Bullying through exclusion: looking for the middle ground

Imagine having your child lying in your lap sobbing because her own friends were hurting her feelings during her birthday party. That’s a special pain.

“what’s going on baby? Why are you so upset?”
[long involved tale of being excluded over and over] “…and then they told me I wasn’t their friend!”

[struggling to stay calm and sane] “oh honey… it’s your special day..”
“YES AND THEY ARE JUST MAKING ME FEEL NOT SPECIAL AT ALL”
*heart breaks and breaks and breaks*

There’s no pain quite like comforting your child when their feelings have been hurt, especially when they were hurt by people they love. It’s a unique kind of tenderness fused with white-hot rage tempered by the knowledge that your rage will ironically hurt your child even more were you to act upon it. I have spent many a night holding a sobbing son while he wondered why his dad did not show up, so this is not a new situation for me. I already know that to be comforting as a mom, all I have to do is hold my child, stroke their hair and murmur soothing words.
In order to help them heal, however, I need concrete answers to their questions and solutions to their pain… which I cannot realistically give.

This is the problem of peer exclusion.

Believe it or not, peer exclusion is part and parcel of bullying. As defined by psychologists and developmental specialists, peer exclusion (past the age of 5) is both a part of bullying and a form of bullying on its own. Some studies suggest peer exclusion and ridicule (without accompanying physical abuse) is more common among female peer groups. In any case, it is an aspect of bullying that has very little attention. Much like verbal an psychological abuse, however, peer exclusion merits attention right alongside “regular” bullying. The effects of this type of bullying are just as damaging and can have longer-lasting effects.

But how do we tackle this? How do we, as parents, approach something that straddles the line between self-formed identity and subtle cruelty?

The question is how do I give my child the respect as an individual to make her own social choices while instilling in her the values of being open-minded, tolerant and gentle with other people’s feelings? How do I teach her “include others” while teaching her “don’t be an emotional doormat”? While I want her to be loving and accepting of everyone, I don’t want her thinking that she is wrong to have preferences. I want her to see the shining light of humanity within each person while understanding that not everyone is a good person. I want her to learn love and tolerance and forgiveness, but I don’t want her thinking its her obligation to tolerate all behavior or forgive all trespassers. Just how do we define “accepting” anyway? Where do we draw the line at “other people making choices” and “other people being mean”?

In the most recent example of my child being excluded, I sat with her for a while, soothing her sobs until we could talk. She sat up and I said “maybe you need to find someone else to play with. If people aren’t letting you have your special day, then let them go”
I could tell this idea pained her: she wanted to enjoy everyone at her party, even if they refused to enjoy her. These were her friends- kids she’d grown up knowing. Some of them she’d known in the crib. These were people she had dubbed her favorites; its why they’d been invited to the party to begin with. But what I couldn’t make her see was that sometimes friendships form between your friends that you are not a part of and that soemtimes means you get left out. True, good friends will be happy to let you back in, find ways to include you, but sometimes kids just don’t want to do that… or they don’t care.

She went off to play with someone else… a relatively new friend and we continued with the party.

…until the next episode happened. It just so happened I was there for it and I was able to intervene in a way that made the whole situation very clear. I told the repeat offenders that they were guests in our house and they were there because Lil Miss wanted to spend time with them and that if they were not going to include her in playing with her toys that she got for her birthday, I’d be happy to call their parents and have them taken home. The kids in question looked at me completely stunned. One of them tried to explain why they needed to exclude her and I interrupted with no uncertainty. “I don’t care what your issue is with her, you are NOT going to take her toys, push her out of her room and not let her play. Make your choice” Suddenly all kids involved decided that perhaps playing with her was not such a bad thing after all. Ten minutes later they were all having a great time. Mind you, these are kids who, when playing with Lil Miss all alone have absolutely no problem playing with her and often ask for her company. This is how I know this isn’t just making social choices. This is about deliberate exclusion.

