A while back, a friend told me the story of her baby boy. This was her 4th, and both her and my children were under the care of the same wonderful pediatrician: a man characterized by a huge amount of calm confidence in the resilience of babies and the instincts of mothers. However, at their last baby check-up, our usually laid-back doctor had all of a sudden leapt into action. Rather than taking his “let’s see what happens”, and “breastfeeding is best” line, he sounded an alarm: this baby was Failing To Thrive. He was not growing, developing, flourishing as an infant should be, and he was alarmed. Tests were ordered, his diet was changed, follow-up visits scheduled.
They were taking it one day at a time, until someone shouted “Failure To Thrive!“, and then, suddenly, everything was different.
In March I wrote about why we had said no to preschool: a decision we continued to labor over, but kept on feeling that the steep cost of preschool fell into the category of luxury rather than necessity. Our boys were at home, and they were doing fine.
In May, I remember commenting to a friend that my 4-year old son just didn’t seem happy a lot of the time. “He’s happy when he’s reading or playing LEGO,” we observed, “but he seems withdrawn and sad the rest of the time.” Added to that, we felt like we were facing battles with him on every front: defiance, manners, toilet training, temper tantrums. We were uninvited from a friends’ house because his behavior was destructive. We were asked for assistance in getting him to participate in Sunday School.
What was going on? Was this ‘boy’? Was this ‘middle child’? Was this because he’s smart? Or because he’s an introvert? Or just because he’s a four-year old? A friend reminded me to keep praying for my son, and I did:
“Oh God, when I look at this boy I see that he has little joy or patience, little peace or gentleness. He struggles with self-control and kindness – and just saying those things out loud makes me realize that change is going to require a work of your Spirit from the inside. Please do that, and help us to mold him from the outside even as you are shaping him from the inside. If you are the Potter in charge of the clay, please show us where to put our hands and apply gentle pressure. Shape him from the inside, and keep our hands steady.”
And I wept.
In July, we traveled. Travel is hard on kids at the best of times: a change of time zones, a change of routine, close quarters and close familial scrutiny, and little space to place. But he took it hardest: he withdrew, and when not actively engaged in a rare kids’ activity, was sullen and sad. He slept badly. He avoided eye contact. He was at times delightful and conversational, but at times completely unresponsive to us. Perhaps we could change this, it was suggested – if we were firmer with him? Maybe more structure, and more insistent “no’s” would help?
But when I looked at him, I didn’t see a defiant terror. I saw a wilting child, feeling hopeless and helpless and angry and afraid, and I felt hopeless and helpless to make a change.
I wept some more.
We enrolled him in Karate: a class full of peers with a firmer social structure. It will give him a physical outlet, grow his confidence, and give him something “just for him”, we said. He can learn to follow another adult, we thought: this will help.
In truth, there were a handful of days when it seemed that it might. There were days when we was engaged and participated with a smile on his face. But most of the time, he lay on the floor sucking his thumb. And just like it happened at home, and in Sunday School, so it happened in Karate – and no amount of coaxing, bribery, encouragement, threatening or discipline could bring him back once he’d retreated.
We quit Karate, and the desperation felt thick in my throat. I looked at my son, and all of a sudden did not believe that he would grow out of it, or that this would just take time, or that we just needed to try harder. Our calm, careful and consistent efforts to parent our child were not working, and all of a sudden I felt the alarm bells go off: he is Failing To Thrive.
Failing to thrive.
And we needed help. We needed to ask better questions: was he perhaps on the Autism Spectrum? Did he need behavioral therapy? Or did he just need social and emotional coaching? How would he cope in Kindergarten?
That night, I reached out to the preschool to ask if they had space for our boy. Knowing that they had experience with quiet boys, wriggly boys, autistic boys, happy boys, and every type in between, I told them our story: “We need help, and we don’t even know what kind of help we need.”
They welcomed us in. And this time, writing the check didn’t feel like a luxury. It felt like a lifeline.
There are kids who struggle with reading. Sometimes what they need is time, and sometimes what they need is tutoring. A good tutor is not just someone who is proficient in the skill, but someone who is able to break reading down into manageable-sized chunks.
Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: One bite at a time.
And maybe, there are kids who struggle with communication. Sometimes what they need is time, and sometimes what they need is tutoring. There are things they say are “caught, not taught”. My boy is not so good at “catching” some of those things. For him, they need to be taught. We need to break down the composite parts of regular social interaction, and hand him one piece of the puzzle-that-is-people at a time:
“When you look me in the eye, you have the power to make me feel important and special.”
“When you come up to a group of kids and want to play, say ‘is it okay if I play with you?'”
“When someone says your name, you need to look up to show you are listening.”
I am good at reading, but I don’t know how to teach a struggling early reader the next step. I am good at communicating, but I don’t know how to break things down for a struggling boy, either.
There are some mixed feelings with this. On the one hand: I am am overwhelmed with gratitude for the help. Overwhelmed. But on the other, I confess that part of me is also really mad that we need this kind of help. It reminds me of those first, early days of new parenthood, when the sum total of my task as a mother was to keep my baby fed and rested, and I could do neither. My mom was on hand, and she seemed to be the only one who could get my sweet daughter to sleep. I was so grateful that she was asleep, and simultaneously so resentful that I wasn’t the one able to get her to sleep.
Not being able to provide what my child needed felt like failure then, and it sometimes feels like failure now. Really, couldn’t you teach your child how to make friends yourself?
But there is no failure here, I tell myself. Sometimes the very best gift we can give our kids is not a consistent plan, but a consistent love and a change of plan. He was failing to thrive. And we needed help.
Nearly 2 months later, and my boy is no longer failing to thrive. He is blooming before our eyes. I’m not sure what it is: a magical catalyst of teachers and training and the sweetness of hope.
The story is far from over: there are still questions to be asked, assessments to be done, lessons to be learned. But this morning my son is smiling and engaged, and I can’t help but see that as a gift because this is not how it was a few months ago.
I’m crying, but for all the right reasons.