DJ decided one day he didn’t want to go grocery shopping. He wanted his parents to continue drive him around aimlessly like some sort of unpaid chauffeur. Because I had the audacity to disobey his wishes he threw a temper tantrum deserving of an Oscar. For a nonverbal child he can be extremely loud, demanding, temperamental, and extremely stubborn.
Because DJ has significant disabilities he believes he is entitled to the Helen Keller mentality. I’m inclined to agree. We just disagree on what period of Helen’s life he should emulate. He prefers the pre-Annie Sullivan days when little Helen was allowed to roam free taking from anyone what she desired and steam-rolling over anyone who dared get in her way. I, however, am more inclined to the older Helen who is wise and prosperous as a direct result of Ms. Sullivan’s discipline. Therein lies problem one.
Problem two is that although DJ doesn’t speak he certainly comprehends. Well over 90% of the time DJ is crystal clear on what is being asked or expected of him. He is also well acquainted with appropriate behavior. Anyone who spends time with him becomes aware of this fairly quickly. But to strangers his intelligence and comprehension is masked behind his obvious disabilities. And that is problem three.
There are times when all three of these problems culminate into the perfect emotional storm. Such was the case on a trip to Whole Foods Market. My husband, Steve, dropped DJ and me at the door. That sent DJ immediately into def con 5 tantrum. DJ likes to ride in the car and doesn’t tolerate well any interruption of what he desires to do. In his little mind this public place was the perfect spot to stage an uprising. He was certain that with enough vocals and emotion he would have everyone eating out of the poor little disabled boy’s hand. But in my mind, I’m thinking being special needs doesn’t give him a license to be special bad.
To his credit, DJ spotted his audience much quicker than I. An unsuspecting middle-aged woman just getting her shopping cart was about to be thrust into DJ’s world. Looking back I almost feel sorry for her – almost. DJ began screaming in his dialect that no one understands and stomping his foot in pure unmitigated anger. Just as the lady passed us DJ’s hand snakes out and snatches her shopping cart. With all his might he hangs on to her shopping cart and screams as if he is about to be murdered.
He didn’t just startle the poor woman he scared the crap out of her! Her terrified eyes flew to mine. I was immediately struck with the notion that I could probably ask this woman to give me every dime in her bank account and she would happily oblige if I would just pry my kid off her. That thought didn’t have long to settle because it was edged out by a parenting philosophy I adopted with my first child. Where you show it is where you get it.
I’m not easily embarrassed but that didn’t stop my boys from trying to get away with things in public, hoping against hope I’d give into them if others were watching. I give my boys room to fly and my discipline leans toward talking it out, finding out where they went wrong and finding a solution for the future. However, staging a public coup was never a wise choice. If they were brazen enough to try such tactics, I was brazen enough to spank their butts for all the world to see. For each child it took no more than twice for them to quickly figure out a public spectacle was not in their best interest. I was NEVER the mother in a store with a screaming, crying child that drew everyone’s eye.
That day in Whole Foods Market was DJ’s first encounter with the “where you show it is where you get it” mentality. Because he is special needs he was given far more leniency than his able-bodied brothers. In a calm voice I explained to him in no uncertain terms what was going to happen if he didn’t get control of his little volatile emotions. However, during that discussion the lady now caught in DJ’s cross hairs was out of earshot. She was about to respond to a situation she only thought she saw all of.
The stage was set for drama and us being us we delivered. Without hesitating, I swatted DJ on the butt just before untangling his hand from her cart. Now, for all that would like to crucify me for daring to spank my child a few things you should know. First, I subscribe to the spare the rod spoil the child mentality. Second, he was wearing a thick diaper that made more sound than inflict pain. And third, I don’t really care what you think because you don’t have to live with him.
The poor unsuspecting lady in Whole Foods was about to get her first lesson in Joan Zone parenting. When I gave DJ his single swat on the behind she swelled up with indignation, looked down her very pointed nose at me and said, “I can’t believe you spanked him!”
Now, granted I could have taken the time to explain DJ’s medical history, but it wasn’t like I was beating the child. He didn’t even cry. In fact, DJ’s only response to his spanking was to stop screaming. I never punish DJ for things he truly can’t comprehend. But I know the difference in what is his disabilities and what is him simply acting out. Rather than explain myself I took the frame of mind of, “You have no inclination as to what it takes to raise this child so step off!” I didn’t say that. Instead, I looked at this woman standing there judging me, pointed a very determined finger at her and said, “I’ll spank you too.”
The woman gave me an indignant “hummpf.” She stalked off holding her nose so high in the air she would have drowned had it been raining. Poor Steve who had been parking the car during this fiasco came in just in time to hear my response. “Did you just threaten to spank that woman?” He asked incredulously. I merely shrugged, completely confused that after all these years of marriage he still has to ask such questions.
I’d love to give you the details of his very wise and logical speech about handling the situation differently but quite frankly, I wasn’t listening. I positively adore my husband he is the most loving, intelligent person I know. At the risk of sounding arrogant, no one knows DJ like I do. DJ is my blessing, son, student, full-time job, patient, client and sometimes nemesis. Steve is the most fantastic dad I’ve ever encountered. But DJ is kryptonite to his superman parenting.
Later, we ran into the woman again. At this point DJ has stopped his emotional terrorism. He is now pushing his little walker right beside the shopping cart like a well behaved little boy. He is smiling, laughing and stopping periodically to grab me and jabber in a way that even I don’t understand. But understanding isn’t the point, attention is. So, I stopped each time, leaned down on his level and give him my undivided attention. It doesn’t matter that this turns a thirty minute shopping trip into a two hour event. What matters is that even though I don’t understand what comes out of his mouth I’m make a genuine effort to understand what’s in his head. And it works. With each interaction I learn a little more about how a little boy locked inside himself is clawing his way out in a desperate attempt to communicate with the world around him.
Our second interaction with the unwilling participant in DJ’s drama was much different than the initial. With tears in her eyes, the woman reached out and grasped my arm. She tried to explain how she didn’t understand and how sorry she was that her initial assessment of me was way off base. I quickly assured her that I understood and that prior to having DJ I may have responded the same way.
I tried to explain to her the important message I want to say to you. Special needs kids are forced to live in a world that doesn’t understand. The world won’t bend their lives to administer to the least among us. These kids must learn, to the best of their ability, how to navigate a confusing difficult world. Because someday parents won’t be here to part the seas of a non-conforming world. One of the most difficult aspects of parenting a special needs child is preparing the child to live in world that is chaos to them when their parents are no longer here. I arrived at the conclusion long ago that coddling special needs kids, giving in to their very whim and not discipline them is more of a handicap than their disability will ever be. So, the next time you’re in a public place before judging another’s parenting skills, keep in mind that what you’re seeing isn’t the entire story.