Sadly, this is not the first time this has happened to Lil Miss. And though similar situations have arisen at school, her teacher has assured me that she has intervened whenever possible – because its already well known that Lil Miss is easily upset by being excluded. Which makes her a prime target for bullying by peer exclusion. So this isn’t just something I talk about because I think “those uncouth kids…” this is a real problem that could dog her throughout childhood and beyond. This is an issue of self-esteem and fear of rejection. But its not something I will sit by and blame my daughter for. Yes, she needs to learn how to stand up for herself in a reasonable manner that shows she will not be manipulated. But its the other kids who are either unwittingly or cruelly choosing to exploit the biggest emotional pitfall she has right now and I won’t stand by and make her think its all on her to fix that problem. I’m not going to turn my head and make her believe that she’s overreacting to a make-believe problem. I’m not going to gas-light my own child just because other kids are being mean but not using actual violence. I’m going to speak up for her whenever I can and teach her to speak up too. Hopefully through our unified efforts, she will be ready by high school to shrug off the deliberate efforts to provoke and hurt her. Because I can see that coming a mile away. Conversely, its always possible that she may decide to go on the offensive and do the same to others to prevent it happening to her. I hope our talking and modeling together she will not go that route either. I hope I can raise her to understand the difference between being careless with someone’s feelings and being cruel.

I hope I raise her to understand how important it is to speak up, whether its for herself or for someone else.

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a message from me to future Lil Miss

I put my hands on my daughter’s face, brushed hair out of her eyes and asked her to look at me. I said “you will not know, for a long time, how much I really love you. One day, when you are grown up, maybe you’ll have a daughter and you’ll look at her and you’ll wonder ‘is this how my mother felt about me?’ and the answer to that question is ‘yes. that is exactly how I felt about you.’

Right now you know that I love you but you won’t really know how much I do until you’re older. So never forget that”

She looked at me the whole time I was speaking, letting my words sink into her skin, her eyes, her mouth, and she said “but will my daughter know?” and her face crumbled with fear and sadness and I knew what she was thinking. She leaned forward into my smile and I pulled her close and stroked her hair as I said quietly into her ear “maybe I won’t meet your daughter, I hope I do someday, I know I really want to, but if I don’t, you can tell her the same thing and *you’ll* know that I would have loved her as much as you do”

just a thing that happened

Yesterday I dreamed that I walked away from Lil Miss while she was swimming. I walked back and she was drowned. I kept walking, knowing it was my fault and I couldn’t quite take it in that she was really dead… I walked to a friends house and even though I was sitting on their floor while they were being sarcastic and horrified, I kept seeing her body, face down in the water, with swimmy floaties still on her arms. She was a toddler, barely three and she was dead because I didn’t take it seriously. I thought she would be okay – shallow water, floaties, other adults around… her blonde curls floating by her head

I started pounding on the floor in deep immense wordless grief… I couldn’t get it out of me – both the inexplicable pain and the sounds that went with it… all I could do was pound on the floor hoping would break through it and be swallowed up by the earth and fall into the molten core….

I woke up and began sobbing… I tried not to make noise, so I wouldn’t wake her up. I resisted the immediate urge to wake her up and make sure she was alive. I put my arm around her and felt her breathing. I whispered “can mommy have cuddles?” and she half-awake turned over and snuggled right into the curve of my body, like she’s done since she was born. I kept wiping silent tears and holding my body still so I wouldn’t shake her awake. I could not get the image of her as a toddler, lying dead in the water, out of my head.
Eventually I went back to sleep and dreamed something completely innocuous.

When those things happen I often wonder what was in my mind that such terrifying stories would play out… what purpose does it serve to fill my own head full of guilt and grief and anguish?

The Princess Phenomenon

I began the following when my daughter was 2-3 yrs old. I put it aside because I wanted to make sure I still felt this way after time had passed. I do so here it is

Lil Miss just came up the stairs carrying her portable DVD player (we bought it for her second-ever car trip to florida and it was probably the best $30 we spent all that year)

Lil Miss: Hi mom!

Me: hey, wassup?

Lil Miss: I just doing my homework!

Me: uh….

Lil Miss: See dat princess? Dat’s me.

Me: ah, I get it now.

My daughter is very “girly”. Non-PC or not, that’s the term for it and when I use it, everyone knows what I mean; she likes pink, wants to be a princess, loves to play dress-up, likes nail polish, has an obsession for shoes, collects hairbands with flowers on them, prefers to wear skirts and dresses, color-coordinates her clothes, anything shiny or sparkly gets her vote, loves having long hair, draws homey scenes with the family and flowers and rainbows, is always on the look-out for the latest Disney Princess doll to add to her stash, et cet.

I have a very uncomfortable relationship with this. Yes, I am a feminist (first wave trying to move to third wave) and I heartily support women’s equality in all things (duh).

I am also a development wonk. Any time there’s a new article, study or finding of any kind on sociological and psychological/psychiatric issues, I am all over that like white on rice. The things I’ve learned through the years (decades, really) have completely turned my head around, though.

