Thursday, June 28, 2001

First Communion counsel

A while ago in this space, I worried about my son's fitness for First Holy Communion and the rite of reconciliation. I thought he might spit out the Host. I thought he might talk about car keys in the confessional. I thought he might scream during the ceremony. I thought he might not be able to grasp the complexities of the whole process (which would, to be sure, put him on par with a large percentage of adults in the congregation).

I wondered if anyone else had been through this with a special needs child. And I got a nice reply from Madeleine, a frequent MWA correspondent. I'll share her note here, because I think she said some things very well, because there may be others who are dealing with the religious education of the neurologically impaired, and because I’m running too late this morning to write much of anything myself. Thanks, Madeleine!

She wrote:

"Relatively little is required of a second-grader in terms of deep religious understanding. If your child can understand that you love him, then he can understand that a host is (the embodiment of) God's love -- a physical thing to remind him of a simple truth. As for the spitting out part, get some unconsecrated hosts and practice. A priest should be able to help.

"As far as reconciliation, you might be surprised what your son understands about doing something wrong. You are not required to drill him in the specifics. Any priest worth his salt should be able to handle it. If he wants to talk about cars, so what?

"My son was diagnosed autistic as a preschooler, and treated as though he were not a moral being. My parish religious educator in Baltimore didn't even want to give him a chance in CCD. But they took care of all of it here in Massachusetts.

"Eucharist is a sacrament of inclusion. That's the point. And my son does turn out to have a moral sense. Most do. In their way."

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Hot days, cold feet

Today is the last day of school.

It's very late this year, and I guess I should be grateful for that. Personally, I'd be just as happy if it ran through July. Year-round school, what about that? I'm not ready for summer.

I'm just as bad as the kids in not liking to have my routine disrupted. Maybe I'm worse, because I have to figure out all the ins and outs of the new routine, how to get everybody to the right place at the right time with the right people and the right program. They just have to go along for the ride.

For the rest of this week and all of next they're in church camp, which is at least close and involves both of them being in the same spot. After that, there's trouble: Anybody have a space-time warping formula that can allow me to drop my two kids off at two camps a half-hour apart at exactly the same time?

With school, see, this isn't a problem. Right now, they're going to the same school -- easy. When my daughter moves up to middle school, it will be right up the street; plus, the school district has the good grace to start the middle school earlier than the elementary school, with the high school earlier still. So nobody has to be cloned to do the drop-offs.

Timing aside, it's also hard to leave what has been a very comfortable school environment for my kiddos this year. They both had wonderful teachers, made friends, did well. And now we have to leave that, and try various questionable scenarios for a hot two months, and then start all over again in the fall. My daughter's already panicking about fourth grade: It's going to be hard! I've told her to cut it out. Worrying is my job.

I'm sure everything will be fine. Really. Sure. Why not? And it will be nice to have two months when our lives aren't ruled by homework and studying for tests. There are good things about summer. I guess.

But please, couldn't we just put it off for a few more weeks?

Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Pray for peace

A bit of a miracle took place when we were at Mass this Sunday. It's something I've long been hoping for, working for; something I never thought would really happen, but something that seemed the very best solution to a difficult situation.

My son fell asleep.

Now, as my father used to tell it, in the old days of the Catholic church, falling asleep would not be tolerated: A man with a long stick would come by and bop you on the head. Even now, the priest would probably not be happy to look out upon the congregation and see a sea of nodding noggins. But for my son, the loud boy, the wiggly boy, the boy who sings the hymns loudly after everybody else has stopped and jingles keys while everybody else is trying to pray, sleep was sweet. I don't think anybody within hearing distance begrudged him that.

All his life with us, his in-church behavior has mostly been a matter of fighting sleep. Thanks to sensory integration problems, he's a kid who has to move to stay alert, no two ways about it. Put him in an environment where movement and noise are not allowed, and he feels himself slipping away. I've tried to encourage that slipping, assure him that alertness is not a necessity, that indeed the majority of adults are not at their most alert during a long church service. I've tried to get him to stop fighting and sleep, but he's fought the good fight. This Sunday, he lost.

