It was 11 a.m., at the crowded local bounce house, and we had just arrived to let our littles run off some energy before we went home for lunch.
Lots of kids + lots of sweaty feet + the pre-lunch hour. What could possibly go wrong?
My husband, Alex, and I helped our three littles with their shoes—or in this particular case, a pair of slippers (which will be important later, I promise)—and turned them loose on the place. Harper ran for the slide, Cannon for the jungle gym, and Jordi had his eyes on the miniature plastic rocking horse. We found our way to the chairs, basking in the fact that our kids are almost old enough for us to just sit and watch them play without refereeing, hoisting, or saving any wobbly legs from a three-foot fall.
I should have known we were getting a tad too comfortable.
After about 15 minutes of slides and climbing nets, Cannon, our three-year-old, suddenly remembered something important: his beloved red car slippers, tucked safely in the shoe cubby where we took them off. We watched him from across the room as he darted toward them, and by the time we walked over he had already put them on and was headed right back to the slide he had just left.
For so many parents, this scenario is simple. The rules do not allow shoes and since Cannon wears his slippers all over the place, they count as shoes and carry the dirt on the bottom to prove it. He needed to take them off, and his parents needed to tell him to. But my little Cannon, who adores his red slippers and wants them on all time, he lives with autism. For reasons we are still trying to understand ourselves, Cannon sees and moves through the world differently than the “typical” child. We know this, and we knew immediately that asking him to just take his slippers back off would be anything but simple.
Everyone watching, however, had no idea what Cannon lives with.
“Buddy,” Alex said, “you can’t wear your slippers in here. They have to stay in the cubby.”
Cannon acted as though he didn’t hear that—like we knew he would—and persisted in his effort to get back to the slide. So Alex tried harder, “Cannon Lee, no slippers buddy,” he said as he forcefully took them off himself. The back-and-forth continued as Alex would not let Cannon in the bounce house and on the slides with his slippers on, and Cannon would not leave the cubby area without them. About the time Cannon fell to the ground and started crying, we heard what we had already been feeling on our backs.
“First child?” another dad asked with a smirk.
We looked over at him before we said anything, but what was going through my mind was something like this: Um, excuse me? No. This is not our first child, jerk. He is our middle child, out of three. I see there you only have two so puh-lease, tell me everything you know about parenting that you think we don’t. Also, he is autistic and this is hard for him, so how about you just be quiet and move along.
Luckily I married a man with a much more level head than I have, and he answered first. “No,” Alex said with a smile, “he’s our middle child. He’s just real attached to his slippers.”
“What’s his name?” the stranger asked.
Hesitantly—or, more just trying not to be rude—Alex answered. “Cannon.”
“Cannon,” the man said, “take your slippers off.” Cannon did not budge.
Is this really happening? Is this stranger trying to parent my son because he thinks we can’t?
The unknown man tried once more, a slightly deeper tone to his voice. “Cannon, take your slippers off!” Cannon dutifully ignored him and clung tightly to his feet as tears came down his cheeks. Alex shook his head a little, but he was at peace, totally un-rattled by the major overstep of this person we did not know into a situation he did not understand. Once the man realized Cannon was not going to acknowledge him, he finally moved on. Alex could have used this moment for a biting comment toward the other father, but instead he bent back down to Cannon and wrapped him up in a hug.
“Bud, I know you love your slippers, but we just cannot wear them in there. If you want to keep them on, we will just have to go home. But if you want to take them off, we can stay.” With red eyes and a shaky deep breath, Cannon headed to the front door. The slippers won.
This is not a story about autism as much as it is a story about parenting. Special needs adds a layer of complexity at times, but we have two neuro-typical kids who have had their fair share of “moments” too. And when someone is having that moment, they often choose it in the company of other people.
Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, these “other people” tend to help themselves to opinions. Opinions we do not always get the luxury of explaining away, even when everything in us desperately wants to.
I wanted to scream at this man we did not know. I wanted to ask him if his child ever had a bad moment. I wanted to tell him how far this precious boy of mine has come and how amazing he is really doing and how hard we are all working, and I sure as heck wanted to look him in the eyes and tell him to mind his own damn business!
I didn’t, but not because I was trying to take the high road. I didn’t say anything because Alex didn’t say anything, and I was taking my cues in that moment from him. He was cool, collected, polite, and most importantly, he was Cannon’s dad more than he was a defensive parent.
We buckled the kids up in the car and as we drove home, I was still upset that someone would try to parent around us. “Yeah, he was interesting,” Alex said, “but what do you do? He thought he was helping, maybe that another voice could convince Cannon?”
“No babe, he thought you had no idea how to parent. He was probably thinking ‘ah, these people are what is wrong with kids these days! No discipline, just a disobedient child. Let me teach them a lesson!’”
Alex laughed, “Well, maybe. But who cares?! We don’t know him, and he doesn’t know Cannon. For me, in those moments I just think, ‘there’s no one here but you, buddy.’ Cannon gets my energy; someone else’s opinion does not.”
No one here but you.
There have been and will be a thousand times in parenting when our children don’t exactly make us look good in front of others. Sometimes the behavior will be completely inexplicable and other times we will have a whole list of reasons why they are acting the way they are: no breakfast, didn’t sleep well, autism, ADHD, Dad has been out of town for a week or simply the fact that they are children and children, well, they act like them. And when they do, more often than not, they need something from us, something only we can give. Maybe it is discipline, maybe it is a hug, and maybe it is just a snack. But they always need understanding.
Too often, in moments when it starts to go awry, I have been worried about whether or not people understand me: how I am feeling and what I am trying to do and how I am still a good mom! in the moments it doesn’t look like it. But there is my little man, upset and unregulated and asking the same thing of me: do I see how he is feeling and what he is trying to communicate and the fact that He is still my sweet little boy! in the moments it doesn’t look it. Sometimes it’s hard to do both of those things well at the same time, so I’m learning to do the latter one first, to keep my heart in check and see that it stays on the child who needs me and not on the prideful mama that needs to be right. As parents, our best work is right in front of us, not to the left or to the right. Our job is the little eyes we are responsible for, not the watching eyes we have no control over.
“I love that, babe,” I responded to my husband. “There’s no one here but you. Gosh, doesn’t everyone in the world want to feel like that, in our best and worst moments?”
“For sure,” he said back.