My son with autism is going to college. Cue the happy tears.

One of the great parental rites-of-passage is when your eldest child receives their first college acceptance letter. If it happens to be the school that he or she so wants to attend, then it’s a moment of genuine celebration, tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that the adult leave-taking is beginning.

But when, like my son Max, your child is autistic, and that first “you’re in” letter lands on the doormat… well, full disclosure, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. Because early on in Max’s odyssey along the autism spectrum I was categorically told that the hope of him ever having a so-called “normal life” — let alone eventually going off to college — was beyond the realm of possibility.

Ask any parent of a child with a disability and you will usually get an earful about the all-encompassing uncertainties that accompany having a son or daughter with “special needs” (to use that politically correct catch-all phrase). These parents are acutely aware of the fact that — in its brutal, happenstantial way — life can suddenly deal you some very bad cards. Only retrospectively — many years down this track — do you also begin to realize that how you, the parent, grapple with this determines so much of your child’s future.

I was a late arrival at that station marked parenthood. When Max showed up in the world I was a 37-year-old American writer based in London, married to an Irishwoman in the film business. Though there was a moment of panic in the delivery room when a midwife discovered that the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, Max hit all his early developmental marks and seemed to be a cheerful, engaged baby with decidedly night owl tendencies.

But then, when he was three, his connection to the world around him gradually began to diminish. Our growing worries were magnified when the head of his kindergarten called us in to observe him sitting alone in a corner of the playroom, withdrawn from his peers, staring blankly into the void beyond the nearby window. A briskly clinical educational psychologist diagnosed him with a receptive language disorder, meaning he had trouble understanding and processing what was said to him. She mentioned a private school that — as she noted in her crisp, bloodless Anglo way — “specializes in these sort of things.”

On the recommendation of that cheerless diagnostician, Max spent two years at a posh, rather a useless school for children with language disorders in a leafy corner of South London. Not only did he make no progress during his time there, but the headmistress once dismissively told me: “Max’s prospects are simply limited. At best he will be happy within himself.”

After this conversation, I started frantically researching other educational possibilities. And then, out of nowhere: Disaster. Max developed a series of nervous tics. He had tremors that left him disoriented and confused. I brought him to a pediatrician who said Max had Attention Deficit Disorder and put him on a course of Ritalin.

Ten days later, while my wife was on a business trip, I walked into Max’s room to discover that while he was physically present, he wasn’t responding to any outside stimuli. When I called his name, when I took his face in my hands and begged him to answer me, he stared back at me with eyes as glassy as a lake in winter. He was a vacant shell.

Lifting him, I discovered that he had lost control of all bodily functions. I raced him into the bathroom, washed him down with the shower hose, then called the local children’s hospital. Minutes later I was negotiating rush hour traffic. Halfway to the hospital, Max was hit with a convulsion that lasted one long terrible minute. Seated next to him, in her child seat, his two-year-old sister Amelia stroked his head with her left hand, willing his seizure to stop.

When we reached the pediatric neurology ward, my son was hooked up to an EEG machine to measure his brain waves. When the EEG machine whirred to life — Max’s head now covered by twenty electrodes — the needles on the monitor went berserk. It was like a mad Jackson Pollock canvas mirroring the electrical activity in my son’s brain. The resident neurologist was on the scene moments later. His voice remained calm, level, as he told me: “Your son is in the throes of a very severe epileptic incident. I know it is frightening, but in most cases the child comes through this.”

In most cases. This qualification unnerved me. He sent us across town to a specialist he felt best equipped to handle this “incident.”  An hour later I was in the consulting rooms of another doctor. He walked in as I was holding Max down during another convulsion.

After studying him intently, the doctor crouched by my catatonic son and said: “So Max, how does it feel to have taken five years off your father’s life?”

Then, gripping my shoulder with his hand, the doctor said what I was longing to hear: “I think I can get him back.” That doctor became both my ally and friend. Especially as it took another three months and many pharmacological adjustments for Max to emerge from his walking coma. When Max could talk again, the doctor sent him one of England’s top experts on autism, who officially diagnosed Max as being mid-range on the autistic spectrum.

After that, the wife of a friend put me in touch with a fellow American in London who was the mother of two autistic boys. She introduced me to a controversial way to teach autistic children that were pioneered at UCLA by Norwegian psychologist Ivar Lovaas. Known as the Lovaas Method, it also goes by the name of Applied Behavioral Analysis, and is noteworthy for its brutal 40-four hours per week one-on-one therapy that reportedly reorders the autistic brain.

With my friend’s help, I set up a Lovaas school for Max at home. And thus began the process which saw him accepted, 14 years later, at Ringling College of Art and Design. It was a frequently arduous journey. The early months of the therapy saw Max howling his head off as the chief tutor began to chip away at his autism.

I had to fight to get Max into the one secondary school for autistic children in London — and then had to fight again when our local borough closed it down (nasty budgetary cuts). I had to fight to get him into one of the few state boarding schools in the United Kingdom for autistic children. But then it was Max who insisted — when a teacher suggested he consider vocational training — that he wanted to get the British equivalent of a high school diploma. And it was Max who said yes, three years later, when I asked him if he was ready for college.

When it came time to start the college admissions process I was a divorced man living back in the United States. It was Max who, without my help, wrote a remarkable essay entitled ‘My Life with Autism,” which accompanied all his applications. Ringling was his first choice — and Ringling was the first of four schools that said yes to him.

Three and a half years on, Max came to visit me in Manhattan for Thanksgiving. He grabbed a taxi in from JFK International Airport alone, checked himself into the hotel I arranged for him, walked alone to my home and went with me and his sister to four plays over the weekend (we’re all culture vultures).

