Talking about the obstacles encountered during parenting can be a little fraught. Anything you say about your kids online can color how others see them. Anybody who hangs around kids for any period of time can tell you is that every kid is different. For most parents this means that one kid might be quiet and the other rambunctious. One kid might love sports while the other one loves reading or some other simple dichotomy. (Two kids in my examples because that’s how many I have. Your experience might vary.) However, for a subset of parents normal is something glimpsed and not possessed.
The challenge becomes, how do you discuss some of the issues that might involve your kids without creating a prejudgement of them that might impact their lives in a negative way? Is it wrong to put out publicly what might be better kept to the shadows? How do you help others understand your kid so that they can be seen with compassion rather than irritation? Is transparency worth the risk of the stigma of an assigned a diagnosis? Every kid is different, but also, no kid can be reduced to a single trait. They are a spinning multitude of possibilities and constants.
This is all to say that Thing #1 has trouble with social cues and some executive function and emotional regulation. He’s very smart, but sits firmly in the nerdy stereotype of knowing things without possessing a lot of common sense or awareness of his impact on the people around him.
It can make playing games with him very frustrating.
There is more to say about navigating parenting with a not strictly normative child, but what I really want to talk about is the Friendship Game. If you’ve never heard of the friendship game, it’s an approach to playing games that emphasizes how you play the game rather than winning. I have a work sheet on it somewhere I can show you. A good player of the friendship game is both a gracious, if excited, winner and a gracious, if disappointed, loser. S/he plays the game to enjoy the playing of the game rather than to just win. They are complimentary of good actions taken by others and sympathetic when bad things happen to them. The goal is to be the sort of player that others enjoy playing the game with, rather than a table flipper when things don’t go your way.
We try to play the friendship game in all things to various degrees of success. It’s become a shorthand for “don’t be a dick”. However, there is one game, Dragonwood, we just can’t play at the moment. Dragonwood involving cards and dice where players try to capture various creatures and items to build up the best score. It’s a great game for teaching all kinds of mechanics that will come in useful as we progress to more advanced games. The end goal of Dragonwood is to power up your hand to capture the dragons at the bottom of the creature pile. Thing #1 loves Dragons. (Is there a word stronger than love?). Dragons of all types. When we get to the end of the game and he doesn’t capture the dragons, well let’s just say he exchanges the friendship game for global thermonuclear war. Then we get to practice other calming strategies.
We’ve actually learned a lot in the last year about dealing with nuclear explosions. Mostly about learning about Thing #1, and what he needs. Things that you or I might take comfort in can, counter-intuitively, make the fallout worse. His brain just processes the world differently. For us it was realizing that letting him stomp and scream and strike a pillow was a fine strategy for calming himself if they work. It’s better than other worse choices. Slowly you take the things that work and expand on them. He is learning methods to reduce his emotional burn that are less distressing for the people around him.
We’ve learned that his biggest breakdowns occur when the expectation he has in his head butts up against reality. Structure is very helpful here. If he knows what to expect, then he can deal with it. That isn’t to say that things don’t change at the last minute, and he has to get through these tough moments. But with practice he is gaining a better resilience to the sharp shocks that life can throw at him.
He’s made steady progress as a whole swarm of people have strived to help him. We’ve learned where the pitfalls are, although we discover new ones occasionally where we thought there was firm ground. He is a charming, intelligent, and sweet kid who will have to work hard his whole life to understand what other kids just “get” intuitively. And so we play the friendship game so that hopefully he will be able to make his way through life as the sort of player other people will want to play games with. Because, of course, the friendship game is a metaphor for life.
So how’s your friendship game?