And maybe I'm a bad mom to let him lose, too swayed by the harsh looks of worshipers disturbed by my boy's disruptive behavior. Especially now, when he's on the track toward First Communion next year, I should be encouraging him to participate in the Mass, stand up, sit down, say prayers, pay attention. I should do this even if it means everybody in a ten-pew radius has to listen to him talk and complain and scream and kick and rock and roll. But oh, just for the moment -- just let me enjoy the quiet and the peace. He's so peaceful when he's sleeping. Surely peace isn't an inappropriate thing to enjoy in church.

My hope, anyway, is that if we can make this sleeping a habit -- if he gets a little peace and quiet in church, too, and doesn't constantly experience it as an hour-long epic battle -- God's house will be a less stressful place for him. And if it's less stressful, he will be more calm even when he's awake. And eventually, as his religious education increases, his interest in the proceedings will, too. The formula works in other areas of his life: Less stress + more interest = better behavior.

That's what I'll be praying for, anyway, during those quiet, sleepy times.

Saturday, June 23, 2001

The Music Mom

Next year, by virtue of being a fourth-grader, my daughter is eligible to take instrumental music. She can choose any instrument she wants, and learn to play it at school.

Her choice was the violin.

I had a few problems with that.

First, I've read enough stories about pint-sized violin virtuosos starting on the strings at age three or four to know that if you start playing at age 11, you are at a significant disadvantage. It's like starting ballet or gymnastics in your teens. Your time has passed.

Second, my secret aim with this instrumental music is to position her to be in the band in middle school and high school. Since we live next door to the high school, we see (and hear! Boy, do we hear!) the marching band practice virtually in our backyard, and she thinks it would be fun to be part of that. As one who was involved in choir throughout high school (and yes, my daughter is starting chorus next year, too), I remember how life-consuming music is at the high school level, and how it eliminates the need for other pesky forms of social planning. This seems to me to be a good thing for a girl who will be two years older and taller than everybody else and perhaps a little bit less mature. A built-in social life is good. A built-in social life that plays out outside my window is better. Unless our high school suddenly develops a Strolling Strings Corps, it seems unlikely that the violin is going to get us there.

And third, the sound of beginning violin. 'Nuff said?

My choice for her would have been the flute, because I play one and I own one and she could have a little head start. But I also know that in any given elementary school, a majority of the little girls will want to play the flute. That's a lot of competition when you have fourteen or fifteen elementary schools converging on one H.S. Since my daughter is hard-working and good-hearted but probably not virtuoso material, competition is something we'd like to avoid.

So I asked the instrumental music teacher to recommend something not a lot of kids were taking. He showed me the applications, and sure enough the first 25 of them were girls wanting to play the flute. The next 25 were boys wanting to play the saxophone. There were a smattering of other instruments, then one particular brass number that had only two aspirants.

And now, three. She's going to play the trombone.

A decent choice for a tall, strong girl, I think. More likely to be played by boys, which she will one day appreciate. Necessary for a marching band. And a gateway into other brass instruments that are even less popular. French horn! Flugelhorn! Tuba! A mother can dream.

And yes, I know that beginning trombone is probably every bit as unpleasant as beginning violin. But we can open the windows, and maybe she'll blend in with the marching band blasting away outside.

Friday, June 15, 2001

Father's Day celebration

Some dads get wined and dined on Father's Day. Some receive elaborate gifts. Some are released from dad duty to go participate in their favorite sporting events, or to lounge lazily in front of sporting events on TV.

Our dad got to go to a church carnival.