When I was younger, I firmly believed gender was a complete social construct, that men and women were absolutely no different and everything that smelt of gender roles was entirely induced by society. As I’ve grown and become more educated, I’ve discovered (right alongside of science) that this is in fact, not entirely true: men and women ARE intrinsically different in some ways. The sexes are generally the same but there are some key differences that cannot be explained by nurture alone. This has been borne out by the scientific method over and over and in recent years it has some basis in evolutionary psychology as well. We can not only see how men and women are different but we can begin to understand how and why those differences have been fine-tuned through humankind’s descent from the trees. So consider that by the time my daughter was in utero, I had come to a place of understanding about gender and the “roles” of the sexes. I wasn’t pleased about it (who likes hearing that  certain traits are ‘stuck” within you?) but because of my struggle against my behaviorist past I can at least accept this intellectually.

However, the whole notion that “girly” is somehow innate is extremely bothersome to me. In all my readings and study I simply have not come across anything that “explains” how and why the tendency to be “femme” exists in women from a innate standpoint. It remains firmly fixed in my psyche that “girly” is a learned thing. Perhaps some inclination to “girly” things is merely personal preference, but to go whole hog into the world of barbie and pink and frills seems to me just so… forced.

So when I knew I was going to have  a girl, I naturally assumed that MY girl was going to  be a great feminist, nurtured into embracing her “macho” self at least as much as her “girly” self. I will admit right here: I hoped and expected she was going to be a little “tomboy” (I know its an old term, look it up) just like I was. Sure, I was an extreme tomboy but I chalked that up to my lack of maternal nurturing in the early, formative years. So she’d probably like some “girly” things but I was absolutely certain she’d be more “macho” than “femme”. Knowing how society subtly pushes that persona on little girls, I also had a fairly comprehensive plan to help this happen. It involved avoiding the mainstream media, carefully selecting that which I thought to be properly progressive and feminist-friendly as well as exposing her on a regular basis to all things “boyish” with the help of my many mom-friends. Several of my mom-friends have girls too and the more we talked about it, the more I was certain that we were going to have little trouble counter-balancing the outside world’s mantra of “be a girly girl”.

Of course, like pretty much all parenting ideals, this was not going to happen the way I wanted it to.

My daughter seemed to come into the world the femmie-est of the femmes. First off, she was strikingly beautiful, for a newborn. This is not mama pride talking, this is me remembering every comment made about her looks with a lot of SURPRISE in the tone. People expect babies to be cute (most of them) but they don’t expect them to be beautiful. She was absolutely gorgeous from day one. I have pics to prove it. Nurses embarrassed themselves by saying “wow, she sure is pretty! most of the babies around here aren’t really but she is actually pretty!” -followed by a blush and an expression that said “please don’t tell people I think most babies aren’t pretty”   And they were right; most babies pass through a bizarro alien-type phase wherein features are not matching or sized in proportion before they get “pretty” but my daughter? never passed through that.  That was a little jarring, really. I have three sons before her and though they were adorable babies, they took a bit of time to stop looking like overboiled versions of Winston Churchill.

The next thing I noticed was her viewing preferences. Like my boys before her, I did not plan on her watching any broadcast or cable tv that had not been completely screened by me first. In this wonderful day and age, that is a lot easier to accomplish than when my boys were growing up. We found many fantastic kid videos on youtube, many from other countries. Well, before she was a year old, language didn’t matter to her anyway. So lots of Pigloo, Ilona Montricey, babe Lilly, Yo Gabba Gabba!, Elmo – you get the idea. She LOVED watching videos as young as six months when she couldn’t even crawl yet. I’d sit next to her on the floor and we’d watch together. I’d sing along, sometimes translate a little (just in case, you know, she was a language whiz or something) and clap her hands along… the usual mommy-kid fun. Before long, we had a nice collection of cool kid-vids for her. Very convenient when mommy wants a break.

It didn’t take long to realize she had a definite preference for pretty girls. Aside from Elmo and YGG, the girl was nuts for any video featuring “girly girls”. Our first tip was when her father was at the grocery store with her. She saw the DVD rack and leaned towards a video with Abby Cadabby on it. She’d never seen Abby Cadabby before but out of all the videos on that rack, she sure as hell noticed her and made it clear she wanted that video. So her dad bought it and we all watched.  Abby Cadabby is pink. Abby is a fairy (in training) and Abby says things like “hmph!” and Abby laughs all the time, much like Elmo but in a very high-pitched, girly kind of giggle. Specifically, Abby says “hee heeeeee!” Lil Miss, ADORED Abby Cadabby. Don’t get me wrong, she loved Elmo too, but Abby was clearly FOR HER.

