a reprimand
25 August 2001
It’s been bothering me since it happened over a week ago. I don’t know if I handled it right. I don’t know if I’d like myself, watching from the outside. But I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have done it any differently. Parenting is more complicated than it looks. Not least because of other parents.

I brought Damian to Dance and Jingle last Monday. One of the activities involved leis and a ukelele and some silly song. Damian wore a bright pink-and-white lei around his neck for at least five seconds, then tore it off and spent the rest of the song stretching it into odd shapes. Meanwhile, another little boy went around trying to put leis on everyone who would stand for it and many who wouldn’t. His mother sat beside me, watching fondly as her son invaded everyone’s turf in that way that only toddlers have permission to do.

The song came to an end. The teacher set the big barrel out in the middle of the room. Time to clean up. Damian likes this part, but he was tired and took a little persuading to actually walk the few feet and dump his necklace into the bin. As I was talking to him, the other little boy, let’s call him Alex, toddled over and grabbed onto the lei in Damian’s hand. I said, "Let him keep that." Alex ignored me, grabbing on again and tugging harder. I spoke more sharply: "That’s his, let him keep it." Now, I want to be clear on this: I did not raise my voice, nor did I get that ugly angry tone you sometimes hear. I simply put an emphasis on my words, injected a parental authority into my tone.

The kid finally paid attention. He looked surprised. He was not -- and I want to underline and highlight this -- not crying. Not until his mother said, "Ohhhhh, Alex, you poor baby, are you upset???" and opened her arms to comfort him. Then, yes. Then he cried. She glared at me over the top of his head. Me, the evil person who dared chastise her beloved son. But I didn’t chastise him, I just told him my son had possession of the lei and it was not up for grabs.


Alex cried. Mom soothed. Alex cried more. Milking it? Truly in shock? Who knows. The boy next to him suddenly started screaming. I’m talking a top-of-your-lungs primal scream therapy yell.

Alex cried much harder now. You might even say, he cried for real now.

Damian started crying too. This was all too much for him.

Alex’s mom gathered him up and left the room.

I asked Damian if he wanted to stay or go home. "I want to go home."

So we left too.

As I walked him down the hall, I saw Alex’s mom lingering outside the school administrator’s door, still holding her son in her arms. I thought about walking past with a cold glare, but that didn’t feel right.

I stopped. We talked. She told me, "Alex has never been spoken to so harshly, he didn’t know how to react." Harshly? You think that was harsh? Are you telling me you never ever have to scold him or correct him or emphasize your words so he’ll pay attention? Or do you just let him do whatever he wants whenever he wants and figure you’ll clean up the mess later?

I’m not one to scream at my son. I think constant yelling is abusive. I won’t say I never raise my voice, but I try to reserve it for truly serious stuff: hurting, throwing, breaking. Things that cross the line. But I don’t speak with this constant soft "my kid will break" tone that seems to be fashionable in my neck of the woods. Maybe it works, I don’t know. Maybe the kid listens to the words and not the tone. To me, though, it feels like surrounding him with a thousand cotton balls to shelter him from any emotional scrapes and bruises. It feels like not teaching him the value of the full range of emotions. If a mother never gets angry at her child -- and I’m talking a controlled anger here, little more than an increased emphasis -- isn’t she teaching him that anger is not an acceptable thing to feel?

I am an attachment parent. I believe in paying attention to my child, in respecting his wishes and needs. I do not believe in letting him walk all over me.

I think Damian’s autism has taught me a different way of parenting. Dan and I can’t be laid back about his development. We have to push and prod and needle and tease him into trying new things, taking on new responsibilities. We need to find the right tone or he’ll resist, but we can’t let up on him or he may not learn everything he needs to cope with life. I’m coming to believe that the same is true for all children, just not as obviously so.

You can let a neurologically typical kid act out on occasion, you can let him scream an earsplitting yell because he can’t stand his friend’s crying, no matter how rude and inappropriate that shriek may be. You can just chalk it up to "he’s being a kid." You don’t have to think too closely about his behavior because nobody’s given you reason to question it. I suspect, though, that it will backfire, that you’ll end up with a six year old who acts out, a teenager who yells obscenities and slams the door on you, an adult who doesn’t handle the world very well.

I could be wrong in this. I’m sure it depends on the kid. But part of parenting is the responsibility to socialize our children. Not to force them into neatly labeled boxes or make them into obedient sheep. God forbid. But to let them know, "this is how it makes me feel when you do that" and "that action has a consequence" and "I love you but that doesn’t mean I’ll let you bonk your head against my chin and give me a black-and-blue mark."

You might get the sense of a harsh taskmaster from the proceeding paragraphs. Truth is, I’m a fairly permissive parent. Damian has recently started investigating my makeup drawer. He brushes rouge onto the compact mirror, he draws on his fingers with lipstick, he brings eye shadow containers to me and asks me to "open it pwease." And that’s fine with me. The makeup’s old anyway, why not let him play with it? But permissive is one thing, boundary-free is another. I get the sense from some parents that they’re afraid to be parents. They’re afraid a raised voice is tantamount to abuse. It’s not. Sometimes not raising your voice is the real abuse.

I had to tell Alex’s mom about Damian’s issues. I didn’t particularly want to, but it was a way to explain why I was so protective of him, why he couldn’t readily tell Alex, "No, that’s mine!", why I feel strongly about coloring my voice with emotion (he needs to learn to read those cues). She accepted this. Labeling Damian made my outrageous action (ie: telling her kid not to grab my kid’s necklace out of his hands) more acceptable. I, too, am a caring mom. I have a burden.


She accepted my apology for upsetting her son (I did not apologize for my tone, but I doubt she noticed the difference) and said she understood that I was just being protective. But she never did explain why she felt it was okay for her kid to go around snatching other people’s leis, why she thought it wasn’t her responsibility to teach him some simple respect for other people.

I hate being in this position. I hate telling another person’s kid what to do and not to do. But what am I supposed to do? Sit back and let them treat Damian badly? Leave him even more scared of other kids? I want to do the opposite. I want to instill confidence in him, I want him to feel comfortable playing with kids, not anxious that one is going to come along and steal from him. Sometimes to do that, I have to be a parent for all the kids. That part sucks.

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