I already knew my son Will marched to a different drummer long before he went to a birthday party with water-filled rubber gloves taped to his wrists. Before he used live lizards as playing pieces on the Monopoly board. And, yes, before he made shoes out of full Capri Sun pouches.
I knew I had a quirky kid on his first birthday. The other babies sat dutifully popping bubbles. Mine took off and wanted to climb things. Curious, I asked, “How old are you today?” He silently held up one finger. There were invented languages and codes, unusual clothing choices and Philip Glass-type songs pounded out on the keyboard. And the science experiments. Lots and lots of science experiments.
Wil – naturally, he spells it with one L now – was eventually diagnosed with ADHD and sensory processing issues. Whether this is what makes him the rogue line on a bar graph, I don’t know, but he is truly and unabashedly eccentric.
If you have a child like this, you come to accept it. In time, you come to appreciate it. And then one day you fall fiercely in love with it. Here are the 10 things only parents of quirky kids understand.
1. You embrace the world in new ways. No, I will never quite understand anime cartoons in Japanese, but my son has inspired me to see their poignancy and learn about that country. And no, until he told me, I had never considered that aliens might be humans from the distant future.
2. You run interference at home. Your other children probably won’t understand their oddball sibling any more than outsiders do, and they might resent the extra attention he requires. Or they might try to emulate him, in which case one different drummer turns into a head-pounding percussion section.
3. You accept differences in others. When you have a kid who falls outside the mainstream, you learn to see the quirks and flaws of others as things of heartbreaking beauty. You learn that normal is indeed a setting on a washing machine.
4. You embrace your own inner quirkiness. If you were raised to be a conformist like me, it’s hard to revel in uniqueness, but if you are going to be an accessory to a quirky kid, feel free to add that lavender streak to your hair. Otherwise you just don’t match up.
5. You learn patience. Quirky kids are easily bored and never boring. It takes extra effort to keep them both challenged and reined in. They (and you) might not like the idea of jamming a square peg into the round hole that is traditional school, but if they can just get through it, they hold important tools for success.
6. You learn to tolerate messes. Because kitchen science experiments involving sea snails, egg yolks and baking soda might turn purple after a few weeks in the jar. In fact, they might explode.
7. You need a sense of humor. When it’s a first play date and your kid starts hanging spoons on his face for no apparent reason, laughter goes over better than a face palm.
8. You develop deep friendships. Will is the mad genius of his posse, the one who comes up with mock corporations and new Minecraft worlds. Finding cool moms who understand and appreciate these contributions to a friendship is vital. People who don’t get it will naturally fall away. Still …
9. You monitor them constantly. Instilling social skills in eccentric children is vital or your kid will end up the target of bullying. At least until high school, when he or she can gravitate toward an identity group more freely.
10. You learn to advocate. The truth is, many kids who fall outside the norm do have learning differences. You must advocate for your child at school, whether it’s making sure teachers stick to the terms of an Individual Education Plan or being a squeaky wheel.
Perhaps the best thing about having an eccentric child is that you don’t dread their adulthood. Quirky kids, well-supervised and gently guided, often grow up to be successful adults: innovators, educators, new knowledge workers – people who think outside the box for a living and get rewarded for it. You just need to get them through childhood without the house exploding.