Saturday, October 06, 2012

Nature and Nurture

My oldest son turned 13 today - an occasion that would probably inspire mixed emotions in most parents. In my son's case it's all a little more complicated. His refusal to go to school or travel beyond the environs of Lewes makes me wonder how he is going to negotiate his way through the teen years and emerge as an employable, datable adult.

When I look at photos of the small, wrinkled creature whose whole hand was half the length of my index finger, it's sometimes hard not to wonder if we could have pursued a course that would have guaranteed a different outcome. But then I remember everything my wife did: becoming a full-time mother, buying organic food we couldn't afford, organising play dates and constantly reading to my son. She was jokingly nicknamed the 'perfect mother'.

Perhaps the one thing that could have made a difference was if we'd got a diagnosis six years earlier, rather than being labelled by some psychologists as the ineffectual parents of a badly behaved boy (on one occasion, a rather strange German woman, who wore an absurdly revealing top, turned to us and said "Why do you want to medicalise your child? Hiss behaviour is just simple sibling rivalry").

In the face of 'expert opinion', we meekly acquiesced. Perhaps we were just neurotic, middle class parents, over-intellectualising problems that were simply the result of poor parenting. It took many years and a lot of suffering on our son's part before we met a psychiatrist who changed everything.

I feel rather anxious about the next few years, but there are plenty of positives too. My son is a bright, quirky individual with a good sense of humour and a strong moral sense (when his classmates started using 'gay' as a term of abuse, he not only refused to join in, but openly challenged anyone that said it). He will never be part of the crowd and that's no bad thing, but isolation can be debilitating.

As he grows older, my son should find more people like himself and has the potential to lead a fulfilling life, if he can just find his niche. His main challenge is to find a way of functioning in the world of neurotypicals who won't understand why he doesn't want to go on the staff trip to Thorpe Park or attend a two-day seminar in Telford.

In the meantime, we're trying to fill his life with calming, fulfilling activities that will also get him away from the Xbox. That latest idea is 'farm therapy':

The concept is simple enough. You go to a farm, groom the animals, feed them and do a few odd jobs. It's basic farming, but without the stress of crippling debts, EU quotas and bullying supermarket executives. It's supposed to be very effective for children with severe anxiety.

It's also very good for adults too. As I brushed the mud off a pony, I felt myself experiencing flow and left feeling more physically and mentally relaxed than I had been for a long time. Why should brushing mud off an animal be so rewarding?

On reflection, I liked the way the pony became very still and seemed to enjoy the brush strokes. I also enjoyed the repetition of the action and the way the coat became increasingly silky as the dirt was brushed out. When it was time to groom the pigs, the snorting and probing snouts added an element of humour too.

The farm was only a mile away, but it felt like another world, far removed from the nonsense of marketing meetings, public relations and rebranding exercises. I'm not sure if my son wants to go back, but if he doesn't I'll go on my own.

Finally, on the theme of nature, I went for a walk up on the Downs today and found something unusual in this puddle:

It was easy to miss. Barely thicker than a blade of grass and just under an inch long, this baby newt stopped next to a piece of string:

Judging by the recent weather, there seems little danger of the pond drying up, so I only hope that it survives the steady traffic of horses hooves and hiking boots, not to mention the adders.

I was going to say something along the lines of the best things in life being free, but apparently the farm therapy isn't, so I'll have to think of another platitude.


Kid said...

With devoted parents such as yourselves, I suspect your son will be just fine. 13, eh? That was me 40-odd years ago and it seems like only yesterday. Where does the time go?

Steerforth said...

13 seems a long time ago to me, but the last ten years have rushed by and I feel as if time's running out. It's scary.

May said...

Happy birthday!
My youngest son turned 14 today, October 6. Like your son, he spends plenty of time on the Xbox. The dog and the bunnies we got in the last year were for him. Although he enjoys spending time with his friends and practicing kickboxing, he is essentially an introvert - very much like me. I can relate to many characteristics of your son.

Martin said...

Steerforth, as long as your son has the capacity to be a "quirky individual with a good sense of humour and a strong moral sense," he will be okay. He has fine qualities and a loving family. He'll find his niche in this crazy world, and may even been happier than most.

