We, as parents, all want our children to be happy. I take that as a given. We do not always make our children happy - but at base, we want our children to lead happy, long lives.
Given the way life works, life is not predictable. We are adults, our children are not. We know the things that caused us pain - and we want to help our own children avoid that pain, and avoid bearing those scars.
Pain is often how we learn, and how we grow as people. I’ve learned fundamental and important lessons out of the things I’ve done that hurt me most. I would not be who I am today - and I mostly like who I am, although this work-avoidance-of-page-proofs is perhaps not a sterling character trait - if I had not stuck my hand into all kinds of figurative fires and learned that they’re hot. Wanting our children not to have to learn the hard way is natural, but the truth is: we can’t save them from pain. It’s part of life.
When I was pregnant, my husband and I sat down and started our long and continuing discussions about child-rearing. I had seen many things in my childhood that I really wanted to avoid in my own house. How many of us heard “Don’t tell your mother” when we were out with other adults? I heard it when I was eating ice-cream, or when I was doing something particularly difficult at the park, or when I ran across the street instead of walking to the lights.
But I didn’t want that. I didn’t want the sub-textual assumption that I was the death of all fun. I mean, yes, I’m a parent, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to have to carry that flag anyway - but I wanted to carry it for the right reasons.
So I wanted to hash things out before hand. I was, at this time, almost thirty, and I had some idea that child-rearing, like washing dishes (who puts the cutlery into the dishwater first? Seriously, first? Glasses first!) and Christmas, was fraught with instinctive and visceral assumptions about right and wrong. I wanted to make sure that at the start of things, we were on the same page, and that if we had strong disagreements on how our children were to be raised, we had them, and sorted them, before that child was born.
This was a pipe-dream, because it’s impossible to predict all of the situations a child will put two parents in. But it was still useful, and still important. I didn’t want to be having arguments about how to handle a child when the child was actually there as collateral.
My husband has never heard his parents argue. Ever. They never argued in front of their children. So hashing things out when there was no child made perfect sense, to him. We both agreed that we wanted to present a united front if there was conflict.
And of course, we both agreed that we wanted our children to be happy.
What, in the end, makes people happy?
Parents of ASD children often struggle to make them conform to social norms. They do this in part because having no friends is painful. Being laughed at is painful. Being singled out is painful. They want their children to fit in, because if they fit in, they will avoid that pain. They know that their children will have a much harder time of it.
As we did not know, when I was pregnant, that our oldest son would be diagnosed ASD, that was not on the table. We figured out our base household rules early on: Cause no harm (to yourself or others). This breaks down into smaller categories, but at base, that’s the heart of it.
But when it came to happiness, we really had to sit down and think about what, in the end, made people happy. This was not as simple as it sounds - if it even sounds simple. I know a fair number of people; some are happy, some are definitively not. I had some ideas of what, in the end, constitutes happiness.
I do not know many happy people who have no sense of responsibility. Not the responsibility that is foisted on one, for cleaning dishes, etc., but the responsibility of choice, consequence and action. An infant is unlikely to care about these things - but adults are rarely happy if they have no sense of responsibility; they feel that things are never in their control, and their fate is always in the hands of everyone else. So, it was one of the things I wanted our children to develop. Obedience is not responsibility, and it’s tricky to develop the latter because you want your children to suffer consequences that are not devastating when they learn the connection between action and consequences. Obedience is required at times. We discussed how to balance the need for obedience with the need for responsibility.
People who are constantly trying to be something they’re not, are very seldom, in my experience, happy people. They look happy, some of the time. But they’re not generally happy. So: I wanted our children to have a strong sense of who they were, and enough confidence to be that person - whoever that was. Telling them to be something else for the sake of their future happiness did not seem, to me, to be a guarantee of happiness; it seemed to be the inverse. If you tell your child to pretend to be something he’s not all the time, doesn’t that imply that what he is is unacceptable?
Not on this list was: having tons of friends and being liked by everybody. I understand that some people feel this is the key to happiness, but it seems to me it’s the external expression of a base state, rather than the state itself. If you are comfortable in your own skin, you generally have friends.
Of course, having said this, we did want our child to have basic social skills that would allow him to navigate the world outside our house. We did agree that we would of course insist on basic manners (please, thank you, ask before you touch things that don’t belong to you, apologize if you’ve done something wrong).
But those always seemed to me to be the expression of other things. We wanted our children to learn a modicum of consideration for others, and respect for others, because that respect is the flip side of self-respect.
We didn’t know, before he was born, that he would have a few more challenges to face than a normative child.
