A perfect moment of joy between friends

Brandon has a friend at school whom he adores. This other little boy, who I'll call Dennis, kinda reminds me of Dennis the Menace, but in the best possible way - we really like him. He also seems to get Brandon like no one else. They've been in the same class for three years, and they've been mostly inseparable for the past two years.

Dennis has been out from time to time this school year - I think his family must be having one of those cursed years of one sickness after another after another. (I really feel for them on this!) On one occasion, he returned to school the same day Brandon asked me to pick him up early. I was able to get him early, but I found out later that Brandon had a really hard time leaving Dennis behind. He wanted to be with me, but he didn't want to miss a single minute of his friend being back. He actually got teary-eyed when he hugged Dennis goodbye. They have a really sweet and special relationship.

Brandon often comes home telling me plans that he and Dennis have made. We take them with a grain of salt. If moms or dads haven't been in touch, there aren't any actual plans. But a couple weeks ago the boys decided they were going to meet at the school playground to play after dinner. Matt picked Brandon up, heard the plan, and was able to take him at the time they said. Dennis wasn't there. 

A week later, I was doing pickup. Once again, a plan had been made. But I had a work commitment and I told Brandon I wasn't sure we'd make it back in time. He went with me, helped me, and I rushed to finish so we could get back to the school as soon as possible. We were 15 minutes late and Dennis was once again not there. 

While Brandon and I rushed to get to the school, I called Matt and begged him to meet me at the school so I could go home and change out of the shirt I spilled chipotle sauce all over (I was a literal hot mess). He met us, as promised, as we were walking back to the car and offered to stay with Brandon so he could play even though Dennis wasn't there. I got about 20 feet away, heading back to my car, when Matt called out to me.

I turned around and saw Brandon running for all his might toward Dennis, who was running just as eagerly to hug his friend. 

Their faces radiated happiness and their little bodies practically vibrated with joy. 

Even though I didn't have a camera ready, that image is etched in my brain as one of the sweetest things I've ever seen. 

Later, I found out that Dennis had to work pretty hard to convince his parents to let him go and I'm so thankful they humoured him.

The stories that come out of schools about mean kids and bullying (even some of what Brandon has experienced) can make us sad, depressed, and angry.

But those aren't the only stories, thank goodness. There are stories of kids who meet and form a bond that has the potential to last if life circumstances work in their favour. Whatever happens, I hope these boys will always remember the years of their friendship as happy times growing up knowing they have a friend to lean on no matter what.

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A person's a person, no matter how small

Something interesting happened yesterday when we picked Brandon up from daycare. Matt and I walked in and Brandon had been transformed…into a princess! The kids were having a great time playing dressup and Brandon had on this fantastic princess costume that I would totally wear if I was him, too.

His teacher told me that they’d been taking pictures earlier in the day and he saw one and pointed at it and that’s where the quote in the picture came from: “Look at her! He’s a princess!” I can totally hear my little guy saying that and it made me laugh. 

When he didn’t want to leave the dress behind, his teacher jumped in with an offer to let him wear it home if he brought it back. (She wins teacher of the year, by the way.) When we got home, he sat on the front step looking ridiculously cute in the dress, with is crown, wand and the always necessary sporty sunglasses. The moment had to be recorded.

I posted the picture to Facebook and received more likes and comments than I have on anything in quite a while. Who wouldn’t like a picture of him, especially in a princess costume!? 

The comments, however, made me slightly uncomfortable at the same time as they generated interesting discussion. My discomfort was from being called a hero for letting Brandon “express himself regardless”. To me, I did nothing apart from allowing him to continue to play in a way that he wanted to. He’s starting to practice imaginary play and that’s beyond exciting to me. The last thing I’m going to do is squash it by telling him he’s a boy so he can’t wear a dress. 

And that, my friends, was the issue: There are many well-meaning, loving, kind parents who want their children to conform to society’s accepted gender guidelines long before the age when children notice or care that these invisible lines even exist. This forces children to fit into a mold that fits some quite well and others perpetually struggle to be comfortable in.

