Raising quirky kids can be isolating and lonely – for parents and for kids. But with every reason not to go to that party, event, or gathering, there’s a better reason your community needs your presence. Faithful, Not Succesful’s Christy Wilkens reveals how to balance the needs of your children with the value your family brings to the world.
“I don’t think she should go.”
“She’s growing up. A lot of her friends will be there. I think she deserves the chance to try.”
My husband and I were discussing whether or not to take our daughter to a noisy, crowded restaurant — where, yes, she would be dancing and laughing with many friends, but also playing video games and eating and drinking tons of junk, way past her bedtime.
“She was up early today. She has to get up to serve at Mass tomorrow,” I insisted.
“Please. I’ll take responsibility. Let me try.” he pushed back.
“Okay – can we try to have her in bed by 9pm?”
Predictably, the following day she was overtired and beyond maxed out. The pressure exploded into a one-way screaming match at bedtime, one that woke up two other children, punctuated by lots of kicking and slamming doors.
“I HATE YOU!” she yelled, before collapsing into sobs that ebbed, only gradually, with agonizing slowness, into a restless sleep.
Enough, but not too much
That conversation, that exact decision point, has played out dozens of times over our marriage, and particularly over the course of parenting this child.
She is, like my husband, a true sanguine, the platonic ideal of an extrovert who cannot live without regular contact with her legion of friends and admirers.
She is, unlike my husband, also highly sensitive and delicately wired.
Those two pulls are always in extreme tension. For any given chance to enjoy our community, a tricky and complicated calculus emerges: how much is enough, without being too much?
For any given event, there is — at best — one right answer.
Sometimes, there is no right answer at all.
That day in the restaurant was one our family had looked forward to for weeks, a rare get-together for our extended Catholic community. That day, we chose in favor of joining our community, even knowing the decision would probably haunt us later. Other days, we’ve made the opposite choice, to forego an event because we knew the eventual cost for our (several) quirky kids would be too high a price.
And on still other days, the worst ones, we’ve tried to do it all.
The cost came due not after the event, but in the middle of it:
- The time one child spent the entire three-hour Mardi Gras party in the van, refusing pancakes and parades.
- The time we went to the St. Patrick’s potluck but left before the end, provoking loud and ferocious arguments for all present to hear.
- The time another had to be dragged away from park day in hysterics, wrestled brute force into the car seat, in full view of every other mom in our school.
Community has a cost
For quirky kids — even the ones who are extroverts — downtime is absolutely crucial for proper functioning of the body and soul. Sometimes, that downtime requires saying no to the things that everyone else is doing, even the really, really good ones. Participation in the life of a community has a very real, very non-negotiable cost to the psyche of a child with neurological differences.
It demands physical energy. It demands social competence. It demands a lot of decision-making and negotiation and executive function skills.
Those demands are all good because they motivate our children to stretch themselves, to grow, to shore up weaknesses. But they are demands nonetheless, and children cannot manufacture an endless supply of energy to meet them.
Saying yes means it’s our job to keep an eye on the energy tank. As parents, we help teach our children to recognize when enough is enough, before it’s too much.
Community requires participation –
But saying no leaves our kids feeling left out and disconnected.
Often, our kids’ need for downtime requires saying no not just to the things they want to be doing, but the things we want to be doing.
That can leave us feeling left out and disconnected, too. If you’re me, and not so spiritually advanced, it might even lead to resentment: the feeling that not only does your child create challenges at home, but she’s also throwing up roadblocks to the social outlets you so desperately need to deal with those challenges.
Continually saying no takes its own toll on connection, in two ways. You and your child will probably be the first to feel the lack, through loneliness or even boredom. But eventually, with enough turned-down invitations, the offers may become fewer and farther between.
In order to stay part of the community, you have to be present to the community. Sometimes that means being present warts and all, to make yourself and your child vulnerable to the community, even in your weaknesses.
By showing up, however imperfectly, in whatever state of mess, you help your community learn other ways of being human than the ways that exist in their own houses. Your community needs your family’s quirks.
Reaching and retreating
Saying yes is a reach; saying no is a retreat. Rarely is either option completely ideal, but here are some tips I’ve gleaned over the years for finding the right balance between the community of your family and the community of the world.
Be flexible in your approach to any plans.
This requires a certain level of spiritual detachment from the outcome and an acknowledgment that living in a family requires compromise.
Even with something written in ink on the calendar, be willing to make a game-time adjustment. Maybe one child needs to stay home that day, or go late, or leave early. Can you and your spouse divide and conquer? Maybe something you’d previously written off suddenly becomes possible when your child is having a delightful day.
In that moment, go or no-go, what does success look like? (Hint: It may look different than what you pictured when you originally made plans.)
Be responsive to your children.
Not only do you need to listen to what he’s saying, but you also need to listen even more closely to what he’s not telling you (with his words).
Has he been more listless than usual? Time for community connection, even if it will be a struggle. Has he been melting down left and right? Time to call in with regrets, even at the last minute. We’re not trying to throw etiquette out the window here, but you wouldn’t hesitate to call with regrets if your child had the flu.
A neurological firestorm can be just as devastating and serious as a physical illness.
Be willing to make a fool of yourself.
You have to put yourself out there sometimes. You just do, for the sake of your own community bonds and those of your child.
There are going to be some hard, messy interactions. There may be outings that end in a car ride home with every person in tears. But every mistake and every tear is an opportunity for growth and learning — even an opportunity for deeper connection with your child.
And your community needs to see you trying. Actually, they need to see you failing.
They need to be allowed to love you in the hard moments of raising your quirky child, not just the perfectly conceived and executed ones. You are Christ to them, when you fall under the weight of your cross, so they can be Simon, Veronica, the women of Jerusalem.
Be secure in the knowledge that other opportunities will come.
Over time, your ride-or-die friends will emerge from the crowd. These are the ones you can count on to keep an eye on your other children while you soothe the one who’s melting down — or better yet, to take a short walk with that hot mess and reset the dynamic altogether.
If you’ve let people in and said yes to community, then over the years, these folks will have seen a thing or two in the hours spent with your family, and they won’t bat an eyelash.
Our family rhythm looks very different than it did several years ago. It’s quieter, slower. But gradually testing our “yes,” in order to find that new rhythm, has built unbreakable bonds.
It allows us to relish the fewer community events that we do attend, and to trust that our friends have our backs when things go south, as they do.
Be full of trust.
God is using your family to build his community… and his kingdom.
Let’s be real: loving complex families like ours can be challenging. But God gave these quirky children not just to us — I mean, not just to mom and dad, not just to their siblings. God planted these children as seeds within the context of their communities, and they have a beautiful vocation to grow into out there, too.
By embracing the struggle of loving your children publicly, not just privately, you set forth as a witness to the truth of the Body of Christ.
All members of the body are gifted with strengths, yes.
But all members are also gifted — yes, gifted — with weaknesses and foibles, not just for our own sanctification, but for the world’s.
Christy Wilkens is a Catholic wife, mother, and hardcore introvert. She and her husband are raising a family of six little souls (including several quirky ones) on a tumbledown farmette near Austin, TX. In October, she will be invested in the Order of Malta, a Catholic lay order devoted to the defense of the faith and care of the poor and sick. Christy spends her free time looking for her car keys, looking for the book she was reading, looking for her kids’ shoes, uttering prayers of alternating desperation and thanksgiving, and hugging small people. She blogs at Faithful, Not Successful. Connect with Christy on Facebook and Instagram.