Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Mistake

Some people don't like to admit their parenting mistakes publicly. But I confess them here hoping that a parent somewhere in the world will identify with me. Maybe it will make someone feel better, knowing that we all make mistakes when we parent our children. It's realistic, and it's good to know that we are not alone. My mistake tonight was seemingly small, yet revealed to me five years worth of unknowingly making the same mistake over and over. It was a personal, parenting revelation, and not a very good one.

A friend dropped by with a bag of Christmas presents for the kids. I held Lilli in my lap and took her hands in mine, and made her open the gifts. I didn't "help her." I made her. That's autism. Merry Christmas, I hate opening this gift. But I know Lilli. I know I have to take her hands and make them do things over and over for her to learn how to do them on her own. She cannot open her own gifts yet. It is hard for her and she does not want to do it. But that does not mean that she doesn't want what's inside.

The gift was a small purple snow globe. A figure of Cinderella stood inside the glass as glitter swirled around her. Lilli looked directly at it; a good sign of a good gift. She touched it a few times, then squirmed out of my lap. So here is the tricky part. The trap I have obviously fallen into for years and never realized it. Chloe said with big eyes, "I love that Cinderella snow globe! Is that Lilli's? Can we share it?" And I, while scrunching up the pieces of ripped wrapping paper, absentmindedly responded, "What? Oh, share it? Yeah, I guess you can share it."

Chloe proceeded to tear into her own gift, a Belle doll (which she did not offer to share with Lilli). Chloe is the middle child, but she is kind of a "stand-in oldest child" since Lilli has been unable to talk. Lilli's autism keeps her outward actions from revealing her true feelings, which complicates everything. Chloe is used to doing all the talking, and having reign over all the toys in the house. She does not know what it's really like to have an older sister. Chloe is confused by the fact that Lilli is the oldest, yet she is years behind Chloe in many areas. She can be bossy, and she takes over Lilli like she takes over Josh, who is not quite two.

Lilli started doing her half cry-half whine, which has always in the past turned into the "Guessing Game" until we figured out what she wanted. But not anymore. Not since she started typing words on the ipad. She cannot spell everything yet so there is still an element of guesswork. However, the ipad was not right there, and old habits die hard. My husband ventured the first guess: "She wants to watch a movie."

"No, that's not it," I said, but I wasn't sure what it was. I thought she was mad because we were all talking and making noise. She gets overwhelmed sometimes by too much talking. I took her hand and led her into the next room, with the ipad. I stood behind her and put the ipad in front of us. "Tell me," I said. "Type what is wrong. Use words and type instead of whining."

She fought me. She whined and tried to leave the room. But I kept bringing her back to the ipad and asking her to type it instead of crying. Finally, I got this:

"Because you told"

And that was all I got. She either did not know how to spell the next part, or she did not want to type it for some reason. I asked questions. Had I said something that made her mad or embarrassed? Was it about the presents? I was stumped. Then she finally typed "mad." I went out in the living room and told my husband and his friend Ryan that I could not figure out what had just happened. It was Ryan who solved the mystery. "Was it because you told Chloe she could share the snowglobe with Lilli?"


I went back in and asked Lilli. Yes indeed, that was why she was mad. I explained to both girls that we share our things and take turns, but that certain things belong to others and we have to ask for permission. I put the snowglobe on a shelf above Lilli's dresser and told Chloe that she could see it, but she had to ask Lilli first because it's Lilli's snowglobe.

I had never done that before. Lilli is almost eight! Then I looked at Lilli and said "Is that better? Are you OK with that?" She leaned in and gave me a kiss and a smile.

My five year mistake was revealed. Chloe is five. I assumed Lilli didn't care about all the times when Chloe just took Lilli's toys and ran off with them. Lilli never acted like she minded. Lilli has a shelf full of stuffed animals that are "hers" but she does not even play with them. How could I ever know that she was territorial about her things when she hardly paid attention to them? Later I asked her if she felt that way often about Chloe playing with her things without asking. She typed "yes" right away. No doubt about it. I had never laid down rules or set up boundaries, because Lilli was never a kid who put up a fight or complained when her little sister took her stuff.

Lilli typing on the ipad is a bit like tearing open that present, one tiny rip at a time. It takes a long time, and we have to make Lilli do it. She didn't want to open that present, but she wanted the snowglobe inside. She doesn't want to type, but she wants to tell us what is inside her mind. We have to learn to give Lilli the opportunity to tell us things. Lilli has to get in the habit of typing her thoughts instead of crying in frustration. I have to digest the many realizations that occur each time we have an experience like this, and change the way I think and do things.

The first thing I did to make a change tonight was to put the snowglobe up on Lilli's shelf and lay down rules for Chloe. Tomorrow I will go into Chloe's room and take a good look around. Sharing is a wonderful thing for siblings to learn, but so is respect for others' belongings. Tonight I learned that in addition to sharing, I need to teach my children to respect things that belong to others, especially when that person cannot talk or voice their opinion. As a mom of a child with special needs, once again I am reminded that I am Lilli's best advocate and defender. Even to her own siblings.


  1. This was an honest mistake but look how it turned out. Lilli was able to tell you how she was feeling. From what I understand that's pretty huge on multiple levels. Happy New Year. Sounds like you guys are in for a lot of changes this year.

  2. "Tonight I learned that in addition to sharing, I need to teach my children to respect things that belong to others..."

    This is an often overlooked lesson, especially between siblings, and my wife and I are just recently making in-roads with our kids on this. I can't imagine doing it with non-verbal kids, but you're not alone in the lesson.

  3. Lilli just taught this moma something too!