It's kind of fucked up how people say, "You're the expert on your child," when they want to be reassuring. You know, don't ignore your intuition. Let your knowledge of your child be your guide. Trust your instincts. Mother knows best. You're the expert!
I am not reassured by that phrase. In fact, it makes me panic. These days I don't know what to do with Charlie. And if I'm the expert, shit — does anyone?
Rough times. I don't even know how to talk about it. I walk around feeling so embarrassed — not by his behavior, his lack of impulse control, or his utter lack of insight into his own feelings or motivations, although God knows there's that, but by my own helplessness. By the way I'm stumped by my child.
He hit a girl who screamed in his ear. He shouted bad words, which made his friends laugh. He bopped a kid on the head in the telling of a joke. Knowing him as well as I do — being, ha, the expert — I can see, sometimes, why he does what he does. Sensory overload. Carried away. Can't read social cues.
But thinking I know why he does it doesn't help me know how to stop it. Patient conversations are all well and good; he knows the rules, can recite them with an eyeroll so advanced, I think he might be gifted, but they don't hold sway when he's in the moment. Incentives don't interest him; he's unimpressed by small rewards for incremental good behavior, and longer-term efforts to earn bigger prizes frustrate and confound him. Punishment? Sure, I guess: That works okay if the object is to make him feel bad for as long as the inconvenience lasts. But it doesn't teach him how to manage the urges that overtake him. It hasn't helped him change.
The impulsiveness, the active Id, not knowing when enough is enough: I know that most of this is the ADHD talking. (I smile when I see people sniffing and saying, "I don't believe in ADHD." That matters not at all, my friend, if it believes in you.) But that makes the quandary worse: How much of an allowance can you make before you're making excuses?
How can I penalize him for what he can't control? But also, how can I not, when that feels like letting it slide?
This, by the way, is on meds, which help, but not enough.
Lately I spend most of my time as a parent feeling like a failure. Shouldn't I know how to help him? I'm sad and shamed and mystified as to what to do for my kid. I see so clearly what might lie ahead, and it scares the bejesus out of me. I think, if I'm the expert, we're all in a lot of trouble.
I'm back in the ski lodge this snowy Saturday, somehow managing to collect my thoughts over the sound of young femurs snapping. (It sounds like bamboo windchimes. Relaxing in its way.)
First, my thanks for the support and ideas you shared on my last post. It feels so good to be understood. And if I say much more than that about how grateful I am, about how much your kindness moves me, I'll start crying — again, as I did more than once as your comments came in — and there's already enough wailing going on in this one cement-floored room. I must not join the toddlers in it. Jesus, kids, it's only a hip cast.
I have to keep reminding myself that I don't tell you everything here, nor can I expect everyone to remember everything I do say, especially when I've made no more than the briefest mention of this or that. So the short scorecard version is this: Charlie has been assessed, not by the school but by outside evaluators, and was found to have combined-type ADHD — you know, inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive, also known as the completely sucky kind (as opposed to the...other also completely sucky kinds).
He was found not to have autism, either Asperger's or other, although his assessment scores in certain areas were close enough to the clinical cutoff to indicate that we should stay aware, as he grows, of the possibility. In other areas, the ones that spring immediately to mind when we broadly consider autism — repetitive motion, obsession with particular objects, a lack of interest in other people — his scores indicated no involvement whatsoever. (That last in particular is notable: Charlie is interested in other people, in forming relationships. He just doesn't know how to go about it, nor can he read faces or tones of voice and adjust his behavior responsively.) Reading the report from the evaluator reminded me of nothing so much as the Magic 8-Ball: Answer unclear. Ask again later.
Oh, and this is just an aside, but when I met the evaluator she said, at the end of our meeting, "I should tell you I've seen your blog."
What could I say? I just told her, "Ah. I Googled you, too."
Another aside: To determine whether a kid can read facial expressions, the evaluation includes — get this — Norman Rockwell paintings. Yes, Doctor, I agree that that picture of the boy discovering the Santa suit in his father's dresser drawer admirably shows the quintessence of disappointment, chagrin, and innocence lost. Aaaaaand thank you for ruining Christmas and shattering my son's childhood. I'd rather Rockwell painted that child finding porn, if you really want to know.
