Thursday, July 26, 2012

Our Spectrum Through a Lens of Rules

Do you obey rules?

Why or why not?

What about the children you know – yours or others’?

Continuing on the trajectory that began in my next-to-last post about boundaries, we now turn to those more concrete, explicit boundaries known as “rules.”

Figure I: Chart of Obedience

This chart describes some of the main ways individuals react to rules.

People may obey rules out of a sense of justice or fear or respect. They may do so for the sake of appearances -- or because it has not occurred to them to do otherwise. People may disobey rules because they are not aware of them – or are aware and simply do not care. Or they may do so because they are rebellious and see rules as made to be broken. They may enjoy being sneaky, or feel that they need to be sneaky in order to do what they want to do.  In this chart, the motives of justice and injustice meet on the spectrum, as do two expressions of apathy.

Finding ways to help my Full Spectrum household follow those rules I deem important has been an ongoing challenge. In fact, when I consider getting my children to obey rules, the classic notion of “herding cats” comes to mind. G cares deeply about justice and will sometimes follow rules for this reason, but he tends toward the “Lack of Awareness/Who Cares?” quadrant of my chart.  Z typically obeys rules for the sake of appearances or out of fear or respect, while having a very strong propensity toward sneakiness and rebellion. I’ve yet to determine if, for Z, defiance is based on a feeling of injustice. 

In basic societal terms, it seems that G wants to be “good,” and is sometimes unable to figure out how, while Z seems to want to be “bad,” and is only sometimes successful due to constrictions which force her to act “good.” Obviously this is an oversimplification, and not language I would ever actively use in parenting, but it does reflect how I often feel as we try to navigate the world of rules as a family.

I was fortunate to encounter my parenting idol, Xiao Chuan Ayi (Auntie [given Chinese name]), when G was but a lad of two.  Xiao Chuan Ayi is unflappable, serene, as stable as I have always been high strung.  And she has two brilliant, active sons.

Her standard admonition is very simple: “You know what? That is not safe [or kind or polite or…],” said with great poise and tranquility and authority. Her boys could be breaking all sorts of rules -- swinging from a chandelier with machetes, making war cries and sprinkling those below with water balloons -- and, with a word and a Special Look from their mother, they are standing at attention. On the ground! She would surely argue that they don’t get off the chandelier immediately 100% of the time but, trust me, they listen more than most.

 Following the admirable Xiao Chuan Ayi, “You know what? “ became my earliest go-to phrase. “You know what? That is not safe/kind/polite/[fill-in-the-blank]…” was a relatively effective way to at least communicate rules and boundaries. if not to actually enact them in each instance.

The problem was and remains that I have neither what Xiao Chuan Ayi terms, “The Chinese Look of Death,” nor its Whitey McWhiterson equivalent.

“What if I got angry?” my demeanor and past conduct seem to say to my kids, “Oh yeah? Well…What if I-I-I…raised my voice to a fairly loud volume and then told you, um, you couldn’t have any dessert but, uh, you could certainly have some blueberries with a teensy bit of Hershey’s syrup on them? Huh? Huh??? What then!”

Very threatening.

“You know what?” Infractions in areas I really care about – kindness, respect, safety – may call my Full Spectrum of Doom down upon my chilluns. In those instances I am able to invoke a fearsome aspect of myself without, indeed, really even trying. I just – some stuff I just don’t care about, even though I am supposed to.  Sure, I would like my children to know how to properly set a table.  I have a hard time, however, mustering obedience-ensuring wrath over a fork in the wrong place.

But I should not imply that my friend rules through fear. To be clear, Xiao Chuan Ayi’s Chinese Look of Death may be most remarkable in how unnecessary it is -- because the woman just exudes calm. To wit, G, Z and I were recently at her house on a lovely summer morning and, through a series of stomach-related mishaps, managed to cover her entire bathroom floor (heck, her entire bathroom) in diarrhea. After cracking up big time (now that’s a good friend), she whisked G and Z away so I could deal with the disastrophe at hand.

While I scrubbed away upstairs, the children – those same children who had not stopped flapping their jibs for the first three weeks of July -- stayed downstairs with their Ayi, quietly entertaining themselves.  As I attempted at length to restore my dear friend’s bathroom to some semblance of cleanliness, not a peep was to be heard. Meanwhile, Xiao Chuan Ayi was…accomplishing things!

Or consider G’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs S.* Mrs. S is of small stature and looks like a stereotypical blonde angel. She is gentle, kind and quiet. Yet she was in complete control of a classroom that consisted of eleven rambunctious boys and two girls. Imagine the boy-filled, first-time-in-school chaos, and the tiny teacher in its midst. Yet: “Now girls and boys,” she would say softly, and the Entire Room would Instantly hush!

