“Calvin,” I said, trying to channel my inner Mary Poppins as his little hand clenched my cashmere sweater and started pulling, “Give me the corn holder. It’s very sharp and you shouldn’t be running around with it.” He’d snatched the pronged apparatus out of my hand a few moments earlier and had insisted upon inserting it into the cob himself – but not before running a few laps around the dinner table.
“No,” he said, lips pursed. He pulled away from my arms and took off. “You’re not going to get it!” he taunted.
“Calvin, If you don’t hand it back to me, you’ll get no dessert,” I yelled in a last ditch effort. Too bad the kid didn’t seem to have a sweet tooth. His sisters – Rose, eight, and Kasey, five – giggled in the background. I swore to myself this was the last time I was babysitting for these hellions again. It was the fifth time I’d made this promise to myself in as many weeks.
I’d started babysitting again, at late age of twenty-seven, when I lost my job as an Assistant Editor at Maxim, and found myself working sixteen hours a week for the Kellys, at $10 an hour. It was clear from the start that all three kids – while adorable, personable, and creative – were a handful, Calvin most of all. While Rose was seeping into girlish self-absorption (she suddenly decided she was a vegetarian) and Kasey was a wild-at-heart troublemaker (I could already picture her big blue eyes batting away as she explained just why she had to sneak out of the house at midnight), the boy was especially trying. If any child was going to make me question bringing one of my own into the world, it was Calvin.
He was shy compared to his rambunctious older sisters, who were in constant competition for the spotlight. And when he was happy, he was a joy to be around. Proud when he succeeded in penning the perfect “Z”; gleeful when he beat me in a cutthroat game of Ants in Your Pants; boyishly hyper when his collection of paper airlines took flight. But when Calvin became upset by something, he went into fits of hysterics that went beyond the usual post-toddler temper tantrum. He was sensitive to being touched – I eventually gave up on giving him a bath as the sound of the faucet made him scream like he was being attacked by a swarm of bees – but even picking him up from school was a test of my negotiation skills. Calvin would not hold my hand, or any babysitter’s hand, to cross the street. The only palms he would clasp were his parents’ or sisters’. Rather than hold my hand to walk to Central Park and play T-ball, he would sit with his arms folded across his chest in front of Kasey’s school, a deep, sad frown on his face.
Routinely, Calvin was sent home from playgroup, and there were countless phone calls from the school about his behavior. Mostly he was quiet and didn’t participate much, but sometimes he would crawl into his cubby and refuse to come out. He was sent home twice for hitting his teachers and another time for biting the school headmaster. He seemed overwhelmed by instruction or guidance; any attempt to catch him, block him from running, or remove or dislodge him from whatever object he was clinging to, would result in kicking, screaming, and sobbing, a breakdown and emotional collapse of epic proportions that could not be calmed down with rational words, a soothing backrub, or even threats of early bedtime. He could not be consoled.
You would think such drama would be cause for alarm with Calvin’s parents – Upper East Side Catholics who sent their kids to private school with the wages from their finance jobs – but his mom just seemed irritated that she had to cancel a meeting in order to pick him up. And they weren’t around much, in general. She and her husband usually didn’t get home until the kids’ bedtime.
I felt at once so sorry for and so tormented by Calvin that he became an obsession. Weekly sessions with my therapist became Calvin Hour. Dr. Austin wanted to talk about why I was so profoundly affected by a child who wasn’t mine; I wanted to focus on how I could use psychology’s Jedi mind tricks to make him better. Then she told me about her son, also four,He had attacked me with a fork after I took away a play sword with which he had threatened to kill me. who had been diagnosed with Sensory Sensitivity Disorder a year prior. She was pretty sure this was something Calvin may be facing as well.
I read everything I could about Sensory Sensitivity, also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction and Sensory Processing Disorder. Apparently children with Sensory Sensitivity (called “Highly Sensitive People”) have a difficult time processing stimuli of the five senses that the average person barely notices. They be intolerant of certain types or levels of lighting (Calvin absolutely HAD to have the door cracked a certain width so the right amount of light would stream into his room); feel attacked when touched (hello, hand holding!); become nauseated upon smelling something that does not smell bad (“Stinky!” was Calvin’s favorite phrase); have difficulty maintaining eye-contact (even on his best days, Calvin didn’t look you in the eye); and generally become overwhelmed when exposed to a lot of sensory stimuli at once.
I gently approached Calvin’s mother with this research and with the accumulated tales of his escalating violence. (He had attacked me with a fork after I took away a play sword with which he had threatened to kill me.) “You know, he hasn’t been napping,” said Calvin’s mom. “He’s so well behaved on the weekends when we’re home. Strange.”
I told Calvin’s father about some books and a fun, special gym where experts on this kind of thing could help Calvin get used to and work with the sensory stimuli, while family could get educated on how to best interact with him. Dr. Austin’s son had done it and was thriving.
He said they’d look into it, but they never did. When I asked about it again days later, Calvin’s mother said, “I talked with a child psychologist and she thinks Calvin’s behavior is totally normal for a four-year-old.” My ripped shirt, tear-soaked therapist bills and bruised foot (Calvin had slammed a door on it) begged to differ. “So we’ve instituted a reward chart in order to encourage better behavior. Every day that Calvin is good he gets a check” – Yippee! – “and every day where he misbehaves, he gets a privilege taken away, like toys and books.” Books?! “After a certain amount of checks, he gets a new hockey stick. We really think this is going to help.”
“So this doctor you spoke to spent some time with Calvin?” I asked hesitantly.
“Oh no!” said Jen is a totally pshaw way. “I talked with her and explained everything.” In otherI felt terrible for him. But I also felt terrible for myself, because his aggression kept getting worse. words, she explained the infrequent naps and occasional temper tantrums. The hitting, threats of murder, stomachache-inducing sobs and inability to follow any sort direction must have slipped her mind.
Calvin seemed to be heaving around the weight of the world on his tiny hunched shoulders, shuffling around with unhappiness indicative of a crisis. I felt terrible for him. But I also felt terrible for myself, because his aggression kept getting worse. Finally, in the middle of one of his tirades, Calvin balled up his fist and punched me right in the face. It didn’t hurt that much – he was hardly packing Rocky-style heat – but that was all I could take. I quit that night.
Thinking back on the six months I spent babysitting the Kelly kids, I’ve realized the parents probably felt guilty they didn’t see the kids more and couldn’t handle admitting that something could be “wrong” with Calvin. I should have told Jen and Peter the night I quit, that children aren’t perfect, that plenty of them have problems, that they should have been eager to find out if Calvin’s had a name and a treatment – because otherwise, the kid was just evil. And isn’t that a lot harder to hear?