From eighth grade through college I volunteered every Wednesday night with the Awana program at my church, with the K-2nd grade kids. I loved it for so many reasons 🙂 But what I came to realize through that experience, as well as through the summers I spent as a camp counselor, is that my favorite children were almost always the difficult ones, the trouble-makers, the strong-willed and stubborn kids, the insecure and struggling kids acting out without even knowing why. They seemed to live in turbulent waters, when most of their peers were coasting by around them; the behaviors that should have been perceived as a plea for attention, connection, and love all too often simply served to push other people away from them. And I loved these kids, and sought to connect with them, and trained my defensive instincts in their behalf.
Then I became a mother, and one of these kids was my own child.
And I realized that no matter how much I had cared about those other kids, and gone through hard things with them and for them, I had never come close to loving them like I love my son. I had stood up for them against the negative perceptions their behaviors had led to – but I had never felt that primal physical rage in their defense that I feel when someone makes even the slightest off-hand comment disparaging my child. I wish I had loved them better. I wish I had been a fiercer advocate for them; I wish my heart had been more easily broken for them, my life more freely poured out for them. Because I know now, and I knew then, so I had no excuse, that most adults will see the negative behavior and never look past it to the child who may be scared, overwhelmed, overstimulated, uncomfortable, and just simply in need of love and guidance.
When does your heart bleed, as a mother of a needy child, a socially awkward child, a child who doesn’t fit in without that extra love and care?
– when you watch your son “playing” with a group of peers, and they’re all busily climbing and digging and talking and investigating the world, and he’s sitting on the side just holding a toy and watching them, trying to figure out what’s going on, like they all know this social script that he’s never heard of
– when you come to pick your child up from Sunday School and he’s trying to break into a circle of kids building, to be part of the group, and one of them says, “oh good, he’s going home!” when she sees him running to you
– when you glance at the activity/story pages coming home with your son and the only personalized comment is that he played with his tongue.
In the moment I read that comment I knew only two things:
- Since when does an adult who claims to love and represent Christ think it is ok to fixate on a “weird” behavior that a child has to the exclusion of all that child is as a person created in the image of God? Also, did they think they were enlightening me or something? Believe me, random childcare helper, I know my son better than you do. I know that he licks his hands when he’s overstimulated by the noise and chaos of a group of kids, when he’s trying to figure out social cues, when he’s excited by everything going on around him or worn out from processing a hundred different things at once. You don’t need to fill me in on that piece of information.
- One callous and ignorant comment is not sufficient justification to leave a church, no matter how strongly I wanted to in the visceral rage of my first reaction.
I just want the world to know that the kids who seem different or difficult are beautiful, funny, intelligent, sweet, unique individuals – just like the ones who fit in, make friends easily, listen well, and charm you with their good behavior. You just need to see them for who they are, to see the person who needs and struggles and wants to be loved, instead of stopping at the outward web of odd or negative behaviors.