I’ve been married and a step-father for 5 years. Come November I’ll be a plain old-fashioned father for 4 years. These transformations in my life have been hard on the blog. I remember when I posted a couple times a week, sometimes even a couple per day. Now I don’t have the mental energy to pontificate on such weighty matters like the state of the church or Canadian politics. The most important impact from parenthood has been learning what real ministry is. I have a son that has been diagnosed with three different mental health conditions. These labels don’t define him, and have only been modestly helpful in understanding him, but at least he has been qualified for additional support in school. This son, which I will refer to as “the boy” has tested me in ways I never I thought I could be tested. Our other kids don’t have the challenges that this son has. I know what we are going through with “the boy” is more than just “teenagerhood.”
What works with other kids doesn’t work with this one. One of the unspoken common philosophies of childhood development is “kids do well if they want to.” This is why we invent systems that reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. If a child isn’t doing what we have prescribed for him or her, then we feel the need to motivate them more. Sometimes we will ratchet up the rewards and punishments. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. What if that child didn’t have the a properly developed capacity to read social cues? “The boy” is famous for interrupting me when I’m in the middle of something else. He will keep on talking until the 3rd or 4th time I point out that he is interrupting, adding volume and bluntness with each iteration until he finally clues in. I could punish him for this behavior but he simply just doesn’t get it. Even if I motivate him to get it he won’t.
“The boy” has had a terrible time at school. While there were lulls he was constantly getting in trouble for acting inappropriately. He often used abusive language or physical violence. On the outside he looked like any other kid losing it over something most people would think is inconsequential. The truth is we were trying to educate “the boy” in an environment that caused him stress overload. Imagine trying to teach someone math who was afraid of heights on top of a roof. Imagine trying to teach someone afraid of water on a boat, or afraid of dogs in a kennel. For “the boy” the stressor was the unpredictable chaos that occurs in every school environment. Every time there was a blow up we talked about medication, diet, sleep. All those factors had relevance but after years of frustration we found one simple thread. It is kind of like “follow the money” it is “follow the anxiety.” All things being equal “the boy” didn’t want to hurt anyone with the exception of a few people he became extremely bitter with. There was something along the way that overwhelmed him and triggered an anxiety overload. When we stopped placing all our emphasis on changing the boy and put more on changing the environment the improvement was significant. We even found a school that would work with us on this.
The boy’s first school tried very hard but we found that educators are really stuck on their particular approach to education. In grade 6, a year of particular infamy for the boy, we practically begged the school to keep him inside at recess and at lunch time but they wouldn’t. Our reasoning was that recess and lunch time were unstructured chaotic times and that almost all the major incidents occurred at these times of the school day. The principal refused saying that recess was necessary for the child’s development. 3 days after that conversation I was giving the police officer my name and address for the police report. “The boy” had is worst day ever. It was that moment that sort of triggered the “this isn’t working” moment for me.
We home schooled for one year and for grade 8 found a school that understood what “the boy’s” issues were. He had the best year ever with great EA support and a nice quiet place to go for recess and lunch. There were still times he was overwhelmed and became violent. The situation couldn’t have been more ideal, yet the school environment was too much. We decided to start preparing “the boy” for the life he is going to live, not a life surrounded by hundreds of his peers in a chaotic environment.
Through the 5 years it took us to figure this out I’ve encountered more failure and personal disappointment than I ever have in life. Looking back it is hard to believe I didn’t figure what I have sooner. I’ve learned that people are often more complex than they seem to be. The simple assumptions we operate on are not always the best, and sometimes they lead us down a very futile and frustrating path. Learning to care for someone takes an incredible amount of flexibility in thinking. There is also the personal cost. Caring for someone with a complex set of mental and emotional issues can cause incredible amounts of pain and heartache. Never before in my life have I invested so much, sacrificed so much for one person, and watch that person walk all over it. Sometimes tender hearts of mercy and care can become callous and ungracious. My relationship with “the boy” has taken some steep downturns. At this moment we are back on a upswing. I can tell by my personal capacity for understanding, patience and grace.
I don’t know what the future holds, and whether “the boy” will develop coping mechanisms that will allow him to function somehow, somewhere in society. I do know that I have received inner strength through my faith in God to be a father. I keep hoping and I keep loving.