News flash: that type of gentle admonition leading to thrall does not often happen in our household, despite a much more favorable child-to-adult ratio.

Sometimes kids don’t listen. As parents, we must choose our battles. One task, then, is deciding which rules matter to us. The second is figuring out how to convey their importance in a way that makes sense, so that our rules are clear, just, fair and compelling.  Then we try to follow through with consistency and regularity.  If we can begin to do so with the inner authority and peaceful mien of a Xiao Chuan Ayi or a Mrs. S, so much the better.

I’ve heard tell my paternal grandmother (who taught first grade) had this gift, but such subtleties do not come naturally to me. From where I stand on the spectrum, rules that are just and good are meant to be followed and those that are not just and good are to be disregarded. Simple. Explaining why this is so feels alien.

Modes of enforcing rules seem either mysteriously subtle or ham-handed or violent.  Also, ineffective: yelling, exhortation, protracted explanations and dire consequences all have little impact given Z and G’s Spectrum locales. The way they handle rules could ultimately affect their overall well-being and chances of success in life, ergo, the need to cultivate new approaches.

The gentle authority of teachers like Xiao Chuan Ayi, Mrs. S, and my Grammy seems a tricky, elusive, extremely worthwhile art, and certainly one to which I aspire. 


Full Spectrum Mama

* Mrs. S will be Z’s first grade teacher in the fall, and her placid, earthy solidity promises to be a great match for X’s mountain-moving attempts.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Petite Follow-Up Spectrum

Ah, summer: that special time when school is out and those of us who are primary caregivers to young children and who either cannot afford to send them to camp all summer or choose not to (or both) find ourselves faced with long days full of endless possibilities of a nonetheless limited sort. The luxury of choosing to be at home with the children during the summer is not one I have during the school year, and its result for now is a piquant combination of gratitude and exhaustion.

The other morning, Pardner was about to leave the house for a fourteen-hour day that would start at the farmers’ market and end with restaurant cleanup. He asked me what my plans for the day were.

I pictured the day ahead of us – a minefield of possible tantrums and stomach upsets for starters, the dull hours of the “I have nothing to do” chorus, the sweet and cherished snuggles, unexpected giggles and opportunities (responsibilities) to create memories of a carefree, wonderful childhood.

“Well, we’ll probably head to the farmers’ market later and we do have some parties to go to...” I ventured.

“Must be nice,” he chuckled.

“Well, if you must know, I might like to do some writing for my much-neglected blog or tackle my course prep or practice yoga or take a nice long run or even sit in the hammock and read a book while eating bonbons today but those things are not among my options,” I retorted, somewhat defensively…

At said farmers’ market I ran into a girlfriend who was there with her “surprise” child – conceived while she was on birth control in her early forties and her two daughters were in their early tweens and her life had begun to free up. I told her about the above exchange and she laughed heartily, resignedly, only slightly bitterly…

Some school-less days, we spend the whole day looking forward to that treasured half hour after the kids are in bed, that bit of time we have to ourselves before we pass out. In summertime, official bedtimes stretch out -- for us, 7 and 8pm become 9 and 10 and later.

And then sometimes, as soon as they are in bed, we miss them! Right?

That said, here’s what I currently am able to offer, given my summery circumstances: a petite follow-up spectrum to selected past posts:

“Tommy” (from “Would you rather…I”)
I found out that I was right: Tommy’s elderly mother did pass away and he did have to move. However, he didn’t have to go too far: he was taken in by his Aunt, who lives closer to the center of our small town. He has brothers who are very devoted to him in the neighborhood to boot! He now strolls happily with his walking stick around the town square, which has been called one of the most lovely in New England.

Figure I: The Empty House up the street, which was Tommy’s home. It is no longer quite so sad to see.

Tripping/Boundaries (Toilets)/Diet/Diarrhea

We have been gluten and casein free for over a month.

Those of us with weak stomachs still have ‘em – G’s is about the same and mine is noticeably worse. Migraines? Worse. Red mask-like skin? Worse. Reflux?  Worse.

Compensatory eating has also become a factor, insofar as we resent not eating certain foods and those substitute items we do eat are generally awful (so naturally we need to eat more of them).