It wound up costing about as much as an expensive dinner, anyway. The ticket prices for the kiddie-sized rides seemed exhorbitant, but then I'll admit to not having been at a church carnival for a long, long time. We would not, for quite a while, have even considered bringing our son to one. I mean, you might as well post a sign over the entrance saying, "May be overstimulating to small boys with sensory-integration and impulse-control problems."

But he's coming along, and he did okay. It's in the little stupid things like carnival attendance that the progress a kid like my son makes becomes apparent. He was very excited; he jumped and sang and talked to himself; but he held it together. He went on the little merry-go-round car ride about six times; the roller coaster, ferris wheel and teacups once; the obstacle course three times. He walked and ate popcorn at the same time. He only grabbed people's keys twice. And when he'd had enough, he used words to tell us it was time to go. Can't think of a much more successful day than that.

During his first obstacle course run, he balked a couple of times -- at the bottom of a rope ladder, at the beginning of a high, wobbly bridge -- but he quickly figured out how to go about each one. The third time, at the start of a small tunnel near the beginning of the course, he ran into a small boy who was afraid to go in. I yelled for him to help the boy, and the boy's father, standing nearby, asked for my son's name and then yelled for the boy to follow him. And he did, through the tunnel, up the ladder, across the bridge, much to his father's amazement. "He's never gotten that far before!" the dad marveled. He revealed that his son is good in school, quiet and well-behaved, but is hesitant with physical things like rope ladders and high-in-the-air bridges.

No one has ever accused my boy of being quiet and well-behaved, but now, after years of hesitancy, he can do rope ladders. He can do bridges and slides. He can do carnivals. And he can lead the way for others less sure of themselves.

A pretty nice Father's Day present, for both his parents.

Thursday, June 14, 2001

Nothing to sneeze at

Well, this is just dandy.

A recent study has found that exposure to cats, dogs and dirt reduce allergies and asthma in kids. Those who grow up sanitized and dander-free, the theory goes, have extreme reactions when they do come in contact with allergens. Start that exposure at age 1, and the immune system grows up rough, tough, and ready for anything.

Let's hope my daughter doesn't hear about this.

She, as anybody who's visited this site recently knows, is lobbying hard to get a dog and to stop taking showers. She's 11, and undoubtedly well past any possible respiratory benefit, but logic is not a fine point in her pleas. Anything good about dogs and bad about showers is fair play.

Yet I feel certain that, a year from now -- heck, the way research is going these days, maybe a week from now -- there will be another report saying, "Whoops, what we really meant is to have no pets, bathe hourly, and surround your home with a plastic bubble."

The current report suggests that exposing children from age 1 to "two or more cats and dogs" may reduce their likelihood of allergies and asthma. And increase their likelihood of scratches and clothing covered with animal hair, but that's another study. The animal-exposure theory fits in with a "hygeine hypothesis" that says that excessive cleanliness and a lack of contaminants in the environment screws up kids' immune systems.

Well, I don't know about the dog part. But I am certainly making my contribution to contaminants by pedaling back on the household hygeine. My house has always been a mess, this side of filthy but not by a whole lot, and I thought it was just irresponsibility and laziness on my part. But now I know the truth: I'm doing this for my kids' immune systems. And I refuse to use all those antibacterial soaps and hand rubs and moist towelettes for exactly the same reason. Hey, a little dirt isn't going to kill them!

But that doesn't mean certain 11-year-olds don't have to shower every day. There are limits.

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Meanie me

I am the meanest mom in the world.

That’s a pretty hefty title, I’ll grant, and I’d never claim it for myself. Modesty, you know. But my daughter is pretty firm these days that I deserve the honor, and since she claims knowledge of how EVERY other household in the world is run, I’d say she should know.

EVERY third grader but her gets to stay up until midnight. It’s a known fact.

EVERY girl her age gets to watch whatever she wants on TV.

EVERY kid gets to pick what she wants to eat, where she wants to eat, when she wants to eat and how much she wants to eat. NO other kid in the world has to finish her vegetables.

