Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Trouble on the Playground

Every day after school (and I mean every.single.day) Ethan and his friend B. get out of school, run past the kids walking to their buses and race to the playground in back of the school --

and I step into my role as mediator, negotiator, and ambassador of pretend play.

The boys are five now. Kindergarten is calling. The pretend themes are getting more complex out there, and Ethan spends a lot of his time back in the world of Parallel Play. He uses up his social and imaginative energy in school. By the time he races out the doors, he's spent. Fun playground time for him right now is challenging himself: how many times can he climb up the slide? How many seconds can he hang from the high bar? Can he make it across the really hard monkey bars? He doesn't mind his friend's company after spending the afternoon together in preschool. He just doesn't want to spend another hour outside playing exclusively with him.

His friend B. is about as accommodating as any five-year-old can be. He patiently waits and plays Ethan's games (we've turned Ethan's self-imposed challenges as a kind of "Playground Olympics"). He chases Ethan around when he's not listening, attempting to get in his face and make him understand, make him really hear him. He's not one to give up easily when Ethan gives him no encouraging visual cues (such as actually looking at him while he's talking) or doesn't respond to his overtures. He keeps prattling on, doing his best to persuade, to cajole, to convince.

But even the most patient child has his limits, and just as Ethan is burnt out from too much playing, B.'s patience is wearing thin.

And as much as I talk about acceptance and as much as I love my boy and don't want to force him to do what doesn't come naturally, a part of this still breaks my heart.

I met with some of his teachers to talk about this, to ask their thoughts on how much to push and how much to accept...how much to expect Ethan to get along with others and how much to expect others to accommodate him. He's doing great, they reassured me. You have to know how well he's doing and what a good kid he is. But (isn't there always a but?) he has his challenges. There are things that don't come easily. He may just want to play alone and be perfectly happy. He can't feel too much pressure out on the playground that you're trying to force him to be a friend.

Of course I know all of these things. I know all these things, and yet on the playground yesterday, I felt my impatience bubbling over.

B. had played Ethan's game already. He just wanted to play ice cream shop for a few minutes. Ethan had promised he would play B.'s game. Even that came only thanks to urging from me (Just five minutes! You can't get extra TV time if you don't cooperate and play your friends' games). Yet when the time came, Ethan ran away and started doing something else, the way he almost always does.

"C'mon Ethan! You be the cashier and I will order ice cream!" B. called.

Ethan stayed over next to the metal music keys, pounding out notes.

"Ethan!! It's time to play my game!"

"I don't want to play that game."

"But you PROMISED!!" B.'s tears were almost starting. "If you don't play, I'm not playing with you anymore. You never want to play any of my games."

B.'s mom, trying to salvage the situation and alleviate pressure off of Ethan, went over and ordered some ice cream. Ethan headed over to the swings. He was completely un-phased by his friend's reaction. I saw him gazing over at the monkey bars. I could see his mind was still on 15 minutes before, on the activity he hadn't wanted to stop doing to be "inconvenienced" by play with a friend. "I met my challenge," he was saying to himself quietly. "I can do the hardest monkey bars now. I am a big kid."

B. was still hollering at Ethan. "Run around and tell everyone about our restaurant, Ethan! We have to get people to come and visit!"

Ethan didn't hear or didn't care. I sat there straddling the line between letting him bask in his monkey bar accomplishment and trying again to teach him about being a good friend. How can I, I wondered, when he just doesn't care yet?

How can I show people out there that my son isn't just being a selfish brat? How can I expect a five-year-old like B. to understand, when Ethan's teachers say they sometimes have trouble getting other non-special ed teachers to understand that these kids really are wired differently?

How could I let go of my expectations and simultaneously let go of caring about others' (sometimes unrealistic) expectations?

How could I stop caring so much that my son, at the moment, doesn't care about playing games that seem so simple to the average kid...games that instead of being fun and exciting to him equal stress and misunderstanding?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that some of the biggest trouble on the playground had to do with me.

We'll be back out there again today. The answers aren't much clearer, but I know this: I have to learn to step away from the role of negotiator, of play teacher-in-chief, and sometimes let the chips fall.

I think I avoid this sometimes, because I know the results will be painful -- for me.

I know Ethan may drift away from friendships if he can't sustain his side.

I know, right now, at least, that won't bother him too much.

And that hurts.


Deenie said...

I don't know what to say except that I see so much of myself in this post.

Floortime Lite Mama said...

how I know what you mean
many many many hugs