This is a hard post to write because I literally left the house an hour ago amid a storm of shouting and slamming doors. So…I hope you don’t read this and go “well…she can do it because she’s so calm,” because seriously guys. I *just* yelled at my kid.
Anyway, thanks for coming on over for the third and final installment in my sibling series. We’ve discussed over the past two weeks about the unique experience of a person with an autistic sibling, and today we’ll talk about how to specifically communicate to that person: You’re important to me.
I’ve thought long and hard about this one, looking for all kinds of practical applications, but the fact is this: there is absolutely no shortage of Pinterest ideas on how to communicate to a kid you love them, value them, think they’re important.
In fact, lack of ideas is rarely an obstacle for us. I can list ten right now. But we can spend our whole lives checking off boxes on our cutesy love-on-your-kid lists, and the message can still get lost in translation right?
So the question now becomes…how do we make our overlooked kids (biological or communal) feel our love?
For me, this quote from St. Gregory Palamas was helpful.
“Without love, the works of virtue are not praiseworthy or profitable to the man who practices them, and the same is true of love without works. St. Paul makes this fully clear with reference to works when he writes to the Corinthians, ‘If I do this and that, but have no love, it profits me nothing’ (cf 1 Corinthians 13:1-3); and with reference to love the disciple especially beloved by Christ writes, ‘Let us not love in word or tongue, but in action and truth’ (1 John 3:18).”
While we can never *force* anyone to understand how important they are to us, or even guarantee that they will, St. Gregory’s juxtaposition of those two scriptures gives us a nicely clear picture of what love in action should look like.
We should back up our actions with genuine care.
We should back up our speech with action.
Because practicing one with total disregard for the other makes both worthless.
So, with regard to our specific relationships to children, what does this look like? Here’s how I picture it.
1. Kids can see you checking the boxes off your list.
I hope my husband won’t mind me saying this in a public forum, but one of the things I told him in the early days of our marriage was that I didn’t like it when I felt like he had a “wife happiness checklist,” which I was guessing he systematically worked his way through and expected my happiness at the end.
The bottom line was this: I didn’t want him to change my behavior. I wanted him to care about what caused it, and then I would handle my behavior. I wanted him to care that my heart was broken, or tired, or overwhelmed.
Kids aren’t different; they’re just smaller. And less able to say what I just said.
They don’t want us to change their behavior. They don’t want us to heartlessly proceed through a list of I-love-you to-dos and then throw the list at them, shouting BUT THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO MAKE YOU RESPECT ME.
Let’s take a closer look at that 1 Corinthians passage.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. –1 Corinthians 13:1,2
Because if we don’t first see their hearts, all our talk is just noise to them.
2. Kids are master lip-service spotters.
So, the opposite problem to the checklist tactic: loving speech without action.
You know kids are the masters at spotting those of us who do this. We know this because they exploit it at every chance they get.
Mom, you never take me to the library.
But Dad, you said we were going to see that movie together.
They keep us honest, right?
While it’s generally harder for the parent of an autistic child to keep their promises to their other kids than it is for most parents (simply because of the likelihood of getting hijacked by behavior at any moment), the stakes are also higher.
I wish I had a formula or a tactic to share with you here, but the thing that makes relationships so difficult is that it’s not math. You have to make a judgement in the moment; you have to see the situation, and know how to label your response as a realistic one or a selfish and egotistical one.
So if we’re going to put ourselves against Christ every moment and make honest comparisons, our love to His, our compassion to His, we’re going to need some specifics. Let’s use St. Gregory’s second example from 1 John.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. –1 John 3:16-18
Christ knows what that looks like from moment to moment, situation to situation. We are less sure. Oh, mercy–I need his help and guidance literally every hour.
So, thank you, St. Gregory, for reminding us how to love these special kiddos–from the heart, then act (but don’t forget to act).
And God bless you, siblings. You are a special and amazing kind of person. You didn’t choose this life, but you sure are rocking it.
Love to you all. See you next week!