EVERY child gets to play outside after dark. In the cold. In the rain. Without a stupid sweater.

EVERY young person is allowed to determine her own personal hygeine needs. NO one else has to take a shower ever night, or brush her teeth. Especially when they’re just not in the mood.

EVERYone who wants a dog gets a dog. You could look it up.

EVERY student in her school has a backpack with wheels, except, don’t you know, the daughter of the meanest mom in the world.

As you might imagine, it’s not a lot of fun right now being mom to the daughter of the meanest mom in the world. It’s not easy bucking trends like this; it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve always thought of myself as a conformist. And now, here I find myself doing things differently than EVERY other mother in the world. It gives one pause.

And then I remember: What I really am is mother to the whiniest daughter in the world. Were I not so mean, she would lose her title. Isn’t it amazing, the things we do for our kids?

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Lethal weapon

Is peanut butter an inalienable right?

That's the question schools face when a child with a peanut allergy joins the student body. Any exposure to peanuts or peanut oil can cause an extreme reaction, even death, in these children. Their parents rightly want those products banned from the premises, so their children can have a normal school experience without fearing for their lives. Yet other parents feel it's unfair to change the dietary habits of the many for the needs of the few.

It seems silly on the face of it -- with so many foods to choose from, why cling to peanut butter when it might kill your kid's classmate? It is easy for me to say this because my kids don't like peanut butter. If they did -- if it was the only thing they'd eat, and the choice was between PB&J or an afternoon of lightheadedness and hunger -- it might not seem so silly. Adults can make decisions for all good reasons, but getting kids to eat what they're supposed to is another matter entirely.

Yet I'm always amazed at how vehemently, even hatefully some people will argue for their child's right to eat peanut butter in particular, and anything they darn well please in general. It's a little frightening, as a parent of two children with special needs of their own, to see how quickly people will stop being concerned about the well-being of others when it requires a change in the way they do things -- even such a small thing as packing a lunchbox. I think, if faced with a peanut-butter ban, I'd use it as a way to show my children that we as a society care for all our members, and if giving a little something up allows someone else to be safe, that is a good and worthy act. I think I'd do that even if my kids adored peanut butter. I think I would make it a project, even if it was hard.

It's a project many parents are likely to have to take on, as the number of children afflicted with the allergy appears to be increasing. For goodness sake, giving an allergic person peanut oil as a way of murdering them has already been featured on "Nash Bridges," so we know it's getting common. And in light of that -- in light of the fact that every school will likely have to deal with nut embargoes in the near future -- may I make a suggestion to the food manufacturers of America?

Synthetic peanut butter.

If they can make fruit juice without any fruit in it, surely they can make something that looks like peanut butter, smells like peanut butter and tastes like peanut butter without actually having any of those pesky peanuts. Work on it, folks. The lunchrooms of America are calling.

Friday, June 08, 2001

Some enchanted evening

A rite of passage is coming up for us this summer: My daughter has tickets to her first rock concert.

Well. Rock concert is a little strong. She's going to see pop pipsqueak Aaron Carter along with a group called A*Teens, four young Swedes who cover ABBA songs. Woodstock it ain't.

But she's going to hear her first excessively amplified music, stand in her first screaming crowd, and dance for the first time amongst strangers. And of course, I'll be there with her.

I was sure she'd be thrilled with the idea of going, since she's recently declared that she loves Aaron Carter and wants to marry him. When I mentioned that my co-worker and her daughters were going and we were going to go along, my girl had two requests: She wanted to sit in the front row, and she wanted to go backstage afterward. I had to break the bad news that she was not, after all, adopted by Rosie O'Donnell.

No, we'll be standing on the grassy lawn way, way behind the seats, way up to where it could be any blond child lip-synching to Aaron Carter tunes instead of Aaron himself. This is an appropriate spot for a first concert. If she doesn't like it, we're not out a lot of money. Honey, I'm not springing $75 for NSYNC tickets until I know you can make it through a show.