He especially had many things to say about “A View from the Bridge” on Broadway, which he pronounced brilliant. He asked,  “Do you think Eddie Carbone knows he is writing his own destiny? That’s the Greek tragedy part of the play, right?” I thought back to that dismissive headmistress in London who told me that Max’s future would be, at best, limited. And I said to my son — all of whose extraordinary achievements are the tribute to his fierce desire to defeat the autism that so tyrannized him for years: “Writing your own destiny can also be a wondrous thing”.

Douglas Kennedy’s 12 novels include “The Big Picture,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” “The Woman in the Fifth” and “The Moment.” His new novel is“The Blue Hour.” A native New Yorker, he now divides his time between Manhattan, Maine, and Paris.

10 lazy ways to intellectually stimulate your kids

Everyone says kids are like sponges. Because they’re germy and start to smell really bad unless you wash them well with hot water and soap. Also, because their little minds are growing and expanding at approximately twice the rate of the average American waistline, and that’s saying something. But before you get out the flashcards, and by “get out,” I mean “purchase for the first time,” why not see if one of these more lackadaisical approaches can serve equally well to stimulate your little one’s synaptic growth?

  1. Learn a new language. One good one is “slang from the 90’s.” Girl, that picture you drew is fly! Don’t hate on your sister, Madison. Learning that words have double meanings and that grammar is fluid can really enhance your child’s cognitive flexibility.
  2. Play tic tac toe. Yes, you can always win, but that’s the point. Always losing teaches your child humility, grace, and good sportsmanship — what?  How did you do that? Oh my God, now my four-year-old can beat me at tic tac toe. Before I had kids I was an intellectual powerhouse, I swear.
  3. Learn sign language together. Don’t worry, I’m sure you know some already. Like “Whatever” and “bye bye.” And “birdie.” Yes, I’m sure that’s “birdie.” What do you mean you Googled it and it’s “washing machine?” How depressing.
  4. Use math in real life. Yes, kids, math is super important. Like now, when I have to figure out how much money we can afford to spend on Mommy getting her hair done. It’s our monthly income minus our mortgage, minus our electric bills, minus the car repair bill, minus… you know what, let’s do science instead. Which brings us to…
  5. Baking soda and vinegar volcanos. No, I don’t know why. But I know they work because they can unclog your shower drain. There must be something you can talk about, with pressure, or gravity, or acid, I don’t know. Work with me.
  6. Create modern art. The key word is “modern.” There are no rules here, friend. Just do what you feel. Yes, two scribbles on a piece of paper is art, and it is stimulating your child’s brain like nobody’s business.
  7. Sculpt. Create a three-dimensional figure using only clay? What a wunderkind. No, dear, this thing here isn’t called “a cylinder made out of Play-Doh,” it’s called “pottery that allows your creativity to flourish without us even leaving the house, for the second day in a row.”
  8. Practice self-defense. Physical activity creates new connections in the brain and so does hand to hand combat. So stop telling on your brother for kicking the back of your seat, and go all Krav Maga on his butt. Here’s a YouTube tutorial you can watch on the iPad while I look at Pinterest on my computer.
  9. Guessing games. I’m thinking of an animal that starts with G and has a long neck. What do you mean, “turtle?” What are they teaching you in that Montessori school anyway?
  10. Geography. A cynic may just call this “Where did Mommy leave the car again?” but really it teaches map skills, geography, resilience, and grit. Especially when you’re walking around the parking lot for 25 minutes in the drizzle with a mother who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and you don’t even have a snack bag of Goldfish. Navy SEALS, here you come, son. Thank me later.

Samantha Rodman is the author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Rodman is a licensed psychologist, founder of DrPsychMom.comand a happily married mother of three.

Valentine’s Day books for kids (and parents)

It’s almost time for kids to choose a box of valentines, address them to each classmate and deliver them to desktop mailboxes. Before the big day, though, grab one of these books and spend some heartfelt time reading together with your littlest loved ones.

Here Comes Valentine Cat, by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda

The cat isn’t in the mood for the fun of Valentine’s Day. For one, Cat doesn’t have a friend to make a card for. Making matters worse, a new neighbor has moved in Dog. Soon, bones are flying over the fence and hitting Cat in the head. Can these two be friends? Throughout the story, a narrator converses with Cat and asks questions. Cat’s answers are sometimes revealed in signs he holds up, like a not-so-sweet valentine created by Cat for Dog: “Roses are Red/Violets are Blue/Who’s the Worst Neighbor?/I think it’s You!”

Cat’s facial expressions perfectly mimic those of a toddler’s and are captured within a pleasing soft-palette of ink and color pencil drawings. Wry humor and a twist ending make this book a charmer.

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I Love You Already! by Jory John, illustrated by Benji Davies

Duck really wants to spend the day with his neighbor, Bear. Bear, though, really wants to spend the day alone, lounging around in his robe, with a cup of tea. Can Duck pester his friend enough to get him to play with him? He gives it his best shot, offering all the ways Bear will like him more if he just goes for a walk with him. Bear tells him he likes him “already.” Says Duck: “I’m not taking no for an answer, Bear. We’re having fun, whether you want to or not.” Bear’s response: “Ugh.” Throughout the day, Duck keeps asking for reassurance that Bear likes him.

The fast-paced interplay between the relentless Duck and curmudgeon-like Bear translates to a lively and humorous story complemented by richly drawn illustrations that precisely represent each character’s personality. Kids will want to read this again and again, and will look forward to the pair’s next adventure.

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Mr. Goat’s Valentine, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kevin Zimmer

Mr. Goat needs to buy a gift for Valentine’s Day — something special for his “first love.” That “something special,” though, turns out to be a little unusual. First stop for his gift: Miss Nanny Goat’s weed stall. He places his order: “Crabgrass, pigweeds, and ragweed in that nice, rusty can. They are for my first love. She’s fond of ragweed salad.”

Mr. Goat continues creating the perfect gift — perfect for a yucky-food-loving goat, that is — until the end when we get to see who his first love is. There’s just the right amount of eww factor in the gift ingredients to make kids laugh, and readers will be surprised to find out who the gift-recipient is. Along the way, bright and bold illustrations provide plenty of reasons to capture the attention of those who enjoy a sillier, less sappy take on Valentine’s Day.