Next thing you know, she’s looking at the DVD rack every time she’s taken to the grocery store. Mind you we are talking about a baby who can’t walk yet. She made very clear her preferences. She wanted pretty girls. We held firm in some respects – no barbie vids or bratz or anything remotely fake like that – but how can you say no to Dora? Dora wears pants! Dora is adventurous! Dora teaches sequential logic!

Yeah she barely liked Dora.

Next thing I know, she’s showing decided preferences for her clothing choices. Next thing I know, she’s intentionally coordinating her clothes by color. Next thing I know, she’s drawing nothing but flowers and cats. Next thing I know she’s demanding to have a princess outfit. A princess outfit? How in the world did she even know what a princess was?! I thought I was so careful!

You know where she saw her first princess? Yo Gabba Gabba. They have ONE character on the whole show who is a fairy princess. The entire show has tons of super-cool females doing really nifty empowering stuff like martial arts, rock drumming, skateboarding, marathon racing et cet but the one girl she decides she wants to emulate? The fairy princess with a wand. The princess who appeared maybe all of three times on the show. That’s all it took.

Next thing I know, we’re swimming in Disney princess stuff. We didn’t even have the movies for half the dolls she liked. Next thing I know, I find myself avoiding the “pink aisle” at every store because I can’t stomach another “WanT~! want!! WANT!” of some overpriced pink crap with glitter that catches her eye. How did she get into that aisle?” by noticing it was pink from across the whole freakin store and booking ass into it just to check it out. Why? Because she loved pink. That too, was something we had tried to avoid. Now, pink exists in clothing for kids as surely as all the other colors so its not like I was going to avoid having ANY pink. Truth be told, when she was a baby I didn’t avoid it at all. But once she was crawling age, we moved, of course, to clothing suitable for that phase which means pants and regular shirts. We stopped having pink hardly at all. She stopped wearing dresses or skirts or anything “girly” because it was impractical and most of her clothes were regifted from friends who had boys older than her. But somehow, between the learning-to-walk stage and the running stage (stage? that’s a stage? it ends?) she “discovered the joy of girly clothes.

We gave her pink stuff not because we loved her in pink (actually I like her best in black- it sets off her brown eyes nicely) but because she’d throw a holy hell fit if we didn’t let her dress in pink most times. We didn’t put her in skirts because WE loved her in skirts but because it was a way to make sure she didn’t freeze her butt off in cold weather – leggings or tights under the skirt is apparently permissible but not under a dress so we compromised. Next thing I know we’re drowning in Hello Kitty (which I admit, I like too) not because we’re such huge fans (although I think her father kind of is) but because it too was a compromise foisted upon her to draw attention away from other, less “respectable” commercial fare. (Besides, pink, kitties, what’s not to love?)

Every time I thought we had steered her into more neutral arenas (Minecraft, Duplo, Thomas the Train) she’d veer off into “girly” land again. Truth be told, it was getting ridiculous.

At some point, I really thought long and hard about the whole situation. As always, when you’re a parent, I struggled with the notion of imposing my will upon her. Was it “fair” of me to restrict her choices so much or was I trying to maintain a healthy balance in her life? Was I really working against the societal pressures to be “girly” or was I just trying to cut and paste MY values over her own bona fide desires? How wrong was it to let her indulge in the petty superficial trappings of femininity? She’s a child, barely out of toddlerdom and I’m really sitting here freaking out because of what color she wants to wear?

The turning point came when I got into a fracas on Facebook. A dear friend of mine posted something about this whole dilemma and the doors opened, of course, for internet mud-slinging. I admit to having a certain sensitivity to the accusation of gender-biased parenting, after all, that’s exactly what I was struggling with. But at some point in the throw-down, some stranger I don’t even know in essence told me I was foolish for believing my child was actually CHOOSING to be “girly”. No matter how much I detailed my efforts to avoid putting the pink on my child, I was told it didn’t matter, society was doing the dirty work for me. It didn’t take long before someone was insinuating that I was lax in my feminist duty and had more or less “allowed’ this to happen anyway.

