My Imperfect Child

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The weather was exquisite today. A breezy 65 with the sky a dizzying, unblemished blue. I set out with our wide red wagon, a cadre of sippy cups and snacks, and my two children, a boy and a girl. Just turned three and almost two; highly sensitive and sassy, respectively. And I herded them into the car to drive to the zoo—along with about 500 others also taking advantage of the weather.

As my almost two year old enjoyed the leisurely wagon ride, my son strode purposefully toward each of the animal’s enclosures, peering through the fences.

Just a day ago, he was a shrinking violet, clinging to my leg as we walked the halls of the occupational therapist’s office. We were there to get a screening after his well-meaning Mother’s Day Out teachers informed us they thought he wasn’t ready for preschool.

You see, my son, the one whose honey-colored eyes sparkle when he sees tigers and lions and giraffes, is highly sensitive and often babyish.

He turned three just two months ago. And at home, his first line of defense when something doesn’t go his way—whether it’s a cookie that fell or the way his sister looks at him—is often whining or crying.

At school, though, he makes me lean in for a hug, promise I’ll be back to get him after lunch, and goes in. He’s the quiet child who never cries, never takes toys from others. He mingles with the other kids, but he’s really there for the train tables, the playground, the books.

And when they have circle time at Mother’s Day Out and he’s called upon to stand up and be singled out, his whole body recoils. Here, at school, he folds into himself. It’s quite the transformation—a butterfly shrinking back into a caterpillar. Simply, he shuts down. His muscles tense beneath his Gymboree shirt and his mouth goes slack, creating a downturned effect.

One day, I went to observe this circle time.

“Come up here,” a teacher says gently.

He stays frozen, perhaps hoping if he’s still enough he’ll be passed by.

“Stand up,” the teacher prompts. “Okay, now walk over here.”

He does this, slowly, pathetically. Charlie-Brown-like in his saunter.

“Can you pick out the yellow triangle and put it on the board?”

Frozen again.

I am observing this classroom activity, or lack thereof, just out of sight. I nervously bite a hangnail, afraid that if I let my teeth off that flap of skin, I’ll yell out: “For the love of God, you know this! Just pick it up and do it. Do it!”

But I stand helpless, helpless. “Just do it. Do it. You know this!” I’m mentally chanting.

Frozen again. (Maybe that’s why the eponymous Disney movie is his favorite.)

“Okay,” the teacher begins prompting again. “Lean down and pick up the shape.”

Slowly, robotically, he obliges.

“Okay, now put it on the board.”

He’s gone again. Looking at the board, but his feet seem glued to the ground.

“Walk over there and put it on the board. Right there. No, there,” the teacher instructs.

He finally does and then continues standing.

“Move it!,” I will him.

“Okay, now go sit back down in your place,” his teacher intones.

He does so, his posture slumping. I can see he’s more relaxed. The pressure is moving to someone else.

I know my child. I spend all but eight hours a week without him. Those eight hours are spent at the Mother’s Day Out. The teachers don’t see him cry, they don’t see how exceedingly shy and sensitive my son is. They don’t realize just how much he shuns attention. He still clings to vestiges of babyishness in part because a baby sister a mere 16 months younger robbed him of some of the extra attention he perhaps needed. But, he also takes longer to do things because he is himself.

So, to occupational therapy we go. Just for an unbiased review.

In the therapist’s office, after I pry him off my leg, I coax my son into a little chair. The therapist has kind eyes and a soothing voice. She hands him a crayon and asks him to color. He, a left-handed child, takes the crayon in his right hand, nervously puts his left arm over his forehead and begins pathetically dotting at the illustrations on the page.

Here I am, watching him again. Another place, another room, still freezing up. This time, I’m sitting right next to him and biting my lip to keep from saying: “You’re doing it wrong.”

He’s given a list of activities—cutting, drawing, naming objects—many of which they say he does incorrectly.

But he’s nervous. I’m nervous.

The compassionate occupational therapist hands me a green sheet of paper, checking off all the improvements he needs to be on track with his peers. The term “mildly developmentally delayed” based on her assessment is bandied about.

“Does a just-turned three year old really need to be able to know how to use scissors?” I ask. Really?

But then there’s today. The present. And the zoo.

And my son is one among hundreds of kids, all elated over the slow-moving animals, the too-bright sunlight bouncing off the pavement, the shrill train lumbering down the tracks. Here on this perfect day, my “developmentally delayed son” looks the same as all the other children here.

Do they all have secret heartbreaks?

Because that’s what kids do to parents: Hurt their hearts.

But here, today, there’s something healing. Maybe it’s the electrifying brightness that gives me pause for optimism. Or the tree-fluttering cool breeze.

