The last time we met, you told me all about your new adventures in wrestling. This is the first I’ve heard of a wrestling league for 5-year-olds, but it’s a good sport and a promising way to learn about yourself. But then you told me you were having a problem. You said another 5-year-old boy, Luke, was small like you, and every time you wrestled him, you lost.
When I asked why that was happening, you said: “He’s tougher than me.” Then you looked up at me and said: “Pop, you used to wrestle when you were little. Could you toughen me up?”
I was thrilled with your request. Not that I would know how to toughen you up. I was glad that you figured out what you would need to succeed and tried to get it. And that, Sam, is the hallmark of resilience.
I think somehow you realized something that most parents don’t understand: To be resilient, sometimes kids need to be toughened up. Not only does it help them cope in a difficult world, it teaches them about their inner strength.
Everybody gets hurt, Sam, whether it’s by wrestling or getting mocked by other kids. And because you are on the autistic spectrum, I fear you might get hurt more than most. But the important question is, what happens after the hurt?
Your mother said you wanted her at your wrestling matches because she made you feel better by holding you until the tears went away. Your dad coaches your wrestling team, but you didn’t like the way he treated you, because all he said was you weren’t hurt so badly.
Whenever we are hurt, we want someone to care for us, and we certainly don’t want anyone to tell us we are OK.
But if someone takes care of us every time we hurt, we begin to feel as though we are fragile and cannot handle problems without help.
On the other hand, I see people in my office every day who didn’t get adequate care when they were young and spend a lifetime taking care of themselves. So now they have difficulty trusting that people will help them when they need it.
But most parents are like your mother. All of our instincts tell us to protect our children from adversity when we can.
So, Sam, how do we toughen you up? Many parents have incorrectly said that spanking or deprivation does it. But that only hurts children. We toughen children by helping them to believe in themselves. Not by words, but by actions.
When I played in Little League, I made the all-star team one year. Unfortunately, the first time up to bat, I struck out. When my turn came again a couple of innings later, our team was down by one run and we had somebody on third base. I was afraid I would strike out again, so I asked the coach to pinch-hit for me.
The coach called a time-out and took me out of the dugout. He put his arm around me and walked me up the third-base line. He said playing in the game was the most important thing and that I should just feel proud that I’d made the all-star team and enjoy myself.
I felt myself melting into this nurturing man’s support, and then he kicked me right in the butt, and said, “Now, go up to the plate and try to do something good for this team!”
Sam, I don’t know which felt better – the hug or the kick. In today’s world, that coach might have been charged with child abuse, but he did something for me I will never forget. The talk showed me both that he cared about my feelings, and believed that I was tough. I don’t remember whether I got a hit or not, but I do recall his belief in me.
So, Sam, like most kids, you need a parent who can take care of your feelings right now and another one who knows how to toughen you up.