Steerforth said...

Thank you May. I read your blog post about small children and in many ways I agree - I found the baby stage particularly exhausting and draining (not as much as my wife did though!). It was also, at times boring. But if I could pick an ideal age, it would be somewhere between four and eight.

Martin - I hope you're right. I've heard of several children recently who change when they hit puberty and acquire a new confidence and energy, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

The home education thing seems to be working, but it's placing a terrible burden on my wife and she has recently been diagnosed with a mysterious blood condition which may prevent her from continuing, so things are a little up in the air at the moment.

Little Nell said...

Your son has a loving, caring family who recognise his attributes, and refuse to pigeonhole him. I'm sure he's much happier for the home schooling, I saw so many children during my career who were unhappy at being made to conform and were often resented. I do hope your wife will be able to carry on, of that a suitable alternative is found. In the meantime, keep brushing the ponies.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Happy Birthday to your son! My daughter turned 12 on the 5th, and looking at her now, I wonder where she's appeared from too. She's very shy and has had a bad couple of years - losing both grannies, parents divorcing, her Dad having cancer, but these past few weeks, since starting at senior school, now she's settling in, there's a new still fragile confidence kindling which is great. I'm sure your son will come through all the uncertainty to make his place in the world, especially as he has your support.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Nell - He is much happier, but I'm worried that if things become too comfortable for him, he won't be able to adapt to the 'real world' when he's older. Getting the balance right is going to be a challenge.

Annabel - I'm glad that you're daughter's doing well after a difficult time. I often wonder what impact the death of his grandfathers had on my son. It's hard for our children to tell us because I'm not sure that they know themselves.

Throwing illness and divorce into the mix must have been very unsettling for her, but in the longer term your daughter will be able to cope with adversity and change more ably than many of her peers.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Happy Birthday to T. I know it's been tough for you both and continues to be so, but he honestly couldn't have better parents. Nor could his challenges have been resolved by throwing money at them even if you had been millionaires. Here's hoping the farm therapy will take off. Animals are wonderfully relaxing and appreciate every kindness shown to them, giving just as much in return. I have a cheeky ginger cat trying to move in who is a ball of love and fun with a pneumatic purr and the loveliest nature you could ask for in a cat.

Catherine said...

Happy Birthday to your son. I loved spending time on my own, especially when I was your son's age. I am the eldest of four and loved to retreat to my bedroom to read, think and get away from the younger three. Are you still getting a dog for your family? If you are, do you think the dog could be some kind of therapy for your son? I grew up near a riding stable and another thing I used to when your son's age was to do my homework in the box stall of my favourite horse at the time. Sitting on a bale of hay, and listening to the horse chewing their oats was very soothing. I think the farm is a great idea to visit, even if there is only one of you who gets the benefit. What is the beautiful golden coloured dog in the picture up above?

Lucille said...

Are you still thinking whether to get a dog?
We still miss our cat and I think it has something to do with missing stroking him and getting instant positive feedback.

Steerforth said...

Laura - It's good of you to say that, given that we were watching 'The Walking Dead' with him when you called! Not quite Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Catherine - We're still thinking about getting a dog. We're hoping that the dog we looked after will be having puppies, but if that doesn't happen we'll look elsewhere. The dog in the picture is a 13-year-old mongrel. A lovely dog.

Lucille - I was thinking about that when I stroked Maisy the border terrier today, who was visiting for the weekend. Her pleasure at being stroked - and her repeated demands for more - did create a positive feedback. After 26 years without a dog, it took me a while to get back into the animal zone, but I'm a convert.

Lucy said...

Happy Birthday to your son for yesterday.

A sense of humour and morality? Yes please. The intelligent and slightly quirky teens always end up with more interesting lives than the brash 'popular' ones.

My friend home educates her 5 children and they all have 'problems' which have various names. Visit their house though, and you just see a vibrant bunch of individuals who care not for the trappings of formulaic normal life.