She finally allowed as how it would be cool to at least be in the same general vicinity as young Mr. Carter, and listening to his music, and jumping around. Then she wanted to know if it was this weekend, and was aghast when I told her it wasn't until August.

"August?" she declared in disgust and confusion. "August? Then why are you telling me now?"

To an 11-year-old, I know, August seems a lifetime away. To her geriatric Mama, though, I'll tell you, just two months to an evening of "I Want Candy" sounds entirely, entirely too soon.

Thursday, June 07, 2001

Mow? No!

Well, here's another thing to add to your list of summer safety no-no's for kids: using the lawnmower.
Now, at first I expected that maybe this safety tip was being put out by, say, the Tom Sawyer Institute for Juvenile Work Avoidance. But in fact, it's the American Academy of Pediatrics doing the suggesting, and there are legitimate safety issues involved. Apparently, nearly 10,000 kids are injured by lawnmowers each year, and that's not even counting the ones whose allergies are too severe to be around all that flying grass. Hey, that's my excuse, anyway.

The key seems to be to wait until the child has shown the necessary judgment and strength to push a potentially dangerous instrument. You would not, for example, put your four-year-old in charge of a whirling blade. Yet a quarter of the annual lawnmower victims are under five. The AAP advises keeping the wee ones inside while the mowing is in process. And of course, mamas need to stay inside with them.

In addition to the AAP warning, the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute has some safety tips of its own. To quote from the official site:

* Do read the manufacturers operator's manual before operating.

* Do use extra care when approaching corners, shrubs, and trees.

* Do handle fuel carefully and avoid spilling when you're filling.

* Do wear the proper clothing -- long slacks and sturdy shoes.

* Don't drive a riding mower like a race car -- it's a mower, not a racer.

* Do keep small children out of the mowing area, and preferably indoors under adult supervision.

* Do be alert and turn the mower off if children enter the area.

* Do, before operating in reverse, look behind and down for small children.

* Don't carry children. Riding mowers are designed for one operator only.

* Don't allow children to operate a riding mower.

Of course, any suggestion that kids shouldn't be mowing is a major disappointment, because one of the chief advantages of having children in the first place is having someone to do things like mow the lawn. I would like to report that the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the interest of child safety, offers a lawn-care service by which a pediatrician mows your lawn while you lie in your air-conditioned house watching videos with your children, but alas, they just give the advice, they don't help you follow it. And beside, I'm guessing the HMOs would never pay for it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2001

Exceeding expectations

You know, I spend a lot of time tailoring my expectations for my kids, making sure that, although I hope for the best, I don't expect more than their miswired neurological systems can deliver. I try to keep things realistic. But then comes a morning like we had a couple of days ago, and I wonder if my expectations aren't still far, far too high.

For example: Why should I expect my son to actually eat grapefruit, just because he begged for it in the store? Just because I'd spent five minutes on a hectic morning cutting it to his specifications, why should I expect him to do anything different than touch a piece to his tongue and deny it further entry? Why should I not have seen that coming a citrus grove away?

And why should I expect my daughter, who normally pops out of bed full of energy at 6:30 a.m., to do the same when she knows she has last-minute homework to finish? Goodness knows I don't pop out of bed when I know I have work to do; why should she? Expecting too much, I am.

And speaking of homework, just because my girl is meticulous about doing everything on her homework list, and requires very little supervision to remember to do her homework, just because of that, why should I be surprised when, on the worst possible morning, when we already have unfinished work to do, she suddenly turns up a math worksheet that she had all weekend to do but didn't? Why should I expect her to be on top of things just because she always is?

And why, just because math facts are her one shining academic strength, should I expect her to do the addition and subtraction problems on that math worksheet correctly? Why should I expect my complete lack of time to correct that sheet and have her re-do any wrong answers to influence her ability to do it right the first time? Expecting the impossible, is what I'm doing here.

