You Won’t Always Like What You Hear

Has your child ever said anything that shocked you?

Immigration has been in the news a lot lately and I am very clear on this topic with my kids — we are a country built on immigrants. We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors hadn’t migrated here, a majority of us wouldn’t. Immigrants are what make our country great, and we need to be welcoming and embrace the diversity we have in this country.

So imagine my surprise, when during a meal, while the kids were telling jokes, my son said, “Why did Trump build the Wall?” “I don’t know, ” I said bracing for something silly like, “because he couldn’t find a chicken,” or “because he wanted a new house,” he said, “to keep out the Mexicans!” He started to laugh. My face went from eager anticipation to fury. “That’s not funny,” I said sternly. “That is why the wall is being built and it’s not right and it’s not funny.” I continued, “When you refer to a group of people by their country, it makes it sound like you are saying something negative about them, and there isn’t anything negative about people from Mexico. They are just like you and me.” I was angry and I clearly was getting my point across. My son’s face crumpled and he began to cry, “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was saying was wrong. I didn’t mean anything by it.” He repeated himself several times. In situations like this, I would normally want to console my son and tell him “it’s okay” but I felt this situation required a different approach. It wasn’t okay, and I would never be okay with anyone in my family repeating what my son said. I was reminded of a time when I was his age and watched a TV show that I’m sure my parents weren’t aware I watched. I used to draw cartoons as a kid, and I drew a cartoon using a word that I didn’t know the definition of — rape. When I showed the cartoon to my parents, I was anticipating them to laugh (like they normally did when they read one of my cartoons), instead I can remember how upset they were. “This isn’t funny. Where did you hear this word?” I hated that I had used a word that was so hurtful to so many, and stupid because I didn’t know what it was or meant, and the worst part was that I’d clearly disappointed my parents. I sensed my son felt the same way. I shared with him that I had had a similar experience when I was his age with my parents (though I didn’t share the specifics). I let him know that I understood how he felt, understood that he was sorry and that it wouldn’t happen again. I told him that what he had said was serious, and there was no sugar coating it — it was wrong and I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn’t have a serious discussion with him about it. After a few minutes, he calmed down and we finished our meal. After some time passed, my husband and I broached the topic of immigration again — asking the kids what they understood about it, and asked them what questions they had. I’m hopeful that we’ve shed more light on the topic and our sons are more informed.

Part of growing up is making mistakes and having people who care — whether it’s your parents, a teacher, mentor, caregiver or coach — guide you along the way. You’re not always going to like what you hear, but if the advice or teaching helps you be kinder, wiser, more appreciative or just better, its worth listening to.

How do you respond when your child says something counter to how you are raising them? How do you guide them back to the person you want them to be?

Letting them Go

Have you ever struggled to let your child do something on their own?

My youngest son had his first overnight trip without family. His fourth grade class took an overnight trip to a school in the woods (a nature school). His older brother went when he was in the fourth grade and loved it so much he didn’t want to come back. We were excited for our younger son, but knew he was a little apprehensive, which in turn made me a little apprehensive. My fears: will he have fun? Is he going to be and feel included? Is he going to be okay? My son’s fears (though not confirmed by him) are likely more around no screen time (no TV, no YouTube, no Internet — oh my!).

The morning of his trip he teared up at the breakfast table. “I’m going to miss you so much,” he said. “I know, and we’ll miss you too,” I responded, “but this is good practice for growing up.” He gave me an eye-roll suggesting my response wasn’t what he hoped for (think he was looking for a “we don’t want you to go either…please stay!”). I hugged him and tried to reassure him. “You’re going with people who care about you. Most kids say this trip is the highlight of their elementary school, and now you get to go on it! Most kids (including your brother) would do anything to go back to this camp.” That seemed to help. He wiped his eyes and got ready to go.

It’s hard to let your kids grow up, do things on their own, and help them to be independent. It’s easy to think that if they are independent they don’t need you. But I want my boys to be independent, and to have confidence they have the skills to navigate this life. I want my boys, as they grow into adults, to want to talk and engage with my husband and I because they choose to, not because they have to. It’s still hard to experience the transition as they go from childhood into early adulthood. It’s hard letting them g(r)o(w).