But…having said that, ASD did not markedly change what we felt our son required to be a happy person. It changed the work. It changed our approach. But it didn’t change the basic, simple precepts. I still did not believe that attempting to force external conformance to social behaviour would result in a happier child. If it came to him more or less naturally, that was fine; if it didn’t - we needed a different approach, but all of our attempts were still informed by the same goals.
We couldn’t force our son to be something he was not. It did not seem to me to be helpful in the long-term to try. Social skills are things that most normative children pick up instinctively. They notice things, they generalize, they understand them. ASD children don’t. Telling a child who simply cannot understand that they must achieve certain social behaviours which are in no way instinctive immediately puts them in a position where their inability is a terrifying setback: they must do something that consistently makes no sense or they will suffer a terrible fate. If they feel this is true, they are in a constant state of uncertainty and near panic, because they do not know what to do.
Would my son be unhappy if he had no friends? Yes, he probably would. Would he understand why he had no friends? Not immediately, because friendship is hard to explain in all its complexities, when theory of mind doesn’t even exist yet. But I reasoned that it would be worse if we attempted to drill into him all the reasons why he must do things that make no sense at all. It wouldn’t be better. Why? Because I thought the aping of rules whose substance were entirely outside of his intellectual grasp would not, in fact, make him any friends.
Fear and anxiety do not make for happy people. Loneliness doesn’t, either. But I’ve been afraid and anxious, and I’ve been lonely in my life - and fear and anxiety were always worse, for me. My son is not, and was not, me. But our parenting decisions are informed by who we are.
I was not constitutionally capable of enforcing conformance, because I could not viscerally feel it was necessary for his happiness.
If my son made no friends at school (and we were lucky, in that he did, regardless), but he felt secure in himself in his own home, I thought he would be a happier child. If we were constantly correcting him, constantly nagging him, constantly telling him to do things which made no sense to him, I thought the results would be twofold: First, he would go to school desperate to “fit in” when he was simply intellectually incapable of doing so. Desperation is the single thing that makes children antsy. If someone is desperately clinging, desperately and obviously trying too hard, it makes all the other children nervous, and wary. It often makes them unkind.
It is setting up a child like ours for social failure. Since my son couldn’t grasp the rules at play, or the rules of play, as clearly, if we made it clear that failing to fit in was ultimately a total disaster, how would this have made him happy? We accepted, given the ASD, that he was going to have difficulties, period. We did not think we could over-turn them by strict rote. If we had been capable of making ourselves believe that he could, our choices would have been different; we simply did not believe, given the facts, that it was possible.
Second: he would, if our anxieties to make him conform were our chief interaction, feel under constant attack at home. Would we, in the attempt, be making his life happier? No. Even if we did it because we were terrified that his inability to fit in would isolate him, it’s not the way he would see it. It’s not the way he would experience it. Worry-as-love usually impacts children in a far more negative way. If we were constantly telling him that what he was doing was wrong, how could he learn to trust our love for him as a person?
We chose, instead, to accept him as a person; to enforce Do No Harm, to attempt to make clear the ways in which the household depended on responsibility to run, and to keep a clear-eyed hope that in the future, things would become clearer, and they would therefore be better. I would discuss people in general, people in specific, and the reasons I felt that certain people behaved in certain ways, and when he was in his early teens, he was interested in those discussions. He started to observe other people through a much more objective lens, and he grew to understand a lot that had escaped him in his childhood. If the knowledge was not instinctive, when he did finally gain it, it was objective, analytical.
Because things are not as instinctive, he’s become more observant. He’s adapted. Has he changed? I’d say he’s grown. Experience has shaped him, much of it external to us.
What I hoped for, as our son grew, was that he would reach a stage at which I could explain why I thought normative behaviour was important.
It’s not to make friends. Your friends are people who will like you for yourself. It’s to work with strangers, with class-mates, with doctors, with co-workers, with people who will not be your friends, but with whom you have to interact civilly on a daily basis. They do not have to like you for who you are. They just have to be able to get along with you.
And he does understand that, now. He’s eighteen, almost nineteen. Was school always fun for him? No. But it’s not always fun for normative children either. Things upset him. Things enraged him. Things made him blindingly happy. He didn’t feel the need to conform socially, but he was flexible by this point. He was comfortable in his own skin. He could alter his behaviour if he thought the situation warranted it (when he was volunteering with much older women, for instance). He could make decisions based on a broader range of conflicting social needs. He made friends with people who shared his interests - in the band, in computer games, in Magic the Gathering. In his last year of High School, he joined the drama club and tried out for the school play.
It was Harvey.
He was cast as the lead, because he has a slightly formal way of speaking, and it suited the character so completely.
And now, I am running out of the house because it’s our 23rd anniversary :)