Everything Fashion:

Our Autistic Expression

In this installment, I recap all I’ve discovered about myself and the Scientist in all our preferred, fashionable glory.

Your Fashion is Not Our Fashion

We are nonjudgmental and do not hold anyone to the standards to which we hold ourselves. It’s critical you understand this if you read on.

Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

A Time and a Place

The destination, setting, and intended mood dramatically affects the choice of attire. The Scientist and I have both been accused of being somewhat cartoonish in our outfit choices, but only because we have a deep-seated desire to match the environment — a desire that ironically makes us stand out. I wish to fit in, he wishes to blend in (I think these are different.)

Where most people have something of a capsule wardrobe or a set style that they wear for most things, or a seasonal approach, or an affection for neturals, our wardrobe is entirely contingent on the expectation, the setting, the mood, the location, the crowd, etc. Each of these factors holds weight.

I’ve never owned, and never will own, an LBD.

Before the Event

Before a job interview, party, hang-out, family visit, date night, etc., I don’t worry over the directions, the people, the food, or anything else. I consider what the outfit should communicate.

It’s a function of my anxiety, insecurity, preparation, and self-control — my autistic expression. I can’t control most variables, but I can doll myself up to look the part.

If I’ve never been to a place before and can’t see pictures ahead of time, or if I’ll be with people I don’t know, I fret about wardrobe.

Standing Out by Trying to Fit In

It may be hard to imagine this from outside the spectrum. Imagine if everywhere was actually a movie set — a location designed intentionally a certain way for a certain reason. There’s lighting, style, texture, energy, etc.

Then, the actors are dressed specifically to match the tone. Muted colors or bright, matching or contrasting, symbolic in one way or another — patterns appropriate to the architecture, time period or set by the lighting — cuts and styles seeming to originate from the era, blending seamlessly to create an illusion for the audience… All things the clothing designer considers when dressing the actors for full effect.

I’m not acting. This is me, for real. I’m becoming the most appropriate part of the scenery as I expect it to be. The Scientist too, to a lesser extent. His wardrobe has been cultivated to be timeless, unique and memorable — much like his personality. He’s not concerned with fitting in to the background so much as being himself, inspiring his own mood for the day, and matching the tone I’m setting.

I attribute my fashion obsession to many factors. I was singled out for my clothing in elementary school. I wasn’t allowed to wear dresses because of how I boyishly sat and played. I wore hand-me-downs from my brother’s closet and was forced into oversized, stiff tees. My body developed early, well ahead of my peers. I was obsessed with fitting in with others, with everyone, through my first 25 years. I felt insecure and detached and craved fitting in. I’m bored over the blandness and unoriginality with what the stores are offering. I need to inspire my own mood to want to socialize. Everything I do stems from an intentional choice.

To feel remotely comfortable, I need to look like I belong, by my own standard. I am a chameleon with thousands of skins.

Photo by Ekaterina Grosheva on Unsplash

On Being Different, Extra

I never want to be the center of attention. I take very few pictures and no videos of myself because I’m ironically not very attached to the way I look. I check the mirror once or twice a day, and not always before I leave the house in the morning. I always wanted to be more than just a pretty face and took a lot of umbrage whenever anyone said “it’s a good thing you’re pretty.” Beauty is irrelevant. It’s luck of the genetic draw. I’d love to blend in, to appear less striking, to be taken seriously as a mind not a face.

But since I intentionally choose my outfits based on an endless wardrobe, I end up standing out. Grudgingly.

It’s gotten me into embarrassing situations in the past. Moments or evenings I’ll regret forever because I overplayed my outfit. I’ve lost friends over it. I’ve ruined days being too…me.

Fabrics, Brands, Patterns, and Prints

I won’t wear leather or fur, because it seems silly and cruel to me in a world where the fakes have become as good if not better than the reals.

I don’t wear realistic animal prints for much the same reason, but I never pass up a green zebra print or a colorful feather pattern if it’s right.

