Friday, August 27, 2010

Cruel to be Kind

The past few days have found me alone in a big house in the Berkshires with my two eight year old boys. There is a lovely pool out back, a big TV with a thousand channels of cable in the den, and not much else in the way of entertainment. 

And I have a pair of twins who, due to the nature of Autism's intrusion in family dynamics, have tremendous trouble playing together in even the best of circumstances. The few families we know who are sometimes here are now not, and did I mention that after a thoroughly hot sunny summer here in the northeast its been rainy and/or unusually cool since we got here?  

So yes, we have more time on our hands than is usual, and while in many ways the mildest word I would use for that is "challenging", in some other ways it's good. Useful even.  Because there's a bunch of stuff that Jacob needs to learn to do on his own, that he has suckered me into doing for him for years, and to turn that stuff around we need time, something of precious little abundance in our regular life.

In our hurly burly life back home when there are schedules to keep, busses to catch, and two kids to get out the door to two different destinations every morning, I often choose expediency over fostering self reliance. 

I know it's wrong, but if making Jake put on his own shoes means missing the school bus, I'll slap them on his feet. It's not that he can't do it, it's just that it can take up to 5 minutes, when I can do it in 30 seconds.  And I have to stand next to him the whole time, doing nothing else while it's going on, which means lunch is not being packed. 

Some days I have the time, some days he's fast and amazing, and some days I grab the shoes out of his hands and do it for him (wince.)

We normally live in New York City, Manhattan even, so car culture is not our culture. But here to go anywhere, do anything, it's in the car, out of the car, in the car, out of the car. 

So I've decided this is the perfect time to stop doing Jacob's seat belt buckling, and make him learn to do it himself.  

Jake has stealth helpless down to a science.  He will beg "help me, please, I can't do it Mommy" about things he is, actually, perfectly capable of doing. 

But they take effort, they take concentration, and they take more time if he does them himself, MUCH more time, so he is quite happy to have me do them for him.  Happy to have me do, and much annoyed and hurt when I don't. And that's where the cruel part comes in.

Even though he gets mad at me, even though I know it hurts his feelings as I sit next to him and watch him struggle with his socks, even though it feels cruel to hold back and watch his frustration grow as he fails and flails at tasks, it is actually the larger kindness to do so.

When I do FOR my son, I rob him of his chance for growth, competence and maturity. And that seeming kindness is the true cruelty. The fact that he doesn't understand why I refuse to be helpful mommy, why I seem callous and indifferent to his suffering makes it so much the harder.  

And while I say he's wily about these things, that's not really all of it. I can see he feels bad when he's not being so dexterous, about how long it can take him to get things right. When he feels like he's failing, he's genuinely distressed.

His self esteem is fragile and struggling over a task of self care Ethan easily handles makes him feel bad about himself... which makes me feel even more cruel when I insist he go through it. But through is the only way to the other side, to competency and success.  

I make sure to be upbeat and encouraging throughout it all. I tell him over and over that he needs to learn to do things himself, that he CAN do them and that it doesn't matter how many tries it takes before he gets it right.  I tell him I am helping when I coach him, that I will talk him through every little step, demonstrate it; but the hands, the muscles, the physical effort have to be his.

And even though he doesn't get it today, still looks at me like a scolded puppy when I make him bumble through, I hope in the future he will look back on these times and know that it was as painful for me as for him. That it took every fiber of resistance in my being, every time I was able to not jump in and rescue my miserable, frustrated son. 

Today I found the fortitude to squat beside him, while he sat in the car, next to him but not leaning in; to recite, to demonstrate, over and over, how to pull the belt across, remind him to tuck it under the booster arm:

"Use two hands, two hands, two hands, like this (hand over hand), look at the buckle, yes look at it, pay attention Jake, hold the catch steady, two hands, Jake, yes, you can do it, you can.

Jake look at me, look into my eyes, I believe in you Jake, I'm your Mom and I know you can do this.

OK now look back at the buckle, line it up, push, do it, push harder, push harder, no, look at what you're doing, line it up before you push, yes like that, two hands Jake, yes, listen for the snap... did it snap? 

YES, you did it, you did it, Jake, all by yourself! I'm so proud of you, my big boy." 

Tomorrow's goal: getting it under 5 minutes.

(And guess what? He DID IT!)


  1. Oh, sigh, things take so much longer, don't they? We are working on paying attention when we cross the street. EVERY day. He is 13, and we still work on this.

    People just don't understand...

  2. Blogger is not letting me sign in to many blogs, so am commenting as Anon.

    It is hard, isn't it? Boy 1 was similar, but what was worse was when he read a few Asperger books and then decided things he had mastered for years he could not do "because I have Asperger Syndrome, Mum".

    Yes, it did not work, and we soon had a little chorus running every time he started along this track. Then we'd all laugh as he'd go "Oh crud, foiled again." Didn't stop him trying it on though.

  3. Whoops - that was me... Madmother.

  4. Hello, oh this is very familar to me. My son with ASD is 14 years old now and can do everything he needs to do for school etc But it was a long haul! We used a lot of 'backward chaining', with us doing the bits needed first then him doing whatever was done last by himself eg the last bit of the tying shoelaces. That really built confidence. Visiting from the Weekend Rewind at the Fibro - hello!

  5. This is a great post. No matter what age your kid, or what stage your kid, self reliance is importance. I tend to go for expediency as well, but I know that I need to have more patience and let them get things done for themselves.

    Thanks for Rewinding at the Fibro.


I am so sorry to have to turn word verification back on, but the spam-bots have found me - yikes!