Oct 10, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    12 Comments

The Walking Wounded

My kids are Those Kids. Not the ones who talk through concerts or scream in movies, thank all the gods and little fishes. But the ones who throw tantrums for toys in Target? Or run down the aisles in the grocery stores? Or carry on conversations in restaurants loudly enough for every other diner to clearly hear over their own?

Yeah, those are my kids.

I get that everyone is tired of Those Kids, especially people with no kids of their own. I’ve seen how quickly articles with titles like “Curb Your Brats” get shared on Facebook, and how much gleeful support has rallied around business owners who decide to bar children from their premises.

Kids aren’t useful and quiet, inconvenient to an allergic few, like service animals. They’re unpredictable in every way: unannounced bodily processes, loud inappropriate emotional outbursts, irregular and unapproved repositioning of their messy selves. And parents and children alike think everyone should be willing to accept their shrugs and smiles and apologies just because everyone once was one. Ludicrous.

There’s no question that some children are much better behaved than others. Some children just seem calmer, sweeter, neater, and their parents receive that rarest of praise: “I hardly even noticed s/he was there!” A lot of that is just disposition, but I don’t mean to detract from what must be very calm, loving parenting in a steady environment. I’m so happy for those families, and what they’re able to achieve.

That just isn’t an option for us. My oldest son Connor has Asperger’s, but even without that, he, like his younger brother Griffin, is an Active Child. This is a category that is itself in flux; author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka has written several books about “spirited children” that propose some interesting theories advancing the discussion. What does this mean? They are incredibly smart, lightning fast, hair trigger, and non-freaking-stop from the second they wake to the second they relent and fall asleep.

And whatever mitigating influence my husband and I could offer our kids by giving them a stable home, continuous medical care, and high-quality restricted diet since birth — all of which we’ve had recommended by various well-meaning friends and teachers — are beyond are reach, mostly for economic reasons. We cannot buy a home. We are dependent on state health care, which comes with restrictions. Organic food and what’s left once one eliminates gluten, dairy, or all sugars, are foods that we cannot afford in the volume it takes to feed a family of four on our income.

As much as we try to shield them from those realities, we carry that stress, and we know it affects our interactions with them. My physical and mental health also affect my interactions with them, an unavoidable truth for which I carry a staggering amount of guilt that probably contributes to those self-same conditions (vicious spiral, that).

So what do you do with kids like these, or any kids, when they’ve got you at the end of your rope? The quick and dirty — and very satisfying and least efficient — option is to lose your shit. Scream back at them, burst out crying, spank, make exotic threats, bring down the Hammer of God. The child sure as hell regrets his actions immediately, but you sure as hell regret them later.

Are there times when this is all you can do? Yes, I really believe there are. Every parent’s got their buttons that makes the Red Haze rise. Griffin’s got a doozy: I tell him to stop doing something. He doesn’t. I say, “Stop doing that, or I’ll take away X for the rest of the day.” He says, “Oh yeah? I’m going to keep doing it more and worse until we leave/you buy this thing/I get my way/you take that back.” BOOM — instant fury. I was in a store the other day with him, and he wouldn’t stop touching fragile things on the shelves. I said, “Give me both your hands. I don’t want you touching things anymore.” His response: “I can still touch them with my feet.” I leaned down and growled at him, “I will tie your hands and feet together and wear you like a handbag.” He stopped long enough at least to assess the odds of me having rope in my purse. I’m not always that creative, and some of you may find that threat horrific to make at all, let alone in public, but I regularly reach that point with him these days.

The next option is to find your inner Buddha and appeal to their inner humanity. You take a moment to evaluate the environment, and what’s affecting the kid, then you sit down with him and help unravel the tangledy ball of emotions that’s making him act like a colossal jerk. Sometimes, this really works, and you have a truly insightful conversation that makes him aware of some new tripwire that we can work together to avoid or minimize in the future. But most of the time, this is a boring torture worse than pain of death to the child, and/or devolves into the Airing of the Grievances in which everything you and everyone else have ever done is screamed out through tears of rage before doors are slammed and Xanax is taken.

Finally, as with every good and human endeavor, there’s the middle path. And like every good middle path, it’s got angry yelling and compassionate insight, with a healthy dose of deep breathing and a sense of humor. You admire the passion and energy that drive these little engines of discovery and innovation; you give points for perseverance and rhetorical style; and you acknowledge that yelling at a kid after the fourth time you’ve asked him politely to pick up the damn plate in the middle of the floor is not going to squish his special little snowflakeness.

