He’s not going to hug you, lady, I thought to myself at the bakery the other day. I had tried to distract her with chit-chat to no avail, and I forced my eyes not to roll as the baker came around the counter and commanded him to give her a hug. I know my son, and there was no fucking way he was hugging her. I had already paid and was trying to leave before things got out of hand, but between the baker chasing Noah around my legs and me doing my best to balance Violet, the baked goods, and my purse without tripping over my terrified son, I had missed my window. It was too late.
We’ve been going to this bakery since I was pregnant with Noah, and the bakers know him by name. He used to giggle at them from the foward-facing baby Bjorn, let them hold and tickle and kiss him. He steadily got more and more surly, though, over the last four and a half years. I don’t know what happened. Now, every time we go in they greet him warmly as he furrows his brow and buries himself in the closest parent’s legs.
On this particularly humiliating day, Noah panicked after the baker had tried unsuccessfully to get him to hug her (“How about a high five?” I asked him desperately, still inching my way towards the door), but it was only after she tried to pick him up underneath the arms like a gigantic baby that he lost it and began shooting her with his finger gun. He hadn’t pulled out his finger guns in a long time, and my heart seized when I saw him unholster them. It was like a slo-mo scene from a western movie, complete with tumbleweed stray napkin across frame. NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE! I thought, as she stood up to face me at last, wondering aloud which video game he got that rude behavior from (Noah doesn’t even know what a video game is). As Noah was now bolstered with confidence at the presence of his finger shooters, he had finally let go of my legs and was shooting up the place all around him, customers and cupcakes alike, and I was free to exit the premises without trampling him. My little outlaw came, too.1
It will be a while2 before I can show my face in there again.
It was a timely trip to the bakery, as I was still processing a sort of revelation I’d had over the previous weekend. See, the good people of East Nashville put on a street festival every August when the weather is hotter than the fires of Mount Doom3. This festival is called the Tomato Art Fest, and when you’re not passing out due to heat exhaustion, you can take care of all your tomato-themed art needs. Really. It’s very useful. Anyway, the whole durn neighborhood goes so we piled into the car and when we got there and had parked further away from the festival than our house even is, we made our way to the kids’ fest, where kids could make a tomato bead necklace, slide down a blow-up water slide, bounce in a bouncy house, or stand in a mile-long line for popsicles.
My epiphany came when Noah utterly abhorred all of these things. He refused to set foot near the bouncy house, insisted one of US stand in line for Sno Cones, and only after Violet wanted to slide down the water slide did he feel obligated to do so as well, despite our assurances that he didn’t HAVE to, and he bawled when he got to the top so that I had to climb into the murky, leaf-filled water and stretch my hands up to help him down where he clutched me with his arms AND his legs, soaking me and sobbing for at least five minutes afterwards. All the while, well-meaning strangers, friendly neighbors, excited friends, and purple popsicle-smiling playmates greeted him, only to be met with scowls, humphs, and frowns as he hid his face repeatedly in my legs.4 I had a little Mommy Tantrum5 when I got fed up with his complaints and whines and clinginess, explaining to him with my hands in the air that THIS IS FUN! LOOK AT EVERYONE LAUGHING AND PLAYING AND HAVING FUN! FOR GOD’S SAKE! WHY ARE YOU SO MISERABLE!?
Because he was miserable. As I sat on the curb, steaming, Lance told me quietly “I used to be just like this.” “Where is MY personality in him, then?” I retorted angrily. “Where’s the part of him that’s like me, that enjoys running into friends and seeing lots of people and going out and doing things?” The truth is, there may not be that part of him. My realization was that this is not a phase. Noah doesn’t hate festivals and crowds and parties and new experiences because he’s four, any more than he hated them because he was three or two. I kept expecting him to grow out of his “shy” phase and emerge a gregarious, easy-going guy. That might not ever happen.
Like Lance, I’m sure Noah will learn how to put up with what, to him, are uncomfortable social situations. Like Lance, he might even come to enjoy parties (few and far between). He certainly does enjoy his friends and asks for them by name, so it’s not that he is ANTI-social. Here’s what I’ve observed in the week since the Tomato Fest, or remembered or paid attention to for the first time since I’ve been thinking about it.
