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?

 

Who’s Listening?

Do you think you’re kids are paying attention to what you say?

It feels like my kids often have selective hearing. I have to remind them to: make their lunch, pick up their clothes, wash their hands, put on deodorant and the list goes on. There are other times when my kids seem really tuned in to what they are hearing. My youngest son and I were watching TV when Facebook’s mea culpa ad came on. I didn’t think my son was paying attention to the ad. As the ad finished, he looked at me and said, “I don’t know why Facebook is apologizing. Cambridge Analytica should be. It’s their fault this happened.” I was stunned. I’m not sure I agreed with his assessment of the situation but was more in wonder of where had he heard of Cambridge Analytica? How did he make this connection? I asked him. “Mom, I listen to the radio,” he said. My husband does have NPR on most of the time he’s driving. “I’m up on world news,” and he laughed as if me asking him how he knew about Cambridge Analytica was the silliest thing he’d ever heard.

Clearly my kids are paying attention more than I realized. Yes, I will have to continue to remind them to do their chores, but they are listening — to our conversations, what’s on TV, and the radio, and they are forming their own opinions around how the world works and right from wrong. I’m inspired to pay closer attention, ask them questions and challenge their assumptions, and encourage them to challenge mine.

What are your kids listening to? How are you helping them decipher all the messaging that comes their way?

I will be off next week celebrating Memorial Day with family and will return in June. Happy Memorial Day!

 

How Am I Doing as a Mother?

When you think about what kind of mother you are, what comes to mind?

I want my children to see me as someone who deeply loves and cares about their well-being, but am also tasked with teaching them things and keeping them safe. My job isn’t to give them what they want, when they want it, or remove all the obstacles life throws their way, or to always be pleasant. My job is to teach them to navigate these obstacles, appreciate hard work and the rewards of your labor, and how to treat others in a way you feel good about.

Being a parent is challenging. You learn as you go. You learn from the modeling of your own parents and others you respect. It’s ever changing with endless opportunities to learn something new.

When my children were younger and Mother’s Day rolled around, I simply wanted a break. I wanted time to myself, to relax and rest. As my children age, I view Mother’s Day as an opportunity for me to check-in with myself and see if I am being the mother I want to be. Am I teaching my children the things I want to? Am I modeling the behavior I want them to replicate?

I love that people honor their moms on Mother’s Day, and while I’m sure I’ll enjoy a good meal with my family, I’m more interested in how I navigate my role as a parent. How I improve. How I mother my boys in a way I’m proud of and satisfied with after my children are off on their own.

What does Mother’s Day mean to you? How do you celebrate the occasion?

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 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?

For the Beauty of the Earth

How are you celebrating Earth Day today?

I have always been taken by things that are beautiful in nature, no matter how small. I can remember finding pretty flowers and being amazed by them as a child; finding an amethyst buried on the walking path in the backyard between our house and the neighbors — and feeling like I’d found the most beautiful thing imaginable. As an adult, I’ve only seen the appreciation grow. Every time I visit a new city, or drive through a new terrain, or experience a new season, I see beauty all around me.

My youngest son seems especially tuned-in to finding beauty in nature. It is not uncommon for him to point out a blossoming tree and comment “how pretty it is.” He recently walked a path with my husband that was near some playing fields. The path was non-descript other than having a creek that ran along side it. As my son walked with his father he commented, “how peaceful” the path was. He is aware of the beauty, acknowledges it, and shares it with others (so that it won’t be missed!).

I am often in awe of nature’s beauty and what the Earth has to offer. It saddens me when we, as a country, and as a planet, aren’t doing everything we can to retain the wonderful gifts our planet has given us. I am aware that while I get to enjoy the beauty now, it may not last forever. I very much want my kids, their kids, my great grandkids and generations beyond to experience the same beauty as well.

How are you helping your child experience the Earth’s beauty? What are you and your family doing to protect the Earth?

The Power of You

What makes you or your child unique?

My youngest son and I were discussing the power of self-awareness, advocacy and accepting (even embracing) who you are. Only allow others to treat you how you want to be treated. Don’t think because you have autism that you are any less valuable or that people should treat you any other way than kind and respectful. My son and I talked about the power everyone possesses when they know who they are, and share it with others.