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Ollie’s Valentine, by Olivier Dunrea

The adorable Ollie, known for his adventures with his fellow gosling friends, is on a search. It seems everyone except him has received a valentine: “Gertie gave it to me!” says Gossie, holding a silver foil heart. “BooBoo gave it to me!” says Gertie, clutching a red heart. And so on. But who will be Ollie’s valentine? A surprise mirror on the last page holds the answer.

The colorful foil hearts incorporated into the watercolor drawings add an enticing texture that kids will want to rub their fingers over. It’s all wrapped up in a sturdy board book format, making it a perfect gift for a little one.

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Love from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

Everyone’s favorite caterpillar is back in this gem of a book. Sized for little hands, this small book speaks directly to tykes, telling them why they are special. The first pages contain the words “You are …” and feature whimsical floating hearts, setting the stage for the rest of the tale. The next pages read “… so sweet” and show the caterpillar making its way through a strawberry. Next is “… the cherry on my cake,” followed by more sentiments. Parents will enjoy taking their time reading the very few but impactful words and soaking up the vibrant collaged artwork that sends a warm message.

Mia Geiger is a writer in the Philadelphia area. You can find her atmiageiger.com and @MiaGeiger.

What to do when your kid can’t fall asleep without you in the room

Q: My two girls, ages 3 and nearly 7, share a room but will not go to sleep unless each has a parent by her side until she passes out. Anything less, and it’s complete waterworks and screaming, with the little one forcing herself to throw up. How on earth do we break this awful habit? It’s been going on for about a year, and we have had no energy to fight it. We hate ending the days with them hysterically upset, so we’ve just given in to this ridiculous ritual.

A: You feel utterly alone in this struggle. And I get it. It sounds so exhausting. But I want to tell you that I receive daily calls and letters from sleepless parents who are in the same boat. So, try to take some comfort in the simple fact that you are not alone.

But we have some problems here, don’t we? To begin to understand how you came to this place, it is useful to understand why children prefer to sleep with you and will fight so hard to stay with you, night after night.

Almost every parent knows that when a baby is born, that baby wants skin-on-skin contact with a parent or caregiver 24 hours a day. In fact, the very survival of newborns depends on a caregiver strongly and physically bonding with the baby. Cuddling, strong eye contact, loving speech and skin-on-skin contact are a critical part of the maturation process for babies.

As a child grows and becomes more mature, more distance can be tolerated between this child and her caregiver. You will see that the toddler toddles away, and the 4-year-old will run down the block, and the 7-year-old will spend all day in school. Because they spend more time away from you, however, nighttimes can become especially fraught.

Children can really become needy for their parents’ attention at night. Why is this? At night, the work of the day is done and it is time to relax. What brings children the most relaxation? Being physically close to their parents. Even older children want to feel close to their attachments. At night is also when the worries begin for many children, when the room is dark and things look like scary monsters. Worrisome thoughts may enter their brain, and it is completely normal for children to be troubled by fears of death, losing their parents or some other terrible thing. Children can feel unprotected and scared, and these feelings compel them to come find their parents. (These are the children who are hopping out of bed constantly.)

I am guessing that your children showed normal signs of this nighttime worry and anxiety, and in order to make them feel better, you began to get into bed with them. The “crawl into bed with the kid” trick has an almost 100 percent success rate of sleep . . . for the child. She instantly feels safe and relaxed. But as for long-term solutions, getting into bed with the children has turned into a nightmare.

So, this has been going on for a year. I would love to give an easy solution that involves no crying for them, but I don’t see that happening. A solution will happen, but it will require a great deal of patient, gentle persistence, a good sense of humor and not rushing anything too much.

Here are some ideas:

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld suggests “turning into the skid,” which here means that you can let the children know that you are going to help them sleep in their beds. Alone. Say that they might cry, be scared, worry and miss their parents terribly. Go ahead and expect all of those feelings. Welcome them. Tell the children that these feelings make total sense. This is “turning into the skid,” because rather than fighting or rationalizing these feelings away, we are making room for all of the feelings that will occur.

Keep the nighttime routine structured, gentle, loving and moving along. Don’t ask too many questions or give too many choices; that will just create more insecurity. Be sure to focus on the next meeting and tell them, “I will see you in my dreams” or “I will be in this room first thing in the morning!” And before you leave the room (if they are not yet freaking out completely), let them know you will be coming back to check on them in less than one minute. Show them the timer.

Now here is where it gets really rough. If you have a child who is throwing up because she is so upset, the amount of time you leave the room may be only 15 seconds. I know, this sounds ridiculous, but her young mind may be able to tolerate only small amounts of separation. And because your older child is also upset, just keep checking on them at the same intervals. Be quiet about it, loving and firm.

I don’t know how long this will go on.

The hope is that the children will relax when they realize you are keeping up your end of the bargain and returning for another kiss. The length of time between the visits will get longer. But because this has gone on for a year, it may take a while. Just be emotionally ready for how long and painful this will feel in the moment. But night after night, bit by bit, you will get your time and your shared adult bed back.

And no matter how bad the night before was, greet the children with smiles and hope in the morning. “We are doing it . . . you girls are really sleeping so well!” Yes, of course this is not how you feel, but someone has to be the beacon of hope. And that is you, the parent.

Whatever you do, do NOT:

•Lock the children in their rooms or keep the door shut, blocking them. This will increase their worry into a traumatic panic. It is not only unkind but will also hurt any progress you have made.

•Punish the children for crying. You created this dynamic with them; it is your responsibility to help them.

•Bribe them to stay in bed. You will be broke in a month, and you will still be sleeping with them.

•Beat yourself up if you give up and get into bed with them. You are human. Just begin again the next day.