Keep your name brands. I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices to be a walking billboard for a corporation. The brands that most people pay the most money for seem less valuable to me, lower quality, poorer construction. For that matter, I’m happily thrifty and incorporate vintage pieces often.

I don’t have too many fabrics I won’t wear, but I know the textures I don’t find comfortable. By feel, not by name. I have a few items in my closet that I love the look of, but can’t wear because of fit or feel — and eventually I’ll weed them out when I’m tired of trying to love them and the disappointment has faded.

The Scientist has an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics, patterning, and construction. He can touch a fabric or see it on a hanger and identify the percentage of the blend. He also dabbles in sewing and clothing design. He wears a lot of birds, flowers, and natural textures. His retirement dream is to design a clothing line.

Colors

The Scientist and I are both able to see more colors than the average person. Although tetrachromacy is typically considered a female trait, we both identified many more color variants than the average when tested. It likely makes us even more attentive and discerning.

I know what goes together. For me. It would be impossible for me to verbalize these rules. They vary by decade or inspiration, cut and mood, all sorts of variables.

I nearly never wear red, blush, or beige. I firmly believe navy and purple can go with anything if you’re using them correctly. There are 100+ versions of each color. Anything can be a neutral. I love using contrasting colors from the wheel, watching for pastel/bright/primary/jewel combinations, and switching up options seasonally. I tend to be a year or two ahead of where the trends are, but I attribute this more to my growing boredom, not because of some insider fashion knowledge.

The Scientist is adept at monochromatics, moreso than I. I’ve never met anyone who can wear shades of red that work together. He also finds ways to match neighboring colors on the color wheel- something I never attempt but something I find so compelling. Usually he prefers blue or lavender.

Photo by Darling Arias on Unsplash

Head to Toe Fit and Style

I know it when I’m comfortable, which varies greatly based on my anxiety. Despite a fairly static body type, my anxiety will dictate how comfortable I feel in tighter fitting clothing or revealing more skin day to day. Sometimes I really need to show off this or that to feel feminine. Sometimes I need to cover up entirely in billowing fabrics.

My choice is predictive, though. The Scientist can predict an upcoming meltdown if I’ve chosen one of a few “I give up” pieces of clothing in combination. Usually, this is an ill-fitting black shirt with brightly colored rainbow leggings and something that just doesn’t match the rest.

(He’s helped me see my patterns in so many wonderful ways. I highly recommend finding an empathetic neurodivergent partner, if you have an empathetic neurodivergent mind.)

I prefer sneakers — Vans or Cons — which the Scientist has explained is because of my metatarsal arch, which requires a flatter, more protected surface. I toe-walk (common with neurodivergence), and my weight leans toward the outstep of my foot, not the ball. I’m working on fixing my gait and soon I’ll wear corrective braces. It’s not all bad though — I have highly developed musculature in my toes (finger-toes, I call them), and I have pointy, dainty dancer feet for them being size 10 hairless mammoths.

The Scientist is more predictable in fit and style. He likes a tighter fitting pant, a looser fitting button-down, and a seasonally appropriate sleeve. A suit whenever it is appropriate. No pants in the summer, shorts. Always socks. Palladium boots. Tommy Bahama casuals.

Mood

How do I want to feel today? What am I trying to convey? How can I inspire myself to create or focus or embody the nuanced part of myself I deem important right now? Is there a fashion era that will assist me in getting there? A color palette? An attitude? For as much as I want my style to match the environment, I’m also thinking how my style can alter my mood for the moment.

Feeling sluggish? Definitely wear the career casuals associated with office work. Feeling relaxed and free? The artsy throws and pastels will do nicely. Let me layer up the knits for the fun of fall. Break out linen for the freedom of summer nights.

Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Memory

Recently, I realized how my outfits function as a touchstone for memory. I don’t know why — perhaps because of the care with which I select them, their uniqueness or weighted importance, or just seeing them in my periphery each day.

Always, automatically, what I wore is a shortcut to the coded file. “Remember that day?” you might ask. Do I? I remember, I was wearing — oh the weather — the scenery — the people — the conversations — and then yes, I do remember that day.

