Last night I took Jakey for a walk around our neighborhood. The sun was setting, the breeze was cool, and he had a paper airplane he wanted to test.
We checked the direction of the wind. We noted the plane’s patterns of flight. We laughed. Over and over again he repeated, “Mama! Watch this! Watch this, Mama!”
I was watching. Had been watching. I was right there, totally present.
Some teachers have questioned if I spend enough time listening to him. Playing with him. Paying attention to him.
It’s a bewildering question since I have been in his corner, one hundred and ten percent, cheering him on since the day he was born.
I have to remind myself they don’t know I lay on the floor with him when he was an infant who refused to be content with tummy time—it was plank time, obviously—he had to show off his little tiny baby muscles, his loud baby voice, before the world had even taught him there’s anything to prove.
They don’t know how many games of peek-a-boo or made-up songs or walks around the neighborhood in the Baby Bjorn I invested. They don’t know that when his brother was born my heart broke before it expanded, because I knew he’d suffer without a constant audience.
I’ve had teachers imply (or state directly) that I must not set boundaries for my child.
I have to remind myself they haven’t seen the frustration and tears as I remain firm in the boundaries we’ve agreed on as a family. They don’t see how he bounces back faster than he used to. They don’t know the progress we’ve made over the last three years.
I’ve had teachers imply (or state directly) they don’t believe he has empathy, and that we need to work on his understanding of emotions and the emotions of others.
I have to remind myself they weren’t there the time he sobbed, at 18 months, when he first heard the song “Five Little Ducks,” because he was so relieved the baby ducklings were reunited with their mother.
They aren’t there when he asks how my day was, or gives me a hug, or tells me “I know you don’t like surprises, so I’m telling you now even though I’m going to surprise Daddy (because he loves them!)”
What they see is a child who can’t sit still, who questions authority, who will let you know how he’s feeling (and loudly). They see a child who resists being put in time out (time outs do not work), who uses maladaptive strategies for making connections with others.
I see this, too.
What I also see is a little boy who is full of passion and curiosity and a desire to make friends. A boy who longs to be seen and accepted and celebrated for the unique person he is. A little boy who struggles with anxiety and big feelings and most likely some brain wiring that isn’t quite neurotypical.
And since he’s loud, and gets “too” excited, and forgets to give people personal space, he gets labeled as problematic. Troubled. Behaviorally challenged.
Guess how adults treat a kid like that?
I have been appalled at the level of disdain, anger, and shaming we have experienced during our time in Hawaii. The looks I get from strangers — I must be a terrible mother. The comments I’ve gotten from teachers—“do you ever tell him no?” The harsh tones used by adults who are supposedly trained to work with children.
This was all on my mind as last night I watched him tossing the plane higher and higher into the orange sky. “Mommy! Did you see how it flew faster when I removed its tip?! It’s lighter now. My theory was correct!”
He presents as a confident, articulate, highly intelligent child. He looks older than he is. His brain is a wonder. And it’s almost as if people resent him for having a developmental lag in emotional regulation because he’s advanced in other ways.
“He should know better,” they tell me.
They don’t want to deal with the raw truth of his frustration and his pain. They don’t want to have to hold those emotions themselves, or regulate their own bodies in the face of his overwhelm.
I get it. Sometimes I don’t want to, either. But I have no choice, because I am his mother, and I love him.
He does know better. And I honestly believe that if he could do better, he would.
We thought we had found a preschool that would help him. We thought we had found teachers who were willing to work with us and try new strategies that have been helping him at home.
Instead, we found teachers that put him in extended time outs because “we honestly were just tired of dealing with him,” who yelled at him, and who strung me along for months, insisting he had a place there before sending a letter home right before the holidays explaining they were no longer prepared to accommodate him.
This week will be his last, and with no one event to point to, I had to come up with an explanation for why he has to leave.
Last night I sat in the grass, holding a sobbing five year old, trying to explain to him what it means for a school to not be “the right fit.” I tried to acknowledge his grief and also paint a hopeful future (when I have no idea what that actually looks like).
How do you explain neuropsychological testing and occupational therapy to a five year old?
Maybe he has ADHD. Maybe he has sensory processing disorder. Maybe he’s dyslexic. Maybe he’s got anxiety that manifests as frustration and a desire for control.
And maybe, even without all of that, the amount of transition this kid has been through in his short five years on the planet is enough to give anyone a hard time. Because #militarylife
But last night, holding him in the gathering dark, his paper airplane discarded in the shadows, I couldn’t say any of this to him.
All I could say was “I love you. I’m so proud of you. You’ve been working so hard. We’re going to figure this out.”
This morning, my soul heavy with the weight of last night’s pain, his easy smile reminded me that being a mother is perhaps, at times, harder than being a kid.
Or at least, more complex.
They have no idea of the emotional burdens we carry for them.
They have no idea how much we fight for them.
He does know he’s loved. He knows we see him for the complex imperfect wonder that he is. And he knows I will do whatever it takes to get him the support he needs.
Today I have to believe that is enough. I have to believe that soon the wind will once again pick up, that his paper airplane will soar, and we will laugh to see the surprising path created by design, and effort, and perhaps a little bit of luck.
In the meantime, I beg you: let’s offer compassion to the kids who annoy us, push our buttons, who are “bad examples.” When you’ve got capacity, take a moment to listen to their questions and laugh at their jokes. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
They are precious souls—they are children—who are doing the best they can with the resources they have.
And if you’re the mama of an exceptional child like mine—please know you are not alone. I see you.
I’m here, if you need anything. ❤️