I bowed out of further discussion. It just riled me far too much to attempt to have an intelligent exchange on the matter. After some thought, I realized something important though; the other people, the ones who were so smugly painting a huge “FAIL” on my feminist mommy-card were JUST as angry and JUST as clouded by their own ire to be really having an intelligent conversation about this subject. I briefly wondered why but overall, it didn’t matter. Because I had been busy second-guessing myself for so long and because I couldn’t really find a negotiating meadow for my concerns, it was so easy for someone else’s ire to color my own confidence. Yet their confidence was betrayed by their own volume level. Suddenly, I had every reason to trust my own choices and beliefs and no reason whatsoever to keep accepting the blows from someone else’s feelings of failure. I found it interesting how anger was what clarified the issue for me. As if the darkness of impotent rage created a silhouette for me to trace and the profile was the answer I’d been looking for all along.

And the answer in all this?

Maturity. Children Don’t have it yet.

I know, of course, society pressures us. It pressures children. It pressures adults. It sure as hell pressures parents.

But who is “society” anyway? Everyone but me?

The pressure of society radiates outward. This, I truly believe. There is some strength in numbers, sure, but the truest strength lies in connection. As connections between people moves outward, the ability to influence becomes weaker. The more you move outward in society, away from connection, the easier it becomes to make your own choices. Yes, strength in numbers -having 100 people yelling at you means more than having one person yell at you – but true strength, lasting strength? Is in the connections.

So what’s the strongest connection?

The self.

What is the strongest form of self-connection?

Self-determination.

All along, while I was obsessing over my child’s choices and the options before her, I should have been looking at her ability to make those choices. Her confidence, her self-esteem, her self-trust, all those things are what determine how well we follow our own dreams. All things being equal, the ability to make good choices boils down to the ability to know what you want, understand the options and be brave enough to choose what’s right for you. That means more than anything society yells at us.

First off, my children (at all ages) are going to make mistakes. I love being allowed to watch them do that and learn from their mistakes. It is my honor to be one of the people who can help them back up when they fall and watch them try again. It is one of the greatest pleasures in my life to be one of the people to which my children turn to in times of indecision and uncertainty. Whenever possible, though, I do my best to not give them the answers, but open the doors they need, turn the lights on and let them understand the world in front of them. Sometimes that’s meant I’ve had to pull them away from pitfalls they didn’t understand, turn them back from paths they cannot travel or maybe just warn them against consequences they can’t possibly predict. I’ve even been wrong on some occasions. Happily, joyously wrong. Those are the best times because not only have my children surprised me with their ability to bounce through rugged terrain, they’ve surprised themselves. But falling or bouncing, they’ve always been able to see that the roads are for them to choose.

So where are we with all this?

Again: maturity. choice.

All those times I felt uneasy because my daughter chose things I associate with negative context, SHE was choosing those things. If other people want to believe she was pushed or coerced or whatever that’s their baggage to carry. The whole point of my “job” as a mother has been to make sure my child chooses with the best of options, the best of knowledge and the best of her confidence. So if she chose things that society maybe pushes, those choices were still HERS. And that’s what I should have been “worrying” about all along. Except I didn’t worry about it. Because its a part of what I see as my goal anyway. I wasn’t worrying about it, I was doing it. My job, was to use MY maturity to make sure her choices were as free as I could possibly make them and allow her those choices even if I didn’t like them. Because she is a child and I am an adult. Our preferences are not going to be the same no matter what I do. Even if she was a carbon copy of me she’s still a child while I am an adult. She does not have the same criterion, the same experiences nor the same internal self-regard I do, to prefer the things I do. I like sushi, I couldn’t get her to like sushi if I dipped it in cinnamon sugar and deep fried it. This is how it is. She likes to have tea parties. The only reason I ever sit down to drink watery tea with stuffed animals is because I love my daughter but frankly there are days I’d rather roll myself in cinnamon sugar and get deep fried than endure another minute of the stultifying game she loves so much. The difference between us isn’t that my daughter has been pushed harder than I am (or was) to accept stratified gender norms, the difference is that she is a child and she has different tastes than I do as an adult and as a wholly different person. Maturity. Choice. I have one, she has the other. Between the two of us, I think we can handle her decisions about what color she wears to school.

So lastly, there’s the issue of all those other feminists who want to argue this into the ground. Yes, my daughter has often chosen to enjoy superficial things that society pushes upon girls. She’s a child and she is supposed to like superficial things. I don’t know any child five and under who doesn’t like superficial things. I mean, I tried reading Plato and Lao Tzu to my boys when they were little and it just didn’t go over, you know? Heck I could barely keep them awake with Bob Dylan lyrics.