My intent in posting that picture of Brandon was to share a fun incident. However, it generated an interesting discussion - with friends and in my own thoughts. Does anyone remember this post from a couple of years ago? Sarah, the mom who let her son dress as Daphne (from Scooby Doo) for Halloween? Despite my distate for the link bait title (and I get why she went there), I feel like this discussion of boys dressing as girls is far from over. Sarah raised an extremely important point in her post when she stated:

If my daughter had dressed as Batman, no one would have thought twice about it. No one.

HOW WRONG IS THAT!?

Know what else is wrong? A mother second-guessing herself for letting her son choose to wear a dress or other “feminine” accessories. But she’s well-justified when society can’t be trusted to treat him decently if he’s dressed outside of the norm. (You know how I feel about “normal”, right?)

Women have won a lot of rights over the last century: the right to vote, to choose the length of our hemline, to wear pants, to work or stay home - the list goes on and on. Things have gotten better for us! And yet, I wonder if a consequence is (even if only temporarily as the pendulum settles) that males now have certain rigid expectations of their role that, at times, make males the new oppressed gender. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not going to start the masculinist (is that even a word?) movement. However, as the mother of a son, this is something I am genuinely concerned about.

I have trouble with the concept of raising children gender neutral. From ensuring that toys and books don’t influence with stereotypes to not revealing the gender of a child. I have to wonder if this is potentially a whole new form of oppression where children may be discouraged from showing interest in something because it’s too close to being stereotypical. For example, we have lived on a construction site since before Brandon was born. He’s seen equipment all over the place since he was a baby and early on had a keen interest. (Not to mention that his daddy loves all things construction and engineering, and works in the field too.) Should I discourage that because it’s too stereotypically “boy”?

If I had a daughter, would I have to discourage her from wanting to play with dolls and other stereotypical “girl” activities?

My own philosophy has been to encourage Brandon’s interests as he discovers them. Sometimes that means he plays with a doll. Sometimes it means he plays with a fire truck. 

Apart from the obvious double standard, there is a far bigger and more important issue with discussions around a young boy dressing as a girl and that’s the nearly automatic discussion of whether or not he’s gay. Or gender confused. Or whatever. (Can you feel me rolling my eyes?)

Children are people. Let them grow and develop with dignity and respect. That kind of discussion around an adult is offensive, so why is it considered (by some) to be okay with a child? 

My son is 4 years old. I have NO CLUE the kind of person he’ll be as an adult. I certainly have hopes for him, most of which include his happiness and fulfillment in life (and grandchildren for me to love ;). I’m certainly not going to look at that picture of him wearing a dress and start wondering (or worrying) that he may be gay. Regardless of the path he takes in life, I will love him. Always and unconditionally. 

We need to stop reading so much into the actions of young children and start to question the judgments applied to boys versus girls. The reality is that they’re discovering the world and themselves. If part of that exploration includes journeys that cross over the border of gender, does it truly matter?

*****

My lack of worry about boys dressing as girls probably has a lot to do with my tendency to force my little brother to dress as and pretend to be a girl when we were children. I wanted a sister, so when mom and dad didn’t deliver, I created one for myself. Her name was Kelly. Kelly grew up into a very large, bearded, tattooed man with three daughters who claims he understands women *snort* and owes that to me. Surprisingly, his incredibly talented, intelligent and lovely wife even agrees! ;) 

My child is just like every other kid - he's weird.

I love this quote. One of the PAB speakers used it and I’ve adopted it as my personal mantra.When I was a child, my father (who reads my blog, so I’m totally going to bait him a little) essentially brainwashed myself and my brothers to believe that the statement, “You are weird”, was a compliment. Dad, who I often refer to as a walking dictionary (because of his freakishly large vocabulary of freakishly large words) liked to teach us the meaning of words - sometimes in a thesaurus kind of way. Sometimes in a dictionary kind of way. (I knew the meaning of hyperbole when I was about eight, because dad liked to use hyperbole…a lot.) Weird was more a of thesaurus word from his alter ego, the walking thesaurus.

