What if it Was Your Son?

By Robin Finn

Robin and son on beach

Walking across the blacktop of my son’s elementary school after the last bell rang, I couldn’t help but scan the faces of the boys at the handball courts. “You’re out!” a blond boy called, tossing back his hair to reveal a streak of dusty soot as if he’d recently emerged from a coal mine. “It’s a sticky!” a redhead countered, tucking the rubber ball firmly between his hip and forearm. A swarm of boys argued and pointed until the ball once again smacked against the large gray wall and I went lo look for my son.

Playing handball after school had once been my fourth grader’s favorite afternoon activity. For years, he’d shoved an oversized ball into his striped backpack, crushing his SpongeBob lunchbox, and pulling hard on the zipper to close it around the unsightly bulge. He’d looked more like a camel than a boy as he trudged up the hill on his way to school, the misshapen pack forming a kind of hump across his back. But my son didn’t play handball anymore.

The conflicts on the courts over the years had apparently been too much for him. He’d impatiently smacked the ball out of someone else’s hands, stormed off after what he deemed a bad call, or refused to leave the court, even when the other kids insisted he was ‘out,’ one too many times. And although he read social cues poorly, he read them well enough to know the other kids no longer wanted to play with him. I spotted my son in the distance, leaning against a wall in a yellow T-shirt and black sweatpants, reading a book.

A dad I’d been friendly with over the years—our boys were in the same grade—approached me and asked how my son was doing. This dad, I’ll call him Joe, was a stay-at-home parent and frequently hung out after school to oversee one of the handball courts. My son had once been one of his regulars.

“Not so great, Joe” I said, unable to hold back. “He’s having a hard time with friends. He doesn’t seem to have anyone to hang out with.”

“You know,” Joe said, adjusting his baseball cap, “your son’s a good kid. I just think …” he trailed off, choosing his words carefully, “he’s a bull in a china shop.” He looked away toward the kindergarten yard and then back at me. “Eventually, when the shopkeepers see the bull coming, they lock their doors. Y’know what I mean?” He squinted as the afternoon sun slow-roasted our flip-flopped feet on the pavement.

I liked Joe; he seemed like a decent guy. But watching my son sit alone at the edge of the playground, reading The Lightning Thief for the third time, his yellow Apple Store T-shirt rubbing against the side of a classroom, hurt. It was the kind of slow wound that festered.

Once, when the boys were in preschool, everybody in the class was a “friend.” “Friends,” the teacher would say, “it’s time to go outside.” Or, “Let’s ask our friends to help clean up the lunch tables.” Even though my son lay across his classmates at circle time and interrupted class conversations frequently, the other kids had accepted him.

But by the fourth grade, the universal “friend” had narrowed. Friends were people who invited you to their house after school and included you at their birthday parties. Friends were people your mom (or dad) liked and who were similar to you. Friends were easygoing and agreeable. Friends were not impulsive or hyperactive or emotional. Those were bulls.

But my son wasn’t a bull.

He was a ten-year-old boy who struggled with impulsivity and hyperactivity. And he didn’t live in a china shop. He lived in a community.

How could I tell this dad, who I knew to be a sweet guy, that he was way off base? That a bull is, after all, a wild animal, but a boy is not? A boy has feelings and the need to belong.

What I wanted to say, what I should have said, was, What if it was your son? Learning to get along with others is a life skill. Learning to see through other kids’ limitations and find the goodness inside changes the world. And my son, without a doubt, is filled with goodness. He’s just rough around the edges. But maybe that’s too much to ask of fourth graders. Or their parents.

I thought about all of this after I’d walked away. After I’d found a shady spot to nurse my hurt and wait for my son to finish the chapter so we could leave. I pulled out my phone and pretended to text so I wouldn’t have to talk to another parent who might wander by. I tried to work out my complex feelings—not just about this parent but about the long list of people I perceived as quick to judge my son, quick to shoot me the stink-eye, quick to delete my contact information or never return my e-mail asking for a play date.

When I pick up my son after school in the afternoons, I frequently see Joe surrounded by a large group of boys playing handball. If he happens to look my way, I give him a wave and he shoots me a dimpled smile. I still think about our conversation that day. How could I have conveyed what it feels like to be a parent of a child who is different and frequently misunderstood? It’s easy to classify a boy as a bull when he isn’t your boy. But what if he was?

Robin Finn, MPH, MA is a writer/author/essayist and the mother of three spirited kids. Her background in public health, spiritual psychology, and motherhood- including raising a child with special needs- informs the lens through which she views the world. Robin lives in L.A. and is working on her first novel. Learn more about Robin at robinfinn.com.

