What I Forgot to Say Hurt My Son More Than a Mean Comment

Today was a rough day.

My son, Munchkin, had his second-ever sleepover last night, and none of us got enough rest.

Since sleepover friend was still over this morning, our normal routine of yoga, sensory play and schoolwork did not happen.

My younger son, Monkey, had a doctor’s appointment that he cowered and screamed through.

I taught three sections of a Lego class at our homeschool co-op this afternoon, including a new section of 4-year-olds who require an entirely different set of activities.

By the end of co-op at 3:30 p.m., I was exhausted. I wanted to go home. I was not in the mood to deal with whining and fits, especially from the child who had just spent 25 consecutive hours with the friend he was begging to play with longer. So I was not the nicest mommy as I loaded the kids and the four bins of Legos in the car. I was tired, grumpy and feeling overwhelmed and unappreciated.

Then I noticed how quiet Munchkin was in the backseat.

Me: “What’s wrong?”

Munchkin: “Nothing.”

Me: “How did classes go today?”

Munchkin: “OK…”

Me: “OK?”

Munchkin: “I did all my work and stuff. It’s just… No one said anything good to me today.”

There is more to the conversation. It turns out some classmates told Munchkin he was annoying, which is a separate, heart-wrenching post of its own. But that’s not what was most important to him. When reflecting on the day, Munchkin wasn’t as bothered by the one bad comment as he was by the lack of good comments.

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There is a quote I love that floats around on my Facebook news feed from time to time:

Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world cannot poke enough holes to drain it dry. — Alvin Price

I failed at this today. I have lots of good excuses as to why I failed, but when it comes down to it, I didn’t help my child realize just how amazing I think he is today, and I regret that. Ironically, it was because my own bucket was a little on the low side this afternoon.

I don’t know how many times I’ve told my husband or a friend, “I don’t mind doing it all. I just want to feel like someone notices when I do it.” In short, I want someone to say “anything good” about me. It’s a common theme around moms, but today I thought about it from the perspective of my autistic son. For him, it is an achievement to walk into relatively unfamiliar classrooms filled with relatively unfamiliar people. It is an achievement to remember to make himself sit in a chair instead of on a table like he prefers. It is an achievement for him to listen to and follow multiple-step instructions while surrounded by distracting stimuli. It is a huge achievement for him to remember to wait his turn in a conversation, to stick to relevant topics and generally to blend almost seamlessly into a room of peers.

It’s easy to forget this sometimes, because Munchkin is so smart, eager and helpful. It’s simple to watch him smile and play and “fit in” until one moment, he doesn’t. I wish it hadn’t taken that moment to remind me of the insane amount of effort and work he puts into these seemingly “easy” social skills. I wish I’d been better today at filling his bucket of self-esteem.

Looking back at the morning, there are a dozen things I could have praised. He ate breakfast, got dressed and brushed his teeth without being asked twice even though we were off routine and his friend was standing by waiting to play. He was so patient and kind to his little brother when we arrived at co-op. He helped carry things inside and upstairs without complaint. In Lego class, he listened to his group’s ideas, shared his own without interrupting and helped everyone find a compromise. He built a really, truly cool model of a hand throwing a beach ball for our “on the beach” challenge. He never once complained about the timed challenges I issued to the class or the times I asked them all to disassemble creations (both of which would have led to major meltdowns even a year ago).

I understand none of these things needs a trophy or a celebration. I agree with those who will say these are all things he can and should do every day. But anyone can tell you it’s nice to be appreciated. Our kids —especially our kids with special needs — feel the same way. They want and need to hear that we see the things they do right, not just the things they may mess up. They need to hear “anything good.” They need their buckets of self-esteem filled up so high by us that when crummy, nasty, terrible and inevitable things happen to them, they don’t leave drained and scarred.

I was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who made sure I knew two things without a shadow of a doubt: She loves me completely and unconditionally, and she was proud of me. Not because of anything I did or didn’t do but because of who I was. My mom is an expert bucket-filler. Ironically, so is my Munchkin. For many years now, Munchkin has come up at least once a day with a hug to say, “Best mommy ever.”

Like Munchkin and anyone else, I have plenty of moments and even days where no one says “anything good,” moments where I want to give up. Today, I had a lot of them. But tonight, I got up and moved on because I know people love me and people are proud of me. This knowledge is my safe haven, my rock that lets me know I will always be important, loved and valued. It’s also what tells me that building my children’s sense of self-esteem is one of my most important jobs in life.

I spent the evening tonight filling buckets. We played Legos and explored a new “chain reaction” book (I tied knots and Munchkin figured out the complicated instructions). We read books to Monkey. I gave hugs and praised liberally.

I can’t make the bad and ugly things go away for my boys. I can’t stop the world from poking their buckets full of holes, but I can keep pouring the water in.

This post originally appeared on Finders Seekers.

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