How are you helping your child be independent?

I will be away for the next few weeks and back in July.

 

Nervous Wreck

Have you ever been nervous for your child?

My older son plays flag football. He loves it. He was fortunate enough last year to play on a team that had fantastic coaches. The kids on the team learned to work hard and have fun. Everyone got to play, and the best part of all was the kids won enough games to get themselves into the regional Super Bowl tournament. The tournament was intense, the competition more fierce and I was a nervous wreck. It was very hard to watch what was happening. I tried to distract myself by pacing and standing back from the crowd, but nothing could quell my nerves. I so wanted my son and his team to win.

They made it through the first three rounds in spectacular fashion (winning one, losing one, going into overtime and ultimately winning to go into the next round). They lost in the semi-final game, in a game that could have gone either way — the other team had the ball last and they won. I was exhausted afterwards — you would have thought I had played four games in a row on the field.

This year my son is playing on an even better team, with the same coaches, so the kids are continuing to work hard and have fun, but they are also winning. They just won the local city-wide championship and are in the regionals, starting with the semi-final game. Watching the local city-wide championship, I again was a nervous wreck. I watched it with another mom from the team, and commented to one of the players grandmother’s that was there watching, “This is aging me beyond belief.”

My angst forced me to reflect on what am I nervous about exactly? I have no influence or power to determine the outcome of any game. All I can do is lend support and encouragement. It says nothing about my son, or me, if his team wins or loses. I actually think you learn a lot more when you lose than when you win. I know my son wants the win desperately. He is such a fan of the game and I know he has pro-football-dreams like many his age. I know that I want this for him because of how happy this will make him. Of course, I also know how disappointed a loss would be (and having to deal with him being upset wouldn’t be fun, but it’s not something I get nervous about). If I really peel back the layers, I think my nerves are around “Am I doing right by my son?” Are my husband and I giving him the experiences and opportunities to experience things that will shape him to become the person we hope him to be? If the team wins or loses, will he use the experience to grow in a positive direction?  I don’t know the answer, but I do feel like I’m better understanding where my nerves stem from.

Parenting is full of worry and angst. When moments of success happen (your child succeeds at something) there is a moment of — I’m a pretty okay parent. Moments when they make a mistake, falter or fail can make you feel like maybe you’re not as great a parent as you think you are. I see my role as a teacher for my boys. Help them learn, grow (through missteps) and have success. It’s priceless when it happens.

I’ll never forget watching my son’s team win the local championship. The shear joy radiating across his face was magical. I know my nerves will return watching him in the regionals, but I’m glad I understand what’s behind them. And despite the outcome of the game, I’ll be there for him — to celebrate with him or pick him up.

What’s behind your nerves as a parent?

 

Fireside Chat

Where do you have your best conversations with your child?

On a camping trip my husband and my older son decided they wanted to hike a trail not far from our camping site. We had just finished a different hike and my younger son and I were happy to sit by the fire and relax. After sitting by the fire for a few minutes, I could see my son was thinking about something. “What are you thinking about?” I asked. I thought he might reply, “nothing” or that he was reflecting on the day. Instead he said, “I’m thinking about life.” He paused, “And what the point of it is.”

Our earlier hike had taken us to a military cemetery where service and family members were buried. There was a large section of infants and young children in the cemetery and I had wondered, as we’d looked at some of the headstones, how the kids might be impacted by seeing so many lives lost so young. The experience reminded my son of two of his peers who have passed. A classmate from pre-school who died of cancer, and an elementary classmate who died from drowning. As a parent, both of these children’s deaths had shaken me to my core and reminded me how fragile life is. In both cases, I grieved desperately for the parents and what they must be going through, and was so grateful my boys were healthy and alive. I never knew if my son really grasped the finality of either death and the feelings that go along with it.