“deep” stuff just isn’t what kids like. Why is Disney so beloved? Because what they show us is a world that is simple, codifiable and romantic. Children respond to those things because they are, well, children. And superficial things don’t have to stop being attractive either. As we grow, we add to our recreational loves, we rarely subtract. More importantly, we add as we grow, at a pace that matches our maturation. So to expect a child to appreciate adult values and mores is to expect the impossible.  I don’t want to be forever pushing my kids to act like adults because they aren’t. Its something I see people forget all the time.

Children are not looking at Tiana and Belle and Diego with love and awe because they are sharp minds, with a wonderful work ethic and plenty of charity in their souls, children look at them because they are attractive. The deeper qualities are something the children pick up on later, over time. The deeper qualities are what lead us to have long-standing respect and love for a character (real or imaginary) but it is the outward characteristics that get us – especially children – to pay attention in the first place.

This idea that little kids can only respect greatness if its wrapped in a pretty bow with sparkles is as ridiculous as the idea that little kids will only ever want to eat sugared snacks for every meal ever because they like candy. Some people grow up with some overblown expectations but most people do this crazy thing called maturing and it means that they can appreciate subtle, unseen qualities no matter what the surface looks like. This journey from superficial, obvious enjoyment to the deeper, more complex respect is a part of growing. To act as if there is something wrong with little kids because they like pretty sparkly things is to act as if there’s something wrong with them being kids. Kids also prefer stars, hearts, basic shapes, bold colors, smiles, smoothness and sameness as well as flowers and kittens. As they grow their personalities change and they find beauty in other areas they didn’t see before. This is part of becoming an individual. We are putting adult values and perspectives on kids again when we flip out so hard about the princess phenomenon. Its not the princesses versus the GI Joes, its offering everything and showing everything and waiting for their immature minds to catch up.

What matters is giving them all the options, accepting what they choose and always be ready to accept their changes. Because they will change. I doubt my daughter will ever stop loving Disney princesses – I still love Alice from Wonderland – but she will add to that love over time. She will begin to appreciate other, deeper qualities as she matures. I must be ready to accept this slow journey without judging her or myself and trust that over time she will become confident and love herself enough to not need approval from anyone. Not even me.

my daughter is now six. she still loves dressing up, playing with dolls and having an occasional tea party. She also loves Minecraft, Batman, and clashing light sabers or pirate swords

snapshot

Lil Miss and I are at the grocery store. This is always a dicey thing because she has a tendancy to get a little demanding at the grocery store. We always talk about behavior before we go in. Sometimes she tells me what she wants (I get her one thing of her own every trip, just like my mom did for me) and sometimes she’s not sure. Other times, she wants many things and we have to whittle it down. Good exercise in patience, negotiation and priorities. She learns from it to, I’d bet.

So we’re at the grocery store and I can tell this trip could go either way; she’s a bit amped up and unsure as to what she wants, changing her mind every couple of seconds prompting me to remind her she only gets ONE thing. Most often, its a toy. Okay, yeah I’m a softie and sometimes I end up getting her a thing AND a treat. It depends on how smooth the trip goes.

She’s pretty excited, and I’m trying to keep her focused. First she wants fruit. Not a treat, so of course I buy fruit. I usually put my foot down about buying more than two kinds depending on what kind she wants. She has a tendency to like the expensive stuff.

So then we’re walking along, chattering about this and that, when she asks if we can get some ice cream. “Sure!” says I. So far as I’m concerned, ice cream is one of the four food groups: protein/dairy, grains, fruits/veggies, and yummy. Its also a good time to help her with patience and anticipation: the ice cream aisle is at the end of the labyrinth and during our walk she invariably wants something else. One reminder “do you want that thing, or ice cream?” and she usually puts it back. So getting ice cream is actually a developmentally enriching exercise you see.

We get to the ice cream aisle and pick out our flavors. She generally only likes vanilla which is good because I only like to buy brands that use sugar rather than HFCS. I don’t give a shit whether or not HFCS is the devil or not, I just hate how addictive it is. And it makes ice cream seem gummy to me. I don’t like it. I want my daughter to have good taste is all. So she gets her vanilla (Turkey Hill natural brand) and I get my coffee flavor (same brand) and we start on our way. I always try to move quickly after getting the ice cream because at the end of the aisle no matter what store you are in, there are the toppings, cones and whatnot which pretty much ruin any chance I have at acting like ice cream isn’t a peripherally dairy-enhanced sugar-bomb. Lil Miss is now six years old and I have been successful all her life at not letting her know those things even exist on that aisle. Don’t get me wrong, she knows about toppings, sprinkles, cones and syrups, she just didn’t know they could be got at the store.