1. He only wants to play with one friend at a time; he only wants to invite a max of three people to his birthday party whenever I ask about it. He gets stressed when too many people are over, or when we go to someone else’s house and there are too many people. He reacts by a) being whiny and clingy or b) acting like a total shit, picking at his friends, refusing to listen to me. It stresses him out to invite more than one person over, too. Recently we had a play date with a friend of his who is into princesses. He spent the morning planning what he was going to play with her and picking out dress-up clothes and appropriate toys and excitedly running in to tell me those plans. Later on I told him happily that another good friend was going to join us, and to my surprise he dropped to the floor in agony. “But he won’t want to play princesses!” he moaned. I tried to convince him that it was fine and the three could play something together, but he fretted for the rest of the morning. This isn’t to say he didn’t have a great time once the friends were actually here, because he did, but it was quite illuminating.
2. He turns into a turd when he’s overstimulated. He lashes out at me, he lashes out at Lance, he lashes out at other kids. (Tiredness, hunger, and needing to pee also contribute to Turd-Bubbs.) A few weekends ago we went to a birthday party, where I quietly and gently interrupted his play to ask if he had any interest in making a peanut butter bird feeder craft. He told me he hated me and hit me with a jump rope. (I took that as a no.) (Also we left. I’m trying to figure him out, but NO ONE HITS ME WITH A JUMP ROPE, FOO.) When he’s not overstimulated, when we have a few close friends over or we visit a house he knows well, he is generally warm, gentle, and kind. He has even been known to be the safety police, helping children on and off their bikes, reminding them obnoxiously not to do whatever it is they’re doing as it might lead to a fire, and protecting them from heading towards the street. He is extra gentle with babies, thoughtful of others’ feelings, and even adults find him quite sweet and personable. But too many people or too much STUFF (i.e. a street festival) = blood and destruction.
3. He likes being early. If we arrive earlier than everyone else somewhere: school (especially), a play date, a party, things seem to go smoother than if we show up after a lot of people are already present. Something about walking into a crowd seems to overwhelm him. But if he’s one of the first on the scene he seems able to cope with the bigger groups of people without flipping out. This is difficult as I am almost always running 30 minutes behind. With my newfound understanding of Noah’s mind, though, I’ma try to be better about that. If I arrive at your party awkwardly early, half dressed, and with no makeup on, you’ll know why. Please pretend I look great and you’re happy to see me even though you’re still finishing up the guacamole.
4. He gets physically and emotionally worn out when he’s around people too much. This is the classic Karl Jung definition of an introvert; he loves his friends and wants to hang out with them, but he needs to recharge at home, alone. He likes reading and watching movies, and he genuinely enjoys playing alone, with his fire truck, or with Legos, or dressed up in his fireman gear, his princess dress, his construction costume, his astronaut outfit, etc. (Really, dressing up as whatever he feels like being in that moment is more like a way of life for Noah than “playing,” but that’s a story for another blog post.) At the beginning of the summer, I scheduled outings for us every day, most of them with people. I quickly learned that was not going to fly. While Violet seemed to thrive and I experienced far fewer meltdowns when I had her out on the town, Noah’s behavior started to deteriorate about halfway through the first week, and by the end of the week I wanted to throw him out the window. Luckily I figured out what was wrong quickly when my homebody buddy began wailing NOOOOO as I cheerfully told the kids to get their shoes on and get in the car. I stopped over-scheduling us, and the next few weeks went much smoother. I’m still figuring out the balance, though, as a) Violet LOVES outings and playing with friends as often as possible, b) I love outings and seeing friends as often as possible, and b) both kids start to crawl the walls if we’ve been home for too long. Sometimes just going for a walk is the best thing for both of them, as it appeals to Violet’s adventuresome side and Noah’s introspective, stare at the trees and come up with an entire story inside his little6 head side.