I didn’t realize it was so important to me until the Scientist and I became nostalgic about our own experiences together. “Remember when…” he’d ask. “What was I wearing?” was always my reply. Knowing I have a tendency to encode memories differently, he never took offense when I didn’t remember right away. He can usually recount at least some of the outfit on the day in question and the memory floods back.

The regularity with which I asked him about my clothing drew my attention to my memory’s predilection. And because he and I spend a lot of time together, and because he dresses deliberately as well, his outfits have helped me encode experiences I otherwise would have forgotten. He’s my favorite sight in every scene.

I have trouble remembering the stuff people usually remember , in favor of things people typically don’t notice. I don’t remember the plot of the movie, or who was at the birthday, or what year the party was — my memory might be the strange thought I had when I walked in the room, the fact that I’d seen that poster before, that I got stuck in traffic on the way, or the faded color of the carpeting. I’m me everywhere, and my brain never stops analyzing and formulating — it has no sense for what to prioritize in memory, and certainly no accurate sense of day or year.

But…I can remember…I am this outfit on this day at this time for this reason — so Easter 2019 — the sage green, knee-length, modest dress with delicate lavender flowers that I wore under the lilac denim jacket I’d bought for the occasion with my olive green high-top Vans— meeting the Scientist’s extended family, wearing spring colors and wanting to be me, a casual-yet-romantic-inspired me — and I’ll never forget that day. It’s the intentionality with which it was chosen, the specificity of the clothing, that jogs the day back.

An Unbelievable but Totally True Addendum

The Scientist and I met on a dating site a few years ago. Actually, I’d seen him many times in various contexts before, but didn’t put together that all of these cute guys I’d seen and been too shy to talk to over the years were the same guy. He was the guy that tutored at the library where I worked years earlier. He was the guitarist in that concert I’d been drooling over before that. He was the guy on Myspace that all the girls somehow struck up conversations with before that.

He was the 8-year-old sort-of-Goth kid in the Marilyn Manson shirt that I met at the picnic when I was the 12-year-old wearing the multi-colored striped baby tee and gray parachute pants with butterfly clips who played violin. We’d exchanged a few words. We’d gone our separate ways. We realized it decades later based on the clothing we each wore and what we remembered of the other.

It’s sort of like an autistic fairy tale, wouldn’t you say?

What do your clothes say about you?

I’d never expect my structure to fit around anyone else. And I know that many neurodivergent people consider color, texture, etc in choosing outfits. What else matters about your clothes? Are they communicating something? Are they standing you out or fading you in? Please tell me your autistic expression — I would love to know more.

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who falls many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

Following the Rules

Our Autistic Expression

Rules are meant to be broken, but to break them intentionally as the quote suggests, I have to know what they are.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

My ignorance is no defense, but just know by the stunned look on my face, the reddening of my cheeks, and the sudden lack of eye contact- if I broke some unspoken, unlisted, inexcusable rule, it was unintentional. I can always sense when I’ve erred. I don’t always sense how.

Mostly, when unspoken rules are broken, no reasoned explanation is given. To me, that’s the hardest part. That’s my neurodivergent itch to understand, to apply reasoned thought to everything.

This is one frame with which I view life. There are rules that we must follow, on which we can agree.

For most of my life, I lived for knowing (not always following) the rules. Every choice has consequences, so breaking a rule is a matter of weighing those consequences. The expectations in various situations vary, and there are usually a whole host of things not mentioned in the rulebooks on which I’m also being judged.

I can’t know for sure if neurotypicals consider this when they hold people to the unwritten expectations in any given scenario. I used to think they must. Now I’m fairly convinced its a rare trait in humanity in general. Like extreme empathy. Or virtuosic musicianship.

Photo by Austin Mabe on Unsplash

There are rules everywhere. For everything. At all times.

