Most people can agree that spoiling kids is bad parenting. It's probably the only thing the world can agree upon. I mean, Bolivia just lowered the working age to 10. Give kids what they want and they never learn the value of a dollar. Give them too many things and they never appreciate anything. Send them to work at 11 and they'll be soft for life. We need them to learn the value of hard work, the virtue of patience, and the meaning of sacrifice. Spoil your kid and you're literally ruining them forever.
Hank had ice cream for dinner last night. That's right. He had ice cream for dinner. Didn't put a single healthy thing in front of him. Just ice cream. And I'm okay with that.
Indulging kids on the spectrum actually is a pretty common parenting strategy...at least that's the lie I'm going to tell myself, and lying to yourself is definitely a parenting strategy that we all use. Do your work at speech therapy and we'll give you a sucker. Take a crap on the toilet and we'll buy you a Thomas train. For kids on the spectrum it's all about finding the right motivator. And when you find it, you use it. All kids like getting rewarded. All kids need motivators. But for typical kids you can usually talk them out of anything. A little bit of Depression era passive aggressive fear can go a long way. "You want a new toy? Well, if you think it's more important than keeping our house..." "You want dessert? Me too, but what if a giant dust storm engulfs our house?" "Whatever it is you want isn't nearly as important as the ever present threat that we are going to lose our house."
When a kid on the spectrum gets an idea in his head there is no logic you can use. He's n0t hearing you. However rational your argument, it's not going to matter. It's like talking to a libertarian at a party. No matter how many hints you drop that you don't think every government policy ever enacted was a bad idea, he just keeps going. He's not going to stop until you agree that publicly funded roads are a noose around our collective necks. So sometimes you indulge him, curse the cancer that is public parks, and end the four hour conversation.
So I gave Hank ice cream for dinner. Sometimes, under the proper circumstances we give in. And last night was, in my opinion, the proper circumstances. We were with the extended family. We had been out all day. Hank is a picky eater, so he hadn't eaten much all day. He was overstimulated, over-tired, and really really hungry. He wanted ice cream. I didn't have the energy to help Hank get through the next hour. I didn't have the energy to deal with the entire restaurant judging us. I didn't have the energy to battle Hank to get him to eat a reheated frozen macaroni and cheese that we both knew was going to taste like shit. I was overstimulated, over-tired, and really really hungry. So I ordered him ice cream for dinner.
Did the waitress judge me? You bet she did. "Ice cream? Is that all?" Yes. That's all. Unless you want me to tell you that I can see your roots!
Was it the right thing to do? I don't know. Probably not. But her roots were showing. Look, I'm not going to put it in my parent tenure review file. I'm not going to advocate a gluten free autism diet centered on ice cream. But I didn't want to battle him. Neither of us had the energy. So I gave in.
But as I look back on it, I can't help but ask was I indulging him or me? I gave in because I wanted a break...that break turned out to be a rather run of the mill chicken sandwich, but at least I didn't have to sit on the edge of my seat praying that Hank was going to tow the line. I wasn't really indulging him, I was trying to avoid having the whole restaurant judge me for forty five minutes. I'd rather take the immediate "I'd never let Sebastian Atticus eat ice cream" judgement and then let everyone get on with their meals. I didn't have the energy to deal with the inevitable hero who would stroll by our table with some life altering advice.
We both needed a break. It wasn't going to help anybody for us to pretend like the meal wasn't going to end with him eating ice cream. I could put in an honest day of work and make him earn it, or I could just give it to him. And I gave it to him. And I did it for me. And I'm okay with that, because in the end I'm not giving him ice cream every meal and we'll fight many battles and I'll use lots of motivators. But for a night I gave in because I wanted a break. And I'll probably do it again.
Though next time I'll order two ice creams.
Matt Fotis is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Albright College. He is the author of Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy - The Harold, The Comedy Improv Handbook, and "My Fragile Family Tree: Stories of Fathers & Sons."