We all worry what will become of our children, but Mrs Steerforth and you could not be doing any more to ensure they are as happy as THEY can be. We cannot ever expect them to be continually as happy as we'd like them to be.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - It's true, the quirky teens do end up with more interesting lives. But I'm also aware that some go off the rails. I feel as if I'm continually on the back foot, trying to second guess the next development and think up a strategy.

For example, should I let my son spend hours playing computer games. The obvious answer is no, but when he won't go out, multiplayer games, with chatting on Skype, is the only social interaction my son gets at the moment. It makes him happy. I can hear him laughing and shouting in his room. He doesn't read or do anything else, so if I take the computer away, he mopes around.

That's why we need to get a dog!

nilly said...

Congratulations on not being furious with the psychologists you encountered. Psychology seems to me to be a dangerous "science" prone to theories which are later found to be nonsense. This can be very damaging & destructive - thank goodness you eventually found one with intelligence and empathy.

helenalex said...

Unless your son is neglecting to eat, wash etc in order to spend all his time gaming I wouldn't worry. The multiplayer games are great for encouraging teamwork and sometimes leadership. For example, parts of World of Warcraft can only be done by a group of people working together with agreed roles and tactics and a basic plan. When I played I regularly found myself in groups of adults led by a 14 year old - we all knew he was 14 but were fine with doing what he told us to do because he was a good leader. I can't think of any other situation in which someone that age would get the chance to do that.

zmkc said...

Did you say, 'groom the pigs'?

Steerforth said...

Nilly - I must admit, my faith in psychologists has taken a knock. I'm more than willing to be self-critical, but having the spotlight turned on our parenting skills for so long was missing the point. Tne psychiatrist treated it as a medical problem, not a philosophical one and started to get results.

Helenalex - Well, he isn't great on the eating front. That's a constant battle. But it's good to read a positive view of multiplayer gaming. I ask myself what my son what be like if we took that away and I think he'd be isolated and depressed.

zmkc - Yes, they love it. One pig went into a trance whenever it was brushed and stopped trying to eat my son's shoes.

Lucy said...

I have the same worries about excessive gaming. A feeling of intense guilt washes over me when I realise Liam has been in his room for hours and I haven't interacted with him once. I worry about his eyesight, posture, poor muscle tone and what effect prolonged gaming has on the brain, mood etc.
However, when I stand outside his room eavesdropping; it sounds like he's at a party sometimes. There's strategic elements, that all important 'banter' team-building, laughter and a high level of engagement. Maybe I'm just trying to justify it. In an ideal world they'd all be off building dens and riding bikes for hours, stopping only to pick an apple from a tree and sip water from a stream. But - just imagine the worries we'd be riddled with then!

Steerforth said...

Well I'm glad it's not just me who feels guilty and worries about the posture, eyesight, effect on the brain and lack of sunshine.

I feel particularly guilty when I turn a blind eye because it gives me a few hours of peace and quiet.

That's why it always come back to getting a dog. When we looked after a dog in the summer, my son spent more time outdoors than he had for years and it was lovely to see some colour in his cheeks.

Assuming my wife gets the all-clear on the health front, we need to just get on with it.

helenalex said...

I have quite a few friends who spent most of their teenage years and 20s sitting in smelly darkened rooms hunched over computers, subsisting on diets which I would have thought would give them scurvy, and now they all earn more than I do, and are generally happy and no more dysfunctional than any other member of middle class society.

If your son shows any inclination towards learning how his computer actually works and fiddling around with its programming and insides, give him every support, because in most parts of the IT industry it's totally acceptable, even normal, to be an antisocial oddball. :)

Steerforth said...

Funnily enough, I've just taken delivery of a Raspberry Pi, which will hopefully teach him the rudiments of coding. I've made it clear that if he wants to spend most of his time online, he's got to start thinking about how he could turn it into a living.

Canadian Chickadee said...

It sounds as if you and your wife were indeed the perfect parents and did absolutely everything you could to make life easier for your son. Like "Kid" said above, I'm sure things will turn out just fine in the end.

By the way, I think caring for animals is soothing in the same way my mother always said housework was soothing: Even a little effort gets you an immediate visible result. And how many activities can you say that about?