The single best thing other parents can do for one another is to be gentle with one another, especially those who don’t have Active Kids toward those who do. Face it: parents just aren’t going to get the support or sympathy we’d like or deserve from childless adults, or even adults who’ve already done their childrearing and want to be done with the screamy droolmonsters. But the shit parents give one another is absolutely unforgiveable. There’s this hypocritical cult about motherhood today: it’s the single most important job a woman can do, but you’re expected to do it in absolute seclusion, and if you’re not doing it “exactly right,” you deserve to be publicly flayed. And you wonder why antidepressants and wine are essential motherhood equipment?

Nobody knows the story behind that screaming kid in the store or restaurant. The vast majority of special needs, both juvenile and adult, are invisible, as are personal struggles. You walked in in the middle of the movie. Philo wrote, “Be kind to one another, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.” Parenthood is one of the rare battles that many of us have the scars from. The least we can do is give each other credit for serving the best we can.


  • Jess, you and I have had this conversation multiple times, but I think it bears repeating – parenthood is one of the most thankless jobs around. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you do, there’s always something more you could and arguably should be doing. And, as a conscientious parent, you’re painfully aware of all of those failings even if you’re objectively doing everything you physically, mentally, and emotionally can. And the last thing you need is other people implying that you are in fact doing as crappy a job as you already fear you are.

    Parenting is, all too often, a competitive sport. And that’s to nobody’s advantage.

  • I swear, I woke up the dog laughing out loud when I read “wear you like a handbag.” I have so been there, and that’s without the added stresses of “active children”. Hang in there, and know that some of us understand, and more of us should. *hugs*

  • Thank you for expressing so clearly what I believe many parents feel. Kindness to each other, and a willingness to accept that other parents are doing their best would help a lot some days.

  • I’m not sure I approve of our society’s obsession with having “quiet” children, always and everywhere. How are kids supposed to learn social skills if they’re supposed to be quiet all the damn time? I was praised for being quiet, in elementary school, but the only reason I was quiet was because I had absolutely nothing in common with the other kids. They were more interested in Michael Jackson than quantum physics.

    I remember shopping trips being soul-crushingly boring, as a kid. I ran around and climbed in the clothing racks, because it was the only thing that made the whole thing bearable. As a child, you’re kind of a prisoner, on those journeys. You can’t do kid stuff. You can’t even read. You’re just supposed to follow your parent around, with NOTHING TO DO. It’s torture! But, not a lot of folks have someone who can look after the kids, every time they want to go shopping (and, moreover, maybe they need the kids to try some things on).

    So, bored kids are going to happen. It doesn’t mean the parent OR the kids are bad. As a fellow shopper, I sometimes attempt to distract or entertain the most problematic kids… and it often works… but some parents freak out when strangers interact with their kids. Can’t win! πŸ˜€

  • As the Fonz would say, “exactamundo.” you said it all so perfectly, I’ve really nothing to add. But that won’t stop me. I’ve often asked myself, or whatever gods are listening, “why did I get these crazy kids?” And the answer ironically is, because I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have learned from them patience, acceptance, tolerance, and perspective (among dozens of other things). I am proud to count myself one of those moms who are NOT passing judgement on other parents, who can see the joy and charm in “those kids” and who just plain realizes that what people think is the least of my concerns. Doesn’t mean I always feel lucky, in fact it’s rare that I do, but it’s true. And you are lucky too. (-:

  • And, as a postscript, I should also mention that there’s no such thing as the right parenting choice in the other direction either. As one of the boys continues to sing the same song riff they’ve been singing non-stop for DAYS (it’s not even a whole song! just a three-word riff! over and over! agh!), after they’ve been asked to give it a rest about two dozen times through the entire half-hour shopping trip, I’ve been told by other women, “He’s just happy. You don’t tell a happy kid to stop singing, just because you’re in a bad mood.” To which I smiled and replied, “You have NO IDEA how long this song has been going on,” but I still felt that horrible queasiness like after witnessing an unexpectedly violent event. Nobody deserves to be called out and humiliated in public for anything short of the most offensive behavior; making a reasonable request of your own child hardly counts.

  • As a Highly Sensitive Person, I have something I say often to my husband: “You’re not being annoying; I’m being annoyed.” It’s when he starts tapping on the table, or humming along to a song, or doing any number of perfectly normal little things with an idle mind or hand. Such a simple thing can be enough to morph into a full-blown anxiety attack if I don’t make it stop. It’s not that he’s doing something wrong, but it still has a negative effect on me that therapy hasn’t really helped.

    Knowing you and Cam has made me more thoughtful when it comes to situations like the ones you’ve described with parents and kids. My tolerance for the often chaotic, usually overwhelming energy of little kids is almost criminally low, so I often find myself often needing to excuse myself for a moment. This is especially bad with active kids or ones with sensory disorders like my nephews. I’ve gotten better about not blaming the children or their very frustrated parents and thanks in part to you and Cam I challenge myself if I do, but the fact is I’m still the woman who needs to ask the waitress if I can switch to a new table, and that horrible, insensitive auntie who needs to go lie down in a quiet room after an hour at a family gathering to keep myself from being overwhelmed to the point of illness or to fend off the start of a panic attack.

