I came across a post on Tumblr yesterday that was written by a preschool teacher and had gone somewhat viral. The list was great, overall. It had awesome points about respecting your children as autonomous individuals, talking to them with the presumption that they understand you, and not forcing them to do things without explaining why. As someone who has always spoken to my kids as if they understand me, even when they were newborns (because if you’re alone with a baby all day, if you don’t talk to them you’ll probably have a total breakdown), I liked a lot of what she had to say. But there was an item on the list that literally made my body go stiff. “Children will copy you, MODEL FOR THEM.” Suddenly I remembered why I don’t like lists of Things Parents Must Do. It’s because all they really do is make you feel like a failure if a) you are unable to do something on the list (breastfeed, cloth diaper, homemade baby food) or b) you do something on the list and it doesn’t work with your kid (basically anything involving getting your child to eat vegetables/sleep through the night/crap on the can/so on and so forth).
I know from firsthand experience that every list that positions itself as the definitive Way To Parent is going to be completely the WRONG way to parent some children. When this woman said, “Children will copy you, MODEL FOR THEM,” all I could think was, “Well, no.” I modeled for my child. I modeled my ass off. And she didn’t copy me. Because she’s autistic, and I didn’t know it, because autism doesn’t look like what I thought it looked like, even though I considered myself knowledgeable about the topic. I was not. I remember multiple conversations I had with a good friend of mine whose son had a pretty severe speech delay where I said, “Well at least you know he’s not AUTISTIC. He’s so affectionate!” My daughter was perfectly affectionate. And she talked. Talked and talked and talked. Although she’s never had this as part of her official diagnosis, she would seem to fit the criteria for what is called hyperlexia. She talked earlier and more than any of her peers. During one of her first speech and language evaluations, the therapist looked at me wide-eyed and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more well-spoken two year old.” And then when she went home to write up her notes, she listened to the tape-recorded speech sample she had taken and heard the same thing that we had recently noticed — all of her language was scripted. She would say the same exact phrase with the same exact intonation every time. That’s called echolalia, and it’s a very important stage in language development, but one that she should have pushed past by then. She should have been using language to communicate in a way that she simply wasn’t. She was a parrot. We had always thought it was so cool and funny that she would hear these long complex phrases once and then be able to spit them back whole; that she could hear us read a book once and recite it back to us the next day. But it was a parlor trick, at best.
Language-wise, she was a perfect mirror. She was an aural xerox machine. But behavior-wise, the kid just didn’t learn things the way I had expected, the way all the other kids did. I was under the impression that you just had to expose kids to things, let them see you do something enough times and pretty soon they would try to do it themselves. I’ve now had that experience with my son. He sees us eating with a fork; he tries to eat with a fork. He sees us brushing our hair; he tries to brush his hair. When he wants to go outside, he grabs his shoes and tries futilely to put them on his feet. D never did any of that stuff, never had any of that “I can do it myself!” mentality. Things that were on all the lists as motivating suggestions were utter failures. Other kids absorbed the world like a sponge. D just ran in circles, watching but not learning. I would see children pretending to cook with play food. D banged the food together to see how loud a sound they would make. Other children would build with Duplo blocks or run trains around tracks. D knocked towers down and scattered the blocks, ripped tracks apart and threw them around the room. Other children would sit and happily color with markers. D would draw a few cursory lines, then suck out the ink and run away with a marker clutched in each hand, like she had power buttons in her palms that revved her engines, and the tighter she squeezed those cylinders the faster her wheels would spin, go go go. You would call her name to no response; the word “stop” made her laugh and run faster. There was a period early on when she thought her name meant “no” because she heard us yell it angrily so often.
I had become the yelling mom. I never wanted to be the yelling mom. I wanted to be the mom in all those “peaceful parenting” blogs who appreciated every moment with her child because they grow up so fast, you know, and before you can even blink this precious time will be gone, etc. etc. etc. But instead of cherishing it, I wanted this time to be gone. I wanted the seconds to disappear. I kept holding out hope that the next day would be better, that something would click, that I would be firm and consistent for the 500th day in a row and it would finally make a difference. I followed all the suggestions on this list, all the suggestions on all the lists, all the suggestions from parents and aunts and uncles and friends and friends of friends, and nothing worked. She just didn’t respond. And I would spend my few free moments in tears, not understanding what I was doing wrong, how I had failed so abjectly at parenting.
Then one day I went to a hastily arranged meeting at D’s new preschool, no more than six weeks into the school year, convinced they were going to inform me that my daughter was no longer welcome there…and instead they handed me a checklist of “red flags” that she was exhibiting. That day changed my life — for the worse, at first, because obviously it felt like a karate kick to the solar plexus to hear that something was “wrong” with my kid. But then, in the long run, for the better, because honestly, part of me already KNEW there was something wrong with my kid; either that or something was seriously wrong with me. What I needed, and what I finally got, was for someone to take my hand and say, “You are not a bad parent. You’re not irreparably fucking this up. Your child needs help. You need help.” I had spent the better part of two years ramming my skull into a brick wall day after day. I needed someone to help me find a way around the wall, because not every child fits into a box that allows for the list of The Definitive Things a parent should do. And every author of every book or article or blog or list like this one who clearly means well, that has the best intentions for advising you, is just another brick in that wall when you’re dealing with an out-of-the-box kid.