•Lose hope. Beyond reclaiming your marriage and sleep, you are helping your children to feel and accept your boundaries. This is how resilience is built in children. It won’t be pretty, but better now than later.

And again, you know your children best, so take my ideas and make them work for you.

We won’t let our tween lie about his age to get on social media. He says we’re ruining his life.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 5.24.12 AMThere are so many ways to win the coveted parental “You’re ruining my life!” award. My current prize has been bestowed by my 11-year-old son, who desperately, passionately, and unceasingly desires Gmail, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.

Like most parents, my husband and I fear his exposure to inappropriate content with which he is not yet equipped to deal, but our current concern precedes this more common one: we worry that, as all of these accounts require a minimum age of 13 in order to gain access, he would have to lie about his birth year.

Now, lying about a birthday may not feel like a very big deal. We know lots of people who fudge birth years, often to seem younger than they are, but, as we may recall from our college years, sometimes to seem older as well.

In our home, like in many others, a primary rule involves truth telling. “We’re proud of you for telling us the truth,” we’ve often repeated to our kids, even if it involves how Nutella ended up on the curtains. We make a point of living by this rule as well. We let them know from the beginning that we are the “tooth fairy,” and we answered certain questions in their younger years by saying, “You’re not ready to know the whole story about that just yet” rather than making up tales about, say, storks or cabbage patches.

Of course, we know there may be times when lying is tolerable. Our kids recognize, for instance, that the individuals who lied to shield slaves on the Underground Railroad were heroes and that those lies were based in the highest ethical principles.

But lying about your birthdate to get something forbidden that you want? That is precisely the kind of lying we aim to teach our children to avoid. This seems to be the minority opinion.

For some of my friends and acquaintances, deciding that their children are sufficiently mature makes them comfortable with entering a false birthdate or permitting their child to do so. Their primary concern is with their child’s readiness, not the company’s policies or the questions the child must answer. They treat minimum age policies more as guidelines – “children require a certain level of maturity, but mine is unusually mature” than as hard and fast rules, which makes the lying feel less dishonest. They believe they’re following the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule.

Others take a different tack, suggesting that because these companies know full well that some portion of their clientele is lying, the companies are complicit, and the lying is, therefore, acceptable. If the companies know we’re lying, “there is no ethical issue,” one acquaintance told me. Certainly these companies know that children can easily submit a false date. Their rationale for the minimum age is very likely a hedge against bad publicity and legal problems rather than a deep concern for the well-being of tweens. But does the company’s supposed, even likely, awareness justify the lie? For me, it does not. Teaching my son that lying is okay when someone anticipates that you might lie doesn’t feel like a solid foundation for future behavior.

Another acquaintance explained that this occasion raises the opportunity to discuss the difference between a “fib/white lie and an out and out lie.” She articulated her teaching this way: “it’s never okay to lie but sometimes you have to fib a bit.” Telling a child that sometimes “fibs” are necessary – in this case, to have access to a forbidden but desired commodity – makes me fear the unintended lessons that may follow: I worry about how to articulate where that line should be drawn if email or social media accounts fall on the side of “okay to lie about.”

Many others “work around” the age restriction by setting up accounts in their own names, with their own email addresses as the contact information and with their own birth dates. But the account is in the child’s name, and he thinks of it as his own, even as the parents have access to the password and can read all of the posts or messages. To me, this seems like the closest to an honest policy in that the account remains, nominally, at least, the property of the parent rather than the child. But I question whether this sends the wrong message as well. Figuring out how to subvert inconvenient rules feels discomfiting to me, if understandable.

I don’t think Gmail is inherently dangerous, and I don’t even think that my son would do anything bad on Instagram or Snapchat. I doubt he’d be exposed to anything worse there than he would be on the school bus or YouTube, which has no age minimum to view most content. I realize that, no matter what accounts he has or does not have, I have to monitor his online activity regularly and speak with him about safety as part on an ongoing conversation. I also realize that my agonizing over how I model and shape his behavior may have no consequence on his future decisions and that kids, with or without their parents’ influence, make independent choices.

But in not too many years, my 11-year-old will be 19, and adding two years on to a birthdate can mean the difference between buying alcohol and not buying it. And lying to get what you want can mean the difference between marital fidelity and adultery, or between honest business practices and insider trading or outright thievery. If I tell him now that he can lie to get what he wants, even if the thing that he wants feels silly, inconsequential, or ubiquitous, what message have I sent him with into the future and out into the world, into a marriage, into a profession?

By ruining his life now, I’m hoping to avoid his ruining it later.

Steinberg is a former professor who now teaches writing to high schoolers. She lives in New York.

How my son’s trip overseas taught me to let go

imrs.phpI wasn’t prepared for the way I felt when my 18-year-old son, Dylan, lifted off for a trip to Asia during his winter break.

I was thrilled the moment he first told my husband and me that he wanted to use some of his savings to visit a friend studying in Shanghai and travel around the continent. Michael and I had sojourned to Southeast Asia for a few months before we were married, and Dylan would be visiting some of the same places. We were excited for him to explore the world. We told him that traveling was one of the best ways to spend his money. “Collect experiences not things,” we said. “The memories will last a lifetime.”

It was exciting for me knowing my oldest child would be on such an adventure even so far from home. Last fall, in fact, while several friends were having a hard time letting go of their first-borns headed off to college, I was oddly okay with Dylan leaving home. I chalked my coolness up to that he’d already been away — sleep-away camps and a summer job in New England — and I felt comfortable with him being on his own. And with his college only a few hours from home, if something went wrong we could drive to him the same day.

Then came winter break and the sheer joy of having Dylan home again. Our family of five was together and I was at peace.

On the morning of Dylan’s departure, he woke the other kids to say goodbye, stuffed a few more things in his bag, and headed to the airport. Before he and Michael pulled away, I yelled one last time, “Be safe, and text when you arrive in Shanghai.”