My son continued, “I think of my friends. They didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t understand why what happened to them had to happen to them.” He was tearing up. “They didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “It’s one of the hardest things to understand in life — why bad things happen. Especially when it’s to good people or small children who haven’t had a chance to even truly experience life.” I paused. “You’ll never be able to make sense when these things happen. Life’s just that way. Sometimes bad things happen. I think their deaths are reminders of the gift we’ve been given — life. It’s a reminder to not take it for granted. To recognize the beauty around us, and to help others see it too.” I’d gotten his attention. “I miss them,” he said. “I know,” I said, “You’ll never forget them. They’ll always be with you. The hardest part is knowing they’re not here and that you won’t have new memories with them. But you can live for them and the lives they didn’t get to live. You just have to see what’s around you and appreciate it for however long you have on this Earth.” I knew what I was saying was a bit heavy, but he seemed to take it in and embrace it. Being in a nature setting while having this discussion really helped. I finished my thought with my son, “You know you show beauty often to others in how you treat them. You’re gift is kindness and happiness. You accept people as they are, where they are. That’s a gift. I hope you always remember that. Lots of people need people like you in their life. You might be the beauty in life they need to see.” He smiled. I used to smile too, when my father gave me insights about myself. There was something magical about being able to carry on the tradition with my son. “Life is hard sometimes. Life can be confusing and sometimes make you sad or angry, but the happiness will return. Just keep remembering to appreciate it, and treat it for what it is — a gift.”

My husband and older son walked into the campsite around this time. My younger son and I just sat there. “What have you been up to?” my husband asked. My younger son piped in, “We’ve been having a very important conversation. VERY IMPORTANT!” He gave me a knowing look. My husband caught my eye and I could almost read his mind — what exactly did you all talk about while we were away? In a way, I wish my husband had been there for the conversation, and my older son — it would have been a good conversation for us to have as a family — but if they had been there, maybe the conversation wouldn’t have happened, and I’m glad that it did.

Where do have your most meaningful conversations with your child?

 

The Comeback

Has your child ever made a remark that has stopped you in your tracks?

When my oldest son entered middle school he struggled with people who made unkind comments. We talked about strategies for how to handle and one way we discussed was to have a comeback. Not an equally unkind comment (e.g. an eye for an eye), but a smart comeback, a clever comeback. One that shows you caught the person’s unkind comment and you’re handing it back to them (with the intent of getting them to become more self-aware and be more careful with their negative comments and how they use their words in the future).

Examples:

Unkind comment: “You’ve got a big nose.
Smarter comeback: “The better to smell jerks like YOU with.”

Unkind comment: “You’re weird.”
Smarter comeback: “Everyone’s weird, including you for saying that.”

I didn’t realize how far my son had advanced in his comeback skills until we were looking at some apps he’d downloaded. I was asking him to show me what each app did (as a parent, I wanted to ensure that there was nothing inappropriate). He showed me an app where you race cars, but the app’s title implied it was about wrecking cars. “Are you supposed to wreck the cars?” I asked. “Sometimes,” my son said and proceeded to show me how you could do it.  I commented, “Oh, you lost a wheel!” I laughed because the car appeared to be racing just fine even though a wheel had fallen off. “Well, you lost your youth” my son replied. It was matter-of-fact and direct. I don’t think he liked that I had laughed at the wheel falling off and was treating my comment as ‘unkind’ vs. an honest, non-emotional observation. “My youth?” I said. He smiled, “well, yea!” He looked sheepish as if he realized he may have had a disproportionate reaction to the situation. I couldn’t help but laugh, “Well, I know someone who better watch it or they may lose their youth if they don’t watch what they say to their Mom.” We both laughed at that.

When I grew up, I would and could have never had this conversation with my mother. It would have been seen as being very disrespectful. I’m not sure I was excited being told by my son that I’d lost my youth, but I was impressed by his comeback. It was clever, a bit out of left field for the situation, but I had to give him credit.

Self-advocacy can be hard to navigate as you age. Asking for what you want is key, defending yourself in a way that gets your point across without escalating the situation is another. My son is gaining ground in defending himself. I have to applaud him for that.