So to continue the scorecarding, Charlie attends a social skills group at lunch, is working through the Superflex social thinking curriculum, and has had his meds adjusted several times. Although we have concerns that it's not being fully implemented — a meeting about that is on the calendar — he has a 504 plan that includes accommodations like being allowed to chew gum in the classroom, getting frequent sensory breaks, OT and the opportunity to use a computer for his work to address his dysgraphia, and a...oh, I don't know what you'd call it, a smile chart to give him incremental feedback on his behavior during the day.
Whoa. I started to type this all out because I wanted to get us all on the same footing, so that no one need waste her keystrokes asking me if I'd considered talking to a lactation consultant, because although it doesn't bother me when you suggest things we're already trying, I don't know how to say, "Yeah, thanks, waaaay ahead of you on that," without feeling like an ungrateful asshole — like, if I'd only been more forthcoming, I needn't have caused you to waste your concern. But laying it out here turns out to have an additional benefit: I guess we are sort of doing a lot, and it helps some to see that objectively.
What helps even more, of course, are your stories and encouragement. One of you said it sounds lonely, and indeed that is true. I feel so much less so when I talk to you here. Thank you for helping me through.
I have to step outside now to see if I can get video of Charlie skiing. I have a new iPhone — welcome to 2007, Julie! — which Paul insisted on jovially calling my Jesus phone until I told him frostily that I'd thank him not to mock my belief system. And then I had him crushed between two large stones as the wages of his heresy. (He whispered, "More weight," at the end, and then Shazam kicked up The Band.) Will share some video later if my shiny new god wills it.
If ten years of blog posts here have taught us nothing else, by now we've all learned that I'm sometimes an asshole. Do not worry: despite how seldom I post these days, I'm in no danger of forgetting that. Parenting reminds me regularly.
I've been fretting a fair amount about how Charlie doesn't want to do anything hard. In that he is truly my son; I never wanted to spend time practicing things that didn't immediately come easily, either. You know how they say that the things that make you crazy in other people are actually things that bother you about yourself? Not completely true — pretty sure I'm not the one who comes into the office in the morning and turns on lite jaaaaaazz — but, sure, okay, a little bit.
Anyway, it had kind of been eating at me, this worry that my kid was never going to buckle down and do anything tough, to keep after something and master it, to learn the value of good old American stick-to-it-iveness, the pleasure and reward of hard work. Yes, like his Puritan forebears! Who soberly toiled their whole lives long, seeking only to amplify the glory of God, with the Xbox only on weekends.
Now, first of all, what an asshole stance that is. Don't we all mostly just want to do what's easy and fun? Do I expect my eight-year-old to be magically different from — better than — almost every other kid in the universe? Is it reasonable to think he should be innately better at that shit than I am after 42 years of practice?
So that's bad enough. But the real asshole part is that it recently struck me, shortly after a parent/teacher conference, that I've had it all absolutely wrong.
We have these conferences regularly as part of Charlie's 504 plan to check in on which accommodations are helpful, which need adjustment, and exactly which awful thing I should dwell on every night at 4 AM for the month until the next conference. Over the last three or four months there have been some real improvements — some slow but perceptible changes in his ability to participate in the class, in his self-regulation, in his impulse control, in his capacity to just...hold it together. To get through the day.
The result is that with the help of meds and some classroom supports, Charlie is mostly managing himself, to the extent that there are no longer insanely detailed behavior charts sent home — seriously, at one point there was a chart for which facial expressions he was using, like, "Oh! Hey, good work: I see you were merely 'mutinous' today!" My heart no longer races fight-or-flight-style when the phone rings during the day. (My palms do not sweat. They glow.) Among his peers, his behavior is rarely...let us say notable. Even a quick note from the teacher is unusual these days.
And after a couple of months of this gradual progress, after a conference where we were actually able to focus more on his learning than on his hyperactivity, his impulse control, and his oh-my-God-stop-with-the-armpit-farts-the-entire-class-has-moved-on, it suddenly occurred to me: none of that comes naturally to him. None of it is easy. Forget riding a bike or stepping through a tae kwon do pattern or improving his handwriting; every day of his eight-year-old life, he is practicing something hard.
