Sunday, February 21, 2010

en garde

Ben is not a dabbler. He is not a generalist. He is a serial expert. His interests come in waves and they seem to engulf his brain completely.

Ben's current obsession is sword fighting.

Every day, for example, several times each day, we re-enact this scene from the 1938 Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood.

(This version has subtitles in French for some reason. We prefer our subtitles in English, at least for the moment. )

I play the Basil Rathbone role, plus any other characters. Ben is Errol Flynn of course.

But in our homegrown version, he's actually not Robin Hood, he's Ben. That's because every adventure story we act out is a chapter from "The Adventures of Ben," a mash-up of three different versions of Robin Hood, Star Wars, and an obscure animated version of Babar.

In the Adventures of Ben, Ben the hero fights the villain, Rex. Rex has a host of nameless henchmen. "Chris" and "Christa" are Ben's loyal compatriots (loosely based on Little John and Will Scarlet). Sometimes there is a wise master who dies midway through the story and talks to Ben as an invisible spirit. This character is based on Obi Wan Kenobi, but is always named, "Martin" after Martin Luther King, Jr.

Side note: One outcome of an Oakland public school education and no solid theology at home is that you pretty much grow up assuming Martin Luther King, Jr. is God.

I can't begin to describe how tired I am of sword fighting and light sabers, of prison rescues and storm troopers, of the same scenes over and over again. But I can't pretend I didn't play a part in encouraging this.

It starts out as something that seems like a positive - even a breakthrough. Maybe it's inspiring imaginative play or creativity, maybe it's something that connects your child to other kids and gives him an age-appropriate conversation topic. Maybe it's just different than the current obsession. ("Great! Something other than trains!")

You start to reinforce it. You start to help him explore it because you love seeing him excited and engaged in something new.

Pretty soon it takes over. Pretty soon it starts to seem less like an interest that connects him to others and more like another perseverative ritual that gets in the way of real interaction.

You wait to see if it will burn out, or just come and go over time.

But this particular obsession, unlike trains, is focused almost exclusively on fighting. If all he's thinking about is defeating evil, does he take that combative mindset to school?

Based on an increase in incidents with other kids at school over the last few weeks, my sense is that it does.

Kids have to explore conflict as they grow up, and I know that boys tend to do that physically. I get that. I'm okay with that.

But how well is Ben able to detach from the emotions of the pretend story? After all, Ben and kids like him are not exactly Jedi masters of their own emotions.

I wonder if the aggression he acts out in the story continues to reverberate around his brain, like an echo. And does his body respond to those mere echoes as real?

So I've started to explore distractions and alternatives. I'm thinking about better ways to set limits without turning the obsession into the even more attractive forbidden obsession. I'm trying to find ways to talk about pretend versus real life.

And so far, it's all been pretty unsuccessful.

If you have any ideas, let me know. I'll either be on the Death Star or in my foreboding castle, with my sword and light saber, and my army of henchmen and storm troopers.

Feel free to drop by anytime.



Niksmom said...

Sadly, I have no suggestions...just lots of understanding of this particular graf:
"Pretty soon it takes over. Pretty soon it starts to seem less like an interest that connects him to others and more like another perseverative ritual that gets in the way of real interaction."

Even when it seems to be so innocent, possibly even educational (Nik's obsession right now is letters; he even has favorites), it can become so all-consuming, can't it?

The only thing I could think of is whether you can channel Ben's energy into an interest which might be less aggressive, especially toward others. I don't know what that might be though. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

"I wish I had a stick so I could hit people." --Boy.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful brain. Fascinating and exhausting and frustrating and beautiful. For what it's worth, I think you're doing the only thing you can do, and the best thing for him. Taking part in his world. At least you're there, as inside as you can be. I wish my daughter could spend some time with him. They might meet on some strange plane.

Diane said...

I'm sorry. I couldn't quite hear you over "DEFYING GRAVITY" which has been playing nonstop in our house ever since the word "Wicked" snuck into our vocabulary last year. I guess I prefer it to light sabers, as I'm rather fond of musical theater, but still...

pixiemama said...

I totally understand not wanting something to become the forbidden obsession, and yet our kids aren't the type of kids you can pull the old bait-and-switch on.

It's exhausting - not only are we always "en garde," we have to take apart every action, every transaction, and try to make sense of it, try to figure out if we can work with it or around it. It's simply exhausting.


Amy said...

I don't have any comments about the swordplay, specifically, as we haven't gotten there yet.

