Looking back at our own efforts, we had lots of battles :) I've love to hear how you applied these rules to situations where your son didn't want to do something, like have his bath or get dressed/put his shoes on for school or participate in the day to day activities of helping out (setting the table, doing dishes, doing homework) - it seems we always had conflict, and the majority of it with my brother was getting him to do something that he didn't want to do, but that needed to be done.
I’ve been thinking about this today while at work shelving books - which hopefully will not result in too many mis-shelved novels.
Before I answer I want to make one thing clear: neither my husband nor I are particularly good at being autocratic. I can put my foot down hard enough to break things - but it is not my natural inclination, in part because I reacted so badly to same when I was young.
I don’t like people assuming they have authority over me; I therefore don’t like assuming I have authority over other people.
My husband comes from a social context in which his family was entirely reasonable about pretty much everything. Disagreements were polite. Not steely, reserved polite, but actually polite. One of my mother-in-law’s friends once told me, when I was pregnant with my first, about watching my husband’s mother chasing after her toddler; her most common question to that wandering toddler was: “Are you certain that’s a good idea?” which her friend found hilarious and head-shaking.
We take responsibility for our own lives; we discuss joint elements, or elements in which singular responsibility affects the household. We give each other opinions, when solicited (and, sadly on my part, sometimes when they’re not). But we don’t assume that we have authority over each other’s life; we have a say, but ultimately, not the final one if the life is not ours.
So: rule of law and the reverence for strict authority of the parental figures was never going to be a go in our household. But at the same time, we are responsible for pretty much everything involving our children; they’re called minors for a reason.
We needed to be able to make clear to him when he was breaking rules. We needed to accept that some preferences were not going to be in accordance with ours - and on those, we gave in. We weighed the overall cost of attempting to provide him with a much stronger ‘normative’ framework, and decided against it, although often the discussions around those decisions were long and involved.
andpuff asked me once, when my son was five years old, “Michelle, do you ever just say ‘because I said so’?”
And I said, “No. With my son it wouldn’t work.” This was absolutely true. But it was not the whole of the truth. On some visceral level -- for me, and I cannot stress the me part enough -- such a statement would have been an admission of failure. It would be akin to losing my temper and shouting my lungs out. In fact, I think I must have considered it even worse than that, because I did lose my temper and shout (thus, the time outs for me), but I never said “because I said so.” Hmmm.
“Because I said so” implied, to me, that there was no reason for what I was demanding. There were, I like to think, reasons for every demand - and I had to be able to make them clear to my son. I believed I could do this. It was not always easy.
I gave reasons for pretty much anything that was non-negotiable: dentists. Doctors. Needles. Prescription medicine. I did not, however, insist he take Tylenol; if he had a fever and he did not want Tylenol, I was willing to ride it out - because if the fever was bad, he would take it. He knew that his desires in areas that were non-negotiable did not matter. Our desires - for his health, for his safety, held sway. But I also took pains to make sure that he understood that I did not love going to the dentist; I did not love getting needles. I wanted him to understand that fear was normal, and that we were expected to over-ride the fear anyway.
I would say things like, “sometimes Mommy hates cooking” while I was cooking, and we would discuss why, which would have follow on discussions about the nature of chores. He therefore understood that reasonable people (for a value of reasonable that includes me) did things daily that they did not necessarily enjoy.
I would posit scenarios of mountains of unwashed clothing and ghostly, empty dressers. I would go out of my way to thank my husband for household chores above and beyond the call of duty, and I would tell my son how much I appreciated it when these things were done because they were a lot of work, it made the house more pleasant for all of us, and we should be grateful -- and helpful.
Because I said and did these things when we were not fighting, they became part of the way he viewed the household. I think it’s important for children to understand that their parents do things that are not fun-fun-fun all the time. Because it’s too easy for children to think that it’s only preferences that count. I’ve seen this in some part-timers; they don’t do any task they don’t feel like doing, because they assume that the people who are doing them are doing them because they’re weird enough to want to do them.
(I think that an endless litany of nothing but complaint is overdoing it, though.)
We did not have clothing fights often because we wore clothing. Everyone he ever saw wore clothing. He did have arguments with my sister about whether or not his clothing was appropriate, because he disliked changing, and if the first thing he put on in the morning were black track pants and a long-sleeved turtle-neck, and it was 90 degrees outside, he would insist on remaining in those. Since this caused no harm, it was personal preference, and he therefore didn’t change.
He might have had fights about things like winter clothing, but I was not willing to have that fight - because it’s not easy to suit up a screaming child. Instead, I would pick him up and carry him out to the front porch (he would have been about five months old when this started). The front porch is not enclosed; the air was cold. I would stand outside with him for a minute, and then I would carry him back inside, and he would let us put the coat on without a murmur. Although he couldn’t speak, he understood: it was cold. The coat was not therefore arbitrary.
