and both I and my family suffered as a result.
Of course, I am not a parenting failure, although if you judge parenting by the way a child behaves, you may think that. I’m the mother of very special children with very difficult challenges. It’s not pretty and it is not fun. There is very little joy in parenting such difficult children. Raising children with these issues is not something I chose, nor wanted. But in the process, I have learned such a very important lesson. My entire perspective has changed now when I see a poorly behaved child. I feel empathy for that child, and in particular, for his mother. Much like nobody wants to be a drug addict, nobody wants to be the parent of one. No child wants to live in a perpetual state of dysregulation and mental anguish, and trust me, nobody wants to be the parent of one of those, either. But sadly, the number of all of these types of situations is increasing at significant rates. How are we going to respond?
I don’t think completely separating ourselves from those who are not the “kind of people we want to be around” is the best answer. This is not what I want to teach my children. Right now, I do not tell my children that they can not play with certain kids, and I am most grateful for any mother who allows her children to play with mine. I do not cut off friendships if someone is not living the kind of lifestyle that I agree with, or raising their children the way I think they should. Do I have a duty to protect myself and my children from physical and spiritual harm? Of course! But surely we can find ways to do so without completely severing relationships and segregating ourselves. Boundaries are important, but there is always a cost when we put them in place. Too often, we are quick to move away instead of towards those who challenge us.
Yes, I am still relatively new at parenting and as my children mature, and little problems turn into big problems, my perspective may change again. But for now, I let my kids play with the "bad kids". I let their interactions become “teachable moments”. I recognize that many of these young children struggle just like my kids do with mental health issues that aren’t easily resolved, but also, that aren’t contagious. I want to remain friends with the mother whose child spit on mine, or whose son pushed mine, or kicked him, and I want to offer her my empathy, not disdain. I do not condone or ignore the behaviors, but I understand where the behaviors may be coming from because I have been on that side. I have been the mother of the kid who can't behave, and it has taught me my greatest lesson in humility yet.
St. John Bosco, pray for us.