Sunday, March 04, 2007

Use Your Words, Part Two

One evening last week when we were visiting at my parents' house, Sweet M and I were sitting together in the living room, away from the rest of the family.

Sweet M turned to me and asked, "Is Grandpa going to die soon?"

I paused for a moment as I was a bit surprised. I didn't even know she had a concept about dying, although there was that one goldfish, Snappy, who we consigned to a burial at sea by splashing her into the Hudson River estuary . . .

Then I said something that I thought would be reassuring: "I don't think so. I think he'll be around for a good long while."

"Well I hope he dies in an hour," she replied.

I was sort of shocked because there had been little interaction between them, and what little there was appeared to be pleasant enough. And, on the other hand, he is in an increasingly difficult and impaired state, and obviously very advanced in years. It is scary and disconcerting to see someone who is up in years and who is losing their functioning. Between that and the fact that I hadn't known that she had any idea about death and dying, I was more than a bit taken aback.

I wish I would have asked her more about what she said, but I reacted in what now seems like a hopelessly banal way, by saying "I don't want to hear you say that again. That is very mean and it would hurt Grandpa's feelings if he heard you say that."

At some level, of course, Sweet M is on to something. In some ways it would be merciful for my father to move on to whatever happens to people when they're no longer alive, but her response felt and sounded mean in a visceral way that I'm not accustomed to experiencing from Sweet M. Afterall, we call her Sweet because she typically is.

We want them to use their words, and then when they do we can find ourselves shushing them when they have something they want to say that we, or others, don't want to hear. Should we be saying "use your words, but only for what we want to hear." I don't think so.

But on the other hand, we don't want them saying things like "I wish this one or that one were dead."

What I wish: that I were smarter, more flexible, and more ingenious in dealing with Sweet M.


Susan (Ayame) said...

Wow. That's a really difficult thing to hear. It must have been difficult to write this post too.

My first reaction was to say that you're being too hard on yourself. Kids have a way of coming out of left field at you.

But I understand how you feel, too. I know what it's like to feel like you're not equipped to handle what our kids throw at us. You did the best you could.

I think I would have reacted the same way. It's important that Sweet M understand that what she said could hurt someone's feelings very much. I'm always trying to teach my autistic daughter not to hurt my son's feelings. It's a hard thing to teach, but important, too.

You know, like I said, I've read a lot of your posts in the past. You care very much about your family. Flexibility is something that has to come with time. A dancer is not flexible without years of training... so to follow the analogy, flexibility as a parent must come with practice and training, too.

My heart is with you.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I don't think you should beat up on yourself. If a typical child had said that (no matter how benign the intention behind it), you would have responded the same way, I am betting. As would many of us. As much as you think you should say "Now why do you feel that way?" and find out more about the why behind the statement, that's somewhat secondary to teaching the proper social response. Which is harder to teach, and that much more important to impart, to our kids to whom social interactions are so very difficult.

I was absolutely terrified of visiting my own grandfather in his nursing home when I was a child. I hated seeing the scary old people, who often reached out for me as I walked past. I fought my mother every time she wanted to bring me. And I was relieved when she stopped making me towards the end.

So as nasty a shock as hearing that must have been, cut yourself, and M, some slack. Kids say inappropriate things, we are aghast and tell them not to say them out loud because it hurts feelings, and hopefully the next interaction is better: it's how kids learn. Just because the gold standard is to use your words doesn't mean that all words are okay to say, and I actually see a little silver lining in here, which is that as thoughtful a parent as you clearly are, this is a situation that millions of typical parents find themselves in on a daily basis. I doubt many would have handled it differently!

Anonymous said...

i wish the same with about my dealings with fluffy.

but aren't we both being a bit perfectionistic with ourselves?

Anonymous said...

I am with Sarah: there are two problems at work here. The first is that social appropriateness has to be made VERY concrete with our children. You have to work really hard to get them to understand the rules that some children get naturally. You can't have her saying things like that out loud where others will hear.

And the other problem is keeping the line of communication open. I do think you are too hard on yourself, but practice this line that I am working more into my active vocab: "You cannot say something like that to people. It hurts their feelings. But you and I will talk more about your question, and about why we don't say those things to other people, when we get home." Makes it more of a "time, place, and manner" restriction on the speech than a content restriction (can you tell I'm a lawyer?). They have questions, they need to have them answered, their thoughts are ok -- we need a filter between the thoughts and the rest of society.

I have this problem much more with my aspie than my autistic son. Autistic boy doesn't comment on people -- ever. He notices things, almost falls face first into anything that burbles or spins, but does not comment at all on people.