5. He’s not socially awkward. (Ok, he’s a little socially awkward because sometimes he doesn’t talk, especially to adults. (See #7.)) But mostly, his introversion doesn’t lead to substandard social skills. I’m not even truly convinced that he’s shy. It’s hard for me to understand, too. Many of Noah’s playmates are participating in the city’s gifted child program called Encore, but I know Noah would never get in. His Montessori teacher last year did mention she would recommend him if I wanted, but they have to have an interview and identify letters aloud and stuff and ARE YOU KIDDING? (I am literally laughing out loud right now imagining some poor underpaid teacher trying to get him to say HELLO, then tell her that she is holding up the letter Q. Oh, oh, my sides hurt!) I’ve read that introverted children are often mistaken as unintelligent or inattentive because they clam up in school interviews. (And yes I did just misspell “unintelligent” the first time around.) Noah also happens to be stubborn as a mule in hell, will do opposite of what he knows he SHOULD be doing, is quiet in new situations, and is extremely introspective. He’ll bring up something that happened two months ago at random over dinner and have a fully formed opinion about a two-minute interaction. It’s shocking every time. So he’s not inattentive or unintelligent, to be sure. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s paying ridiculously close attention to everything that happens all around him, even when it seems like he’s not.7 Which is fucking intimidating. All this is to say that it’s very misleading, to be Noah. Only people who know him very well know he’s a total chatterbox, inventing stories like wildfire (probably stories ABOUT wildfires), he’s extremely articulate, and he says gigantic words sometimes. Also if you know him you know that when he says gigantic words you had sure as hell better not laugh. (See #8.) Seriously. If you ask him about school, he’ll give you bupkis. If you tell him you like his fireman outfit, he’ll give you bupkis. But if you casually mention that the best way to put out a fire is by running around and screaming, and he doesn’t think you’re saying it for his benefit, he’ll BEGIN by interjecting some fire safety wisdom, y’all, and you’ll never get another word in edgewise. This trait is so very like his father I can’t even believe it. Lance doesn’t talk much, to most people. But lord if I haven’t had to stifle a yawn when he gets going. The man will not stop talking. Sometimes I start making out with him after a couple hours, just to give my ears a break.
6. He doesn’t like being touched. This is tricky, because sometimes he does like being hugged, kissed, and wrestled with… did I say sometimes? The sometimes is paramount here. It kinda depends on his mood I guess. And ONLY ever by people for whom he would possibly lay down his life. He never pushes Lance or me away if we give him a hug or snuggle, and he doesn’t really ever stop touching and hugging and cuddling his sister, and he likes wrestling with friends and sometimes even hugging them. And I wouldn’t call him someone who keeps his hands to himself either… he likes to usher younger kids around and pull friends over to whisper secrets and stuff. He HATES it when you muss his hair, though. Or when an adult pokes him. (This happens surprisingly often to kids, I’ve noticed. Hey, grown-ups. Do you like being poked? Didn’t think so. Just because you’re feeling awkward, don’t poke kids. Show some respect.) He’s just not really into being casually touched. And if you are a stranger asking for a hug? Well, just be prepared to have your entire bakery blasted to smithereens.
7. He’s not going to talk to you. Ever since he was old enough to communicate, I’ve tried to instill the bare minimum of polite interactions in Noah. I taught him how to sign “thank you” and “please,” taught him how to wave hello and goodbye. Now, four years later, he still doesn’t say thank you. He still doesn’t say hello. He might wave goodbye, or, if he knows you REALLY well, mumble “bye.” (I think bye comes easier than hi, since he’s had however long to warm up to whoever we’re with.) I have a hard time with this. As we greet friends and other children happily say hello to me while Noah scowlingly ignores adults, I am inwardly cringing. “You don’t have to chat if you don’t feel like chatting,” I remind him time and time again. (He just loves my lectures.) “But you need to be kind and polite to your friends and their parents. Simply say hello. Say goodbye. Say thank you and please.” So far, it hasn’t taken. I watch over and over as our adult friends say “Hi, Noah!” and he ignores them. He ignores everything. “How are you?” (silence) “How is school going?” (silence) “Would you like a cookie?” (he looks at me and nods) I remind him to say thank you but he just can’t. Or won’t. I don’t know. He stands there with his cookie and looks at the floor. I feel badly, because I love people and I’m trying to teach him how to interact with others. I don’t want him to be a social outcast, and eventually, ignoring people isn’t going to fly. Hopefully he will learn acceptable social behavior before he’s old enough to be ostracized for impoliteness. In the meantime, I will be forcing myself not to answer for him or apologize because he’s not telling you how old he is or whether or not he had fun at preschool today. He’s not trying to be rude. He’s just bored by your inane topics, apparently. Don’t take it personally, Reader. I ask him questions all the time (mostly about his feelings). He answers me about one time out of every ten questions. And that one time, his answer is a huge eye roll and a “You’re ANNOYING me, Mom.”
