My Imperfect Child

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baby_boy_trunk_tree

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.

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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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  9. 14

    says

    This article describes ME to a T! I shut down to this day in front of a crowd of people. I would die if ever the center of attention, and I’m 36! I still think despite this I’m pretty normal and not delayed. Your son sounds perfect to me!

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  10. 15

    Eva says

    I’m not from the US and I had to scroll back to check if it’s really about a three year old. He sounds perfectly fine to me, I find these tasks suitable for older children and the expectations way too high. (scissors? my 3 year old is not allowed to use scissors at kindergarten)

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    • 16

      Cindy says

      Eva,

      Where are you from? What we are requiring our children to do in America so that they can be “college ready” is simply appalling. Teachers are revolting against the system and crying for change. We have new, national standards being implemented (Common Core State Standards) which are so developmentally inappropriate for our younger children. Corporations are running these programs and children simply aren’t allowed to be children. As teachers, our hands are somewhat tied because many of us are trying to find ways to revolt while still keeping our jobs.

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      • 17

        Eva says

        Hi Cindy, I am from Hungary. I hope your “revolution” will be successful, I truly believe children who were alowed to be children will grow into confident and successful adults. Running around might not seem like an accomplishment, still it’s very important for brain-development.
        We have kindergartens from age 3 to 6 or 7, so before “real” school. I consider its main task to teach my kids how to socialize, be part of a group, interact with each other. Of course they learn a lot through games, like how we sort trash, about seasons etc.. but noone is forced to participate. If someone has been going for a while (a year maybe) and is comfortable but still doesn’t want to participate that should be a reason for a therapist to look at him. My older daughter was also 3 when she started and she loved going, still she just sat and watched the others for 3 months, they assured me it was normal for her age. I also have a three year old and I’m sure she would not enjoy picking out the triangle, why should she? Teachers only do that sort of thing in the last year with 6-7 year olds to prepare them for real school.
        Unfortunately our schools are a lot tougher and that’s something we try to revolt against.

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  11. 18

    says

    I was that child. Terribly shy, quiet and sensitive. Every year was the same thing, my mom would get called in to meet with my teachers about my “abnormal” shyness and lack of participation. That was and still is just my personality though. To this day, I’m a quiet person. My mom really advocated for me though and called me an observer and said it was just fine to be one. I excelled in college, got married, have a job I love and a baby. Your son sounds perfect to me and I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a wonderful man.

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  12. 20

    says

    Scissors? I have purposely not taught my almost 3 year old to use scissors and yet there it is on the evaluation form that I’m filling out today. Thank you for writing this. My son sounds very familiar. He’s very advanced verbally & intellectually yet is behind his peers in a few small motor skills, is very self conscious and is fearful.

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  13. 22

    says

    This is a beautiful post. I also have a Highly Sensitive Child, and he also behaves so differently at school that I’ve had to speak to his teachers several times this year about him “not participating in circle time” or “not behaving like the other kids” or “not being able to approach other kids” or “never answering questions he should know the answers to because he’s 4″. This same child taught himself how to read by the age of 3. This same child is so outgoing outside the classroom that he will walk up to strangers to tell them about his “new BMW M3 Hybrid”. This same child knows that the manta ray is a mammal that lives in the Indian Ocean and jumps 10 feet above the water and that Ceres, Haumea and Makemake are dwarf planets (I did not know this stuff before he told me!).

    We did face many, many challenges raising our “imperfect” child. For a long time we had no idea why he was the way he was. But now at the age of 4.5 years, I can tell you he and a different child than the one we had a year ago. I’m a strong believer that these Highly Sensitive Children of ours are really special, and the world needs more of them.

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  14. 23

    says

    This is my life. I have a brilliant, sweet, sensitive, loving child who happens to have separation anxiety and tics… If they could just see him in the comforts of home or around his trusted cousins! We are in a society where kids are judged way too young. I see perfection in my clinically imperfect child for sure!

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    • 25

      claire says

      Thanks for the kind words, Casey. Being a mama is tough, huh? But it’s nice to know we’re not alone, and that, in the end, our kids are loved and are going to be okay.

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  15. 26

    says

    How sad that we feel the need to label 3 year olds!! There is something wrong with society today!! This is in no way a criticism of you who would do any differently in your shoes and as you said he’s perfect to you. I still find it sad though that 3 year olds are already being shoehorned into the boxes society expects them to fit. As a mum of two boys with ADHD I know some of the feelings you describe 😔

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  16. 27

    says

    My husband runs an OT practice in Australia. We have 3 children and our eldest boy has been v challenging with no real diagnosis but numerous issues so I hear you. Your boy will gain more confidence with his skills and be ready to take on more challenges if he has some good OT sessions. It’s hard to hear when kids have any sort of label but with some fun therapy, your boy’s skills will improve. Sometimes it’s better to know there may be potential concerns early and nip them in the bud, if he’s mildly delayed there is every chance it may not be a problem with some input. Good luck :)

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