Monday, October 11, 2010

Know Your Kid

Grayson turned four on Saturday.

I turned inside out.

Not because he is getting older or I am getting older or the fact that he asked me if people's arms fall off when they go to people heaven (???) or anything close to that.

I turned inside out because I threw a huge family superhero birthday part for myself and not for him. I forgot who he was. I even asked people to dress up like their favorite superhero. Because I thought it would be fun. We had cake, decorations and beautiful bags filled with presents family and friends thoughtfully picked out for him. For my little four year old who completely freaked out when everyone showed up. As in ran upstairs to his room, closed the door quietly and locked it. It took me 11 minutes to realize he was gone. Eleven minutes to notice the guest of honor had taken leave of his own party.

If I had paid attention to the past, oh I don't know, FOUR years of his life I would've known there could be no other response from this child. If I had really thought about it, I would've realized the fight or flight instinct is stronger in children than in adults and mine is still kicking pretty red hot most of the time. I should've known he would have no choice but to run.

When I finally sweet talked my way into his room I was met with a mirror image of all my own insecurities, just in little boy form. He was in tears. Soft, steady tears of confusion, fear and even hope that maybe he would be brave enough to join in soon when nobody's eyes were on him and nobody's voice around him.

After a short pep talk, we walked downstairs to find Pop. In his broken state, Grayson searched for the one person who would help him weld himself together again by building a shelf in the garage. Something real and tangible that made sense instead of mixing and mingling with 15 of Mommy&Daddy's closest family and friends. So that is exactly what they did. Pop and Grayson worked on a small wooden shelf they started building the day before while our friends and family tried to ignore the fact that birthday boy was MIA.

It was pretty awful. For us. For him. For poor Pop who didn't know if hammering nails was an acceptable grandparent thing to do while others socialized and carried on inside the house. In my opinion, it was the only thing to do.

Grayson is shy. He is painfully, awkwardly, sometimes socially unacceptably shy. But he is also so many other fantastic things. Fantastic things strangers, distant family members and most friends never get to see. His shyness should not define him at such a young age but still it seems to so much of the time. It is colossally unfair and I try to protect him from it the best I can by helping him choose more socially acceptable behaviors but then I ask myself if I'm doing more harm than good? By protecting him from his natural inclination to be introverted am I making him feel bad for the way he feels? I tell him he should make eye contact with people, he should engage in conversation with other little boys and girls, he should play next to them if not with them on the playground. Is this the right message to send so early on? Or am I really telling him I don't accept his longer than usual warm-up period, his super cautious demeanor. In effect the one person who should love you unconditionally is saying "I don't accept you for who you are and (worse yet,) I want to change you."

The truth is, Grayson was born shy. It may sound ridiculous but anyone who met him will say the same thing. From the day we took him home, he was this way. During my first (dreadful. oh Lord do I still despise 'em) experiences with playdates, he was this way. Visiting his extended family and our close friends, he was this way. We tried to roll with it and embrace it but ultimately we treated his sensitivity and introversion as a disability.

"What are we doing wrong?" My husband and I would ask ourselves.
"Why can't he just be happier?" I'd wonder when we went outside his comfort zone.
"Why is he so clingy, so surly, so upset all the time?" we'd ask each other when we tried to go to new places or socialize with friends who Grayson wasn't quite familiar.

The truth is that it is difficult to embrace certain qualities about your child all the time. There's a fine line between accepting the inconvenient "as is" characteristics while not making them feel guilty for not intrinsically knowing more socially acceptable behaviors. Society is fickle. They can be unkind to people who are not dynamic, even at the ripe age of four. There have been enumerable times I have felt the scorn of people (sometimes people close to me) as they witness less than desirable behavior from Grayson. They may have shown it in their eyes, in their curled up lip, or even in their "helpful" advice to "just get him involved in more activities with children his own age." Oh, parent of gregarious child, I hope you get a shy one next time. You will understand then.