How do you help your child self-advocate? How do you help them respond when people direct unkind comments at them?

Object vs. Equal

How do you experience your value?

As a child, I would tell you I experienced my personal worth or value when I did something I was proud of — worked hard to accomplish a difficult task, tried something I was afraid of, or pushed myself to get even better at something I was already skilled at. While I was personally proud, being acknowledge by others, particularly my parents and peers, went a long way in how I saw myself and what I had to offer others. Another way I was valued was by conversations I used to have with my father as I got older. He would often pull me aside to help me through a difficult situation. He would talk to me, give me his perspective and then remind me what I brought to the situation. He told me how he “saw” me and the value I had to offer, the value I didn’t necessarily see in myself.

My oldest son questions his value. He feels this particularly as it applies to the opposite sex. As we encourage him to explore being friends with girls, maybe even test the waters of having a relationship, he is vehemently against it. He isn’t willing to reach out because he concretely believes he will be rejected. As he puts it, “what do I have to offer?”, “I not good enough for them,” so “what could they possibly see in me?” I don’t know that I was able to verbalize these sentiments until I was much older and after much therapy. This got me asking myself when do we start viewing ourselves as objects vs. equals? Things vs. beings that have value. I was acknowledged by my parents, I believe I had experiences where they tried to get me to understand my value outside of my physical self. Yet, here is my son, a smart, nature-loving, athletic kid that struggles with his self-worth.

I felt the spotlight that others assigned a value to my outward exterior most intensely in middle school. My weight fluctuated as I entered puberty. Growth spurts, moving from one state to another, and the loss of a familiar summer sport (I moved to a city that was small and didn’t have a swim team) contributed to my weight struggle. I didn’t know why I wasn’t thin like my siblings. I would have done anything to be. Diet, shame and self-hate never seemed to produce the body that I wanted. It was a burden I carried for decades and only in recent years have I begun to unravel and loosen its grip on me. I would do anything, and I mean anything to help my children avoid this. I’m not sure how to do this, other than diets are a no-go for my kids (healthy eating and getting them moving/exercising — check, putting them on a diet — not gonna happen), to continue to expose them to object vs. equal type thinking of themselves and others — the trappings and how easy they are to fall into; and how to recognize them, avoid them and choose a more enlightened and less self-defeating path.

I have to be on the lookout for opportunities to talk to my sons about these things. I caught my sons recently when they mentioned how “hot” a TV personality was. Thankfully we were in our house without anyone outside our family around. “That is a person playing a role,” I chided. “How do you think they would feel if they knew you only thought about them in how they look on the outside?” My boys didn’t like that I had ‘caught’ them in object thinking. “Well, Mom, lots of people think she looks hot, it’s not just us,” one son replied. “That’s the problem,” I continued, “if you don’t realize you’re doing it, you’ll continue to do so. This causes damage when people only see their worth based on what others see on the outside and don’t spend time to get to know what’s on the inside. Do you understand?” “Yes,” they chimed in unison.

This isn’t an easy lesson to teach. We are bombarded with messages that we are only as good as our outward appearance, there are industries built on us buying into this. It’s our job as parents to be aware of these pervasive and consistent untruths that are being told. And help our children combat them.

How are you combating object messaging your child receives? How are you combating messaging that values only your or your child’s outside appearance?

Kids Have Power

Have you ever seen the power kids have?

We are walking in the March for Our Lives march this Saturday, March 24th because we need to talk a stand to make our kids and our society safer. We’re walking because it’s important to us. And while I wish we the adults had already addressed these issues years ago (Columbine should have been enough, Sandy Hook should have been the last straw), I’m proud the students called us out on our inability to ‘do something’ and are helping lead this effort. I’ve seen the power kids can have first hand.