Well guess what she discovered that day? M’yep.

“Oohhh!” she said while I was looking carefully at the wahp biscuits and wondering if I should get them or stop being lazy and make my own. By the tone of her voice and how it trailed away from me as she said it, I knew what had happened. I looked up and saw her slowly moving towards that shelf at the end of the frozen treats freezers. Her arms outstretched, eyes huge and dark like some character from an anime, she was clearly enraptured as she moved, almost zombie-like, to the flame of the sundae-makings. I winced.

“maaaahhhm… loooooook!” she said dreamily with her hands carresssing a box of cones. The kind which every kid looks longingly at until they finally get to taste one. I believe the brand name is “tastee-cone” and once you bite into it you realize your ice cream would have been better served atop a styrofoam cup. I doubt there is any disappointment for an ice-cream-lover quite like biting into their first tastee-cone.

There was no way in hell I was buying those deceptive cones.

“uh, Lil Miss, I’m not getting any of that stuff”

“but mom!”

“no. We don’t need any of that stuff.”

“oh. Okay.” She slumped, and turned to come back to the cart. But before she did, something caught her eye, a little higher up the shelves.

“MOM!” she yelled

“What?” I said, inching my way out of the aisle, hoping her easy defeat was all I’d have to deal with but I might as well have been hoping the wind wouldn’t blow in January.

“Look! What is this?” she tilted her head, leaned forward and started reading aloud.

“Ice Cream M-m?”

“Sound it out” I said on autopilot and moved closer to find out what fascinating thing I was about to be begged for.

“Ice Cream Mm-aa-gick! Ice Cream magic!” she said triumphantly. “oooo! Mom I WANT THIS! I WANT ICE CREAM MAGIC!”

I walked up, looked at the box of “ice cream magic”. ON the box were two kids clearly in ice cream ecstasy. The object in question appeared to be a plastic ice cream cone. What the hell? I plucked it off the shelf, turned it sideways and read.

“oh, this is an ice cream maker”

“I KNOW! I KNOW! YOU PUT THE ICE CREAM STUFF IN IT AND SHAKE IT TO MAKE ICE CREAM! CAN WE GET IT! CANWEGETITPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE!!!PLEEEEEEEEZ!?”

She was actually jumping up and down.

The price was $20. Jayzuz tap-dancing cripes. It was clearly cheap China-made crap worthy of a late night commerical by Ronco. It made aproximately two scoops of ice cream. You had to shake it. I could just see this. We’d put the stuff in, shake the shit out of it until our arms were sore and then open it,  and find a goopy mass of whatever. Meanwhile Lil Miss would have gotten bored (and who would blame her?) and expect me to finish it up. There was also the distinct possibility it would leak or be broken when we took it home. Or she’d get a little too exuberant and drop it on the floor. Or the wall. OMG the mess that would make. At the very least, we could get the SAME effect by using objects around the house we already own. Lastly, we HAVE an electric ice cream maker. So this thing? Pointless, apt to be disappointing (more so than the tastee-cones) and possibly a huge mess.

No. Way.

I’d buy a real crank-style ice cream maker before I’d buy this cheap plastic junk.

So you can imagine the drama that ensued when I said no. The tears, the protests, the arguing, the yelling. All in all, not as bad as I thought since there was no planking on the floor and no attempts to get me in a headlock. Either she was tired or just feeling more mature.

That was four days ago. Since that time she’s been to a birthday party where she got pinata candy, stitched together a Hello Kitty doll of her own, and had at least one bowl of ice cream per day.

Today, I got a text from J:

“what’s ice cream magic?”

ROTFL

Peeking into another world

I belong to several parent communities, on Facebook as well as LJ and they are all for parents of children with special needs. Some focus on developmental delays, others on mental issues and all of them welcome ANY parents of ANY child to join. The communities primarily exist for the parents to exchange information, give advice and vent or cry to other parents who understand the difference in parenting a child with special needs.

I joined those communities long before Lil Miss was born because I have TWO sons who are on the Autism spectrum. I have been parenting them for a long time now and most of what I have learned and accomplished was on my own, without the internet. I think it is AWESOME to have the internet available now for parents of special needs kids. Parenting a child with special needs can be scary and lonely and painful too.