Or maybe, just maybe, it is my graham-crackery sweet little boy who freely doles out hugs and “I love you’s” and has a head of thick caramel curls whipped into a frenzy.

I don’t know what it is. But today, at least for a moment, I see it: The perfection in my clinically “imperfect” child.

Comments

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  1. 2

    Lisa says

    Sounds like you have a perfect little boy to me. Maybe a bit shy in some situations, but does there really need to be a lable on a 3 year old who you know is doing most of the things he should be able to. Until you are worried about his development, I would ignore everyone else. Mums do know best sometimes!

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  2. 3

    Nisha says

    This describes my kid perfectly. She’s now nearly 8. We work with an OT and a behaviour therapist regularly as of this year. She’s learning to cope with the things that we cannot change, and learning to change the little bit that we can. She is less paralyzed at school now than in preschool and Kindergarten.
    We’ve always said she was ‘quirky’ – now there is context. A good OT makes a world of difference. A sensory diet is key. It’s been a real journey. I’m sure your little boy is the sweetest thing. Always go with your gut. You know him better than anyone.

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    • 4

      claire says

      Nisha,

      Since I wrote this, we have begun working with an OT. He has “motor planning” issues, but addressed this early, he’s going to be okay. :-) Glad to know your child is doing well.

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  3. 5

    says

    I had the same so-called experts tell me similar baloney twelve years ago when my son — who is now the top of his class — was three. I chose to ignore them and I encourage you to do the same. Pre-school is designed to get kids ready for school. Kids don’t need to be “ready” for pre-school — that’s the whole point of pre-school. Someone told me once, when I had similar worries about my boy: Your son is an observer, not a performer; and that is perfectly fine. It is perfectly fine and your son sounds perfect to me.

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    • 6

      says

      being a lefty myself: learning to write use scissors and other such tasks are made harder because you have to usually mirror the person teaching you. (most of the world is right handed and thus when learning from a righty a lefty has to mirror and or do it a different way.). Keep that in mind when teaching your lefty. :) Highly recommend lefty tools :scissors, notebooks , pencils and so on.

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  4. 7

    Sara says

    I recently started reading your blog, probably about a month ago. And I’ve really enjoyed it so much. I love your directness.

    Today, when I started reading, I wasn’t expecting to break down into sobs by the end. But here I sit, tears still rolling down my face – the big ugly kind, with gasps and sniffles. My son is also “imperfect.” We took him to be evaluated, at newly five, he was diagnosed with a whole host of delays. Now instead of sending him to kindergarten next year, we’re teaching him how to hold a pencil, how to use scissors, how to not shutdown when the autoflush toilet flushes while he’s still standing at the bowl.

    When I see him, I don’t see all of those things; I see the boy who loves to climb and jump, who can build the most complex creations. Yet I know that I still have to watch for all of these imperfections and find some way to help him correct them or at least work around them.

    So while, I won’t thank you for the big ugly tears, thank you for the reminder that I’m not alone. More than that though, thank you for the reminder that he is not defined by his imperfections and that he is in fact perfect.

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    • 8

      Nancy says

      I think we have the same kid! PLEASE consider taking your son for occupational therapy. My boy started a mere 6 months ago and it has already made a world of difference. In the meantime, look up “sensory processing disorder.”

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  5. 9

    Erin says

    He sounds perfect to me, too. All kids develop at their own pace, and it’s perfectly normal for a 3-year-old to be shy in front of groups, or nervous about being singled out. Not all kids are socially outgoing, no matter what their age. Don’t worry. It sounds to me like you have a brilliant little guy in your life :)

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  6. 11

    Jennifer luff says

    My youngest children are the same gap as yours, also the same genders, and my son reacts exactly the same, some have mentioned “Autistic” but I am only very slightly convinced. At home he draws and colours, tells stories and is a normal child, but once at nursery he becomes introverted and different! Weird eh!

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  7. 12

    ;sdjhvlKA"POWkf says

    My child was diagnosed with idiopathic hearing loss at 3 years old. She exhibited the same symptoms as what you describe. At home, she was “normal”, but only because she could hear me on an individual level. In the classroom, her almost every move had to be directed, and she couldn’t follow multi-step directions, because she couldn’t hear individual voices at a distance. She wears hearing aids now, and she has absolutely blossomed and turned a whole 180-degrees. I only consider it a disability as if people would consider that me wearing glasses is a disability.

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  8. 13

    says

    Well, according to experts, it seems EVERY KID I know has a problem (hyper active, too shy, hyper sensitive, not social enough)… we have to trust our guts, because we know our kids better than a (well meaning) pre school teacher, psychologist, doctor, care giver

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