After all, why should I expect that, on any given horrible, time-driven morning, at least one of my children will do what I say and keep moving? Why should I expect one of them to always get ready on time? When my son is acting up of a morning, any given morning really, his sister can usually be relied on to rise, dress, eat, prepare backpack, and get in the car. But when that sister is having an unexpected homework crisis, can I expect her brother to pick up the slack and just do one bleeping thing that I tell him to do? Surely not. Do not expect a thing.

Though, along those lines, why should my children expect that I will keep control of my frustration at such a frustrating time? Why should they expect that I will keep a smile on my face and tears safely tucked in their ducts? Why should they expect me not to lose it, when I have lost it in such situations before? Unreasonable expectations of me they surely have. We'll all have to work on that.

Monday, June 04, 2001

Squeaky pipes

I've worried about my son's speech a lot over the six-plus years since we adopted him.

First, I worried because he didn't have any. He was speechless when he came home at age almost-two, and he stayed speechless for about a year after that. Would he ever talk?

Well, yes. Of course, he did eventually start. But his vocabulary was still delayed. And then, as it grew, as he began to tell stories and make requests and interrogate people about their cars and keys, it became apparent that his articulation was lousy. I've always been able to understand him just fine, but those who don't know him don't know what he's talking about.

I've worried that he says "mines" instead of mine, and that he has no language to express his inner emotions, and that he picks up unsavory comments made by his parents in the heat of traffic and repeats them in the worst possible situations. I've worried that he doesn't talk enough, and I've worried that he'll never shut up.

And now, after a meeting with his school speech therapist, I have something new to worry about: When he talks, he talks too high.

Not high volume, mind you, although that is certainly the case on many, many, many occasions. No, her concern is his squeaky, high-pitched tone, which she fears may harm his vocal cords. She's urging him to talk in a normal register, not bass necessarily but not first soprano either.

It's a little amusing because, back when he didn't talk at all, any noises he made were low and gutteral, and I was sure he would be a tiny peanut-boy with a deep, deep voice. Instead, he's a tiny peanut-boy with a tiny peanut-voice. It probably does not help that he's usually needling someone with questions, and his voice naturally rises with inquisitiveness.

I sure don't want him to hurt his vocal cords, but boy, I can't see following around telling him not to talk so high. It's a cute little high voice, and there are so very many more important things I should be following him around telling him not to do. Maybe I'll just worry about it instead.

Friday, June 01, 2001

Suffering fools

When someone approaches you in a supermarket and asks a poorly phrased question about your adopted children in front of said children (something like "Where are their real parents?" or "Are they really siblings?"), do you:

a) treat it as a "teachable moment" to enlighten a stranger in the true wonderfulness of adoption;

b) fire back a clever comment that puts the rude questioner in line;

c) hit the person about the head with the nearest blunt instrument.

Personally, I would like to say my answer is "b"; sometimes, "c" definitely does seem to be appropriate; but normally, all I can think of is a relatively straight and overly informative answer that would probably place me in category "a." The "b" answer, I think of a couple of hours later.

Unlike a lot of adoptive parents, if a recent go-round on an adoptive parents' e-mail list is any indication, I don't have strong feelings about this. I've often said more about my kids' adoption than was really necessary, and it's often turned out well -- people who were considering adoption or know people who are get some encouraging information from me, and I get to feel like a good little adoption evangelist. I've advocated in this space for people not being afraid to tell their adoption stories, and I meant it. At the same time, I'm a little alarmed by the notion that adoptive parents have to be good little adoption evangelists every waking moment, always ready to say a good word, even when they're at the supermarket and the kids are screaming and they really just want to go home.

Sometimes, it's true, people who make insensitive comments are really good and interested people with poor language skills. Sometimes, they're just nosy and rude, and if someone is quick-witted enough to fling a barbed comeback their way, my hat's off to 'em.

In fact, maybe they could come shopping with me.