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Relating to My Son on His Terms

Relating to My Son on His Terms

Days at the Beach

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Broken shells cut into my bare feet as I follow my son down the beach to the rocky outposts on the sand dunes where it is rumored that baby crabs live. What we would do if we actually located a baby crab is uncertain, but I follow my son nonetheless. It is enough for me to follow his lead as the sun sinks slowly into the horizon, bringing the close of a day during which my son has been entirely happy.

During our vacation in a remote coastal beach town, it seems as if my son is on his own vacation as well. Normally wound so tight, and unable to accept changes to his routine, he has unexpectedly left behind the issues that make school life a struggle, and those that make finding and keeping friends so hard. He plays with his sister, catches tadpoles and befriends a stray dog. He catches jellyfish that have washed onto the sand, and buries them in individual unmarked graves.

Here on the quiet beach, our family finds solitude and togetherness. We find each other in the absence of others

For these few days, our lives are determined by sand and sea, by changing tides and the hunt for water creatures. Pale sand-colored salamanders delight us as they evade capture. Crabs retreat into the crevices of a rock, and a whole trout washes out of the sea with the waves.

Here on the quiet beach, our family finds solitude and togetherness. We find each other in the absence of others.

It is not until we return home on the third day that the heaviness descends again. This heaviness is the weight of his moods and his anger, resulting in our constant need to anticipate his reactions and plan everything according to his needs. “We didn’t need him to be anything other than who he is,” I explain to my husband in response to his silent query, as we rush past each other in the early morning bustle of getting dressed (“Don’t wear that! It doesn’t match”), and finding lost shoes (“Well, where did you put them last night?”) and arriving on time (“If you don’t hurry, we’ll be late for school”).

When my son is finally dressed and hurried out the door, I dream of building a school on the beach, a school filled with sand crabs and salamanders, and a blackboard in the sand. A school that the waves will wash clean each night, and erase all our struggles by morning.

When my daughter was born, I learned that parenting requires everything you have. From my son, I learned that parenting sometimes requires even more than that.

On a morning when I wake up with a migraine, blood pounding like drumbeats in my head, my daughter recognizes that Mommy is having a bad day. At nine years old, she is resilient and emotionally flexible enough to recognize the need to play quietly and tread carefully. She takes her cues from me and recognizes my need to be alone now. Yet my son simply cannot handle the smallest edge in my voice, or this inexplicable deviation from our routine.

By the time I emerge from my room, he has taken refuge under the dining room table, impossibly wounded by my request that he leave the room. It takes a long time to coax him to come out.

This type of parenting requires walking a tightrope. It requires perfect self-control and vigilance against the small slips of anger and impatience that accompany even the best parenting. It requires abundant giving with delayed returns.

This type of parenting requires walking a tightrope

It also requires frequent retreats into the quiet and hidden places that lurk on the outskirts of our civilized world. The healing power of nature is miraculous. A child so needy is freed from restraint; doubt and fear are abandoned in the pursuit of sea creatures.

After all the times I have been forced to lead him into places that terrified him to enter, like crowded and noisy classrooms, and testing rooms both innocent and strange, it is a blessing to follow his lead over rocks and dunes. We hunt with abandon for all those creatures that scuttle and crawl and slither and swim. In everything we find, we marvel over a unique and perfect life force.

For my son, who loves these creatures, it is enough for him that such creatures exist, even though they remain aloof to his existence. It is enough to love without his love being received or acknowledged.

I struggle to learn this lesson as I follow him through the dunes. For me, love has always been the beginning of a conversation. Yet this is exactly the challenge of loving this boy—to love him without needing a response. I want to love him as he himself loves, with a love that is not a question, but rather an immovable rock capable of withstanding the onslaught of high waves, shifting sands and unanswered questions.

Robyn Cuspin is a therapist living in Israel.
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Shoshanna PA September 4, 2015

To Anonymous from Woodland Hills:

It all really depends on the child. Some,have extreme difficulty with change some don't. But you're basically saying to use an iron hand. It doesn't work for everyone. Nice to know you're family got along fine with that,but trust me some families won't. In fact,it just might get worse. Reply

Rishe Deitsch Brooklyn July 4, 2013

b'tov hanir'ah vehanigle I hope to read good news from you about your son as the years pass. May he give you much nachas and may he give much nachas to himself (a brachah the Rebbe would sometimes give). Reply

Dena Kiryat Sefer July 4, 2013

Great Article Thanks for another terrific article. You have a gift. You brought tears to my eyes. Probably because I see myself in you and my kids in yours.
Continued strength to us all in this super important job we have of bringing up mentchen and getting it "right". Reply

Anonymous Windsor July 3, 2013

Homeschool this child. Reply

rachel July 3, 2013

my son was always a struggle for us as well there comes a time when we have to let go and accept them for who they are and love them unconditionally. all i can say is its been quite a trip! Reply