That night, while he was flying somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, it hit me that Dylan was really on his own. I woke hourly, each time checking the clock and counting the hours before he would land the following morning. Doubting my decision to let him go, I felt anxious, prayed, and thought about all the things that could go wrong.

As parents, we know our kids grow up and may be ready to face the world, but do we ever see them beyond little kids heading off to their first day of school? I wanted Dylan back home, building a fort in the basement for his younger sister like he did days earlier.

And then I heard from him. The first text said he’d arrived. The second text said his luggage didn’t make it. At the time, the thought of him not having his belongings seemed monumental to me. It felt like he was missing the things that connected him to home.

I frantically attempted to track down his bag. The following day, I persuaded him to go back to the airport and search lost baggage, urged him to file a second claim, and suggested he go to the airline’s office in downtown Shanghai. My efforts were futile. I was frustrated, and all the while Dylan was texting me he was all right.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine,” he wrote. It was exactly what I needed to hear. He was okay and I could let go. From that moment on I gave him space to be on his own and to discover the wonder of new places without my input. There was no more talk about lost luggage or what he should do next. I knew that he’d figure it out and that the life lessons would be deep.

Several days into the trip (now traveling with his good friend, Jack), Dylan sent a photo from the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. The sky was blue and clear, the city and harbor sprawled far below, and he was smiling and wearing the same clothes he left home in. His note read, “I thought I could never study abroad anywhere but Europe, but I could definitely do it here.”

And I was at peace.

O’Keefe is a manager of content development at National Geographic Expeditions and believes in the transformative power of travel. She tweets @sokeefetrav.

Learning to make room for a sibling

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 5.43.18 AMI clutched my 3-year-old’s fingers as we prepared to walk on her school stage. When we waltzed on with 75 other Nutcracker dancers – Zelda in her minuscule Victorian slip, me with my 38-week pregnant belly – the auditorium burst into laughter. What was I doing here? But as my daughter and I chasséd in sync, my racing heart melted. This show was our last hurrah, just the two of us.

That night, my husband and I sat by Zelda’s bed. I touched my stomach where a can-can session was in progress. This would be one of the last times Jon and I would sit together with Zelda at night, give her this unified mass of charged attention.

I’d been ambivalent about having children, as my own relationship with my mother was difficult. Born on my grandparents’ route after escaping the Nazis, my mom was a depressive hoarder who barricaded herself in between walls of Kleenex boxes and VHS tapes. Her Montreal den’s maelstrom of Dollar Store clocks and old newspapers swallowed my report cards forever. Her bed was stacked with old clothes. I couldn’t reach her if I had a nightmare. She worked at a government job, leaving before I woke up and asleep on the sofa when I came home. Mom loved me as she could, but was increasingly moody and unreliable. Always on guard, I hid among the clutter. When, at 19, I moved to another country, we connected by phone, an easier umbilical cord. On her good days, we analyzed books and later my romantic exploits. But my visits home were ever more fraught.

When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I panicked, worried I’d lose my hard-earned independence, not to mention the white-walled, nearly-empty apartment I’d created with Jon. I was afraid I had no idea how to parent. Yet once I had Zelda – named for Mom’s mom, who raised me day-to-day – I nursed and cared for her with ease and pleasure. I was determined to be the opposite of my mother: organized, on-time, clean, calm. I hand-scrubbed the floors and maintained elaborate play schedules. I took Zelda to school and back every day, creating for her the security I never knew myself.

My kinship with Zelda – this chance to redo the mother-daughter dynamic with affection and attention – was healing for me. I learned to be patient, less anxious, more open. We discussed our days over frozen yogurt. I taught her to express emotions by revealing mine. I knelt by her tantrums and yawned calmly through her sleep-regressions. Sure, I made mistakes, like sanitizing the highchair instead of reacting to Zelda’s gentle attempts to feed me, but her life filled me with confidence.

Once I had one child, I wanted two. Growing up, my younger brother had been my ally, the person who most understood my messy reality and saved me by playing imaginary characters. We hadn’t lived in the same country for two decades but were in touch almost daily. I wanted to recreate this sibling bond, the longest of one’s life. My girls would be three years apart, just like my brother and me.

Zelda constantly asked questions. Why is she a girl? Will she always be a girl? Was I always Zelda? How does she pee if she isn’t wearing a diaper?

I laughed but wondered if her desire to understand emerged from a deep anxiety. Her life would undergo so much change as she lost her position, my attention. I feared transitions, having witnessed my mother’s progressing mental illness, her personality leaking from her like a deflating balloon. I did not want Zelda to lose me.

I attended a sibling seminar for second-time moms. The leader reiterated the accepted wisdom: keep Zelda’s world intact. Talk about the baby a bit. Do not hold the baby when Zelda visits after the delivery. Bring gifts for her from the baby. Make her feel involved by teaching her to swaddle her dolls. Do not make any major household changes. Certainly don’t tell her you’re transforming her toddler bed into the baby’s crib. I followed the advice. I threw Zelda a birthday bash, inviting 29 toddlers to our apartment. I upheld this fragile, ice-castle world in which she was the special star.

I badly wanted a second child, but now could only focus on protecting Zelda from this kicking invader who would steal her innocence, her place – her mommy. Was I greedy to want more, stockpiling fortune like my mother did junk? Was I also a hoarder, collecting distractions instead of committing to what I already had?

I’d grown up among stuff, but feeling empty inside. I spent three decades filling my void, learning to love. Now I’d already poured my memories, passions, my milk into my first — what if I was depleted.

I was afraid there was no more room in our 2-bedroom apartment or in my heart.

The next morning, I hobbled Zelda into preschool. I’d reached the point where people were afraid to get close, worried I’d explode at any second. I showed the school director photos of the show. She laughed at the image of me, less Sugar Plum, more Winnebago. Then I explained that after two weeks at home, I’d be bringing Zelda to school again. “I’m keeping everything as normal as possible.”