Who walks in the classroom, cool and slow
If I'd been blogging it all along, cataloguing it day by discouraging day, I wonder if it would seem inevitable. I'm a little bit afraid, instead, that this comes out of the blue: Charlie's changing schools. After three years at the public elementary, this fall he'll go to what I self-consciously call Hippie Do As You Please School.
We've known since October of his kindergarten year that he needed lots of structure and support, and I'm grateful to say that he's gotten it: the 504 plan; the occupational therapy; the physical therapy; the daily social learning; the kindness and heroic forebearance of teachers, staff, and students. (Thank you for pretending not to notice when I tear up in meetings. Thank you for telling me you like my kid — that feels like a gift. Thank you for not shoving back when there was any way you could help it.)
And he's come a long way. If you could stand the six-year-old version of Charlie next to almost-nine, you'd be amazed at the difference. And then you'd sternly tell the younger that wedgies aren't funny, to keep his hands to himself, to stop making that noise, my God, it's boring a hole in my brain. And then you'd have to stop almost-nine from a decisive response — Hey, Charlie, stop hitting yourself — because if The Highlander has taught us nothing else, we know there can be only one.
He's really doing great, our kid. So the obvious question is why we'd want to leave that behind. I guess the briefest way to answer that lies in the comments that bookend his school years so far. As we first started exploring the problem during kindergarten, the principal summed up our concerns: "Some of Charlie's light is going out."
And we ended the final team meeting of this past second-grade year, Paul, discouraged, observed, "All we ever talk about is getting Charlie through the day."
Now, of course that's a prerequisite to learning, right? You can't get an education when you can't move past the bullshit your brain's churning out. And the hard work of his team, coupled with Charlie's growing maturity, our own determined efforts, his determined efforts — God, my kid works hard — and a little pill I like to call You Can Take Our Methylphenidate When You Can Pry It Out of My Cold, Dead Claws That Will Probably Have Big Chunks of Skin Under Them from Fighting You off, You Bastard
...Sorry, I just got lost in a pleasant reverie. Clawed-up Christopher Lambert break.
As I was saying, a lot of factors have helped him reliably — mostly — get through the day, to the point where we feel that shouldn't be the team's main focus. We feel he's ready to take on more. See, Charlie, well, he's smart. I don't want to go all special-snowflake on you, but, daaaaamn, is my child beautiful, delicate, and possessed of a magnificent crystalline structure unique only to him and visible only with a microscope. And we're finding, to our chagrin, that the school has no real plan for letting our snowflake...not melt.
(I could do this all day.)
In our state, in our district, at this school, there's no real vehicle for gifted education. No mandate, no money, despite all the good will in the world. Although the team has made a good-faith effort to differentiate in class, it's not enough. Plans to ship him off to other classrooms for higher-level learning have foundered for various reasons. And although he has great ability in its purest sense, he also makes what I'd describe as errors of attention — answering one problem in the space meant for another, or not answering a question at the end of a longish worksheet — which prevent him from demonstrating the kind of administrative mastery that satisfies a formal school curriculum. He's not failing, not by a long shot, but that doesn't seem like enough.
The upshot of all of this is that Charlie spends his time at school, the biggest part of his day, feeling dispirited, unmotivated, and unseen. His significant gifts go unappreciated and undeveloped. He notices it, and he feels angry. And although I understand (and have myself succumbed to) the temptation to roll your eyes and mutter, "Suck it up, kid," this past spring I bucked my own substantial prejudices long enough to start asking myself, Wait, why exactly should he suck it up?
I accept that, irrespective of the talents, the love, and the efforts of the individuals within it, the public school's first job is to see that our child performs as well as his cohort. By contrast, our job as his parents is to help him perform as well as he can. If there's an environment where he might feel excited about what he's learning, why shouldn't we try it? If there's the chance that a different model could let him feel invested in his education instead of alienated by it, why wouldn't we look into it? If we can let him know that that matters, we're listening, we care — well, I can't see much that we have to lose by trying Hippie Do As You Please School.
This has gone longer than I thought it would. (You've gone old and gray by now, my love, but you still look really good.) I promise I'll be back to talk specifically about HDAYPS, to answer any questions any few remaining readers have, to react defensively to even the slightest perceived criticism — hahahahaaaa, as if a blogger would ever do that — and to freak the fuck out over my own significant ambivalence while there's still time to change our minds.