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  • Eat well

    interesting post. I think that the dad was trying to tell you something. Some dads will cut to the chase and won’t sugar coat it. And sometimes that is difficult to hear, but be lucky that he told you something about how people perceive your son — for better or for worse. I think if was you, I would have asked him, an open ended question such as, what do you think I should do? Have you had experience with these type of kiddos? Then proceed to see HOW your son can be included. Clearly this man has an interest in having fun with the boys, but wants to leave it at that. That’s his prerogative. And I think that instead of laying blame on the father for not reaching out to your son after the conversation you had with him, I think rather it was a missed opportunity for you to reach how to the dad to help your son. Remember, he’s out there already WITH his son, so the question about “what if it was your son” doesn’t really apply. You never know what journey he’s had with his son anyway, so never assume. Good luck.

    • greenlady13

      Eat Well, I respectfully disagree. Don’t you think this mother knows how people perceive her son? As the older sister of someone with Aspergers, I surely saw the looks he received. I saw the snickers. I saw people ignore him. While many of these kids work hard to “correct” their behaviors, it’s a difficult world to live in if you have a disability. I think the question this father should have asked HIMSELF is, “how can my child and I help this boy fit in? How can we include him?” Isn’t our job as parents to teach our children compassion? Shouldn’t we strive for children who are gentle with others’ feelings and go out of their way to be inclusive? My greatest hope for my children is that they are kind and reach out to others, especially those left on the sidelines.

  • Diane Fishburne

    I have been both in your shoes and Joe’s. You have not given much weight to the fact that Joe told you he thought your child was a good kid, and. instead, focused on Joe’s comparison to a “bull in a china shop.” This expression is usually preceded by the words “like a” (bull in a china shop). Could it be that your pain at seeing your son’s exclusion led you to hear Joe’s statement incorrectly? Used in the typical fashion, the speaker has no intention to compare the person to an animal. It is shorthand for referencing a situation where the person is not being as delicate as the situation requires. It is very sad to watch a child, especially your own child, be left out but denying the impact of his behaviors does not improve his situation. You can explain to the other children and request their tolerance, but, even if they comply, is tolerance all you want for your son? Acceptance, and inclusion, is a longer and harder road for some children, and it can take a lot of energy on your part and your child’s. You are wise to guard yourself from those who are not supportive and rob you of that energy….I’m not convinced Joe is one of those.

  • Diane Fishburne

    I have been both in your shoes and Joe’s. You have not given much weight to the fact that Joe told you he thought your child was a good kid, and. instead, focused on Joe’s comparison to a “bull in a china shop.” This expression is usually preceded by the words “like a” (bull in a china shop). Could it be that your pain at seeing your son’s exclusion led you to hear his statement incorrectly? Used in the typical fashion, the speaker has no intention to compare the person to an animal. It is shorthand for referencing a situation where the person is not being as delicate as the situation requires. It is very sad to watch a child, especially your own child, be left out but denying the impact of his behaviors does not improve his situation. You can explain to the other children and request their tolerance, but, even if they comply, is tolerance all you want for your son? Acceptance, and inclusion, is a longer and harder road for some children, and it can take a lot of energy on your part and your child’s. You are wise to guard yourself from those who are not supportive and rob you of that energy….I’m not convinced Joe is one of those.

  • cptphdoif2

    This IS my son. He is a bull. To a lesser extent, so was I. I worry about him and he’s only 8. He’s amazing. He’s infuriating. Getting along with others is a life skill. It’s his job to figure out how to do that better. He will —eventually. I worry about the loneliness of jr high and high school. Or maybe he’ll figure it out by then. I had 2 great friends growing up. And a LOT of people who really didn’t like me (looking back now – and looking at my son – I know why but I couldn’t see it then. I’m 40, I STILL struggle with it). He just needs two good friends. If I have to, I’ll find them for him.

    • Maiasaura

      Let me know if you find out how. My son IS in middle school right now. No friends left :(

  • MomofThree

    There was a boy like your son in our school. He graduated this June. But from first grade on, he struggled to make friends. He was impulsive and competitive, to the point of cheating on games just so he would win. He was smart, but quick to anger. Several boys and girls in his class tried to be friends with him through the years but all of them gave up. Things got so bad by 8th grade, this boy had no friends in his class and none in the 7th grade. Once, he gave his mom a goodbye hug in the morning. “How sweet,” I told his mom. She replied, “He needs that just to get through the day. He doesn’t have a friend in that class.” I felt so bad for them. So I asked my son, who was in 6th grade, to try and befriend him, and he did. He tried. For months.This boy demanded he direct all their play time. He made fun of people when they made mistakes. He refused to share playground balls and swings. He grabbed other kids’ lunches and thought it hilarious when he took a bite from them. He complained about being bullied, but once he had one ally, he and the other boy then refused to let anyone else play with them. My son finally came to me and asked to be taken off the mission of compassion: “Mom, he gets angry so easily and he just isn’t nice.” This boy can be very well-mannered around adults, some of whom remain puzzled why he doesn’t have any friends. Then they spend time with him and see for themselves, the good and the bad. WHAT IF HE WAS MY SON? I would get help, professional or otherwise. “Being different” should be celebrated when being different means being original or quirky. But what if being different meant being angry and difficult and not so easy to love? I told my son he didn’t have to hang around this boy anymore. He was relieved.