As I chatted with the director, she put her hand on my shoulder. “Everything Zelda knows, everything she’s relied on as constant will shift,” she said, as I nodded, dizzy. “This is emotionally cataclysmic.”

“The worst thing you can do is pretend it’s not.”

Wait. What?

“I’ve seen parents try to keep everything as-is, taking children to swimming class in the middle of labor. But your family will be in turmoil. Let there be chaos. Zelda knows what’s going on.”

Let there be chaos jolted me in its simple directness. In Zelda’s future, she would be second-place, she’d be jealous. That was why I wanted her to have a sibling: to practice the hard stuff. I reminded myself that Zelda had been asking questions to cope.

I also had to practice the hard stuff. I’d have to learn to divide my attention, to find new pockets of affection. I had to admit the gravity of the change and help both of us manage the transition.

Billie was born big-eyed, robust, hungry and large – entirely different from her lithe ballerina sister. Jon was home with Zelda while Billie and I stayed at the hospital for five full days, a new mom-daughter cocoon. I was confident, smitten and giddy, full of old tricks, trusting my instincts.

A week later, Jon had to travel – my first time alone with my two girls. At 7 am, I nursed, staring out the window at the sleet storm. I was feeding constantly, the ground was slippery. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t take you to school,” I apologized to Zelda. Here I was, sacrificing her education because I couldn’t figure out a nursing scheme. I felt her world crashing, slipping away for the sake of her little sister. But then I remembered the director’s words and breathed. I had to improvise, create our own messy pas-de-trois.

Zelda shrugged and brought her favorite books into my bed as Billie began to cry. “I know it’s frustrating,” I said, “but I need to feed Billie. Afterward, I’ll read to you.”

“Can I hold her?” she said. “I’ll use hand-itizer!”

Zelda tickled Billie’s toes, initiating their lifelong rapport. Zelda sat on me, and I held the baby in her lap, a Babushka-doll pose, and there we were, we three, on my bed, room for us all.

Judy Batalion is an author and performer living in New York. Her first memoir, White Walls: A Memoir about Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between published this month. You can find her atjudybatalion.com and on Twitter

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8 things this mom will do in 2016 to set a better example

A few weeks ago my sons pulled out the bathroom scale, which lives under a dresser in my bedroom gathering dust, and took turns seeing how much they weigh. They wanted me to join in the fun. “Mommy, your turn! Let’s see your number!”

The next 1.3 seconds inside my head went something like this: “Noooo way I haven’t stepped on that in forever I don’t like scales they don’t like me my shoes are on should I take them off I’m wearing too many layers I just ate lunch the number would be wrong what if the boys say my weight when we’re in public I shouldn’t be weird about this don’t let them see how scared you are,” all while a slightly embarrassed smile, masked as amusement, was spreading across my face.

And then I declined. Stupidly. For no good reason. “Nahhh,” I said as casually as I could as if the tone of voice I used made a difference in the way they understood my refusal.

They didn’t understand it and pleaded a couple more times before moving on to a new discovery, leaving me there in the bedroom staring at a dusty black scale and thinking about what I might have inadvertently just taught them – or missed out on teaching them – by what I didn’t do.

We don’t just learn from words and actions. We also learn from silence, refusal, inaction and disregard. Those lessons are perhaps scarier than the ones we actively, knowingly teach our kids, because we’re not really in charge of them. Sometimes we’re not even conscious of them. They’re just happening, right there in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday, because of space we leave open to interpretation when we freeze, or stay silent, or appear oblivious, or say “Nahhh” with no reasonable explanation.

The realization bothered me so much that I came up with a list of things Idon’t do very much that could very well be affecting the way my boys view themselves and the world around them. So this year, in a twist on the traditional New Year’s Resolution, here is a list of eight things I don’t do – or don’t do enough – that I will aim to do with both intention and frequency in 2016. Join me?

Pick up trash. I always thought I was pretty good at this one until I went for a half mile walk with my kids last summer. That’s when I noticed that I picked up easy target items – an empty Gatorade bottle, a discarded plastic grocery bag – while my kids picked up every tiny piece of trash they saw. Everything. It must have taken us 40 minutes to walk that half mile, and that empty plastic bag I’d picked up was stretched full of straw wrappers and gum wrappers and receipts and broken pieces of godknowswhat. There is no difference too small to make in the world.

Say the compliment I am thinking. Everyone wants validation and words of affirmation. I’m pretty good about doling out compliments to the people I know, but not the people I don’t know. If I want my kids to be observant, kind-hearted and sincere, I need to start modeling that, which means not just noticing someone’s pretty bracelet or well-behaved child, but telling them.Every time you think something positive, say it.

Work toward my dreams. The other day my boys asked if I’d read them a children’s story I wrote long ago, which they love. So I brought my laptop over to the couch and opened the Microsoft Word file that houses my dream. Why is it still on my laptop instead of in the hands of a publisher or agent? I have envisioned the day I could hand them a hardcover version of it, and they’d see their names inside and their mom’s on the cover, tangible evidence not just of imagination but tenacity. Don’t let your kids become the only dreams you work on.

Read. Not counting what’s on my laptop or iPhone, my kids rarely see me read. I have stacks of books I’d like to get to but don’t make the time. I don’t like what that is subtly telling them. Sometimes clichés are true: Knowledge is power, and reading is fundamental.

Put myself in the photo. When I look back on an archive of photos that document my kids’ growing up years, I want it to be apparent that I was there enjoying it with them, even when my hair was in a ponytail and I didn’t have lip gloss on. They do care about your appearance – but not your looks.

Cross traditional gender lines. My kids routinely ask me if my favorite color is pink, and are always shocked when I say “No.” Someday they’ll understand the subtle power and unseen strength in all that women do and are, but for now, they see whether or not I hand the hammer to a man when it’s time to hang a picture. If you don’t want them to believe in stereotypes, don’t become one.

