[First: Before you ask, yes, the party was a success, I think. Otto had a grand time, his brothers enjoyed meeting all of the folks Otto is always talking about, the crock of spinach artichoke dip was all but licked clean (it’s the jalapenos! brilliant!!), and I’m equal parts glad we pulled it off and glad I hopefully won’t have to do this again for another 10 years.]
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my dozen years of parenthood, it’s the golden mantra of “Don’t engage.” Okay, that sounds bad. I don’t mean never engage with the kids, of course, I just mean to not engage when it’s only going to be an argument, or take you down the path of doing what you said you wouldn’t, or just plain make the top of your head blow off like in the cartoons when flames shoot out of someone’s eyes and/or ears. There are countless “we’ve had this argument before” situations that crop up with both kids where I know deep in my heart I should just BACK OFF lest it turn ugly. Still, my track record for said backing off is… not the greatest.
That said, when I find a strategy for disengagement that works, I tend to stick to it. And by “works” here we understand that to mean “allows me to move on.” It may not actually work for the kids. Because the children very much enjoy the arguing and the back and forth and the eventual eruption of my skull.
Now. When it comes to Monkey’s shortcomings, I would love to tell you that I’m endlessly patient, but that would be a lie. HOWEVER, many of his most aggravating behaviors are a direct result of or relating to his Asperger’s, so while I frequently see red over the many, MANY objects in this house which have been damaged or destroyed by his obsessive picking at or improper usage of things, or get upset because sometimes he cannot follow more than two directions in a row, I also know that he may not entirely be able to help it. So I have no real strategy for him right now other than to ask him to repeat directions back to me and then take a lot of cleansing breaths when he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to or I’ve found yet another scene of carnage.
Chickadee, on the other hand, is in 7th grade. She is both neurotypical and a smarticle. She’s nearly a teenager, and a highly capable one, at that. I expect more from her. This is DEEPLY DISTRESSING because it’s NOT FAIR, you know. (When she gets to do things Monkey doesn’t, funny, she never complains about that. But when I expect things from her I don’t from him? SO MEAN!)
I am accustomed to all of this, of course, due to years of
the children beating down my morale experience. But lately Chickadee’s behavior has taken an alarming turn. Tell me, fellow parents of nearly-teens: Is it normal, at this age, to spontaneously develop an attitude of utter helplessness? I want to call it “learned helplessness” but so far as I know, no one has been administering an electric shock to her every time she reaches for the hummus, so I have no idea where it came from or why. All I know is that one day, she suddenly reverted to being three years old whenever faced with the slightest difficulty.
On the computer: “This font is all wrong! I don’t want this font!”
In front of the mirror: “My hair is all weird! It won’t stop being weird!”
At dinner: “But I need sour cream! I don’t like this without sour cream!”
And bear in mind, these are not random declarations of frustration, followed by action; these are pronouncements of THE SADNESS OF THE WORLD, followed by a period of expectancy during which, one assumes, my darling child is waiting for her minions to produce a solution just to assuage her displeasure.
One day—I can’t even remember what the particular issue was at that time, because THERE ARE SO MANY—she was doing that helpless toddler routine and I snapped at her, “CHICKADEE! Be a PROBLEM SOLVER!” She looked at me in surprise, as if I’d just suggested she fix the current disaster by eating a large steak while dancing a jig. So I followed it up with, “You have a problem. Do you want to be the kind of person who stands around whining about having a problem, or do you want to be the kind of person who figures out how to fix that problem? Solve it. You’re smart. Figure it out!”
This went over really well, because nearly-teens LOVE IT when you tell them to do it themselves, PARTICULARLY when whatever the “it” is is something that’s pissing them off. Trust me!
While Chickadee’s response to my suggestion was somewhat lackluster, I cannot even begin to express to you the freedom that issuing this directive made me feel. Suddenly I realized that I AM BRILLIANT. She IS smart. She CAN solve these things. And when I tell her to “be a problem solver” I am DISENGAGING from the drama du jour AND fostering independence. (Plus, we get a few shades of The Princess Bride going, too, as she will often snap in exasperation, “STOP SAYING THAT!!”) (Why yes, I do respond with, “Start solving, then.” Don’t you wish I was YOUR mom?)
In short, I am the greatest parent on the planet. (Also: humble. Don’t forget about how humble I am.)
Some might argue that such sage advice is best swallowed in moderation, but screw moderation, man. If my kid is going to lament her various injustices fifty times a day, you’re damn skippy I’m going to turn to her and intone, “Be a problem solver!” all fifty times. If nothing else, it shows her just how often she is playing victim, and it reminds me to WALK AWAY.
Last night Chickadee was slaving away on a school project, by which you understand that actually, she was chatting with her friends on the computer when she was supposed to be working. And then bedtime came along, and she still needed to get a bunch of subject kits ready to take to school to run her science experiment today, and my patience was running short. I wanted her to finish up and get to bed.
Now, on the last several rounds of science fair
hell fun, I have helped her with prep. On this very experiment, in fact, where she needs tiny containers of liquids poured out, labelled, and lidded, I have been known to step in and help. But yesterday she had just aggravated me one too many times, and when she asked me if I would get her stuff ready, I said no. “You need to do it, and you need to get to bed,” I told her.
So it was with great huffing and stomping that she began to lay out her materials and fill containers, and it was one thing after another. First she spilled some, and it was “The counter’s all wet and sticky!” Then it was, “I need my response forms. Where are my response forms??” And as Otto, Wild Thing and I sat lounging in the family room, I went on autopilot and called out, “Be a problem solver, Chickadee!” once, twice, three times.
And then Otto made a marvelous discovery—a greeting card brought to him during the previous night’s festivities, formerly lost in the shuffle. He read the cover, opened it, and began to cackle. The giver of said card had either not realized it was a talking card or assumed it was a talking card with a preset message; as it was, when he opened the card, it said, “Hi! I’m a talking card! Simply press the button to record your message!” After we had a couple of chuckles at the giver’s expense (sorry), the only possible course of action was clear.
Otto brought the card to me and pressed the button. I boomed—in my most robotic voice—“BE. A. PROBLEM. SOLVER!”
Immortalized, for all of eternity. Or until the battery runs out.
For the remainder of the evening, whenever Chickadee complained about anything, Otto flipped the card open so she could hear the magic words. I was seriously beginning to fear she was going to strangle both of us in our sleep tonight when I was playing with the dog and said (as one does), “Licorice! Where’s your ball? Where is it? Where’s your ballballballball??” This is Licorice’s cue to go find her ball and bring it for a game of fetch. (Game of fetch = Licorice just wants to chew on the ball, but we repeatedly wrench it from her jaws and throw it, forcing her to go get it and give us dirty looks.)
Licorice stood there, looking at me expectantly (like maybe I had the ball and was about to throw it), when Chickadee called from the kitchen in a syrupy tone: “LICORICE! BE A PROBLEM SOLVER!!”
So I guess I can’t be scarring her TOO badly, right?