Being called weird is a compliment because it means you’re unique.

As I child, I think I often mentally rolled my eyes at Dad’s brainwashing. As a mouthy teen, I fought back with, “Yeah, I’m unique; just like everybody else.” (I think my intent was to irritate my dad, but somehow he thought - and still thinks - my response is hilarious.) But today I appreciate Dad’s perspective, which is confirmed quite nicely by Thesaurus.com if you look up weird and unique.

We are all weird!

As I’ve started talking about the process of getting Brandon assessed for developmental delays/disorders, something interesting has started happening. Friends and acquaintances that don’t know Brandon (or don’t know him well) listen to one or two of the reasons we’re having B assessed and jump in with, “Oh, my kid did that; that’s normal!” 

This rubs me the wrong way and I feel like I have to justify what we’re doing even though I know that this is the right thing to do for Brandon to ensure he gets the absolute best start possible. And yet, I think the intent behind this statement is basically good. People want to reassure me that my son isn’t “abnormal” or somehow flawed.

Normal is relative

My beliefs about this process as it relates to my son can be summed up in three points that I shared on Kids in the Capital recently:

  • Nothing is “wrong” with my son. He is exactly right just the way he is.
  • Assessments are just a jargony way of saying you have to be creatively vigilant and diligent to learn how to reach a child in the way that works for them.
  • I will do whatever it takes to help my son, because just as I get to share my stories in a way that works for me, I want him to find a way to share his.

My motivation behind getting him assessed is not to highlight all the things that are “wrong” with him. It’s to figure out how we can change what we’re doing so that our communication and behavior is right for him.

Put more simply, I want to know what I can change to help him. The assessments aren’t about changing him at all or making him more “normal”.

“Normal” is not interchangeable with “Norms”

Raise your hand if you have ever or know a parent who has ever compared their child with another child. Pretty much every person reading this in the western hemisphere should have their hand up (which kind of amuses me to imagine), because we ALL do it.

The problem with these comparisons is that not everyone knows what norms are. Often, what is within established norms is confused as “normal”. Having been raised by a walking dictionary, I often refer back to the dictionary for precise meanings:

Dictionary.com defines “norms” as follows (I skipped the lengthy math definition):

a standard, model, or pattern.

general level or average: Two cars per family is the norm in most suburban communities.

a designated standard of average performance of people of a given age, background, etc. (re: education)

a standard based on the past average performance of a given individual.

the greatest difference between two successive points of a given partition.

But what is “normal”?

Normal is complex and, in my opinion, completely relative to personal experiences. The dictionary definition of normal doesn’t address societal interpretations and connotations behind the word. Behavior that can appear normal for one person/child may seem completely out of left field for another.

Brandon is the only child I’ve had. We don’t get to be around other children very often. We had a sense that he was delayed in certain ways, but we erred on the side of “wait and see”. It wasn’t until his caregiver (who is around other children quite often) spoke up about her concerns about where he was at compared to children two years younger that we knew we needed to get him help.

I don’t need or want to be placated.

I have a plethora of specialists who are trained to spot areas that we can work to help Brandon. We know there are challenges to overcome. I’m trying hard keep a level head through this process rather than be an emotional basketcase.

Parents of children who are going through the assessment process already have enough doubts about our parenting abilities. It’s incredibly frustrating to do the instinctive things parents do and find they don’t work. Experimentation with methods that may seem to outsiders like coddling, spoiling, helicoptering and other negative terms can lead to judgment from others about our parenting abilities. That’s going to happen with strangers - there is absolutely nothing any of us can do to stop it.

But I hope that people who know me can recognize that, like any other mother (and father), we are doing our very best to do the right thing for our child. It isn’t unusual for even siblings to need different things from their parents.

It’s not inequality.

It’s parenting individuals.

Individuals who are weird.