Pray out loud. I want my kids to grow up turning to God in times of gratitude and distress. How are they going to know how to do that if I don’t show them? Since they can’t hear all the silent prayers I send up – for them and others – I need to pray aloud, not just at the dinner table or at bedtime, but when I receive good news about a loved one. Or when we pass the aftermath of a car accident. Or when they tell me a friend is sick or hurting.When you get the urge to call on God, do it out loud.

Step on the scale. The fight against our culture’s barrage of messages that suggest women are largely imperfect (and objects to conquer) is a daunting one, yet frowning at the mirror or refusing to get on a scale only reinforces those lies. I want my sons to believe all women are beautiful and deserve respect because they love and respect themselves. There is no numeric value attached to who you are.

Robyn Passante is a journalist and writer. Find more of her work atrobynpassante.comShe tweets @robynpassante.

How to connect with an uncooperative 8-year-old

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Q. I have an 8-year-old girl who loves to turn on the passive aggression when she doesn’t get what she wants. It usually occurs when we need to go somewhere, often walking to school with her younger sister. The catalyst can be having to wear gym shoes because it’s a PE day. (Tantrum ensues, it takes 10 minutes to put on her shoes, she walks really slowly and acts as if I don’t exist while walking two blocks to school, nothing motivates her to get moving.) Or the girls get ready early and have 10 minutes to watch TV, but she doesn’t get the show she wants, a tantrum takes 10 minutes, followed by the same walking-slow routine. Today she held up a neighbor who was trying to get out of her driveway. She asked my daughter to walk out of the way, but my girl kept up the baby-steps routine. Once at school, she didn’t want to join the kids, was grumpy and wouldn’t talk to me. I had to offer to get a teacher to help her before she went to the right place. Finally, she started coming around and would hug me and join the circle. How do I handle this?

A. First, you have all of my empathy. Nothing boils my own parenting blood like one of my children poking along, ignoring my pleas and commands, mucking up the works completely. I think I see red, literally. It has taken me a long time to understand what all of this means and find my own way through it. You will not be any different — meaning you will find your own way through this, and it will come with some healthy discomfort.

For now, let’s try to figure out what this is all about. Why do children do this? In one word: discouragement. When I see this uncooperativeness, my guess is that your daughter is deeply discouraged. What does “discouraged” mean when it comes to children’s behavior? Well, when I see a discouraged child, I see a child who is having some connection issues in her relationships. She fights you at every turn, over the small and the big, and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get traction or cooperation.

I can feel you panicking when you read that. “Meghan, are you saying that I am not well connected to my child?” Not necessarily. Let me explain:

Why do children cooperate for their parents? Why do they walk up the hill to school when asked? Why do they move out of the way when requested to do so? It depends on two main factors: maturity and connection.

The younger the children, the less mature. The less mature, the less likely they are to cooperate. Why? They don’t understand your perspective, they are easily distracted by other things they like to do better, and they are a little self-centered. Does this mean young children don’t want to please? Oh, no, they do! They love to help and do and be like you, but this is not true cooperation. This is just their normal development. As they near the age of 7 (usually, but not always), you begin to see their young minds clicking away and their prefrontal cortex assessing the cooperative process, holding many emotions and thoughts, and making more mature decisions.

So, when it comes to cooperation, what is stopping your daughter? She is of the age about which many people would say, “She is too old for behavior like this.” You may even be thinking this. So, here’s a little something I want you to write on a sticky note and hang it where you can read it. Often. “Every human cooperates for those she feels connected to.”

Think about it. A school mom has called, needing your help in the classroom. Her tone is formal, and although she is utterly polite, the feeling is impersonal. Off the bat, I would say no, and you might, too. Or even if I did say yes, I would feel a little resentful. But let’s say your best friend calls and asks you for help, and it is a pretty big ask. Driving her parents to the airport. Taking her kids overnight. Your answer? “Of course, whatever you need.”

What is the difference in the two asks? Connection. When a person close to our heart needs something, we are impelled to do it. Our hearts and our brains want to do it. When we help someone we are not connected to, we are compelled to do it (which is to mean that we may feel coerced, pushed, obliged). This is such a crucial difference that everything hangs in the balance.

Your daughter is not cooperating because she doesn’t have a reason to cooperate. She is going to get your attention one way or another, and her hurting heart is getting it through fights. What she wants badly is for you to hold on to her and not let her go, but her behavior leads you to do the opposite. You push, you drag, you force. The more this happens, the needier she gets. The more needy she becomes, the worse the behavior becomes. It is a cycle of frustration that sees no end in sight.

But she doesn’t want this. Children are not programmed to be emotionally and physically apart from those they love (at least, not like this). Your daughter wants to cooperate, she just doesn’t know what else to do. She doesn’t have the maturity to say, “Mom, I love you, and I need you to see me. I need you to hold me more. I need you to laugh and stop your angry face. I am afraid you think I am bad. I am afraid I am bad. I am afraid you love my sister more.” She can’t say these things because she is too young.

But there are some simple, effective and clear repairs here. Note I did not say “quick.” Anything you do to change your relationship is worthwhile and must land on your daughter in the manner it needs to. You are not in charge of this timing, and while this can be frustrating, knowing this can be freeing.

Let’s get a list going. (I love a list.)

1. Stop talking about what isn’t working. I think everyone in the family knows what isn’t working, and drawing more attention to it with language is not helping.

2. Have faith in your heart and soul that she wants to do and be better. That she wants to be a child who cooperates. Say that to her. Say, “I know your heart. I know what a great girl you are.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, you must say it. If you can’t keep the faith, who can?

3. Create opportunities for her to succeed. It really doesn’t matter how small or insignificant it may be, any positivity is a pivot in the right direction. Do not expect her to wake up one morning and change. You must create situations where she is noticed for her kindness, cooperation and essentially, the fact that she is alive and deserving of love.