I remember how scared and alone I felt in my early days. I *was* alone. I didn’t have any groups, real life or online, to go to with my questions or fears. I only had a few knowledgeable professionals I’d see on occasion who could answer my medical and developmental questions. But they couldn’t help me know how to navigate being a parent. When I was raising my boys? There was almost no one to ask for help.

These communities are what I needed back then, what I could have really used when times were dark and I wasn’t sure whether I was doing anything right. Because these communities are created for exactly those times. Members go and ask questions, post doubts, and check for clarifications. I had no place like that to go when I wanted to ask for help. So that’s why I’m in these communities. Because whenever I see a parent crying or asking for help, I want to give them what I needed back then. Whether its real life advice, technical questions (to help clarify confusing situations) or just commiseration, I never hesitate to join in when someone seems like they need help. Or commiseration. There’s a lot of commiseration. A LOT.

Let me explain something about commiseration. When you are the parent of a special needs child, one recurring issue you wrestle with is whether you’re “allowed” to be frustrated or afraid or angry about anything having to do with your child. Parents in general get a lot of guilt trips heaped on them by society but parents of special needs children get an extra helping. People are always telling us cute little homilies that are supposed to inspire us or something, I was never sure but usually all the do is bring us down. Because those cute little homilies (much like the advice we get on a CONSTANT basis) usually make it clear the person giving them has absolutely no clue as to what we are going through. Its much like if you wanted to give a “get well soon!” card to a person dying of cancer. You think that’s sweet but to them, it underscores that you really do not understand the dire reality of their situation. So we tend to be quiet about our struggles and shrug them off in mixed company. If we aren’t getting pithy little saying to lift our spirits (we’ve heard them ALL) then we’re being told that we’re doing everything all wrong, that our children are just horrible little brats who need a good spanking. Or that we’re too harsh on our darling children who only act up because they need attention. Or we’re just trying to avoid being REAL parents (whatever that means) because there’s no such thing as (whatever diagnosis you let them know your child has). We have probably heard every blame-shift saying imaginable. So we tend to shy away from other non-parents and grow thicker skin. But that’s hard when you are lonely. Parents are like anyone else; they need companionship. They need socializing too. But for many of us, socializing is a difficult chimera. Some parents of special needs children can actually leave their child in carefully constructed circumstances but some cannot even do that. For some parents, online is the ONLY socializing they get for long stretches of time. These communities serve us in so many ways. They are precious.

In all my years of being online, I’ve been in many communities for different reasons but I have ended up staying only in the special needs parenting communities. Because in no other community have I ever known a group of people more loving, supportive and understanding than parents of special needs children.  I have made lifelong friends and had some really amazing times with these people – people I have never met in real life and probably never will. Because we share some experiences that NO ONE can really understand without having been there – so we don’t judge. Ever.

We don’t ever tell someone they are doing something “wrong” or “bad” with their children. Never. We believe that “support” means lifting someone up. Even when we feel someone is making questionable choices, we discuss them lovingly, give advice gently and are always ready to step back and accept that we may be the ones who are wrong. Because when you parent a child with special needs, you find out very quickly that no one can possibly really know someone elses situation. So we are there for each other, even when someone is losing their mind, screaming, ranting, venting, crying maybe even shaking their fists in rage at the universe for their troubles.

We don’t care.

We hold them up anyway and wait for the end of the tears. Because we understand that sometimes its all you can do.

We recognize every parent as being fallible and human.

We know that because you are in this community, you care. You love your child, you want to do right by them and you are ready to be helped by others. You’re humble. You’re accepting. You’re loving.

Because if you can’t be those things, you can’t parent a child with special needs. Its part of the territory and we know it.

So if you see me make comments occasionally that seem callous or cold and clinical… if you see me tell someone its okay that they freaked out on their child… if you see me admit to losing my shit or raging against the universe too.. understand, this is who we are. Its how we manage to do what we do day after day, year after year and still keep hope alive. It’s not negativity, it’s honesty and acceptance. Acceptance of what we are dealing with and who we are.

We laugh whenever we can, bite our tongue when we have to and pick ourselves up off the floor more times than you can possibly imagine. Trust me, its not the same as parenting a “normal” child. It’s really not. It’s hard in many ways. It’s joyful in many ways. But it’s our unique journey and we navigate it best for us. If you see a glimpse of it, watch us for a few seconds, you might not understand what we are about.

Just trust us.