I witnessed kids having power in multiple ways — with their honesty, their bravery, their resilience, and their joy. I witnessed a different kind of power when my son (then 10 years old) went to a high school soccer game with his soccer buddies. Their coach also coached the high school team who was playing in the district tournament. The stands were filled with high school kids and their parents. The game was close, both teams were playing hard. Some players were being a little overaggressive — tripping, acting as if they’ve been tripped (oh, the acting!), and physical — running into/hitting each other. One player on the opposing team went into another player so hard he caused his victim to start bleeding profusely from the head. My son and his friends didn’t like what they saw one bit. You started to hear them chatter, “hey, that wasn’t fair.” “Why isn’t the ref giving him a card?” and on it went. I didn’t have a good answer. I wasn’t sure a card was in order either. Not to worry, the situation was reversed soon enough, to where the aggressive player, who had caused the other player to bleed, was clipped and started to bleed (much less so) from his knee. He threw his arms up in the air to the ref and started arguing that the other player should be penalized and how much he’d been wronged. My son and his friends weren’t having any of it. One of them stood up in the stands and said, “Oh, did you get a boo-boo?,” and the other boys immediately chimed in. “Ah, does it hurt? Do you want your mommy?” I don’t know where my son and his friends got this, I’d never seen them act this way before, but I have to tell you it got the crowd and the players attention. The opposing high school students weren’t happy about the comments but couldn’t say anything — what were they going to do yell at a bunch of kids in front of their parents? And the parents couldn’t say anything because, well, they’re the parents and they are supposed to set the example, right? The player, stopped complaining and quick ran across the field as far away as he could get — he didn’t come near us the rest of the game — I can’t say for sure, but would tell you it appeared he might be avoiding our side of the field. I smiled to myself and thought, “Wow, these kids have power.”

Don’t underestimate the power of a child’s voice to make change — it has power. Whether its small and finite — like getting an older kid to stop his behavior on the soccer field, or big and bold — like the Parkland, FL students who are getting us off our backsides to do something about guns in our country.

What (super) powers does your child have? How you are you helping them find their voice?

You’re a Good Friend

How many good friends do you have?

My youngest son and I continue to read our new favorite book, The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules: The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome by Jennifer Cooke O’Toole. What I love about this book is how much of this information benefits people on the spectrum and those of us who aren’t.

My son and I are now in the part of the book that is about friendship — what makes a good friend and how to go about cultivating a friendship. As I read the chapter I was struck by how much I would have benefitted from someone telling me this information when I was my son’s age about what makes a good friend. When I was young, I didn’t think about friendships in layers per se, but did understand I had different friends — some were kind, some were kind when they felt like it, some could be trusted, others couldn’t, etc. In the book, it spells out characteristics a good friend has. Some of the basics: Smiles when they see you, likes some of the same things you do, shares some of the same opinions, invites you to hang out. And others that are more advanced and truly define a good friend: stands up for you (even if you’re not there), stops you if you put yourself down, listens, sees talents in you that you hadn’t noticed, likes you for exactly who you are. There are many more characteristics she names, but you get the picture, she is shining a light on what a true and worthwhile friend is.

After reading this I reflected on my own childhood friends. I had some friends that had some of these characteristics, but don’t think I had any ‘true’ friends until I was college-age. As I’ve grown older, I’ve sought out, cared for and worked to develop healthy and meaningful friendships vs. giving equal care and time across all friends regardless to what they bring to the relationship. I wondered how I might have invested my time differently with people earlier in life if I had had this information. I thought what the author said was so valuable I grabbed my older son and said, “I need to read this to you.” He has friends much like I did in middle school — some are nice, some are nice when they feel like, some can be trusted, and others cannot. After reading with both my boys I felt like I had given them a path to know how to spot a good friend and better spend their time with people who will value them and their friendship and reciprocate in kind.

Friendship can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially if you don’t understand what a good friend ‘looks’ like. I’m grateful I’ve had an opportunity to enlighten my kids (and remind myself) about what a good friend truly is.

How are you teaching your child to spot (and make) a good friend?

One Day At A Time

How do you handle stressful situations?

This year has been off to a somewhat stressful start for our family. My job has evolved and I’ve taken on more responsibility. My oldest picked up new classes and is feeling the stress of higher demands on his abilities and performance. And we got a cat (but you already know that).

