Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Why I Let My Kids Play With The Kids Who Don't Behave

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.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

2020 Vision

Every day a new day.

This post is inspired by Donna over at her blog and by Kelly's latest link-up, both of whom are encouraging us to share a vision of our coming year.  I like this idea much better than making a list of resolutions.  Creating a vision for the new year seems like a creative way to move forward, with room to make mistakes but not losing the overall image of where (or who) I want to be one year from now.  Resolutions, however, sound so, well...resolute. 

I suppose in looking forward, I must first look back.  Hindsight is 20/20, the saying goes (no pun intended).  I am not one who tends to reflect much on the past, being more accustomed to always being motivated by my to-do list and what I want to get out of each day, and planning my days, weeks, months accordingly.  The time goes faster that way, and feels less wasted.  Years speed by.   In 2020, my baby becomes a preschooler, my eldest child becomes a tween, and my husband and I are on the cusp of completing our second decade of marriage.  I could use the cliche', "Where did the time go?", but I know where it went.  I pushed it away.

2019 was a challenging year.  I turned 50.  My marriage was rocky.  My child was diagnosed with autism.  My circle of friends grew smaller. My husband traveled a lot.  My children fought a lot.  I lost my part-time job.

And I responded to all of this by pushing time away.  It was easy to do.  I had no shortage of distractions to keep me busy.   My rule of life ruled me.  Cooking, laundry, gardening, homeschooling, cleaning...I devoted myself to meeting all my family's material needs in 2019.  I tried to fool myself into believing that this would be enough, and that if I just worked hard, the end-product would be a loving, peaceful home life. 

But as I end this year, I recognize that in my frenzied 2019, I created not a peaceful home, but an anxious home.  My children are strong in body, thanks to the clean diet I  work so hard to follow, but are weak in spirit because they have a mother too busy to play with them, and who forces them to pray.  My husband is well cared for, with clean shirts and three home-cooked meals a day, but is sad because he has a wife who nags and sets unattainable standards for him to reach. And me, I just keep pushing the time away, making it go faster and faster, because parenting is hard, and marriage is hard, and friendship is hard, and special needs are hard, and solo-parenting is hard, and teaching math is hard, and the faster time goes, the sooner it will all be over. 

And soon, it will all be over.  In 2019, my father turned 80, and my mother falls asleep now during our conversations, and I think a lot about the day I'll get the dreaded phone call that one of them is gone.  Already, I am going to too many funerals for friends who are my age, dying of cancer, heart disease, strokes.  My network of professional friends, built assiduously during my career, has become a network of retirees.   The new friends I make now all tend to be either younger or older than me by a decade, or two, and are restless and searching for their happy place and so, do not stay here in this remote corner of the world very long.  I say goodbye too often and resist making new friends who I know will likely be moving on in a year or two.  In 2019, it felt like a lot of things were ending.

When I started 2019, my vision for the new year was to use my time wisely and to make the most of every minute of my day.  It was a noble endeavor.  I exercised more and my body is stronger now.  I cooked more, and my family benefited.  I cleaned more and our home is tidy.  I scheduled better and we got more done.  I grew more food than I ever had before, and our pantry shelves are stocked full of wholesome goodness.  Perhaps it is a mid-life phenomena, but in 2019, time became not my enemy, but my friend, because by maximizing how I used my time, I felt like I could maximize my life.  And that gave me what I craved; it gave me control. And where there is control, there is peace.  Or so I thought. But somewhere in 2019, I forgot to relax.  I forgot what Pope Francis once said, how important it is to "waste time with our kids".  And not just with my kids, but with others, too. 

So, that is my vision for 2020 in a nutshell.  I want to waste time.  I want my children to see me take time to pray instead of hearing me telling them to pray.  I want my husband to hear more compliments and fewer requests from me. I want to waste time with him like we did years ago when we'd just talk on the phone about nothing for hours.  I want to make new friends, even if goodbyes are inevitable. I want to visit my parents more, and listen to them repeat the same thing over and over because they forgot they'd already said that. And I want to write more stories, because someday, when this is all over, all that will be left is what I took the time to write down.  The time that feels so wasted right now.