Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Comparison Game

Lately Ethan has discovered more than ever before that there are very real differences between himself and other people -- and I've found myself quoting all of those parental clichés that are annoying to hear when you're a child.

Let me be clear -- I don't mean differences that have anything to do with autism, but rather Ethan is noticing that different kids have different rules, different talents, different strengths and weaknesses.

A lot of this has come out, ironically, due to another kid in Ethan's class who is on the spectrum (I believe he too shared this information with his classmates last year). We'll call him George. Apparently they get along well enough in real life, but for some reason Ethan is often commenting on George. First it was the Doritos. Ethan was furious because George gets Doritos every day for a snack. Doritos are Ethan's all-time favorite food. If we had them in the house all of the time, they wouldn't last long. We try to save them for parties or other special occasions. Ethan was perfectly fine having fruit snacks at school -- until he had to sit there and watch George tantalizingly crunch into Doritos every day.

One afternoon after a particularly rough day that also involved an unsuccessful Minecraft venture Ethan started yelling about how unfair it was, that every day George ate Doritos, that I gave him horrible food, and that I was yes, a "Meanie." I wonder if I should consider that a badge of honor. He also gave me an earful about another friend who had a TV in his room, and a friend that got to play Wii before school.

"I'm sorry you're upset," I told him, "but that's the way it goes sometimes. Different families have different rules." I may have also thrown in the "life isn't always fair" line, trying to break some kind of record for the most clichés packed into one sentence.

The thing is: it's true, and there's no way around it. We're not putting a TV in his room; if he plays Wii in the morning we'll never make it to school; he doesn't need Doritos every day. Although I did go out not long after and get some "healthy" ones from a local company that were actually darned good.

This comparison stuff hasn't just been about material things, and it hasn't just been about Ethan feeling bad comparing himself to someone else. The other day he blurted out, "No offense, but [George] is a baby. He's still reading Berenstain Bear books at reading time. And he goes to bed at 7:30 at night."

Side note: I just love how he starts off with "no offense," as if to say "I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but I'm about to trash you." I hope he's not copying that from me. Eek.

So then we had another talk about how everyone is at a different level and has different strengths and weaknesses (never mind that he reads Berenstain Bear books for fun at home!), and how some people need more or less sleep and that doesn't make them a "baby," and most importantly how would he feel if people were calling him a baby because of something he said or did? It saddens me to write this, but there may be kids doing that right now in his class, and he just hasn't noticed.

I've been thinking a little more about this whole comparison game. I know it's part of human nature and human development. In middle school it gets even more intense. Everyone has to know what everyone else is doing so they can do likewise, or better. Anna was telling me how utterly mortifying it was last year to watch a girl show up on Halloween in a bumblebee costume -- the only person to arrive at school thinking it was okay to dress up. My visceral reaction hearing the story (I felt my entire body cringe) reminded me of how often I too still struggle with comparing myself to others or appearing different.

Yes, kids will be kids, and part of growing up is discovering your life and family are different than other people's. Sadly, part of life in our culture also seems to be realizing there is a norm, a place where you "should" be and other areas where you should never tread, lest you want to invite ridicule. When that's where we learn to fix our gaze, it's time to take stock.

There's that saying that "comparison is the thief of joy." It's also the mirror that reflects when we aren't really confident in who we are.

I thought about the girl in the bumblebee costume. I wondered what it would be like to walk the halls hearing whispers and giggles and I had to correct myself.

"Anna, we're laughing and feeling sorry for that girl, but I think we need to be more like her," I said. I thought about the message at church that Sunday from a young guy who really has a passion to see people touched by God. He'd had the guts to go up to people at a mall and ask to pray for them. And a number of them said no. Yet he kept asking, because he cared about other people more than he cared about their opinion of him. Could I do that? Could I, the one who is still stressed if I say the slightly wrong thing or am a little over or under dressed to a party?

Comparison steals our freedom. Someday someone might snicker at Ethan and his unconventional way of doing or saying certain things. It's comparison that wants us to meld into the crowd like a chameleon.

I hope each of us will aim to be the bumblebee.

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