It is the end of an era, and as such a time for reflection.
Stato, who has cerebral palsy and is partially sighted, has just had his last appointment with his paediatrician, the lovely man who has been such an important member of our “village” since we moved here fourteen years ago as he has overseen Stato’s development, treatments and education.
Stato was four when we met Dr J; a talkative, inquisitive little boy with a cheery smile. He understood that the world revolved around him. He could talk and relate to adults very well because he had spent lots of time with adults – doctors, nurses, health visitors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists. These adults always took a great deal of interest in him. He had started school and this was emphasising the fact that he was special. His mobility problems meant that was allowed to sit on a chair when all of the other children had to sit on the floor at story time or in assembly. Someone carried his lunch tray. Every week someone (from support services) came into school to see him, find out how he was and monitor his progress. Oh yes Stato was very definitely the centre of the universe, and he intended to make the most of it. It was when he was 5 that he began to have temper tantrums. Dr J wasn’t surprised by this at all. In fact he thought that it would be this stubbornness and attitude that would help Stato overcome the problems and barriers that he was likely to encounter as he grew up. He said, about the tantrums, “don’t take them personally.”
Keeping this advice in mind was not always easy, particularly when I was tired or busy, but I slowly began to realise that Dr J was right. I started to analyse what caused the tantrums and what managed to stop them. I noticed he found it difficult to keep control of his behaviour when he was excited and when angry. Sometimes distraction techniques worked and a tantrum would be diverted, however if he couldn’t be distracted and a full tantrum happened he would be unable to remember what had caused the tantrum in the first place. He would become distressed and anxious which in turn prolonged the tantrum. Most of these tantrums occurred at home and not many people witnessed them. In public and at school he was, generally, very well behaved. He wasn’t being naughty when these occurred; he was having trouble dealing with his feelings. Realising this allowed me to think about these bouts as symptoms of his disability, and this somehow made it easier not to take them personally.
I realised that I had perfected the art of not taking it personally after one particularly distressing incident. Stato was about 12 or 13. We were in his favourite sports superstore one Saturday afternoon with Cousin P. He had £20 to spend. The item he wanted cost £22. He asked if I would give him the extra £2. I said no and he would have to wait until next Saturday when he had got his pocket money. Frustration kicked in. He didn’t want to wait, didn’t see why he should wait, it was only £2 etc etc. The only way that I could stop the tantrum was to give him the money. In fact I think he may have actually said that to me! I knew that giving in would just set a precedence. If pestering worked this time he would believe it would work next time. I said no, for the fifth time. He began to raise his voice, tears streaming down his face. I said “I’m sorry, you will have to wait until next week” as calmly as I could. He spat at me.
This was a completely new dimension. I am glad to say that it was the first and last time he spat. I didn’t say a word; I just turned and left the shop. Cousin P and a now very subdued Stato followed me. We went home.
Later my cousin asked how I had managed to stay so calm and I explained that there was no point in getting upset as Stato had not been in control of his emotions. “But he spat at you!” he seemed horrified. I explained that I hadn’t and wouldn’t take it personally.
Stato apologised to me on the way home. It was a milestone. We have talked about it on several occasions since. It made him aware of how out of control he could get. He said it made him realise “that I had to grow up and take responsibility for my actions and that the world didn’t revolve around me.”
Not taking it personally allowed him to reflect on his actions without adding extra emotions and allowed him to apologise. He knew that I would accept his apology. It has also allowed us to discuss it dispassionately.
I have been shouted at and called all sorts of names by my teenage boys (usually under their breath I am pleased to say) but I tried not to take it personally. I have always received an apology and we have always discussed the incident later when things have calmed down.
When I have reflected on my own upbringing I realise that that is just how my Mother had been. She didn’t take things personally. In fact it had sometimes irritated me that, while I wanted to sulk and wallow after a disagreement, or a “teenage” episode she would always act as if nothing had happened. We can sometimes find ourselves cringing when we hear ourselves saying/doing the very thing we vowed we would never say/do to our children! Not taking it personally is something that I am very happy to say that I learnt from my Mother.
“We’re driving down to Florida for Spring Break” – words that, I suspect, spark a frisson of apprehension into the heart of many an American parent when uttered by their offspring, never mind an English parent!
Let me set this in context. My eldest son is currently studying at a university in the States, funded by his soccer (as we have learned to call football) prowess. He is in his second semester (as we have learned to call “terms”) and by all accounts is thriving. We, as a family, are proud of him, and if truth be told, a little in awe of his courage and determination.
It was during a regular Skype conversation that we heard those words, closely followed by “so can I have some of next month’s money (living allowance) early please?”
My first reaction was Whoa, back up a bit! Who is “we”? Where are you staying? How long are you going for? Whose car are you going in? Who is driving? – My only knowledge of spring break comes from coming of age films which portray wild parties and hedonistic activities. Not much different to teenage holidays to Ibiza and Majorca you might say.