4. Highlight when something goes well, but don’t get “cheerlead-y.” You don’t want to praise and become too obvious about what is going well; you simply want to notice and thank her when she demonstrates cooperation. Think quiet talks at bedtime or in the car. Like Fonzie, “be cool.”
5. Above all, create time and space where you look into her eyes and listen to her. Whether that is in the library, hiking, snuggling, playing sports, actively create times where she is away from her sister and feels valued. These are not times to teach or lecture. This is about you understanding what makes her tick.

Note that I say nothing about discipline and consequences. I strongly suggest you not take a punitive angle here. It will further distance you from her, hampering your ability to have a good influence on her. To reach her heart, you must access it with kindness and gentleness. Does that mean she doesn’t need to be moved along? She does. Just do it as wordlessly and as kindly as you can. If she is crying or angry, so be it. Just don’t pile on with lectures, threats, bribes or anger. Easier said than done, but alas, that is life.

Meghan is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education, a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.

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Reaching my autistic son through music

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 3.44.43 AM.pngBecause he does not speak, and most likely never will, my son Dominic and I communicate through music.

It began as an early act of desperation, as we drove home from the hospital, two exhausted parents and one round, red-faced baby, crying inconsolably in his car seat. I cushioned my belly full of staples and leaned forward to turn up the car radio, helpless and desperate to calm my 2-day-old’s sobs. Within the first few bars of music from the oldies station, my son closed his eyes and slept a placid sleep. It was the most peaceful I had seen him since he had emerged from my womb. And it was the first time since his birth that I, too, could close my eyes.

As the first few weeks of Dominic’s life unfolded, he became an expert at crying. As morning stretched into afternoon, he was impossible to satiate. His sobs weaved into the soft strains of the evening and later, they followed me unshakably, as I paced his bedroom, cradling his small shape in the night-time darkness. So I took comfort under a blanket of music, covering the house at all times, to soften the blows of his screams and to keep me from losing my mind. It quickly seemed that the music was the only way to calm us both. And the more the music seemed to calm us, the more I played it.

At first, it was Chopin, because his piano nocturnes took me from the nursery, into 19th century Paris and far away from the painful feedings. But as Dominic was awake more during the day, I experimented. We tried pop and old school R&B; we moved on to soundtracks. Often my husband would leave the baby and me for work in the morning, the strains of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” trailing him out the door and he would return, 10 hours later, to the imposing beat of the “Imperial Death March” echoing on the walls.

Shhh, I would whisper to my husband, holding up my hand, as he walked into our apartment. The baby really likes this part.

There was a certain absurdity in trying to cater to the musical tastes of a 4-month-old, but I was sleep-deprived, desperate and hormonal. And I quickly learned that my son Dominic was not an average baby. I lived in a constant state of mothering crisis management, anything that would give me a respite from the screaming was something I was willing to try. And as long as the music worked, I would use it. I soon learned that his favorite song was “Danny Boy,” the Bing Crosby version. Within the first few opening notes, my son would always turn and face me, his eyes wide open and a dreamy look on his small face. I had no idea where Dominic went, inside himself, when I played this song for him, but he went somewhere wonderful. I was his mother, and even though we could not communicate with words, I knew the music was his escape from a very confusing world.

As the months passed, I began to understand there was something very wrong with my boy. Even as his excessive crying dissipated, he missed milestones at a concerning rate.  There were no first smiles, no laughing, not one word. While he would go silent and starry-eyed at the first strains of Danny Boy, Dominic would still not say “mama” or shake his head to say “no.” Months turned to years, soundtracks turned to old jazz standards, and my fears turned to heavy, tangible concerns. The first time the doctor used the word autism I actually felt a flood of relief. Now that I had a name for what was wrong, I could find a way to make it better.

Except it didn’t get better. While the crying lessened as he grew into childhood, the frustration grew too, for us both. My son was frustrated that he couldn’t tell me what he wanted, that I did not just know what he needed without words. And I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a way to make him understand just how hard I was trying to understand him. 

So we relied on the music to speak to one another. In the supermarket, as he scrunched up his eyes and arched his back at the glaring, bright lights and the noise of the other people, I would lean in and put my mouth to his ear. “Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.” And as though it quieted the pain in his head, he would hold my face in his sticky hands and listen to me sing. While strangers watched and wondered, I pushed the cart defiantly and sang that song until my basket was full and my throat was dry.

He is 12 now, my silent boy. He doesn’t cry much anymore, nor does he say, “Mom, I need $10 for the movies” like other boys his age. He never said “mom” at all —because of his autism, he can’t speak very much. But it doesn’t bother me much, anymore, really. It is what it is. And I know how to calm him, I know what gives Dominic joy.

At night, I will hear the faint strains of Chopin slipping out from under his bedroom door and I will think of holding his small body, staring up at the moon in the middle of one of those first sleepless nights. I will play his favorite soundtrack in the car as we go speeding down the expressway, and take pleasure in the way he loves to roll the window down and let the wind whip through our hair.

Sometimes, when I am feeling nostalgic and missing a time in my life that I never thought I would miss, I will load up “Danny Boy” on the stereo. And wherever he is in the house, Dominic will find me. He will come and listen, with the same wide eyes and the same dreamy look I remember. And then, he always goes to that somewhere, far off place inside himself. “Oh, Danny Boy, The pipes, the pipes are calling. From glen to glen and down the mountainside. The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling. It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.”

I do not know if he understands that this song was part of the earliest language we spoke, as a mother and a child. Nor do I know where he goes, when he loses himself in the music.

I just know that as long as we share it, as long as we have the music between us, he will always take a part of me with him.

And I know I want to go where Dominic goes, whenever the music plays.

Nicole Jankowski is a mom of four kids and two awesome stepkids, a divorcee and a writer. Read about her experiences with autism, addiction, and awesomeness at www.momof4istired.com or on Facebook and Twitter.