I just wanted to say that I've recently discovered your blog and THANK YOU! You are wonderful at explaining so eloquently all of the workings of my son's brain that I've been puzzling over for so long. I'm currently at work reading through your "best of," laughing, crying, and getting strange sideways looks from adjoining cubicles.

And you've given me hope that there is life after all things Thomas (he's our number one) and that Sage will be able to generate spontaneous, creative speech someday. That's all. :)

Natalie said...

No suggestions here, but I have to say that the Erol Flynn version of Robin Hood is my husband's all time favortie movie and it just makes me laugh out loud every time I have to watch it. The acting and fight scenes are just so cheesey! Good luck.

Jordan said...

Hmmm, I'll be thinking about the meantime, I love that my word verification for this post is "yellin". :-)

Penguin Lady said...

I know you are Ben's mom, but you also are a writer - and this was incredibly well-written. You should be very, very proud of your awesome ability to describe what I (as a parent of a "Ben" and a writer in my day job) often find no words for. Well, well done.

jengle said...

Hi all. Like Amy, I recently discovered this blog and I'm amazed by the similarities between Ben and our son Jack (2.5 yrs). We have not yet had Jack tested, but we are concerned that he is developing differently from other kids his age. We could use some advice.

Until now, we've waited to have him tested b/c he seems to keep advancing, although at a different rate and just differently than other kids.

He's always been "late" on certain communication milestones, like responding to his name, saying hi/bye, etc. But he does seem to get there.

I was going to have him tested at 18 months if he didn't start saying words (he could recite the alphabet by then though), but a week or two later, he had a word explosion.

I was going to have him tested at 2 if he didn't start saying mommy and daddy, but then he did a week or so before he turned 2.

I was going to have him tested at 2.5 if he didn't start saying multi-word phrases, but then he did (although they were mostly memorized for awhile, and more spontaneous now).

Now, I am anxiously awaiting 3 years old when I hope he will start to answer even simple questions. Unless his answer is a strong no, he mostly ignores our questions.

My worry has been that I don't want him "labeled" too early if he is going to progress out of the label, but I feel that even after he has met this milestones, there is still a different quality to his communication than other kids.

Sorry for the long post, but struggling to figure out what to do right now.

Christa said...

Thanks for the comment. Here are my thoughts on early assessment with the caveat that I'm not a professional, so this is just our story.

We had our son assessed at 3, which seemed like a good time based on his development. He had just started pre-school and his atypical behaviors had become more pronounced and evident in a social context. He was talking, but a good portion of his speech was still echolalic.

It may be different elsewhere, but here, public early intervention pre-school programs are available to kids starting at age 3, so even if we would have had him assessed earlier, he would not have been eligible for a public program and we would have been paying for private therapy.

On the to-assess-or-not-to-assess question: If you feel like your son is communicating differently than other kids and developing differently, go ahead and have a professional assessment. Think of the results of the assessment as INFORMATION rather than a label.

How you respond to the information you get from the assessment is your choice. A professional may determine that your son could benefit from a language-focused pre-school or speech therapy that emphasizes pragmatic language and you might decide to take advantage of those services.

Yes, diagnostic words might be included in that assessment process: autism spectrum, non-verbal learning disorder, PDD-NOS for example.

At this age, those labels really just give you eligibility for services that will help your son. In our personal experience, the label has been more helpful than harmful. My son is 6 and he still has no idea that there is a form somewhere with his name on it with an autism box checked.

But because of the assessment process, we've received great support and a much, much better understanding of what our son needs because of his differences.

I hope that helps! Thanks again for writing!

jengle said...


Thanks for your advice about a healthy and helpful way to think about the assessment process. It sounds like Jack is at a similar stage as your son was at 3. We do plan to go ahead with the assessment soon.

I can't thank you enough for your blog. Reading about your experiences has really changed our conversations about Jack for the better. Instead of being consumed with worry and stress, my husband and I are really engaging in a positive conversation about how to help our son use the strengths he does have to overcome the challenges he seems to have too.

Amanda said...

I feel like I egg on my son's current obsession too - I haven't figured out how to get him to move on either. Right now his obsession is Youtube! How terrible is that! Makes me feel like a bad mom for introducing it to him! In my defense, I do limit our time and monitor what he watches! I love that your son obsesses too!

Amanda said...

I don't mean that I LOVE it - I mean that I'm glad to have found a blog where I feel I'm not alone {:-/