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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Son’s Differences

comparing totsOver the weekend I took the tot to a birthday party, a rare opportunity to play the compare game. You know — How’s my kid stack up against the crowd? It’s an awful question to ask, but one I find difficult to avoid.

In this case, my son Felix was attending a party where a nice man explained to a crowd of mostly four-ish year olds how ice cream was made, and then helped the kids prepare a canister of delicious creamy goodness for churning into the frozen delight. Many of the kiddies knew one another, but not all of them. My son only knew the birthday girl.

While the kids circled the ice cream man like hungry, attentive ants, a few little ones, too young to talk or understand anything about ice cream other than how to eat it, played with toys in the back of the room. After I held him for a few minutes so he could see over the crowd, Felix said he was bored and gravitated toward the two year olds. The arts and crafts activity decorating canvas goodie bags didn’t capture his interest either. He wanted to play by himself or have me read to him, and right after eating his ice cream he said bye-bye.

This is his way: he’s fiercely independent. Peer pressure means little, or nothing to him. This is why he’s skipping school this year, which puts him off the norm for many three-and-a-half year olds. Felix had a pretty rough time in a program last year, a two-mornings-a-week preschool. He had trouble saying goodbye to me, sharing and interacting with other kids, and following directions from his teachers, sometimes all in one day. So my wife and I decided to give him a break, and the ice cream party demonstrated why. Don’t get me wrong he’s a very bright kid, but he’s moving very slow when it comes to interacting with other kids, and he doesn’t like following directions.

In fact, earlier this year we bowed out of a dance class, because as soon as it came time to move along with the other kids, Felix would go kind of crazy. Eyes half closed, he’d run around banging into people, or spin in circles, putting himself in the way of me or the teacher, making a general nuisance of himself, disrupting the class with his body. After one particularly rough session, he told me that he didn’t like the class, or how the teacher told everyone what to do. “How come those other kids like following directions?” he asked.

“It makes them feel good to do what the teacher tells them, to make her happy, and to learn from her new ways to dance.” And then I added, “Some kids don’t like following direction. They like doing their own thing.”

He chomped on cheddar bunnies in silence for a few moments, before saying, “Felix is the kind of kid that does his own thing.”

Fair enough. Follow your own drummer, kid. That’s great. I love it.

But still, sometimes I do the compare thing, noticing how different he behaves in a group from other kids, a game that then becomes the conform game. How can I get him to be more like everyone else? How can I best prepare him for school for following directions, submitting his independent spirit to the will of the teacher, and seeing himself as part of the class instead of against the class?

Compare and conform what an awful combination.

I mean, it’s not really a big deal, right? He’ll develop social skills at his own pace, and aside from encouraging him, there’s nothing much I can do, or want to do. I could be forcing him to go to school this year, or taking more classes with him that demand he follow directions. As it is, we take a gardening class that balances group work with independent, solo activities, which suits him well. Maybe he will always need a certain amount of independence in his education. Perhaps, like me, he’ll be a bright kid who does great on creative assignments writing papers or performing in plays but who won’t do very well on multiple choice tests, or tests in general, really. Big deal. I turned out just fine, right? (Fine-ish, maybe.)

Often as parents we feel the need to worry, to wonder how can I affect change in this situation? when in many areas of development, we can’t. Our children are not ours to control, to mold and shape, and set in clearly marked grooves. The kids who do seem to be controllable, the so-called “easy” kids, are only that way because they want to be. The parents aren’t weaving any magic spell. While the challenging kids, the difficult kids, the defiant or oppositional ones, the outliers, occupy the space that they want to occupy. Perhaps they haven’t figured out how to overcome their fear, or shyness, or whatever emotional block lies in their way. They will given time, patience, and understanding. But not with pushing.

I’ve made a promise: next time I find myself playing the compare and conform game, I’m going to put the brakes on. It’s a game that’s impossible to win, and besides, it’s no fun. I’d rather celebrate the differences I see in my son than fret over how to eradicate them.

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