So, I won’t tell you your kid is normal if you don’t tell me mine is, because who on earth wants to be normal? It’s much better to be weird.

Things are lookin' up for us in so many ways

Since I last wrote about our challenges with Brandon I have been overwhelmed with abundant support and kindness from everyone. To the point that I haven’t had time to answer all of the lengthy and truly appreciated emails of support and stories that have come in. (I’m working thru it in-between work, I promise I will write you back if I haven’t yet. I’ve just been busy night and day for weeks!)

But first let me tell you about the last couple of weeks because they’ve been amazing. We’ve gone from daily, stressful, I’m-not-sure-how-much-more-I-can-take tantrums to one single tantrum that diffused faster than ever in TWO WEEKS!

Three weeks ago (ish?), I filled out a 300 question (!!!) child development inventory that was intended to get a general idea from our perspective of where Brandon stands with development in a number of areas. The result? All areas came back significantly delayed except for one. It’s not at all a diagnostic tool, but I felt it was useful in guiding our specialists in where to start.

If I filled out that questionnaire today many of my answers would change. Many of them. Possibly even half.

I’ve seen progress since that inventory that has amazed me. Behavior, communication, they’ve both been astoundingly good (relative to before).

I have no clue what happened. Brandon’s daycare teachers are sad that he’s leaving because he’s been such a joy and that makes my mama heart so proud. I’m equally sad as we have grown very attached to the five or six lovely women who are responsible for his care while we are at work.

This daycare centre was but a temporary stop from the beginning. We knew it. They knew it. Next week he starts at the daycare attached to his school. And though we’ve gone in and met them and I feel good about the environment he’ll be in, I’m very scared of the transition.

I’m trying to temper my fears because children are far too perceptive for me to let those fears take deep root. I don’t want him to sense my fear of this change and make him insecure. I want him to flourish and thrive through it.

But the hard part is that he’s in a good place right now. He’s happy, having fun and excited about everything (for the most part). We’ve had so much fun with him the last couple of weeks and I just don’t want this change to disrupt that.

I thought we’d have to be very careful how we prepare him for next week. Tell him too early and we risk great disappointment and upset leading to a major tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants now. Tell him too late and we risk great disappointment and upset leading to a major tantrum when he is forced to do what he doesn’t want to do now.

Much to our surprise, our current daycare centre took the initiative to begin preparing both Brandon and his fellow classmates for Brandon leaving after this week. They’ve been brilliant, celebrating the time he has left with them and getting him excited about where he’s going. When I walked in Monday evening to pick him up, half of the children gave Brandon hugs as he left. I was so touched by these children and their unconditional friendship to Brandon. I don’t know if he feels attached to any of these children, but they clearly like him. One even asked him to come to her birthday party as he was leaving, which was so sweet.

To say that this change had my nerves on edge is an understatement. Yes, I’m aware that what I describe is no different than any child. There is a difference, though, and I find it difficult to quantify other than that my little boy has so often upset himself to the point that he passes out (asleep). These “tantrums” are the direct result of being unable to reason with him about things that other children deal with differently.

We haven’t had to deal with that level of upset in two weeks. It’s done wonders for our stress levels during a time when we were a bit stressed about some other areas of life. Thank goodness he chose now to calm down, even if it’s only temporary. I still don’t know how to communicate effectively with him to prevent his upset. That’s a challenge that I know we’ll work on until we find the answer.

All this past weekend, I kept thinking about how thankful I am to have him, regardless of what’s going on. Today I got word that we’ll have an appointment with the Developmental Pediatrician in just two weeks. I feel optimistic, no longer alone, and I needed that.

I want to leave you with this video. This is excerpts of Jason Goldsmith, who founded The Big Blue Hug, speaking at PAB about his son, Ellis. I wrote about this a couple weeks ago, but the video wasn’t quite ready. I think when you see it, you’ll see why I was so profoundly affected by hearing Jason.

He spoke to me right where I’m at in life. And that is powerful.