As usual, I picked Buddy up from therapy in the afternoon. Since he has autism he has five hours of therapy a day, even in the summer. His coach came out and gave me a summation of his day, and when I made to leave, I was stopped from getting to the door because there was a crowd of coaches around another little boy who is a client there and his guardian.
It didn’t take long to figure out both the little boy and his guardian were upset. Apparently he had been bitten by another child there. The case manager made a comment that they would be calling the other boys mom and other such assurances.
I found myself hoping it wasn’t Buddy who had done the biting, even though I had already been debriefed by his coach and I’m fairly sure if Buddy has misbehaved it would have been addressed then. I wanted to check with the coaches and make sure Buddy had not been the biter. Doing so would have been about soothing my anxiety, though, so instead I trusted that if Buddy had been the culprit they would have said something by now and left.
You see, I strongly believe that the expectations we have for our children, and what we communicate to them, matters. I believe my children are good people who are doing the best they can in circumstances that are sometimes overwhelming. Sometimes they handle life wrong, but what right do I have to expect them to be perfect when I am far from perfect?
I want my kids to know I believe that they are good people who can make good choices. And one way I know how to do that is by not assuming the worst. Today if I had checked with the case manager in front of Buddy and asked if it was him, I would have been giving Buddy a message that I worry about him misbehaving, and that I expect to hear that he did something wrong. I want Buddy to know that I trust him to do the right thing and to make good decisions.
And this isn’t just wishy washy positive thinking on my part. When I was in college I took an educational psychology course. There was one shocking study that we discussed where kids were tested before going into a classroom. After the testing, officials told the teachers to be on the look out for a certain group of students because they would be the next Einsteins. At the end of the year the students were tested again, and the students who were identified as the future Einsteins did way better than their peers, even though they had scored the same as their peers at the beginning of the year!
The researchers had just selected several students at random and told teachers to get excited about those students. There was nothing different or special about them, the only difference was what the teacher expected from those students. And it had a huge impact! Cameras in the classroom showed teachers tended to spend more time with those students, prompted them more, gave them more positive feedback, etc, than the other students. The teachers believing that they had extraordinary students in their classroom influenced how they treated those students, and those students ended up benefiting tremendously.
My mom used to work as a kindergarten teacher, and she would talk about seeing this process in reverse. A kid would get a bad reputation as being difficult, and when that student would get a new teacher, that teacher would expect that kid to live down to their reputation.
I live in the south, and I’ve noticed people here tend to have a very pessimistic view of human nature and a child’s natural state. Often when I take my kids to a playground, another child will come up and play nicely with them. Soon their parent will come screaming at their child to leave us alone as they apologize to me that their child was bothering us. I am always so baffled by this, and I try to say something in their child’s defense, “Oh, she was fine!” “Oh, he wasn’t bothering us, he was playing so nicely with my kids.” etc. The parents always tend to look at me in disbelief, and I feel sorry for their child, who is essentially getting the message that their parents think they are so bad that it’s not possible for them to have been playing nicely with another kid.
This also tends to promote the knee jerk reaction in kids of “well, if I’m going to get yelled at when I’m not doing anything wrong, I might as well act up to deserve having gotten the lecture!” And this is how kids live down to expectations.
And no, I am not divorced from reality. My son has autism and I have worked with kids who have been hospitalized for behavioral disorders. Buddy had gone through a biting phase a few years ago for instance, but in talking with his teachers everyone agreed that the problem was tied to his inability to tell other kids “back off, I need my space” and if he could find a way to signal that to other children then the biting would stop. Trying to figure out why kids are acting out, and not seeing it as part of who they are, is powerful. If the bad behavior is framed as who the kid is, then it can’t change. If the bad behavior is framed as a poor coping mechanism, well, that can change!
So I’m going to give my kids the message that they are good people who mostly make good choices and who, just like their mommy and their daddy, sometimes mess up. But it’s fixable when they do, because it isn’t who they are. And that is why for me, it was worth swallowing my anxiety and not asking if Buddy was the biter in front of him. And as the hours after picking him up from therapy pass without a phone call or email, I am more and more confident that I was right to believe in him.