Each morning, after my son has wiggled his arms through his blue backpack straps, I tell him the same thing before he walks out the front door. “Be good for your teachers. Listen to them. And be nice to your friends.”
Fairly boilerplate stuff, as far as parenting platitudes go. The type of gentle reminder a father or mother makes in order to set a moral tone, to inspire in both the child and oneself a feeling of rightness and optimism. But as Felix leaves the house with his mother, my shoulders slump and my stomach nosedives. I know he won’t heed my words.
I don’t mean this in a general way. Most 5-year-olds in a public-school kindergarten classroom have an altercation or two each day, but my son’s transgressions will be extreme. He will hurt his classmates again and again. He might pinch. Scratch faces. Smack heads. Pull hair. Call kids stupid. Yell at his teachers. He has his good days, but right now, what I mostly hear from his teachers at dismissal is, “He’s trying, he really is, but today was a tough one.”
My son suffers from acute anxiety, and has a low frustration tolerance for things he does not understand, or situations in which he feels powerless. His own emotions puzzle him, and the feelings of others make for even greater mystery. This has always been the case. As a toddler, he left scars on my arms from tantrums that involved fingernails and teeth, and he terrorized the playground. Though on the whole his self-control has improved, at times Felix is pure id, weaponized. Parties, playdates, music and movement classes—the highlights of most young children’s lives, and the bedrock of pre-teen culture in Brooklyn—activate his social confusion and lead to hostility, unless he has near-constant attention from adults and plenty of opportunities for breaks. He’s a bright intellect, and if you spend time with him in a quiet setting you’ll find his heart’s made of maple syrup, but too often with peers, especially when unattended to, his impulses get the better of him.
These details are difficult to share. When friends and acquaintances ask the typical start-of-the-school-year questions—How is Felix adjusting to kindergarten? Does he like it? Is he making friends?—I plaster a grin on my face and lie by omission. “It’s a long day for a 5-year-old, but he’s learning so much,” I say.
Inside, I’m calculating just how much of the truth I feel prepared to admit. With non-parents, I reveal more, since stakes are lower. With fellow parents, I carefully consider my words, nervous I might damage my family’s relationship with their family, paranoid that the relationship has already suffered, that their child might have been hurt by Felix in the past and so now fears him, or that—worse—I’ve burned the bridge myself. Last year, when my son faced similar struggles in pre-school, I decided to talk and write about his struggles without censoring myself. I would tell people about how he sees a therapist, has an individualized education plan (IEP), and receives special services, like Occupational Therapy. I figured that if I didn’t attach a stigma to these things then they wouldn’t have one, failing to realize other people might think differently than me, that I might in fact be giving my son a bad rep.
And here I am again, doing the same thing, driven by a desire to record this dark terrain and also confess. Because the specter looming over all of his socializing trouble is: How much have I contributed to it? Every loss of temper on my part, every failure in patience, every technique I’ve tried and then abandoned because it didn’t seem to help, the roughhousing and silly childish jokes I cracked with him in the course of our five years at home together, all may have done damage to his sensitive psyche. His issues have rekindled my own problems with nervousness, rage, and control, and so we’re sometimes like two fires, feeding one another with our radiant heat. Genetics plays a role here, of course, but how have my words and actions, despite my best intentions, nurtured his neuroses? I’ll always wonder and worry, and churn with guilt.
I am also embarrassed to admit how powerless I am to prevent Felix’s acts of aggression. This may be an especially male anxiety, as dads have traditionally been the rule establishers, the law makers, the heavy artillery disciplinarian-wise. Dads don’t fret and throw up their hands in frustration, nor do they wallow in anxious self-consciousness about the role they play in their child’s life. (Nor do they often write or speak about how they feel about fatherhood, which I’ve made something of a career doing.) Dads stoically command and control.
That is not who I am as a dad. I cannot make Felix behave according to social norms. Incentives backfire, as the promise of reward raises his nervousness the way a high-stakes performance might. Nor am I always able to punish him for his transgression—he struggles to understand the emotional consequences of his actions, and so often penalties don’t make him feel remorseful or penitent, at least not outwardly. Instead, they confuse or annoy him, or worse, seem like the price he must pay in order to transgress. “I sat out for ten minutes before recess today because I was touchy with my friends,” he’ll tell me when I pick him up from school. Then he shrugs. “It’s okay.”
“But it’s not,” I try to explain. “It would be better if you could play the whole recess, and if you weren’t ‘touchy’ with your classmates.”
“One day I won’t be so touchy, dad,” he assures me, as if I’m the child.
And perhaps, in some ways, I am. I need assurance that the day will come when he won’t be so violent and high-strung, and who better to hear it from than the boy himself? The parenting myth is that we can precipitate change in our children, but at best we can only foster it. Even as babies, our children play their own hand, working, like all of us, with what they’ve been dealt. By and large, people don’t like to hear this, though. Hell, I hate writing it. We prefer stories with active, likable protagonists, and parents who solve problems with pluck, correct mistakes with a smile, and lead their children through peril to a happy, safe ending. This is not the experience of a parent whose child has special needs.
My family is on a wearying journey into night with no map, well off the conventional path, largely alone. The majority of weekends find the three of us hanging out nonstop, which does nothing to help Felix’s anti-social behavior or combat his parent-attachment, but which seems to be the best for him, and me, too. Because just as he has trouble socializing with kids, I’d rather not face the disquieting interrogations about how he’s doing in school or the measures we’re taking to help him, nor do I want to be in the position of resolving a conflict between him and a peer only to have Felix’s anger boil over onto me in ways that might hurt my feelings and perhaps even my body, and put me in a socially awkward position. It’s easier for both of us to withdraw from society.
To other parents in this lonely wilderness, know that your solitude is not unique. Your stories, though you may keep them secret from most, resonate with some of us. The bromides that parents pass between one another—hang in there, don’t give up—may, like my reminders to Felix each morning, and Felix’s reminders to me, do little to actually help in the day-to-day. Still, I keep repeating them, hoping one day to find that these words have yielded a new reality, one less fraught and more functional.