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[personal profile] msagara
My son's pediatrician was a woman who was shorter than I am and I swear half my weight; she was also in her fifties. I met her when she was doing the round of newborns at the hospital at which my son was born. She was the *only* adult who could, when he was newborn, handle him at all without causing an outburst of screaming. So I asked if we could continue to see her outside of the hospital visit. She agreed.

One of the things I really liked about my son’s pediatrician was that she was ultimately an extremely pragmatic, no-nonsense woman. She had strong ideas of what would be best for a child - but she also had strong ideas of what would be best for a family dynamic. She understood that asking parents to do things they simply could not willingly/happily do over the long-term was courting the type of anxiety and resentment that eats away at a family.

I know this because I asked. She made clear - to us - what she thought the most effective forms of treatment/interaction were. But I, in turn, made clear to her what I thought of some of her thoughts. I liked, respected and found her slightly intimidating - but I knew my son. I had some idea how things would work. For instance, when he had an infection as a toddler, she asked us if we would be willing to administer antibiotics by suppository.

Hah. I could think of three ways in which that would totally traumatize our son, and because he was too young, no ways in which I could explain the necessity. The long-term costs vs. the short-term “more effective” were not worth it, to me. I did what I generally did in that office when presented with something I felt was not helpful: I crossed my arms. No, seriously. I crossed my arms, and compressed my lips. I did not say No immediately; I waited for the arguments that would push it into Yes territory. But I certainly didn't say yes.

She would take one look at me, nod, and move on. She didn’t ask the reasons; she didn’t even judge them. She assumed that we knew our son. (Oral antibiotics at that age were also somewhat traumatizing for my son, but, well.)

The first time this happened, I asked her how she generally approached the “best” vs. the compromise solutions, and she told me that in her experience, it was important for the child’s parents to be as comfortable or happy as they could be, given the work involved in raising a child. Parental happiness made bonding easier, and she felt that that was hugely important.

Ideas about the theoretical “best” choice took a backseat. One of the examples of this was: nursing. Some mothers find it painful, isolating and traumatic, and in those cases, the pediatrician advised them, without qualms, to give it up. She didn't judge them. She didn't assume they were self-indulgent, unfit mothers.

What I learned from this was that each parent needs to come up with a parenting style that does not make them unduly miserable. Parenting is actually hard enough.

My son’s pediatrician felt that, health-concerns of the child included, the family dynamic was extremely important, and she did not ask parents to do things she felt they would resent for that reason. It is hard to do something, day in and day out, that you bitterly resent without some of that resentment seeping over into your interactions with your child. Can you? Yes. Love and need trumps moments of extreme distaste. But if the moments of extreme distaste are your life, something’s got to give.

I know there are books (and books and books) about how to raise ASD children. I read them when they were classified as PDD children. But I read them the way I read writing advice. I looked at what would--and would not--work for us. I reasoned that while these people were experts, they were not experts about my child in specific. I was.

But I also knew that I could not turn my whole house into something foreign to me. I couldn’t. People need their moments of peace, their moments of escape, the continuity of the things they enjoyed before a small child dropped like a bomb in their household. There were some things I was willing to live without - and some things I was not.

Those things will vary from person to person, as they do regardless of children.

I think it’s important to own those needs, and to build them into the household.

For example: in my home, there are more computers than people. It’s like the computers are pets (goldfish pets, not cats or dogs), and we can’t bear to throw them out when they’ve been rendered redundant. I spent a lot of time on my computer. I wrote on it. I played games on it. I kept in touch with people on it. I was not going to stop doing these things just because a child was in the house. (I was, of course, going to be doing a lot less of them, especially in the early years.)

It’s common schoolyard wisdom - and possibly common wisdom period - that playing computer games is not good for your child. But I knew that in order to keep him off the computer, I would have to give the computer up myself. Because, consistency. I was not, in fact, going to stop using the computer. Full stop. Having an insanely resentful, isolated, depressed mother was not likely to add to the joy of his life.

Many people have been surprised by this. They don’t understand why I can’t just use the computer the way I’ve always used it and tell the child no. This might work for neurotypical children. They pick up layers and layers of social cues and nuance, and the idea that “adults” != “children” is a fairly easy one. Rules that differentiate might be disliked - but the dislike does not become confusion; it doesn’t make the rules themselves impossible to hold onto as something that makes sense.

And here, we get into “know your child” territory. I know ASD children for whom the adult/child distinction is a fact of life. They do not chafe at the differences in the rules; they accept that the rules are the rules, if they’re consistent. If the adults in their lives all follow Adult Rules and the children all follow Children's Rules, they don't find this upsetting or threatening.

