People are fragile, and often, those who seem most frightening actually are the most frightened. Many who are unpleasant toward others act that way because of intense feelings of unworthiness or shame, brought on by painful experiences. That’s why I want my son to treat everyone with respect, even when those folks don’t give him the same respect. Is this an easy task? Nope. Do I, as a person guiding my son’s education, always live by this dictum? Nope.
But something else I want him to know is that it’s never too late to change your focus on others. I’m trying to teach him to take a pause during situations with “difficult” people and try to hold them in compassionate thought. I want him to know that, when others treat him poorly, it doesn’t give him the right to do the same.
I also want my son not to suffer from “only child’s disease.” I can relate. My little brother wasn’t born until I was ten, so I think of myself as a recovering only child. I was used to being the center of attention and not having to, say, share Christmas cash from relatives. I still have a tendency toward thinking that what I have to say is most important, that I shouldn’t have to wait for others, that others are occupying “my” space. I am not proud of these tendencies and work all the time to overcome them.
My son, Parker-John, isn’t just an only child, however. He’s also on the autism spectrum, which makes him even more likely to focus on himself. To others, who don’t know he’s on the spectrum, my son can seem quite selfish and self-centered, but he isn’t. For example, during a recent visit to the allergist, Parker-John became terrified at the thought of enduring the “skin test” used to test patients for their reaction to various allergens. When the nurses came in to do the test, my son freaked out completely. I had to speak soothingly while physically forcing him to get on his stomach, be still, and expose his back for the test, which consisted in the nurses putting allergens on his back. Parker-John was afraid needles would be involved (they weren’t). He bucked. He yelled. Frankly, he frightened me almost as much as he frightened the strangers in the room.
After the ordeal was over, I spoke to him. I told him how his actions scared me and the others. I told him that, if he were just a little bigger, he might have hurt someone. Parker-John looked at me, startled. “I don’t want to hurt anyone, daddy,” he said. His eyes began to fill with tears just at the thought of hurting someone else. That’s truly who my son is; he’s a person who cares about the feelings of others. He just may not come across that way.
I won’t always be around to give him these lessons or to give him honest, loving feedback. Nonetheless, I will provide that feedback as long as I can. Thus, I want my son to know that others often are frightened—just like he was during his skin test. Or they’re frustrated, overwhelmed, filled with pain, distracted, etc. I would love to teach Parker-John that most people walk around as happy as clams, but that’s just not been my experience.
And I want him to know that others are not sharing “his” space. Everyone is sharing the limited space and resources that exist on our planet. People are not obstructions. They’re people. And they matter, regardless of their station in life.
If I can teach him these two, related lessons, then I believe I have accomplished one of my most important goals as a parent: to create a compassionate, empathic human being.