When my first child was almost 2 years old, we started to notice he was not following “the plan.”
What plan am I talking about? The one spelled out in all the parenting and child development books I had bought when I was pregnant.
He didn’t make silly babbling or raspberry noises when he was 6 months old. At 2 years, he hadn't yet said “dada” or “mama” or any other word. At 3, he still couldn’t grasp a thick marker or catch a big, red playground ball, even if I threw it gently. And according to his preschool teachers, he wasn’t playing with other kids.
To help my son, we started taking him to speech, occupational and physical therapy. It was pretty time-consuming. I found I needed to leave my job to be able to take him everywhere he needed to be, five days a week.
Amazingly, toward the end of preschool, his language skills had improved so much that no one could believe he had ever been a “late talker.” He made a lot of progress in the other areas, too. Except for one: social skills.
I could see it for myself when I picked him up from preschool. I’d arrive a few minutes early to peek through the window without him seeing me.
I’d see the other kids playing in twos and threes, holding hands, singing or building things. My son, on the other hand, would be curled up alone in the “reading nook,” his face buried in a book. (Oh, yeah—that was another area where he didn’t follow the plan. He had taught himself how to read, and by age 4 was reading chapter books.)
But I was still worried. If he didn’t want to play with other kids, how would he learn how to share and take turns, or understand what others are thinking and feeling? Would he learn how to make friends? To be kind?
Then I realized something. Although other kids needed someone to teach them, step by step, how to read words, my son didn’t. He figured that out for himself. What he needed was someone to teach him how to read people. We decided the easiest way to do this would be to build upon the thing that came most easily to him—language.
We began putting everything we saw, felt, or thought, or that we wanted him to understand, into words. And ever so slowly, right before middle school, we noticed he was starting to “get it.”
Then, this past weekend, something happened that made me realize just how far he’d come.
It was the day of his school’s spring carnival for kids of all ages. My son had volunteered to be the ticket taker at the bouncy house. When it was time to leave, one of the teachers came to me and said, “Your son did something so kind just now.”
She said that a younger boy with a physical disability had wanted to get into the bouncy house. Without being asked, the teacher said, my son helped the boy in. Then, my son took both the other boy’s hands and jumped with him. They kept jumping together until they were both too exhausted to jump anymore. “It made me cry,” the teacher told me.
And then, I began to cry.
Somewhere along the way, my son had learned not only social skills, but how to see when someone else needed something, even if they didn’t ask. He had learned kindness. He just needed a little extra help, time and the freedom to follow his own plan—not the ones in the books.
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About the author
Jenifer Kasten is a special education consultant and the parent of two children with learning and thinking differences.