Sunday, November 30, 2008

Making friends with testosterone

One of the best pieces of parenting advice I got when I was still pregnant was from my long-time friend Diane, who already had two kids of her own.

Never, she advised, look at another child who is doing something annoying or disturbing and think, smugly, "Well, at least MY child doesn't do THAT."

Because if you think that, you are pretty much guaranteed that your child will start doing that very thing within the next few days.

As you can probably guess, there's something I've had that feeling about.

Ben has been slow to develop the normal male fascination with fighting and weaponry. I'd love to take the credit and say it's because we provide such a warm and nurturing environment, but I know that it's really because children on the autism spectrum don't automatically pick up behaviors from peers like most NT children do.

No matter what the cause, I admit to a few moments of smugness about it.

But as his social abilities evolve, he now pays a lot more attention to what other boys do on the playground and wants to fit in. This is progress.

This also means that he's starting to learn about things like fighting and good guys and bad guys.

Ben is paying attention to the concept more in videos and stories, too, and incorporating them into our imaginative play.

One of his new favorite activities is to get out the Nerf baseball bats and play Robin Hood and Little John dueling with staffs on a narrow bridge.

He also loves to play the orchestral soundtrack from Disney's Sleeping Beauty and act out the climax where Prince Philip destroys Maleficent.

You can probably guess who plays which part. My death scene, where I sink to the kitchen floor with a wooden spoon in my heart, is quite a scenery-chewer.

I know it's pretty intellectual stuff compared to Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles, but given the fact that this was completely absent from his repertoire until just a month or so ago, it's striking to me.

As Ben's fascination has grown, we haven't made a point of censoring stories where heroes are in danger and villains are vanquished. (Within reason, of course.)

While we don't want to encourage fighting, we also don't want to shield him from the idea of conflict. Experimenting with ideas of conflict, power, and aggression seem like a normal part of childhood - especially boyhood - that Ben is finally getting around to exploring.

I should note that my twenty-year-old self would be horrified at that last statement. As a matter of fact, I think Chris' twenty-year-old self would be pretty disgusted as well.

Back then, we both believed that gender was nothing more than a construction of oppressive social norms. I cringed at - no, railed against - any biological basis for behavior.

But, of course, that was before I had spent time with any actual children.

Unlike my college-age self, I don't believe that you can just raise boys and girls to be happily, perfectly genderless. There is some wiring in there that does make the sexes fundamentally different.

Of course, I don't agree with Freud that "biology is destiny," but maybe biology is "tendency."

Ben likes "boy stuff" (trains, cars, adventure stories, hitting things, bumping into things, crashing things) and he also likes "girl stuff" (Disney princess movies, dance class, playing with a tea set).

Right now, he moves around on the gender continuum with ease. No one (at least not when I'm around) tells him what boys should or shouldn't play with and that's the way it should be.

But I believe that he will have a tendency to explore concepts of his own physical power, ideas of competition and notions of strength in ways that are different than the way his female peers will tend to explore the same concepts.

Unlike my younger self, I'm reconciled to this.

And given his rather circuitous social development (we're taking the scenic route, as Susan at The Family Room says), I'm actually quite pleased to see it.

So every day we're fencing with wooden spoons, bats, plastic golf clubs, and even socks. And we laugh all the while. It feels fun, normal and harmless.

At least he's not interested in guns.

Oh no. I should NOT have said that.


En garde! Chief Inspector Daddy of the French Police battles a rogue in jammies.


Natalie said...

Yes, that thought does seem to come back to bite you doesn't it! I've had it happen quite a few times already with Hannah. I'm coming to enjoy the scenic route too. :)

Susan said...

Ha. I think your 20-year-old self and mine need to get a beer sometime.

And here I am, hoping that Isaac picks some of this up from Ben...

drama mama said...

Dude. I like your friend's advice. Listen. As long as they're playing, I really don't care what it is anymore.

Remember that I had to shoot fireworks out of my bottom to get my kid to "play".

I got chewed out from my friend the other day because she was appalled that I let the girls play with old-school Barbies.

If you really wanted to be politically incorrect, you would let him sword fight with the Barbies.