In our world, us neurotypicals (NTs) — not on the autism spectrum — spend much of our life trying to ‘fit it’ in whatever form that takes. Part of what my son benefits from in being on the autism spectrum is that he is unaware of the social norms and pressures peers try to place on each other. He is who he is, and when a peer tries to place a pressure on him, he either ignores it or is confused by it (which typically leads to a discussion at home as to why something happened or why someone acted the way that they did). An example, my son was friends with a girl and liked her for who she was. He wasn’t concerned that she was overweight or that she was a bit ‘louder’ than her peers. He thought she was funny and kind and she seemed very much to like him for him. One of his classmates decided to ‘target’ my son and his friend making a heart shape with his hands and continuing to do so after they had asked him to stop. My son said, “I don’t understand why he was making the heart shape. He acted like I was supposed to be mad about it, but it just really annoyed me. He wouldn’t stop doing it.” I took a guess at what might be going on, “Relationships make many people, particularly us neurotypicals, uncomfortable, and when we see people showing an interest in each other easily, without effort, it can evoke emotions in us — discomfort — either we’re jealous because we like that person and are embarrassed we didn’t act sooner, or we feel pressure to be in a relationship and don’t know how to go about it, or we feel there’s something wrong with who you like and even though that’s that person’s issue they try to put their discomfort on us.” He thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, it still annoyed me.” To which I responded, “Next time, tell them it annoys you. Ask them why they are directing their discomfort at you? I bet anything it will stop them in their tracks, because they likely don’t even realize that’s what they are doing.” This seemed to satisfy my son for the time being.

Being yourself isn’t always easy. Especially when you are young and you get messages from TV, the Internet, movies and peers about how you are ‘supposed’ to act. If you don’t have someone telling you you’re better off just being yourself (and that oh, by the way, most people will find it refreshing and even attractive) you can easily form opinions about how you should act and not be yourself. I’d hate to have that happen to either of my sons, I’m glad my youngest is challenged in being anything other than himself. He’s an inspiration to his brother, my husband and I, his teachers and many of his peers.

How is your child unique? And how are you helping them embrace who they are?

I will be off the next few weeks with Easter and then Spring Break, but will return later in April.

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?

What Luck

Have you ever felt lucky?

Like any parent, I feel like I am constantly busy — going from one thing to the next all-day everyday. Imagine my surprise when I was sitting in my kids dentist office stressing about getting my oldest to school on time, when a text came across my phone. It was from a close family member who simply said, “I’m in the hospital. I’m okay. I’ve had a mild heart attack. The cellphone reception here stinks or I would have called.” I re-read the text one more time. Here I am stressing about getting my son to school and someone I dearly love had a heart attack. My stress moved from being concerned about getting my son to school and moved to checking on my family member. I tried calling, but as they told me the reception wasn’t great and I went to voicemail. I tried another member of the family and got up to speed on the situation from them. Everything was okay for the moment and there was nothing I could do to help. I switched back to stressing about getting my son to school. Later in the day, I reveled at my ability to compartmentalize the days stresses and get through it.

Later, when I finally was able to reach my family member, we discussed how she was doing, how things happened, who was with her, did she want me to come to her and I really wanted to hear ‘everything’s going to be okay.’ I couldn’t imagine losing this person at this point in my life. I’m not sure we’re ever prepared to lose a loved one. She was very lucky to be near an urgent care center who saw her and quickly guided her to a nearby hospital who admitted her. She was lucky to have friends nearby who could be there with her and help her. They ran numerous tests and couldn’t determine what triggered the event, she stopped showing symptoms and was eventually released. Lucky. Lucky. Lucky.

I struggled with what to tell my kids about the situation. It was serious and I thought they were old enough to handle it, but I also didn’t want them to worry. Thankfully I was able to share the news with them and reassure them that everything was going to be ‘okay’ or as okay as it can be. We were lucky what happened wasn’t more serious. They took it better than I thought. They were concerned, but once they saw I was okay about it (I’ll admit I was trying to come across as cool as a cucumber even though I wasn’t), they were okay about it as well.

Have you experienced a health scare in your family you feel lucky to have gotten through?

 

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?