THE KID MISUNDERSTOOD
This is not written with finger pointing in mind. Nor is it a passive way of blaming those who have fallen short of a standard they didn’t know I had. None of the references to other adults or other children are written as them being bad and my son (the subject of this entry) being good. In no uncertain terms my intention with this entry is not to place blame. Rather, it is to invite you into our world for a short time for the purpose of letting you know what it feels like to be misunderstood. Please hear me when I say that I want you to read this through the eyes of a father with a broken heart for his child.
When I was school age, about 8 or 9, I suffered what is probably the most embarrassing moment of my life thus far. I was in the schoolyard and most of the other kids my age were picking teams to play flag football, I loved flag football! Mostly because I was athletic, I was fast, and I was good at it. I wanted to join in so bad, so I worked my way into the pool of players being chosen by the two captains. As one after another were picked I knew my turn was coming, they would see me and pick me because when we played during gym I had proven myself to be good at it, the anticipation grew as the pool grew smaller, I was going to be picked and I was going to rock at this! But, as the pool shrunk to four, three, then two, then just me, my nightmare became my reality, nobody wanted me on their team. I stood there willing to be the last one picked, even as embarrassing as that is, I would still play. Instead, the teams were even and they left to go play and I was left standing there by myself. Heart broken, embarrassed, I ran off and sobbed in isolation.
Nearly thirty years later that memory still haunts me.
The last few weeks my son Austin, who is seven years old has been having a tough time going to school. He doesn’t want to go, he fights me on this every morning, he cries and tantrums and hits me as I coerce him out the door. I thought he just wanted to stay home and play video games so the consequence I had for him when he fought me was to delete the apps he plays with most. In the back of mind, it didn’t feel right. I had this feeling that there was a reason bigger than boredom, which was his excuse, for him not wanting to go. I asked him in as many different ways as I could think what the real reason was and all I ever got was he hates doing school work, he’s bored at school and so on. Yesterday my wife and I found ourselves at home with Austin by ourselves so we asked him again why he didn’t want to go to school and after many questions and follow up questions we found out that he had experienced a moment very much like the one I experienced at that age. He wanted to play soccer and he did not get chosen to play. my heart literally broke for him.
Austin has always been different. From the day he was born I knew it and I felt it and I knew that one day he would tell me a story that would break me. Austin was behind when it came to sitting on his own, crawling, walking and especially talking. He had an unusual amount of baby drool that lasted way too long, he looked at people and the TV by turning his head in one direction and using just one eye. For the most part it seemed like he couldn’t hear me when I talked to him. So we put him in speech therapy, we had tubes put in his ears and his adnoids scraped back. We spent so much time helping him with his ABC’s and 123’s that we forgot to live our own life. Our focus was on Austin and helping him meet those milestones we were told were so important.
Meanwhile, we would be out with our son and we would see the judgemental glances from strangers when Austin would act out. I have heard with my own ears the things people would say about him being a brat and that I must be a bad parent. All things that I myself have been guilty of before I had a child like Austin. I know now that not every kid is born the same and no matter how much you think you’re gonna be the one parent who follows through on everything you say, you won’t. I know now that every single child brings with them their very own set of traits that make life better and harder at the same time. Austin did that for me, my life is better with him in it, even though it’s also harder.
I don’t remember exactly at what point we said it, but we came to a conclusion that we weren’t going to push him so hard anymore. He was miserable, we were unhappy, and it just felt very wrong. As much as we think we accepted him the day he was born, we truly accepted him the day we said no more. We accepted him for who he was, not for who the world says he has to be.
The world however, didn’t. They didn’t and don’t accept that he is different. Not without the label of autism that is. You see, for a while we thought he was autistic, that’s what the paediatrician said and that’s what the questionnaire suggested. So we followed up with that and almost two years after the word ‘austism’ was uttered in our house we were told by the powers that be that he did not have autism. When he was autistic, his behaviours seemed more acceptable to others. It was almost like now that he was wearing that word people were slightly more okay with him. Then, word went around that he was not autistic and almost instantly the scorn came back. The sideways glances, the whispers, the rumors that came back to us that said we were bad parents, or that we were trying to make excuses for him or that we were trying to label him all came back stronger than ever. Now his behaviour didn’t come with an “excuse” therefore he was just a bad kid. One of the things people will say is that parents today are just trying to label their kids, that instead of confronting bad behaviour we just want to excuse it and label it and then we don’t have to deal with it. They say we shouldn’t label our kids and then they turn around and slap a ‘bad kid’ label on their backs or a ‘bad parent’ label on ours.
I’ve heard it all, I’ve heard that I should just spank him into submission, that he should be stripped of everything he loves until he obeys, that he should get the same thing he does to other kids. I will admit, he does hurtful things to other kids. He hits and fights, he says bad words and calls bad names. On the rare occasion that he has other kids that’ll play with him he excludes those who want to join in. He can be spiteful, and vengeful, and by and large other kids see him as someone they do not want to play with. I can’t blame the other kids, Austin can be very difficult. As hard as it is, I can understand why kids leave him out on the playground, there are times when he is the bully and thanks to schools today and their zero tolerance for bullies the bully ends up getting left out. Again I understand that, but I wish that instead of bullying the bully we could try to find out why the bully acts this way. What I do not understand is why parents and adults alike have no desire to help a kid who is struggling. Instead they do the very thing they say I shouldn’t do, they slap a label on him. I’m not supposed to try to find an explanation for my son’s behaviour and if I do I’m labeling him, but if he misbehaves other adults will label him as the bad kid, or a brat, or a bully, or someone who just needs a spanking. They only allow the labels they like.
Parenting is heartbreaking on a good day. Parenting in a world that’s actually come up with a term like ‘parent shaming’ is unbelievably overwhelming. No matter what you do as the parent of a difficult child you will be judged, shamed and scorned. You will be mocked and bombarded with unsolicited advice that says child abuse is the only answer and that the Bible defends it.
My child is the hard one. He is difficult. He can be overwhelming. At times I cry my eyes out on the way to work wondering how we will get through and thinking about the pain he must be feeling. I worry that my wife and I will be the only ones to ever truly accept him and that when we are gone, he will be alone. I get angry at the lack of support and that he’s never been invited to a birthday party. I break down when he comes to me crying and trying to explain why he did what he did but nobody wants to hear it. I feel like taking him out of school and homeschooling him, avoiding the places where he causes trouble and just living on our own.
But he is my child! And I will not let the world bully him because they say he’s a bully! I will teach him to love and respect even those who no longer like him. I will take the advice of others when they say I shouldn’t label him and I will refuse to label him ‘bad’ or ‘brat’ or ‘bully’. I will obey what the Bible says about fatherhood but instead of taking a Proverb out of context I will follow the New Testament examples of gentleness and love.
My child is misunderstood. But I understand him. I know what it feels like to be left out and made fun of. I know what it feels like to lack the ability to just go up to someone and ask if they want to be friends. I understand him in a way nobody will ever understand because I am his father and I love him unconditionally. I will not excuse him or label him but I will teach him and defend him. Austin is misunderstood because he doesn’t know how to communicate, the way the doctor explained it to me is that when most people hear a word they can repeat it after hearing it a few times. When kids like Austin hear a word they have to hear many times, see it as it is written and pronunciate their way through it before they can say it. This disconnect between his brain and the muscles in his mouth leads him to feel inadequate and leads him to communicate in a way that others don’t understand, he hits when he’s upset, he cries when he’s sad and he laughs when he’s happy. But words and grammar and punctuation evade him, except on paper.
My child is awesome! He’s misunderstood but totally awesome and for those that get to know him they’ll find just how great he truly is.