Early in January, I was having moments where the new responsibilities were too many and coming at me too fast. In those moments I’d feel overwhelmed, and experience a wide range of emotion from fear–can I handle everything that is being given to me? to anger–why is this happening me? to hope — okay, I think I can do this; only to find myself repeating this loop over and over. It was exhausting.

My oldest was going through the same. Taking on assignments that were pushing his comfort level. Due dates that seemed aggressive. Grades hanging in the balance. He too was dealing with a range of emotion from fear — how am I doing to do this? to anger — why are they asking me/making me do this? to hope — okay, maybe I can figure this out. The same loop repeating over and over, and just like his mom, he was finding it exhausting.

In moments of stress, we seek out coping mechanisms. All my former coping mechanisms were not having the intended affect. Food — no thanks, no appetite — I’m too stressed. Meditation — okay I’m meditating, but I’m only slightly less tense after doing so. Giving myself a break — too tense and overwhelmed to even consider it. I had a moment of clarity when I was discussing my situation with a peer. “I’ve got to just take it one day at a time,” I said. I don’t know where it came from, but it was like a light turned on. Part of my struggle was that I kept jumbling everything I had to do today, tomorrow, next week, next month, etc. into the ‘have-to-do’ compartment of my brain which was setting off my ‘help-I’m-overwhelmed’ alarm bells. When I said it outloud, I could almost immediately feel the stress diminishing. One day at a time. I can handle this. Just focus on today. Not tomorrow or the day after that. Just today.

After having this ephiphany I shared it with my son. When he next shared how stressed he was, I asked him what he had to get done that day — not the next or the following, just that day. When he replied with items he had to do he had a similar reaction. He even smiled and said, “I can do that, mom.”

His relief matched mine. I’ve heard the phrase “one day at a time” a million times, but never really took it to heart, until now…when I had to.

How do you cope with stressful situations? How do you help your child cope when they are stressed?

Learning Together

What are you teaching your child?

As a parent, I’ve always felt my role is mainly comprised of two things: to teach my children things (how life works, how to be a good citizen, how to prosper, etc.) and to keep them safe. I’ve been keenly aware since becoming a parent, that while my husband and I are doing most of the teaching (in addition to their formal education and instructors), we’re also learning from each child–each is different, has varying needs and ways in which they learn–so we can help them thrive.

My husband and I became increasingly aware that we were going to need to increase our knowledge of kids on the autism spectrum after our youngest was diagnosed. He has always done well academically, but struggled socially. He has a happy disposition, and people generally like him, but he is challenged with making meaningful and lasting connections. In doing some research I came across a book, The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules — The Handbook of Not-So-Obvious Social Guidelines for Tweens and Teens with Asperger Syndrome by Jennifer Cook O’Toole. My son and I started reading it together. For me, it was like shining a light in a dark space. I started to understand the true challenges my son faces and why. For the first time, I started to get a much better understanding of how my son’s brain works. I wasn’t the only one who was learning. My son started to get a much better picture of what we’ve been trying to teach him and why.

The book references those that are high-functioning as Aspie’s, and those that are not on the spectrum as Neuro-typical (NT). Oh, how I love that difference. It provides an alternative to speaking of behaviors in terms other than normal and abnormal. My son is a pretty normal kid with the exception that his brain is wired to think and process information differently. My son and I have been learning together. We are having ‘aha’ moments where we are understanding each other and social situations described in the book more clearly. My son even had a moment of self-reflection where he realized how he’d handled a situation as an “Aspie” vs. a “NT”, and how he might handle the same situation differently in the future.

While I have always prided myself on being a good teacher to my child, I’m finding more satisfaction learning together. I need to learn more. Learning together now, while I can still help my child as he grows, feels like winning the lottery. Thank you to Jennifer for this book. For the light bulb moment, and more that will come. Not just for my family, but hopefully for many others.

What are you teaching your child? How are you learning from or with your child to help them as they grow?