Saturday morning started out a lot like other Saturday mornings. Collier and I went to karate, and I was practicing my form after our class. (Yes, I started taking karate with Collier this month as a parent-challenge the karate studio is doing. That’s another blog post entirely. I’m thinking of titling it “Snap, Crackle, Pop” as a tribute to my knees and shoulder). While I was practicing, the instructor asked Collier to go through his form to earn a stripe on his belt. It takes so many stripes to be able to test for your next rank. He missed a step or two and didn’t earn a stripe. To be fair, an adult brown belt student didn’t earn a stripe either. Stripes were hard to come by that day. But that wasn’t the only disappointment to come.
Afterwards, the instructor talked to Collier, and she told him “I want you to work on your confidence. You know this, but you need to build your confidence up.”
As a parent, I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks for teachable moments with my son. I thought I could help Collier build some confidence, and on the way home, I thought of the perfect thing. I told him I was going to quiz him. He would have to direct me on where to turn and guide us home.
“I don’t want to be quizzed!” he insisted. It would be fun, I told him. “No!” he repeated. I told him I couldn’t remember how to get home, and he’d have to navigate. Pulling out of the Chevron, I asked him, “Okay, Collier. Which way? Left or right?”
“Right.” I followed his direction. At the next red light, there was a fork. Again I asked, and again he delivered the correct answer. This went on and on, all the way home. Now, we have driven this road hundreds if not thousands of times, and I knew he knew the answers. And he did. Still, every so often he would balk and insist he didn’t want to be quizzed. But he did so well! I was sure that when we pulled in the driveway, I would have this powerful teaching tool about how even though he had never driven a car, he successfully guided us all the way home. That he just had to have confidence in knowledge that he already had. I knew it was going to be great. I was going to have this great dad moment and shared experience with my son. So I thought.
We pulled in the driveway.
“You did it! You got us home! Good job!” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. Then, I started the lesson. My powerful teaching moment!
“Collier, have you ever driven a car?”
“But we’ve driven that route hundreds of times. Maybe more.”
“My point is, you knew it. You just got to build your confidence up about what you know. Just like with karate. You know your form. You just got to get your confidence up. I should quiz you on the way home more often.” I had more to say in the lesson, but never got the chance.
“No! I don’t like being quizzed! Do NOT do it again.”
“Why?” I asked. I didn’t understand. He did great.
“Collier, you did great!”
“Because it makes me feel humiliated.”
It was all I could do to not burst into tears. I had this perfect teachable moment where I could let him gain some confidence. He knew the way home, and I knew that he knew the way home. If not, I wouldn’t have quizzed him. And somehow, even when I thought I was doing the right thing, I crushed him. Instead of building him up, I hurt him without even meaning to. And that crushed me.
After a few moments of pained silence and choking back tears (for both of us), I said “Collier, I love you more than anything in the whole world. And I would never, ever, ever do anything to hurt you, or humiliate you. You know that, right?”
By the time we were done, I had talked to him and boosted him up a little, and he was smiling about having led us home, and he gave me a fist bump, but I knew he was hurt. I was trying to teach him, but it was me that got the schooling that day. I learned about Collier, and I learned about autism.
You see, Collier’s not stupid. He knows he’s different. He knows he has memory problems. And by forcing him to play along with this memory game or quiz, he thought I was mocking him. I don’t think there’s any pain that I’ve ever felt that has hurt as much as this. I feel like no matter what I do with him, it’s wrong. I know the old saying that kids don’t come with instruction manuals, but if they did, Collier’s is in Sanskrit.
And he’s such a good kid – one that at times I feel I don’t deserve. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. When people are hurting, he hurts alongside them, and when they rejoice, he does, too. He even does his chores around the house without complaining. I know he’s in a constant battle to not live inside his own head, and to stay in our world, and to not stim, and to pay attention, and to remember things. And here I am, messing up and failing at every turn at a job that’s supposed to come naturally.
I felt ashamed of myself. Amye and I have been to all kinds of conferences on special needs, ranging from how to advocate for your child to special diets to accommodations to bolstering self-confidence – and then here I go. Messing things up. As a parent you are supposed to protect your child from humiliation! There are many reasons why we chose to homeschool Collier, but somewhere on that list is protecting him from kids who can be mean to those who are different. Protecting him from those who don’t understand him. I do understand him, and I felt like I had betrayed him. I was reminded that he sees things differently, and I learned that lesson the hard way.
I was also reminded that phrasing matters. Words are important. After talking to him that night, I asked him if we had played a game about how to get home, if that would have been alright. He said that it would. It’s a matter of phrasing. By simply calling it a quiz, I inadvertently associated what I thought would be a confidence-boosting exercise to something he struggles with – school. As if he wasn’t already down on himself about forgetting some karate moves, here I go making things worse.
Parenting is hard, and parenting one with autism is harder. There’s so much to learn, and once you learn the rules, the game changes. I was about to score a touchdown, only to realize I was on a basketball court, holding a tennis racket.
Saturday’s lesson is one that he’s already forgiven me for, but it’s one that I’ll never forget.