A grandparent asks: I have a beautiful 4-year-old grandchild who may be on the spectrum somewhere. His parents do not want to have him tested. I need to get this child potty trained and he seems to be resisting their efforts. He reads and does math on the 4th grade level, can spell words that I have to think about for a minute. I’ll be visiting them for a week soon. Any advice or tips for me?
Ellen answers: My grandparents lived 2,000 miles away. They came to see us once a year. We went for neighborhood walks, played gin rummy and Scrabble, had picnics at the beach, went to baseball games and playgrounds. They cheered our accomplishments and bought us modest gifts at the neighborhood store that felt like treasure. They listened to my stories about my life and I listened to theirs. They didn’t try to get me to stop biting my nails, break me of my finicky eating, clean up my messy room. They made me feel like their time with me was the most special thing that happened to them all year. I adored them, hated that we only got to see them once a year, and never stopped missing them, though they’ve been gone more than thirty years.
You have a beautiful grandchild who may be on the spectrum. Or he may not be. His parents do not want to have him tested. They have their reasons, and because he is their child, the choice is theirs alone to make and theirs alone to change should such a time and circumstances transpire.
Can you love this beautiful child just as he is, and just be his adoring grandma? In the very limited time you have with him, why is it your job to potty train him? He’s already resistant to his parents efforts; it’s doubtful that what he needs most is another adult parachuting into (and just as quickly out of) his life, telling him what’s wrong with him and trying to fix him. Can you not simply respect and show interest in his thoughts, ideas, dreams and activities? Let him lead or direct your interaction with him, do the things he finds enjoyable. Ask his opinions and listen to his answers. When he feels heard, unconditionally loved, accepted, valued just as he is, and when feels he has some amount of control over his life, you may see the resistant behaviors fade.
A grandmother I met at a conference shared the story of how she came to realize what was her most important role in the life of her grandson with autism. She called it A Lesson in Listen. Her distraught daughter summoned her after her young son had been sent home from school for slugging another boy in the, um, family jewels. The chastised child went into the chilly back yard, hunkered down and would not come in not matter how Mom pleaded, cajoled, demanded. “Please come! He won’t listen to me,” the little guy’s mom implored. Grandma hurried over to find her grandson crouched low, head hung, tears welling.
“What’s going on, buddy?” she asked.
“Nobody wistens to me.”
“I’m listening, buddy.”
“Mom says I’m gwounded for a week,” said the boy, gazing around at the . . . ground. “So I can’t come inside.”
Grandma got down on the . . . ground . . . so she could talk to him on his level. “Why did you slug Jerome in the . . . you know?”
“He swugged me fiwst, Gwandma, when the teachew wasn’t wooking. I wanted to swug him in the stomach but I couldn’t weach that faw, so I swugged him in the bawws.”
This story rang true with me because I’d lived it with my own son. He too thumped a classmate, prompting a call for me to come pick him up. When I did, he asked if we could make cookies. I was about to say “of course not” when his teacher said advised me to “Say yes. He’s had a hard day.You won’t always be able to fix his problems with a cookie.” So I did, asking nothing about the incident while we laid out cookie sheets and assembled ingredients. When the dough was almost done, my son blurted that he knew it was wrong to clobber his classmate, but he got tired of how this boy knew just how to provoke him when the teachers weren’t looking, then cry victim. Had I not agreed to the cookies, had I lectured rather than listened, I might never have understood the reason for his behavior and been able to go back and set things straight with the teachers.
Our first pediatrician advised me to trust my instinct, that I knew more than I thought I knew. While I found that advice true overall, I’ve also learned that there are those infamous exceptions to the rule—that there are times when I don’t know as much as I think I know, and that I need my child to teach me what he needs from me. I need to listen more than I talk.
I don’t know the source of your grandson’s resistant behavior, but I take it you potty-trained your children. Now it’s their turn to take that responsibility for their own children. Let them. (In the playful words of that same wonderful pediatrician I just referenced, “If you wait long enough, it will be his wife’s problem.”) You have the luxury and the privilege and freedom to just be a Grandma. Bet your grandson would have some magnificent vocabulary for that.
© 2015 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com