And yet, I let Grayson down on Saturday. I failed to fully accept him for who he is and instead planned a big party with tons of commotion, food he doesn't even like and people (he is just now starting to know) fully dressed up like someone else in their superhero costumes. I threw him the anti-birthday party.

And yet, he rallied. It may have taken solitary confinement, a new wooden shelf, and hiding in the bushes (true story) for two hours but he braved up and joined the party. He even had himself a pretty terrific time once the initial sting wore off and his sensory palette became less assaulted with the unfamiliar.

I believe he will not always run away or want to hide in new situations or with new people. There are lots of little ones out there who are just like him who grow up as well adjusted people. His preschool teacher, in fact, has a grown son who just volunteered to read a story for Grayson's class today. I got to meet him. He didn't hide behind his mom. He didn't grunt wildly and flee for a smaller space. He met my eyes, smiled warmly and shook my hand with the confident grasp of a well adjusted (and rather outgoing) young man.

"He used to be just like Grayson," the preschool teacher whispered to me, inferring the obvious and hoping I'd get it. "They are really so similar."

And we, as their mothers, are very lucky to have the honor to watch and help them grow.

Next year? We will plan a quiet day on the lake with one of his friends when our awesome four year old turns five. And nobody dresses up.


Monica said...

Who would do that? Are the people who have judged Grayson even parents? That's supposed to be one of the nice things about being around others with kids. We both have them and understand that they are little and imperfect, but wonderful. It's not fair for someone else with or without kids to judge yours for developmentally normal behavior, especially when they are shy. Sometimes, people make me mad.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it takes G-man time to warm up. When he is a teenager, his cautious nature & need to check things out before jumping in will serve him well! He ended up having a great time, lucky boy to have so much love!! - Nams

Anonymous said...

You worry too much. G is a normal little boy with very normal responses. It was mostly an adult party this time with only two cousins for him there. It went fine. Stop concerning yourself with things that are natural and normal behaviors. <3

One Sided Momma said...

monica - sometimes people make me mad too. most of the people i felt didn't understand were not parents or parents of very outgoing, laid back kids. it's hard to make people who don't get it to understand so i've stopped caring about them and concentrating on my kid(s)!

nammy - you're so right, his cautious nature will serve him legions when he's older. we hope he doesn't change too much over the course of the years.

anonymous - g is a normal little boy with normal responses. this was never in question. my failure to not freak him out on his bday is my only regret. it did end up wonderful though and he even requested another birthday party for next year so i totally worry too much. it's what i do.

Cristie said...

The unending love that causes all this introspection and worry is what makes him the luckiest boy in the world to have a mama like you.
As for how he'll grow up if he is cautious and slow to join the fray? You've met his dad right?:) He turned out pretty ok.

Crystal D said...

I have to say his behavior is very similar to a young Madeline. She cried when people would sing Happy Birthday, she was super goofy and loud to cover her nerves. Oh the faces she used to make when her teachers or strangers would say Hello. We had to practice appropriate responses before we left the house every morning. Once she had a canned response she didn't freak out and stick her tongue out while rolling her eyes. Her teachers worked with her, every morning asking "How are you Madeline?" and waiting for her to respond "I'm fine, how are you?" It seemed so little, but really it worked great, by the time she started Kindergarten she was comfortable with how to answer that question no matter who asked her.
As she got older, I would have gentle talks with her about trying things outside her comfort zone and that if she pushed herself just a little she might get to have fun experiences that otherwise would pass her by. Something about that struck a cord with her. Sometimes she is almost gutsy to the point of surprising me.
That said, she still puts up this crazy silly front when she gets nervous. On the outside it just looks like she is misbehaving, but I know from her face it is all nerves. Usually I try a soft hand on her shoulder and I give her my "relax" face. Then we talk about it later. I try and remind her how to handle her nerves before we go into a new situation. That helps the most. She has a handful of phrases she can use and by the time she uses them up she starts to relax.
She is 7 now and am very proud at how hard she works through her feelings. I think she will be at an advantage later for what she has learned so young.