I can guarantee you that I’m the only one in my house who finds this funny, but I do—this morning, while packing lunches for the kids, I went into the pantry and found an open bag of chocolate chips just sitting there. (Hang on; that’s not the funny part.) The chips were Ghirardelli, for cryin’ out loud, which meant that my child had 1) snacked on baking supplies, 2) left them open to get stale or infested, and 3) chosen the highest-quality chocolate on the shelf to pilfer. I was livid, because my daughter and I had just been baking over the weekend and had a long discussion about how I’m happy to buy or make snacks, but when she helps herself to things like chocolate chips, then there’s no supplies around when we want to bake.
Bag in hand, I went upstairs and rapped on the bathroom door. “Did you open these? And eat them? And leave the open bag on the shelf for ants to find?” My poor daughter; she’s not a morning person under the best of circumstances, and she pulled her wet towel tighter around herself and furrowed her brow at the bag of chips. Then she insisted she hadn’t touched them. But the thing is, she’s got a sweet tooth unlike any other, and she’s somewhat legendary for sneaking snacks. So I was on my second, “Are you absolutely sure?” before I realized she was telling the truth.
So here’s the funny part: I turned away from the bathroom door to behold my son, emerging from his bedroom, looking every inch like the cat that ate the canary. Oh. “Son, did you eat these chocolate chips and then leave the bag open?” I asked.
He froze in place for a couple of seconds before replying, “Yes. But I thought I closed the bag. I’m sorry.”
I managed to stifle a giggle while I turned around to apologize to my daughter for jumping to conclusions. She went back to getting ready, and my son and I had a brief talk about why I’d rather he not eat baking supplies and how food containers need to be sealed to keep things fresh and bug-free. He was contrite. I was elated.
If you’re a parent to neurotypical kids, this story—and my delight in it—probably makes no sense to you. As of this writing, my son is 14 (and a half, he would remind me), but due to the fun of autism and the differences it brings to our lives, he is something of a poster child for asynchronous development. He’s a sophomore in high school this year, which is part of a larger life transition for him than most, as this marks his first stint of full-time public schooling since he was in elementary school. One of his very best friends is only 10. The decision to allow him to skip a year was a complicated one, as it widened the already large chasm between his maturity and his classmates’. Ultimately we decided on it because he’s bright. Gifted, actually, or twice exceptional, if you’re into special-snowflake-speak. He needed the academic challenge. He’s brilliant, but also very, very immature. Some of that is the autism, some of that is just his personality.
So, back to the chocolate chips: Most children will push boundaries and start lying about it when caught around age 2 or 3, and most middle schoolers enter a resurgence of this toddler-like “you’re not the boss of me” behavior and subsequent lying, as well (and it may last through the teen years). My son is what we like to refer to as “rule-bound.” He likes rules. He follows them, for the most part, even when he doesn’t agree with them. He rarely breaks rules, and then he never lies. These are qualities I appreciate about him; the value he places on honesty is one we share (and heaven knows his sister seems invested in creative versions of reality in a way that keeps me on my toes). At the same time, it’s developmentally appropriate for him to be breaking rules from time to time, because he’s a kid figuring out the world and that’s how most people do it. The fact that he’d snuck a forbidden snack while I wasn’t home secretly delighted me. How very age appropriate of him! I also enjoyed that he ‘fessed up immediately, but then tried to save face by insisting he’d closed the bag. That was a nice touch.
Last week, we were trying to talk to my son about something (I can’t even remember what, now) and he became agitated, then belligerent. He pushed away from the kitchen table and stormed upstairs, and we could hear him stomping and screaming up there. My husband and I exchanged a look. Would this be one of those meltdowns where he’d remain irrational and paranoid (“You never listen to me! Everyone hates me!”) for an hour or more? It was over in under two minutes. “Mom,” I heard him call from the top of the stairs, in a pleasant voice. “Could we finish talking now?” After I joined him, the first thing he said was, “I know you’re not trying to make me feel bad, I just have some trouble hearing things I might construe as critical, sometimes. I’m sorry I overreacted. I would like us to finish our discussion.” We talked until the matter was resolved, and I went back downstairs and whispered to my husband, “Who is that kid?”
The road will continue to be bumpy for some time; based on what we know about others on a similar trajectory, we don’t expect him to be “caught up” to his peers in terms of emotional control until well into his 20s. I’ve been quick to tears my entire life—it’s just how I am—and while I find it inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing, I never realized until watching my son struggle how much less tolerant society is of boys and men who have the same tendency. Boys are not supposed to cry; boys who are old enough to shave are really not supposed to cry. On the one hand, I think that’s sexist crap, but on the other hand, it’s how society operates, and I want to help my son cope in productive ways. This means we spend a lot of time talking about how there is absolutely nothing wrong with crying, for anyone, but he has to understand that at his age, other kids will hassle him if he does, especially if it’s over something they don’t see as a big deal. (We work on tactics for remaining calm, mental exercises that can pull him out of a place where he’ll cry, and exit strategies if he can’t do either of those.)
He can do calculus, but too much noise or a harsh word can reduce him to tears. Sometimes I can see how hard he’s working every day just to decipher other people and his place in the world. His path is a little steeper than I wish it was, but darn if he doesn’t just keep going on up it.
I think I might put some chocolate chips in his lunch tomorrow. Shhhh, don’t tell.