Monday, March 12, 2007

Indulgent parenting?

I had to wonder this past weekend whether I've been overly indulgent with my kids over the years. A. and T. both threw tantrums when things didn't go just as they wanted, and I always wonder how much of that is autism and how much is just bad juvenile behavior. I can understand how T. was pissed off that his Alexandria routine was changed due to our exigent circumstances--kids with autism tend to be very rigid about their routines--but his explosion inside Target about not buying french fries before going to the store struck me as just plain bad behavior. We always go to the store first. But it could be that he was angry that it was the Alexandria Target and not the Slidell one, where he now likes to shop for swimsuits for trips to the beach. Again, that would be bad behavior, not necessarily autistic behavior. It's always hard to tell.

I can't say that there aren't parenting manuals for people in my situation; there are some pretty good behavioral psychology texts out there. However, I pretty much decided to put those aside for a while after a brief, painful, terribly failed attempt to get applied behavior analysis (ABA) underway with T. I pushed for help with the formal educational programming from the school system and the state disabilities system, with mixed results. The schools took a while, but they finally got on the same page with us, and our kids had a couple of good years at school. However, as to an in-home behavior program, the state people managed to piss on everything we had going on with our kids, even the things that were working. I had to restrain myself from overturning a conference table at our last meeting with those people, but I digress.

My instincts told me that T. and A. needed a parent/friend who would accept them unconditionally more than they needed a parent/behavior trainer who was determined to change everything about them. My reading, and my observations of my kids' interactions with other children, made it clear that they would have a very hard time forming friendships with their peers, so I made it part of my job to become their peer and to interact with them on their own level. I'm no flower-power, be your kids' best friend kinda guy, but it just seemed obvious that I needed to do that. I tried my hand at mild ABA techniques over the years, but never at the intensity that is recommended for success, as I pushed for systematic help with that kind of programming, which they are finally getting at St. Mary's, albeit in limited doses. My hope was that I could build a strong enough friendship bond with my children that could be used to pull them along developmentally.

I suppose that part of my instinct was a projection from my own childhood. It's a cliche that you model your parenting on you own parents, but I was determined not to do that. My dad never hid his disappointment in me for not being his idea of what a boy should be; I was, and I remain, determined that my children will never feel as though they are disappointments to me. Also, even before we had kids, I resolved that any kids of mine would be encouraged to develop their own individual personalities and interests, and that my function was to help them along the way. There would be no value judgments based on preconceived notions of what boys or girls should be. After the kids were diagnosed with developmental disabilities, I resolved that I would give them exposure to as many activities and experiences as possible, and that I would do whatever I could to help them enjoy their preferred activities, even if that meant jumping for joy at the sight of water pouring through the storm drain down the street. There have been many public tantrums, but, fortunately, most of the people around here are kindhearted and quick to size up the situation. It amazed me how people offered help when things were really, really bad, with the notable exception of a certain local congregation.

We've been told that our kids are unusually aware of each other and of us. They now play with each other on a regular basis, after several years of T. deliberately ignoring A. I hope that my conscious efforts had something to do with all of that.

However, friendship/parenting has its obvious drawbacks, the most obvious being an inherently mixed message about whether you are a playmate or a disciplinarian. It is damn difficult to be both. Additionally, in my role as friend/playmate, I have tended to take my kids wherever they want to go and to buy them way too much junk at the store. I've also overlooked more bad behavior than I probably should--behavior that sometimes has nothing to do with autism. Part of that was necessary to keep an always volatile, unpredictable home situation from exploding. I don't care what the strict behaviorists say, two kids with autism means that the kids get away with away with more than you'd like them to. That's just life.

Now that I can view some of this with a bit of perspective, I'm left wondering how to integrate something of a disciplinarian piece into the equation. I'm naturally very tolerant and indulgent with children to begin with, so it's not something that comes easy to me. I've been working on it, mostly with T., as he nears the horrors of puberty, so we'll see how it goes.


Anonymous said...

Every relation has its drawbacks but u have to bring out the best things and utilize them to get the far as parents are concerned...I have always got my parents as friends beside me....all these throwing of temper tantrums happens when u have two kids and that too of equal age..but dnt worry...they would grow up and will learn life in a better way than u have ever wishes :)

Randy said...

Thanks, Robert. I clicked over to your blog. It's nice and cheery there, so I'll have to drop by again when I get angsty and/or deprressed.

Fe-Fe said...

It's so hard with a child with autism to know what behaviour is just them trying it on and what is down to the autism. My son is on the mild end of the spectrum (borderline Aspergers)and it is so hard know when to put my foot down and when to give in or let things slide.

They say parenting is the hardest job in the world - I think I'm inclinded to agree!