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Let me preface this by describing our experiences watching A Christmas Story. The movie has much in the way of figurative language and a number of dream-like, surreal sequences that give insight into the main character’s mind. Our middle son, Dubya, as we watched this movie, required explanation of every single instance. Every figure of speech needed explicating. Every dream sequence left him mystified, confused about why the story had suddenly shifted in that way. He is our most literal child, and he struggles with the figurative. He also struggles with understanding when the things he says might hurt someone’s feelings. To him, what he says is simply true. Why would something true be bad to say? It’s a lesson he needs to learn. To wit:
Dubya, he of the sweet heart and mind, tics, ADHD, and OCD, compulsively tells me everything. Thus it transpired one day after school that he began to tell me all about a boy in his class, Belushi. Belushi has a reputation as a child with “issues,” as we say euphemistically. For reasons we’re still trying to determine, he has specifically latched onto Dubya, wanting badly to be his friend and, as far as we can tell, in that impenetrable calculus of childhood, putting off his targets by “trying too hard.”
We’ve spoken with Dubya about Belushi before, urging him to be civil, to be kind. Dubya notes that when he does so, Belushi takes this as an opening for firm, lasting friendship and latches onto Dubya like a barnacle, urging overnights and other fun, friendship-like gatherings. Again, for reasons Dubya can’t articulate, this urgency puts him off. Bottom line: He does not like Belushi. We’ve told him that it’s OK, that you don’t have to like everyone, but that he still has to be civil, be kind.
That day of compulsive confession, I learned that Dubya and a group of boys in their class have been bullying Belushi. Specifically, they’ve been acting like Belushi has the “cheese touch” and making a production out of any occasion in which Belushi touches them or their things. From what I can tell, these boys are loud and open about this. Up to that moment, we’d been rather pleased that one of our children appeared to be sort of popular, well known in the class for his art and his ninja-like Lego abilities. That he was friends with the, you know, popular kids.
We were now appalled. We were horrified. We asked Dubya, “Why, given all that has happened to your brother, why are you doing these things?”
And his response? A shrug of the shoulders, not to blow off the question but to underscore the ambiguity of the answer: “I don’t know. He’s just…different.” If this is what being one of the popular kids gets you, I’ll take my children as utter nerds, thanks.
Much discussion ensued, discussion that included, yes, pointing out that he, Dubya, was the pot calling the different kettle black. Much forcing of perspective taking–one of his biggest deficits–bringing him to tears as he realized how Belushi might feel, how his parents might feel, knowing that children are doing these things, saying these things.
And then, the very next day, Dubya did it again. How do we know? Because he’s a compulsive confessor. More discussion about perspective taking. A huge, painful discussion about the other boys involved, about their role as friends–or not–to Dubya himself. And I emailed the teacher and made her aware of the situation.
The day I emailed the teacher, Dubya, in a rush to reach the end of the lunch line–yep, you read that right, the end of the line–knocked into a little girl in his class. She fell, bumped her head on a table, and literally was knocked out cold, at least briefly. My son, having bullied a boy in his class, now had knocked a child out. Good times, these.
Dubya was horrified, in tears, his teacher worried he was traumatized. I sort of hoped that he was. Why? Because he does that kind of thing all the time, rushing past people, pushing his way through, thinking only of what he needs to do, where he’sintent on going. I’m huge compared to him, so when he pushes past me, I don’t go down and sustain a concussion. But this little girl? In the end, she was fine. But Dubya…not so much.
He’s stopped with the cheese touch business. He’s working very hard to say kind things to Belushi. He’s not spending as much time with the other boys who, it seems, are systematically bullying other children in the class, too. He’s realized that kind people don’t behave that way.
The drawback is that now, he’s obsessing (again) over his every word, every move. Knocking a classmate unconscious hasn’t helped any. He comes home daily from school with a list of things he’s said to ask if they were OK or offensive. He genuinely has no idea and needs clarification and assurance. In other words, he’s in his own world and cannot take the perspective of someone else without outside help.
He’s also returned to much of his obsessive behavior, things that had ended when school ended last year, when he was no longer with a teacher who publicly punished him several times a day by sitting him in the hallway to absorb the stares of every passerby. As quickly as school was out, the constant confessing, obsessing, catastrophizing, and other OCD/anxiety behaviors all but ceased. Now, they’re back. We’re talking about why that is–that he’s worried about making a social mistake at school, about accidentally hurting someone’s feelings because he, Dubya, just can’t tell what’s painful and what isn’t when it’s simply all true to him. So much for relying on trauma to fix things.
So…Dubya’s going to social skills class. The class has been such a success with TH that we hope Dubya finds it helpful to him. He’s not going to be participating in overt, systematic torture of a boy in his class even without taking social skills. Not on our watch. But we’re hoping that what he learns will help him stop systematically torturing himself over what’s right and what’s not right to say to someone.