In a very calm, feigned patience kind of way he answered all of my questions. It was all planned. There was very little I could say, except “be careful and make good choices!” Which were greeted, as always, with a “yes Mum!” (Again with exaggerated patience). He and I had watched Freaky Friday together when he was about eleven. Jamie Lee Curtis’s character says “make good choices” to her offspring as she drops them at school each day. It became a standing joke that I would say it to him (in a terrible attempt at an American accent!). I said it now as an attempt to cover my apprehension while gently reminding him that I would worry – well that’s what I was aiming for.
I had to trust him, to trust that his “village” had equipped him with the skills and sense to “make good choices”. And I did, well sort of. Though that didn’t stop me wondering what he was up to on a daily basis for the ten days he was away, and yes, I’ll admit it – worry. My friends all told me he would be fine and commented on what a great experience he would be having. To keep myself sane I thought of his “village” – all of the people who have watched over him, helped to shape this confident and brave young man and given him the confidence to travel across the world to study and play football.
Ten days later I received a Facebook message. It began “hi Mumsie, sorry I didn’t send you a message for Mothers Day” and ended with “I’ll Skype tonight”. My overwhelming emotion? Relief – he was safely back on campus. Followed by a touch of self congratulation – he sent a message as soon as he got back!
He’d had a great time. And I’ve seen the photos on Facebook, and there was nothing too wild or embarrassing. Thank goodness!
The “village” done good (as my Grandpa would say!) Did I need to worry? Could I ever not worry?
I went to watch my youngest play for his school football team on Friday. It was the quarter finals of the Schools National Cup so an important match! They won on penalties and are now in the semi-finals. There were a number of teachers and students supporting the lads, as well as parents. We all left feeling very proud of the boys and their achievements. It was great way to finish the week.
My son was one of the team who stepped up to take a penalty. Anyone who follows football knows that deciding a match by penalties is a difficult and stressful situation. Football is a team game. Yes individuals can shine, particularly those who score goals, but teams only win when they play well as a collective. The winning glory or losing shame reflects on them all. Taking penalties is another matter however. Each penalty taker is on their own, every eye on and around the pitch is on them. The result of their shot can be difference between winning and losing the match. When my son stepped up my heart nearly stopped and my stomach lurched. “Oh stop being over dramatic!” you might say. “It’s only a game!” and you are right, it is only a game. However, one of his team had missed his penalty. My son had been the first to go up and console him. That is typical of him, offering others his support. So when he stepped up my heart fluttered, not from fear necessarily but from pride. My son is a defender and defenders are not usually included in the team for their goal scoring abilities! I was proud that he wanted to push himself, to stand up and be counted, to lead by example.
After the match I watched as he interacted with the rest of his team and listened to how he spoke about the opposing team, commiserating with them and talking respectfully about them to his team coach. I enjoyed observing the warm relationship he has with the coach, obviously based on mutual respect.
Steve Biddulph is an Australian child development psychologist, who has written several books about bringing up children. I read his book Raising Boys about 14 years ago and found it very informative. In the book he states that “parents cannot raise teenage boys without getting the help of other adults”. So teachers, sports coaches, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends’ parents, in fact any adults who care about them, can all be important mentors to your child. You can do the same for their children because, as Steve says, “teenagers are quite enjoyable when they are not your own!”
On Friday I had the opportunity to marvel at the self assured, brave young man that is my youngest son, to remember the timid child he was (who wouldn’t even go to a birthday party without his mother!) and to reflect on “how we got here”.
So how did we get here? Through the help and support of our “village”. My son has, through his life, been surrounded by some special people who have had a beneficial influence on him. Neighbours, teachers, friends, relations and his football coaches have all taken the time to talk to him, guide him and nurture his self belief and interests. Even transitory figures in his life, people he may have met only once have played their part, by taking an interest in him. One incident that comes to mind happened a few years ago as we were waiting for our order in a chip shop! The owner struck up a conversation and then complimented him on his patience and manners as we left.
I wonder how many of those people realise just what they have achieved. How they have helped to shape this young man into the kind, self assured person he is today. They have my heartfelt thanks.
How many of us think that our short interactions with the young people we come into contact with might make a significant difference to their lives?
Steve Biddulph (2010), Raising Boys. Harper Thorsons; ISBN-10: 0007153694, ISBN-13: 978-0007153695
Time away from home has a price. Unpacking, mounds of washing, piles of post, to name a few. Mundane and tedious stuff. But the real gain, I find, is that I always bring back a new perspective. I look at my life and home with a slightly different eye – well at least for a while. All influenced by what I have seen or done over the time that I have been away. Some of the biggest decisions in my life have occurred as a result of a week or weekend away; moving house, starting a family, getting a dog (twice!). This weekend away has been no exception. The world is bigger, brighter and more exciting as a result of my time away in a big city, spent in good company. I have found a bit of me again. I wasn’t Mum, teacher, wife for a few hours. I was me. Back to those roles now but with renewed vigour. So I recommend a break away from your life and responsibilities for a while. It is worth the price of the build up of mundane and tedious tasks. Any life changing decisions? Well we’ll see….