This continued throughout his toddler years. It demonstrated the why of the clothing in a clear and non-verbal way. He understood the necessity for warmth, and would then cease to scream and struggle. Obviously, if he had decided he didn’t care about necessity, we would have had to put the coat on anyway - but that didn’t happen.
(The worst that happened was one very warm winter day, when it was packing snow because the snow was melting. He would wear his hat, his mitts, his scarf and his boots - but would not wear his coat. It wasn’t cold enough for him. There were dirty looks from the elderly women in the neighborhood.)
Shoes were less of an issue because he did not like the feel of grass on his feet. Since I spent much of my childhood secretly ditching my shoes because I hated them, I felt it was not a safety issue per se - but he didn’t like grass on his feet, so that was not one of our fights.
Those would be preference fights for the most part, by my definition.
The school work/going to school fights were different. If there are rules (there are) and preferences (his trump ours if it’s about him), there are also responsibilities. I consider them the midway point between the two: the things that we are supposed to do, and for which there will be consequences if they are left undone. (Cooking, laundry, cleaning, work, shopping, etc.)
Responsibility fights were different from rules.
He hated school for the first two years, but he understood that it was not optional. He could generalize enough to see that all of the children were going to school, and I told him it was much like daddy going to work; it wasn’t always fun, but we learned things there and it was our responsibility. Both his mother and father had gone to school; every adult he knew had gone to school. If he was not normative, he understood the broad social rules: what everyone he knew had done, he too would have to endure. He knew I did not go out to work every day - but I worked part-time, so I also left the house to work, and I think it made sense to him that parts of his life were modeled after parts of ours, because ours were the lives he knew.
Homework, however, was a nightmare of epic proportion in elementary school. Not all homework, mind. He was fine with spelling or math, because the metrics there were very much “right” or “wrong”. No, it was things like the dreaded Book Reports. He was a good reader, and reading was easy for him. He was - and this is common among ASD children - terrible at summarizing, which is at the heart of a book report. Being asked to choose the ‘important’ elements of the story when he considered the story itself a whole unit was not a matter of simple metrics, and he found making the choices paralyzing.
It would literally take him fourteen hours of sitting at a table beside his parents (in tag team style) before he was able to do it. And this was weekly homework, given on Friday and due on Monday. It made us weep. But he didn’t resist sitting at the table with the work; he resisted the work itself. If he could not be certain it was “right” or “wrong”, it was immensely terrifying.
We knew it had to be done. But the fight about homework was not actually a fight about authority; it was a struggle with capability. He was not defying us because he didn’t feel like doing the work but because he did not feel he could.
He helped with the table setting chores if we asked; he didn’t fight that, either - because I told him the alternative was to cook or to clean up. He knew we did these things, and it did not seem unreasonable to him to be asked to help out. Was he overjoyed? No. But he knew that on some days, neither were we.
Homework when he was older was more of a fight. But it was usually for the same reasons, in the end, that we’d had problems in grade one: he was uncertain about his choices or the information, or he was reluctant for some other reason. If he could not do something, it was often expressed as “do not want”. We had to work through the homework to find out where - and what - the roadblock actually was. But again: he didn’t question that it had to be done. He accepted that as the base-line.
He had days where he wanted to play on the computer instead of doing his homework. We all have INTERNET FOREVER days. On those days, he would drag his feet before he would start. But the real resistance usually had a root cause. He knew he was responsible for getting the homework done, though; he accepted that it was his job. So on those days when it was clear he would rather be on the internet forever, we shut the internet down until the homework was done. On school days in the later years, that became the norm: internet down, until homework was done. Sometimes he groused, but sometimes he was grateful, because he knew he was distracting himself, but he could not quite tear himself away.
He accepted that I was getting my work done. He accepted that Thomas got his work done. He therefore accepted that he had the responsibility to do his work. So the arguments were not offered as an argument against authority. He would just stall in place.
I don’t think it’s possible to raise a child and have no arguments, although I think I’ve had less than a handful with my second son in his life.
So in short: we tried to make it clear - outside of the immediate argument, during which communication was impossible - that there were rules, responsibilities and preferences.
Rules were ground zero. There was no give on rules. We all followed them.
Responsibilities were more nebulous, and the concept was introduced after rules. My responsibilities, his father’s, my parents, his godparents, etc. were all different. But we worked at making him understand that we had them, they were not always fun-fun-fun, and that we had to do them anyway. We tried to make him understand his own responsibilities (homework, chores - but I admit his chores were extremely light because his homework was…not), which would be unique in some ways to him in our house.
When he didn’t meet those, there were consequences. Like, say, no internet. Or no computer use. But we made clear up front what the consequences would be. He could choose not to fulfill his responsibilities, at which point, he paid the penalties.
Because he assumed that we never failed to meet ours (hollow laughter here), we were not subject to the penalties for our own failure - but he accepted that there would be penalties much harsher - for us - if we did. (Like, say, no roof over our heads).
Was this perfect? No. Did this stem all of the conflicts in our house? No. But I think it diminished them substantially.