Anonymous Woodland Hills July 3, 2013

"Beautiful writing. Wonderful parenting." and total BS... I really cannot understand modern psychologist, instead of being a parent and a teacher, they want parents to be “understanding and gentle jellyfishes”. I have three children; my word is the LAW at home. My oldest son had some problems and he wanted me to be just with him; he could begin to cry just because I asked him to help me to put plates on the table. I was listening to the psychologists for TWO years, until I had a talk with my mother. She told me that a boy will become a man one day, and he MUST grow up a MAN. She told me stop listening to modern ideas, and make up rules. Rule #1: do not repeat any thing more then 3 times. Rule #2: if you repeated some thing 3 times and no one listens to you, count out loud: one, two, three. Rule #3: if it did not help, punishment is in order: no TV, no candy, or no play day. Pick one that your child likes the most and take it away FOR REAL. In two months I did not recognized my son. He began helping with out second reminder. He even began to teach his brother and sister, that mom is always right and they better to listen to her or they would be punished. Now we have wonderful time, we have belly laughs and runs around the hose. We have ice creams in the mom’s bed and the pillow wars; we have hugs and kisses all the time. And my young boy growing into a wonderful young man, who respects parents and knows that he is the center of the universe, but that the universe has many more centers and ALL OF THEM are important not just him. Reply

Michelle uk June 30, 2013

thankyou may your words both heal and bless those that like you parent similar boys of which I have two! both respond or rather react! in different ways and yet the fear of rejection and failure is the same for both when it comes ~ to the classroom, and affects not just one or the other but all four of us with quite a lot of negative emotion. however amongst our difficulties and when we hit rock bottom ~ there I found G-d ~ and i'll never forget how He changed not only my life but our entire Family's life chances. so thankyou again for your sharing because on the way down I thought ~ I was alone. G-d bless you and all the other Parents who struggle on sometimes ~ in silence and behind a closed door prepared not to listen any more to what the world and it's rules and regulations ~ shuts out, when one feels one is not worthy 'to fit' or belong or even have one Friend ~ a truly understands Reply

Anonymous November 18, 2011

Very Inspiring! I tend to be the tough cop at home. THank you for sharing this inspiring read about your approach! Reply

Yehudis Feinstein Tzfat, Israel September 15, 2011

Special healing times Thank you for sharing. It's fortunate that you've found a world in which your son can feel free from his fears and tensions, and his feelings of freedom give you room to feel free also. A lot of positive growth can happen in times like those. You see also that even with the sea animals and shore life, that he still wants to bring you along into his world. Children want our presence so very much. It affirms something very vital in their being. I imagine that even without the option of a trip to the shore, we can arrange "shore life" for our children - a quiet zoo or a quiet park. The quietness gives room for them and us to be ourselves, and to heal. Remember to bring along your presence. Remember too, on a day without sunshine, to bring along your own sunshine. And remember to bring Hashem with you. Reply

Linda WEST CHESTER, OH September 15, 2011

Well done! Beautiful writing. Wonderful parenting. Reply

Rifka Hadley, Massachusetts September 14, 2011

I absolutely love this article and how you describe everything with so much compassion and love. This is exactly what I needed to hear and understand. Thank you so much for sharing your wise heart. Reply

Julie Durham, UK September 14, 2011

Thankyou What an amazing mother you are! Thankyou so much for sharing your story and I am sure your son will return your love - in fact he does, just by being there. Reply

Anonymous Duluth, MN September 14, 2011

Change comes and goes My son was diagnosed with ADD years ago. Always difficult, he has grown into an adult with work that takes advantage of his high IQ and master's degree in urban planning. At the same time, he is still needy in terms of social and self-diagnosed health issues. We've all supported him seeking counseling, but to no avail at 34 yrs old. However, today I received a text reading,"Let the counseling begin..." If yes, then that's a true bonus -- we'll see and hope for the very best... Reply

Josh Mark jerusalem, Israel September 14, 2011

This was beautiful. Thank you for writing and sharing. Reply

sz September 14, 2011

Thank you! we all have real challenges our parents didn't face raising us.
I liked the "togetherness" of the beach vacation and the valuable lesson you learned and imparted about learning to love from your son.
Touching and Profound! Reply

Kesendra Los Gatos , Ca September 14, 2011

Thank you for so eloquently sharing a picture of my life. This is my son, and sometimes I need to be reminded how to cherish him. Reply

Yitz in Pittsburgh September 13, 2011

thank you A very beautiful article. Every child has something different about them, in a certain sense all of them are "special needs" children, as my wife says. I could relate to the seeming lack of response, etc in attempts to reach out.

I totally agree about the healing power of being out in "nature". We camp, canoe, cabin-camp in the winter and picnic and take walks. Whatever anyone can do with their children outdoors is almost always worth it. It doesn't have to be a huge thing, and it doesn't have to be to hard to go camping- cabins and cabin-tents are available, etc. It is worth it! Hashem heals us when we go outdoors, and we heal by seeing the wonders outdoors. Reply

Anonymous rockville, md September 13, 2011

Your son is my son I have this same son. The sensory issues. The rigid requirements. All I can say is that it gets easier, but in addition to patience, and family therapy, the best thing we have ever done is get him anti-anxiety medication to help him be with himself. As hard as it is for us, it is harder for him to be him. Every day it is easier to see his gifts. Reply

Sheila Segal Har Nof, Israel September 13, 2011

Beautiful! I agree that parenting offers challenges that we never dreamed of. Perhaps the rewards are wonderful too... Reply

Meg Rochester, NH/USA September 12, 2011

I had a son like that And then he grew up, and went to work on a railroad. He will always have to deal with his autism, but now that he is an adult, it's *so* much easier for him. I remember asking G-d why He had created him, if his whole life was to be one of suffering and being misunderstood. Then he grew up, and I heard him singing his praises to G-d -- and I knew why he had been created. He is such a blessing to me. Reply