The Power of a Cookie
It wasn’t the first or last time I received such a call at work. Four-year-old Connor had committed some crime against one of his fellow day care inmates, and “it would be a good idea” if I came and picked him up early. Mothers who get these calls experience many emotions. But rare is the mother, no matter how patient and understanding, who can take those calls without an occasional twinge of exasperation. Exasperation comes in two flavors: sometimes for the child, sometimes for the teacher.
That day my exasperation was mixed with “not-again” weariness. So imagine my surprise when I was greeted with an agitated but upbeat child who wanted to know if we could go home and make cookies. Certainly not, I started to say. Why would I reward your prickly behavior? But before I could utter a word, the teacher took me aside.
“Say yes to the cookies,” she said. “He’s had the preschool equivalent of a tough day at the office. You won’t always be able to fix his problems with a cookie. My daughters are in their twenties now, and I can’t fix their problems with a cookie. You can’t know how I miss those days. Don’t pass up the opportunity while you have it.”
I didn’t have Bryce yet, and had no inkling of autism or even the ADHD caller that was soon to greet us with all the force and warmth of a freight train. But even knowing nothing about neuro-pediatric disorders, it began to dawn on me that day: it was counter-intuitive that the fault in a two-way interaction gone wrong between preschoolers could always be absolute, and always be my child’s.
We did go home and haul out the cookie sheets. In between adding the oatmeal and the chocolate chips, my son told me that he knew he shouldn’t have bopped Jacob but he just got tired of how this classmate knew just how to needle him when the teachers weren’t looking, then cry victim when he succeeded in provoking. Had I not agreed to the cookies, I might never have learned this and been able to advocate effectively on behalf of my child.
Cookies are social communication therapy; they have that kind of power. Over the years I sent cookies to Little League games, teacher appreciation buffets, birthday parties; they magically opened the door to the social conversations that were so difficult for my children to initiate and sustain. I smile as I remember back to the few years when the end of my father’s career and the beginning of mine overlapped. We both worked downtown and would meet with our brown bags in the park. The inevitable panhandlers would happen by, asking if we had any spare change. Dad was always politely apologetic, saying, “I don’t have any money on me but would you like a cookie?” Out came the baggie of vanilla sandwich cookies. These men nearly always lit up with genuine smiles and said, “Well gosh, thanks!” They liked the cookies but even more, liked the kindness. The language of cookies is always a language of kindness. Who ever heard of a mean-spirited cookie?
But the ultimate power of a cookie lies on the other side of the world, where my Marine corporal niece bore witness to horrific things happening in a place called Fallujah, Iraq. I begged her to tell me what I could send. Candy, magazines, sunglasses, toiletries?
Nope. All she wanted is photos of the family—and cookies. She wanted cookies. When I protested the three-week delivery time (“They’ll be hockey pucks!”), she assured me they would be okay. “Just put ’em in plastic bags and send ’em,” she said firmly.
Three weeks later, a cheerful email declared, “The cookies were delicious! Eating them in one sitting wasn’t planned but I had a lot of help. Thank you to the 10th power!”
Just like that long-ago advice, she’s in her twenties now and I certainly can’t solve her problems with a cookie. But I hear her saying it can still make a meaningful dent.
Lcpl. Frankia Bernstein completed her tour of duty and received a combat ribbon for her service in Fallujah. The cookies from home, she says, were part of what “gave me a reason to keep on going out there.”
Connor too is in his twenties and my guess is that he too will defy conventional wisdom. There will always be days when Mom’s chocolate chip cookies can soften life’s blows, even if just a little.
© 2007, 2011 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
from The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled (2007, Future Horizons)
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