    I’m glad you’ve shared your story and I’ve learned a lot from your family’s experience, for which I’m extremely grateful. Please do know when I and people like me just need a moment, it’s often just because we have our own sensitivities. For what it’s worth, it’s not that your kids are being annoying; it’s that we’re being annoyed.

    • That’s a really great phrase, Tiara — I may have to steal that for my own use. And for what it’s worth (and what will surely be a blog post on another day), Highly Sensitive People end up as parents as well. I’m a probable Aspie myself, or at least someone with sensory integration issues, a realization I only came to by seeing pieces of myself in Connor. A lot of parents can tune out the noise and mess of their own kids on the periphery; it’s a defense mechanism you develop, and sometimes it’s only for your own kids’ sounds and stuff. I can’t do that. There are days when every sound is like a needle piercing my eardrums, or when even just the contact of a kid sitting beside me on the couch is so oppressive that my chest tightens up so I can’t even breathe. I’m not a nice person when I’m having an anxiety attack, and the best I can often manage is to quietly excuse myself to the bedroom where I turn on the fans for some white noise and read or listen to a meditation CD for a bit. I get very, very hateful and unforgiving toward myself for this, and I try to explain to the kids that it’s me, not them, but I know it hurts their feelings anyway sometimes.

      Far be it from me to judge someone who has similar issues with sensory stuff. And believe it or not, but there’s a noticeable difference in tone and atmosphere when someone switches tables or passes you to achieve a different “passing rhythm” in the grocery aisles so they don’t have to be in your kids’ orbit for those reasons, as opposed to the pruney, judgmental, disapproving looks that indicate “You’re annoying” instead of “I’m annoyed.” But thanks for reminding me to be on the lookout for those signals, even when I’m busy sinking into the floor in humiliation. πŸ™‚

  • So good, Jess! This looks a lot like Annie and I’s life with our three year old daughter. Annie especially, when I was working long hours, reported reaching her stress limit with Niamh quicker and quicker as time went on, and her nerves were more and more strained. When she started back to school and I began doing some long “Niamh shifts,” I understood what she was talking about. There’s a profound weariness, beyond mere tired bodies, a weariness of body and mind and emotion, that puts you into a “I cannot take ONE MORE DISRUPTION OR DEMAND” sort of space.

    Our childrearing ideal is one of compassionate acceptance, where our children know they have a voice and aren’t made to feel that their feelings are wrong or evil. But damn, it’s hard. Because adults have feelings too, and children–I refuse to believe they’re “wicked” or “rebellious”–don’t always realize what adults want to meet THEIR needs, or how those needs clash with those of the kids.

    Another aspect that Annie and I have talked about: the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is more than a cliche. In healthy village life, a child isn’t just raised by their biological parents; they have constant access of an entire community of folks who are more than willing to spend 5, 10, 20 minutes or more lavishing attention, affection and wisdom on them. If a kid wanders out the front door, its into the arms of a loving adult presence. It’s like having a couple dozen grandparents, aunts and uncles who will babysit at the drop of a hat, in small chunks throughout the day.

    Move to the modern industrialized city model, centered on the nuclear family, and suddenly you’ve got just ONE TO TWO people raising kids 24-7, in an environment where beyond the front door is danger, where you can’t take your eyes off ’em for a second. No wonder we’re a ball of stress and nerves, and no wonder our kids grow up with such weird, shell-shocked coping mechanisms!

    • Griffin (our 5yo) and one of his best friends, Katie, have been doing this migratory thing over the last couple of weeks, where they just drift back and forth between our apartment and hers throughout the afternoon and evening. They buzz the buzzer to ask to get in the building when they want to come in at either place, they eat wherever they are when dinner time rolls around, and they’re so happy and independent and adorable. And that’s just one of his friends here in the apartment complex. A big part of what made the first summer we were here in the Cities so hard was the kids’ (and our) total disconnection from any socialization. Feeling like we’re woven into a community, with other parents who welcome our kids and trust us with theirs, provides immeasurable reassurance. Because, when it comes down to it, two (or even four; three is a toss-up) happily playing kids are WAY less work than one lonely, needy kid.

      • That sounds great.

        Annie and I moved to the country, because we really believe that it’s more healthy, peaceful, etc. than growing up in the city. But we’re struggling with other parts of the village infrastructure. It’s difficult to get childcare and playmates for Niamh.

  • Your kids are high-energy and intense, it’s true. They are really great, adorable and more owrk than I could possibly know.

    Also, this is wise! β€œYou’re not being annoying; I’m being annoyed.”

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