My oldest son was not one of these children. He understood that adults and children operated under different rules, yes - but it was a source of confusion and frustration if he could not make sense of why. If we told him something was harmful, but we did it ourselves, it made no sense at all - and he felt extremely oppressed, helpless, overpowered. We could make the differentiation if we could explain it in a way that made sense to him. It was okay for adults to do certain things because of physicality - they were larger, stronger, and any actions that required height or strength were actions a child could not perform. He therefore accepted these explanations.

But if we had cookies before dinner, and he was not allowed to have cookies, we needed to explain why it was okay for adults to have cookies but bad for children. And…we couldn’t. There was no explanation that would make sense of this, to him. It was arbitrary, and arbitrary actions were threatening.

If we stayed up late and he couldn’t, we had to explain, again, why it was necessary. Conversely, because he was rational, if we pointed out that yesterday he was cranky & unhappy about everything because he hadn’t gotten enough sleep, he would accept this -- if it were true. He understood that being cranky & unhappy at everyone was actually unfair to everyone else.

Let me go back to the chocolate before dinner example I mentioned in a previous post. He wanted to have chocolate before dinner one night, and we let him. Our knee-jerk reactions - that desert did not come before dinner, because it certainly hadn’t in either of our homes when we were children - were set aside.

If, after eating the chocolate, he had refused to eat dinner, we could, the next time he demanded chocolate, point out that it destroyed his appetite, as it had the previous time we’d tried this. He understood the idea of nutrition, and the necessity of eating appropriate foods (in theory). He would not be able to field an argument - even if that argument was entirely sub-verbal - against the example he had set himself.

This meant that in matters of preference, we would sit on our knee-jerk, automatic responses, and see what happened. If what happened was a minor disaster, we could then use those disastrous results as a rational basis for denying him chocolate in any future arguments. We didn't assume, with my son. We tried. Failure was helpful for us, in setting rules. Frequently, however, there was no failure. My son ate chocolate and then ate dinner. He had given us no grounds for future refusal.

Likewise, if he could remain awake and keep our hours and be sane, reasonable and happy in the morning…we would have had no grounds for refusal. That one never worked out well for him, because he did, in fact, require sleep not to be cranky & tired & unreasonable. He could see that we were not affected (hah!!) by lack of sleep in the same way, and that he was.

Our rules tended therefore to be cobbled together from experience and inclination. If our inclination was to say "no", because no other children were given the leeway he was demanding, we sat on it. We evaluated first from safety principals (we didn't, for instance, care if adults rode their bikes in the road - children did not ride their tricycles in the road, period. (I could explain this because of the height differential: adults on two wheel bikes can be seen by drivers; children on tricycles cannot.) We let him do things to see what the results were - if safety was not an issue.

If the results were bad, they became proof that he required a different routine and a different set of rules than his parents did. But the key thing is: He was rational and he accepted the outcomes. He did not argue with facts.

If, however, the results were not bad, we accepted that rules are rules. He could do what we did, because we had no rational grounds to stand and fight on. Had we, without that ground, put our foot down we were enforcing our preferences over his with no reason. This really, really upset him. I mentioned in a previous post that our fights were two to four hours in length. Every fight. Also: he would not have the fight with anyone except the person who had enraged him: he wanted them to fix it.

I'm too lazy to have fights of that duration for the sake of my personal preferences. I'm just too lazy. Could I have enforced a set of far more normative rules in my household? Yes, of course I could. I was over thirty; he was under five. But the cost of that enforcement was a slow erosion of any joy: we would have spent our days doing nothing but fighting. The anger and resentment - on both sides - would have become our household norm. He would have felt - with some reason - that there was no justice in our rules: that it was always, and only, a matter of power.

None of the other children in his kindergarten class were allowed to play computer games. None. Zero. I know that some of the parents thought I was … not parenting well. But those games were one of the few things he really enjoyed that we could also enjoy. They were things we could do together. We did go out to the park daily, we did go out for our long walks, we did go to the Science Center - but in some ways, I was there as supervision and safety consultant. I was part of his computer life as an active participant. I played Diablo and Diablo 2 on our home network with my son - as did his father and godfather. I also played games that I could not stand because he was excited about them. (I did like Diablo and Diablo 2). I have heard "Grandma and me" more times than any sane human being has ever heard it because, my younger son also really liked it, and then my son's godfather's sons, after, did as well.

Therefore, in our house, all educational theories aside, computer games were not an issue. I used to do a fair amount of email and etc., with my small child in my lap. He helped me. I cried once or twice when his help involved a symphony of key strokes that deleted all the writing in the MS Word document - which would have been fine, but that symphony also included the keyboard shortcuts for “save”.

I could give up junk food. That was not hard for me. If it is hard for you, don’t give it up. But understand that you will need to set up reasonable rules for when your child eats the junk food, as well.
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Michelle Sagara

April 2015

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