Those parents. You know the ones. The ones with the kid who is red-in-the-face screaming and thrashing and flat-out refusing to do what the adults around him are telling him to do. You think to yourself, that child is out of control— he is making a scene— he's upsetting the playgroup or disrupting the class or tormenting everyone in the store with a high-pitched keen— why don't those parents of his do something about it?
As a parent yourself, hey, you understand that every kid has a bad day now and again. But these parents, they don't seem to be disciplining the kid at all. In fact, instead of telling him in a stern voice that this behavior is unacceptable, they're cajoling him. They're pleading with him. Some of your fellow witnesses to this scene are rolling their eyes or shooting disapproving glares or maybe offering scornful, unsolicited advice.
They look weak and ridiculous, not at all in charge, those parents, and you conclude instantly that the reason this kid is acting out like this today is because his parents must not ever take a proper stand against this kind of behavior. And maybe you pat yourself on the back, just a little, because you know you're far from perfect, but, hey, at least you're pretty certain that you're better at this kid-raising gig than them. Those parents.
I know I've done it before. Felt a little smug.
But among the lucky consequences of being the mother of a child with a developmental disorder, I must count the fact that perspective whacks me in the face quite regularly.
You see, at Isaac's first swim class a few weeks ago, my husband and I looked a heck of a lot like Those Parents.
Our child, who is the darling of his music class teacher for his eagerness to share instruments with other children, and is beloved by the librarians at our local library for his ability to sit quietly during storytime. Our child who knows how to stay seated at restaurants, remembers to refrain from talking in a movie theater, and has never once broken a single item in a retail store.
Was the screaming-kicking-clawing-not-listening-trying-to-run-away-
to-Australia-child-who-must-be-possessed-by-demons at his first week of swim class.
And we were the pleading parents on the receiving end of other parents' dirty looks.
You see, children with sensory disorders don't always do well in enormous, cold, chlorine-scented pools surrounded by thirty strange kids who are squealing, laughing, kicking and splashing each other with water.
And child who is two years behind his age group in gross motor skills because of the balance issues caused by his sensory disorder can become very confused and disoriented when he suddenly feels like he weighs much less than he ordinarily does on land.
So Isaac was terrified of swim class.
It's very important to me that my son learn to swim. Knowing how to swim could save his life someday.
It's also very important to me to instill in him the belief that his sensory disorder should not hold him back from doing what other kids do. I often say to him, "If something is hard for you, that just means you have to work harder."
But as his mother, I feel his fear like a knife in my chest. It pains me to see him struggle so much harder at something that comes so easily for so many other children. And my heart aches all the more as I catch glimpses, here and there, of a dawning awareness on his part that he is different.
So on that first day of class, when he clawed his way up my chest like a cat in a bath when first I put him in the pool, I put him right back in. When he cried, I said, "I'm sorry, but you have to keep trying for a little while longer. You're staying in." When he got angry and screamed at me like I was trying to kill him cold blood, I stood firm.
He was out of control. He was making a scene. And both of his parents were sitting there at the edge of the pool, holding his hand. Coddling him. I could feel the disapproving glares of other parents, strangers, on my back. They were waiting for me to shout at him, put him in time-out— do something, anything, to quiet him. To put him in his place.
But damned if I was going to make him feel like he was doing something wrong when I knew he was trying harder than any other kid there.
Since the first few classes, he calmed down a lot. It helped that after the second class, his indifferent first teacher was replaced by a calm, gentle girl I'll call Lexi, obviously sent to us by some pitying Angel of Swimmers. All of sixteen years old and yet somehow as patient as a glacier. He still won't dunk his head under the water. All the other kids in his class are jumping off the diving board into the lifeguards' arms now, and he's still learning to blow bubbles.
But he smiles when he gets in the pool now. And that's a start.