  • http://www.generationgrit.com/ Laura Hale

    YES. “And he didn’t live in a china shop. He lived in a community.”

    And the question becomes how to be a true, beautiful, inclusive community where kids and grown ups can make mistakes, learn and grow. Community, like a great marriage or friendship, requires us all to give of ourselves … whether we are the ‘rough-around-the-edges’ ones or the more socially skilled ones.

  • Jeffco Voter & Taxpayer

    Making and keeping friends is easier for some and harder for others. What I think the writer misses is that all children their own emotional needs as well. They are also 10-year-olds who can hardly be expected to exercise extra patience and self-control in order to deal with a kid who has extremely limited levels of those same qualities. Perhaps if the more impulsive child’s caregiver is constantly there to provide an additional level of scaffolding, it’s possible. But to expect that from other kids or parents who probably are at a loss about what to do?

    It can be easy to see kids who are less impulsive and think that they don’t have any issues and should be expected to be the ones to reach out to your kid. But you don’t know that. You don’t know if some children exhaust their resources when interacting with him, and then go home and flip out because their systems were overstimulated by having to put that much effort in it. My 10-year-old nephew is on the spectrum and sensory seeking; my older daughter is 9-1/2, sensory-avoidant and not on the spectrum. She’s been known to have complete breakdowns with her parents after spending a few hours with him because their personalities are so different that it exhausts her. We’ve found ways to better manage their needs, in which she takes breaks when he gets to be too much and his parents don’t let him badger her (barge in the room, talk through the door incessantly, or worse, tell her every 30 seconds how much time she has left on her break) when she takes a break. She is patient and tolerant of the fact that he comments for 10 minutes at a stretch about how short she is (ashe’s just so short, shorter than his other cousin, almost shorter than his sister, is she shorter than the kindergartners?, etc etc etc), and she’s patient when he fights about giving her a turn on a game and then comments on how badly she plays (or claims that she doesn’t want a turn and has to have the controller wrestled from his hands when he refuses to give it up). He’s still learning what is ok and what’s not (i.e, he’s a little kid), but she’s also a little kid and she has her own emotional struggles and limits. We try to honor both of those rather than assuming it’s reasonable to ask a 9-1/2-year-old to “be the bigger person.”

    One other question remains: what if your son didn’t want to play with a kid who was even more impulsive, aggressive and argumentative than he was? Would you force the relationship, even if your child was increasingly unhappy and didn’t want to play with that kid? Would you talk to the child’s parent about how they could help provide more scaffolding so all the kids had fun? Or would you too look for boys who were more temperamentally suited to be friends? There aren’t easy answers here, no matter what a child’s personality is.

  • Kari Crann

    I’ve had ADD, some dyslexia, and high functioning Autism my whole life. I was the kid who tried to hide from the children I knew didn’t like me. Despite that it gave me the ability to weed out the people who would be real friends and the people who were forced to be my “friends” or wanted to use me for something. Trying to force friendship doesn’t work, it simply emphasizes the differences between them and other children, but worse then that it’s painful to realize people are being forced to spend time with you. Now as an adult I practice and teach my own son behavior modification, because honestly expecting other people to change for you will never work. In the end, that is what the other child’s father was trying (inelegantly) to tell you. He could force his child to play with yours, but your child would be the one who was ultimately hurt by that. He won’t learn to create friendships, and will be unable to understand why other children are resentful of being forced to be his “friend”. He can make friends, he just needs help learning how to be a friend. You have to be a friend before you can make friends.

  • Kim

    You know, it is true, your son lives in a community and as parents, as Joe, the parent of the hand ball court, it is his responsibility to promote inclusiveness. How do we play with ‘your son’? What does he need for it to work for him? Do we slow the tempo? Do we alter the rules? Kids have to be taught this if they are not shown this in daily life. I feel sad that you had to experience that as a parent, and that these kids are not being shown that we are all brothers and sisters in our schools, our communities, our world — we need to take care of one another.

  • Alycia

    Funny, I didn’t read his comment as offensive to your son. Rather, I felt sorry that he is surrounded by children and parents with such delicate sensibilities that they are so easily “shattered”. It’s only bad to be a bull if you are in a china shop.

  • Alison Day

    That kid was me…. socially rejected 1st thru 6th grade. I didn’t have any diagnosed reasons for it, never understood what the problem was until later as an adult I could look back and see my own behaviors as off-putting to the other children. Blessings to this mama as she helps her son navigate the complex world of children’s society.

  • lp

    Seems like the dad was trying to sympathize with her and she was being hypersensitive. He can’t change the fact that kids are cruel and her kid doesn’t fit in. Bull in china shop was an analogy, I am sure the father was aware that her son has feelings, wanted to fit in, etc, but he can’t be expected to change the fact that the child doesn’t. The mom whines a lot here about the perfectly reasonable comment the dad made, hopefully the child is not hypersensitive like his mother. She needs to work on her social skills and her son’s.