8. He’s terrified of being laughed at. He embarrasses very easily, and he doesn’t differentiate between someone thinking he’s adorable and someone thinking he’s dumb. When he talks to us we have learned to take everything he says VERY seriously, and no matter how cute he is being we CAN NOT SMILE. I’ve recently wondered if this explains why he’s never sung aloud, even as a little guy. He’ll smile while I sing, but he’ll never join in. At a friend’s house yesterday, he got caught singing a song he’d made up and he stopped, rolled his eyes and sighed all dramatically, then told her “NO ADULTS ALLOWED.” I told her Noah talking to her at all is a step in the right direction! Bonus points because he didn’t shoot her with his finger gun and/or start crying! It’s not just adults that he’s afraid will laugh at him; he often tells me something he can’t or won’t do (often something he wants to do or SHOULD do) because his friends will laugh at him. He’s way too worried about this to be only four, in my opinion. I am nervous about him in high school.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but a steadily and alarmingly quickly growing list. I just realized the not being late rule about an hour ago. And, like so many other parts of parenting, it’s me, and my own expectations, that must change. Noah is who he is, and I’m not allowed to have temper tantrums because I don’t get him. I have to dig in, and do my research, and try my best to understand him, if I want to parent him the right way.
The day after the Tomato Art Festival, Lance and I took the kids to Percy Priest lake. It’s a beautiful lake with a strip of beach (thanks to the Army Corp of Engineers) and waves that crash up on the sand (thanks to the boaters) and a decent roped-off section for swimming. Violet played in the sand and laughed and made us look at her while she splashed her feet in the water and laid down on her belly and let the waves push her to shore. Noah swam out as far as he could (wearing his water wings…he is a cautious guy after all), right up to the rope that separated the swim area from the wide open water. From the shore-line, I shaded my face with my hand and watched him, wanting to call him back but wanting to let him go as far as he dared (autonomy and all that, y’all feel). When he reached the rope he turned, and I could just make out his face. His grin was huge, infectious, and I realized then how happy he was just like that: alone, no people around, nothing around but calm water on all sides.
1 Not relevant to this post but somehow important to me to say anyway: I told Noah in the car on the way home that he was never under any obligation to hug or touch anyone unless he wanted to. It is very important to me to let my kids make their own decisions about who they hug or kiss. Their bodies are their own, I remind them as often as it comes up. However, I told him, shooting adults is quite rude and he definitely needs to say “no thank you” when someone asks for a hug instead of killing them. That will only lead to a prison sentence, and from my understanding of jail, a polite “no thank you” will likely not be a good way to get fellow prisoners to stop trying to hug you.
2 Read: never
3 Frodo himself confirms this. After leaving Rivendell he was all, I need a vacay, stat. So he came here because of all the sweet honky tonk bars. But he like, could not BELIEVE the heat. “It’s the mugginess that really gets you,” he said. “It’s just so shocking.”
4 This is apparently his favorite place to hide.
5 These do happen on occasion.
6 His head is not little. His head is huge.
7 An example from today: he was scolded during piano class for not singing along to a new song. He was then asked to come sit in the waiting room “with your mom” as he was “not participating.” I was watching from said waiting room, and he had not been disrupting class, squirming, giggling, being silly, or really doing anything. His eyes were on the teacher and he was just quietly observing. He sadly came in the waiting room to sit with me, and I asked him if he had ever heard the song before, as I hadn’t. He said no, and another mother confirmed that it was a new song. Not that that really mattered… I can’t get him to sing the alphabet song when he’s at home with just me. He refused to go back in to class even after the piano teacher invited him to do so. The worst thing about it was that I KNOW he really WAS participating. He was listening, and he was learning. He’s never been one to regurgitate immediately. He sits on information and processes it slowly, asking questions along the way, then understanding it completely and entirely a month later. Probably needless to say, we are looking for a new piano teacher. We aren’t angry or anything like that, I’m just really trying to think how Noah learns best, and a one-size approach to music lessons seems like a bad idea. I want him to love going, and foster a love of music in him, and not have him fear reproach for learning the way he learns.