Respect. I think about this word a great deal. There are things I do, things I think in any given moment are examples of me teaching respect and yet in the teaching I am not modeling the respect I am trying to teach. Here’s an example of what I mean – (this example is fairly mundane, but it serves my purpose because it’s something that most of us can relate to.)
Let’s say Emma and I are in a new place. Somewhere, perhaps like the place we recently went to give a talk on Autism Acceptance, where most or all of the people are strangers. As we enter the room I notice someone I do know and they walk over to say hello. My upbringing dictates that I introduce this person to my husband and daughter. I do this by saying, “Hello _______, this is my husband, Richard, and my daughter, Emma.” The person nods and says hello, maybe they even extend their hand. My husband without thinking, says something along the lines of “Hello _______, it’s nice to meet you.” Maybe they shake hands. My daughter turns away saying nothing. I am aware that this is not the conventional way (polite) to greet someone so I, without thinking, direct her, “Emma say hello to _________.”
I know enough not to ask her to touch the other person, even if they’ve extended their hand, but I forget that there may be a good reason for her non-greeting. Perhaps the lights are too bright, or all these strangers are too much, perhaps she is overwhelmed, or the noise is making it difficult for her to concentrate on any one thing. Perhaps she senses this person is not someone she gets a good vibe from, perhaps the person is standing too close to her. Regardless of whether I know what could be causing her not to say hello, demanding that she do so, is not the best thing for me to do.
Instead, I might lean down and whisper in her ear, “Do you want to try saying hello to _____?” If she does decide she’d like to and can, fine and if she cannot, for whatever reason, then that’s fine too. But before I say something like this I will want to have done a lesson plan around “social niceties” or the things people say to each other and why they do so. This is the ideal. However this is not what I always do, because I forget, but these are the little things I constantly think about. How can I parent better? How could I have approached that situation more respectfully? How can I use this as a teaching moment, not just for my daughter, but for myself?
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that kindness, directed toward myself and others is the single best way most of us learn. When someone yells at me, I don’t learn, in fact, I shut down. Even if the person does not yell, but criticizes me, scolds me, directs me to do something without explanation, I feel myself becoming self-conscious or worse, shutting down. I close in on myself. I can’t hear what the other person is saying. I become engaged in an internal battle. When someone is respectful and kind, I am open and much more likely to listen to them.
People say things like – “oh but that takes such patience,” or “who has the time to do all that?” I understand. But I know that the other way, while easy and perhaps quick, is nothing more than a quick fix, if that. The person may say the words I’ve just directed them to say, but the next time I will go through the same process. But there’s an even more important piece to all of this, because one can argue, who cares about social convention? Why should any of us care? Why should we say hello to one another? None of this matters. And I agree, none of this is really the point, the bigger point is that I want my children to understand that we live in a world filled with other people who may or may not share their neurology and that many of those people when met for the first time may offer their hand, if in the United States, and say hello. I want my children to not be put off by this, but know that they have the option to say hello if they are able to, or not and that I will be respectful of them no matter what their response is.
Directing my daughter to say words that I give her, is not being respectful of her and it also is not presuming competence. When I give her words to say, I am allowing my issues around social convention to take precedence over respect for my daughter and her sensitivities to her environment. I want to do better than that.
*I purposely have used the present tense, as this is something I continue to explore and am trying to do things differently. This is very much a work in progress!