I understand, though, that this process can take at least three months, so we are sticking with it for now. As for the fake-gluten and fake-dairy items- avast ye terrible products (with a few notable exceptions, such as GLOW cookies). I wager it’s time to focus entirely on whole foods, not wheat/dairy replacements.  I also wager we ultimately will end up moving toward a diet much lower in wheat and dairy, much as we did with soy after Mothering magazine published a damning article about soy in 2004 (and we realized we were eating 6-8 servings a day of soy!).*

It being summer, we have ventured a few perhaps ill-advised jaunts to visit the ocean and family. Restaurants are pretty much out of the question since the only vegetarian item ever available for kids seems to be macaroni and cheese. Mac and cheese seems to hold great desirability and nostalgia for G in particular: “Remember when we used to eat maccy?” he recently asked with a tear, subsequently admitting that our “adventure” with this GFCF diet has been “really, really hard.” I wondered aloud if Z felt the same, and was met with a sheepish, sad nod. That kind of suffering seems hard to justify without any surety around whether a GFCF diet is a solution for us; still, we will go the three-plus months needed for a clear indication.

I used to feel sorry for servers who have to deal with “picky” people at their tables. Now my feelings are more mixed, knowing, as I do, how hard it is for families with possible intolerances who are trying to have a rare treat: a nice, non-depressing meal out with their kids.

If, for instance, after close perusal we find that the only vegetarian, gluten free, casein free item on a menu is a frittata with potato crust and then are told, “Oh no, we don’t have that today, we only have the bacon-cheddar quiche,” are we, Full spectrum Mama, justified in going into a fugue state?

Also, we are coping with G’s anxiety around driving anywhere further away than 20 minutes. I don’t want car travel to become a phobia for him, so we have a policy now of stopping as often as he even suspects he might need to go. Two hour trips can turn quickly to four, but then again he only needed to stop twice en route to Cleveland (ten hours). Go figure. I cannot decipher if there is any correlation with any particular types of the limited foods we are still eating.

The other day I was reading The Autism Revolution (not entirely uncritically) during my lunch and I found out that several factors in G’s life -- including birth by C-section, being gestated by a mother with an autoimmune disorder and antibiotic use during the first month of his life (in the NICU) -- may be affiliated with compromised immunity, increased inflammation and allergies, and, finally, autism.

A few minutes later I checked my email and my beloved cousin, Loon, had sent me a link to “Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden,” by Carl Zimmer
(, which basically makes very similar points. For instance, Zimmer describes how vaginal chemistry changes during pregnancy so that when babies pass through the birth canal they are coated with and ingest Lactobacillus johnsonii, thereby promoting a healthy immune system through the skin and facilitating digestion. Babies born by C-section do not receive these benefits. While we may take some steps to improve the health and population of gut bugs, baseline gut health is set to some degree during the first month of life.

I resolved to learn more about which foods and supplements might be at least somewhat helpful, and to at least try to reset our baselines! Zimmer’s article, however, questions the efficacy of currently available probiotics and discusses the emerging field of fecal transplants as an increasingly accepted procedure in the medical field.

So I was telling Pardner about all this reading…and he began to look increasingly uncomfortable. As it began to dawn on me that he apparently suspected I might be contemplating something rather “out there,” I decided to take this very concept – which, actually, up to that moment, had not occurred to me -- and roll with it:

Figure II: Horror, dread, incredulousness: Pardner, at the very moment I suggested he place some of his excrement in capsules for G and me to use as suppositories in a sort of “at-home fecal transplant,” since, “after all, I am a doctor!” **

“You need help!”/ I need help!

I am raring at the bit to try out my handy new phrase, “I need to find a way to get us out of this trap,” which was offered by a dear friend in response to my overuse of “You need help.” Of course, Z has chosen the last few weeks to be a shining beacon of peace with sporadic detours into insta-mega-tantrums far too shattering to bow in the face of gentle words. It’s as if she can sense when I feel I have our situation somewhat under control and is able, however briefly and incompletely, to relax and/or sidestep my handy new tools. Smartypants.

Bike Riding
It is with profound ambivalence that I share with you the news that G is now at long last able to ride his bike. He himself is jubilant and wants to go faster and faster!

However, the question remains as to whether or not he should ride a bike. That is, he is able to balance and peddle, yes. Other stuff, like stopping the bike, turning, riding on the proper side of the road and listening for cars remains elusive.

Paying Attention
Yesterday, G said, “When you said that it sounded like you were upset.” What was wrong? Nothing! We-e-ell, maybe I was being simultaneously talked-at by two small persons, but otherwise I was FINE.

So he picked up on that tiny bit of irritation? Amazing, especially for what may have been the first time he has ever noticed such a thing.  Oh, happy (not even slightly persnickety) summer day!

Full Spectrum Mama

* I couldn’t find the article, "The Whole Soy Story, The Dark Side of America's Favorite Health Food," by Kaayla T. Daniel, in the Mothering archives, but I did find this response:
** (of philosophy)