Even friendships have rules (we call them boundaries) and they’re harder to distinguish. Friendships with the nondivergent are hard to cultivate for this reason. Sometimes they don’t even know what their own rules are, or they change, or they act a certain way because its raining, or some such. I can manage a few friendship like this at a time, but I require much post-hang-out processing to fully understand what I’ve experienced, out-processing interactions, the side eyes and nuances I saw in the moment but couldn’t process while also maintaining my focus on the conversation in the setting. When I said this, they said this, but then they slightly stretched their eye lids, and then immediately ordered another drink, before looking at me and smiling awkwardly. Was this my trespass? Or their internal measure? Are they even aware they did that? And so on.

At least with the neurodivergent, there’s a tendency toward self-awareness or self-pronouncement or clear-cut lines between okay and not okay. There’s an acceptance of variable needs.

There’s also the moral code. Our duty to one another to do our best and do what’s right. I have mine enumerated, but in sum it is “Do unto others” plus “Strive for wellness.”

As I’ve aged, I’ve had an easier time recognizing rules and boundaries. It’s a lifetime pursuit, an academic course of study, understanding what is and isn’t acceptable based on what has or has not transpired in between two people, within a given culture, for my lifespan and the lives of those whose counsel I trust. In many ways, the rules have changed a lot since I was a child, but that’s just a dynamic society acting and reacting, breathing changes.

When people act immorally, illogically, unreasonably, basically like people sometimes do, I’m flummoxed. What’s the motivation? Whyyyyy, I ask the ceiling of many rooms I’m in.

I thrive on rules and I always have. I set them easily for myself and pivot when I need to. It’s about health and wellness, feeling good at the end of the day, or as good as can be expected. It’s about minimizing discomfort, physical, mental, social, and otherwise.

Problem explicitly identified? New rule implemented. Change accepted. Situation improved. Wheel turns.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Change is easy, easier than maintaining the norm. I get itchy sitting still, itchier still remaining the same. I’m fortunate to be engaged to a neurodivergent man of a similar nature — the Scientist and I will be changing together forever.

Here are my main personal rules (personal as in for me, as in I only expect me to live this way and pass no judgment on anyone else for behaving otherwise):

I never drink more than 6 alcoholic drinks in 4 hours, almost never drink 2 days in a row, and never drink before 4pm unless it’s a holiday where that’s typical. Alcohol creates a depressing self-interested spiralized hole in my mind that need continuous, verbal processing to refill. I put this rule first because it has an intense effect.

As a rule, I prefer a structured workplace with an ever-changing and expansive workload, and I seek these environments and situations out. I’ve been tasked with writing operations and training manuals at many of my jobs, and I’ve had many jobs because before I knew myself as autistic, I externalized internal events. At this point, I’m working from home, for a growing company, doing all sorts of tasks in the comfort of nonfluorescent lighting.

To that end, I prefer yellowish light to bluish, warm colors to cool, quiet situations to loud ones, though I love loud concerts when I’m expecting them. I keep my blue light filters on, I track my hours on a daily basis so I know I’m using my time productively, and I thoughtfully manage working my job, starting my own creativity-centered company, writing a blog, taking long hikes, playing pool, spending quality time with my cats, landscaping, and a host of other things. After I hit a personal low, prior to understanding I was autistic, I started climbing, filling my days, and set a rule to never let myself waste time. I sleep comfortably 6–7 hours a night.

I’m learning how to rest.

I have rules about what I’ll eat and won’t, what I’ll drink and won’t, and when and from where. I don’t often feel hungry or thirsty so I use the clock to prompt me at the same times each day. My food rules are based primarily on my experiences with an undiagnosed stomach disorder I had for the first 20 years of my life, a disorder which immediately got better when I stopped eating pork, meat, chicken, most fried foods, foods with heavy fat and oil content, almonds, raw leafy greens, Splenda, juice on an empty stomach, and full-fat dairy. I don’t expect anyone to keep track of these rules. I manage them just fine and I learned to cook so as not to rely on anyone else to do it for me.

If I’m a guest at dinner, I’m vegetarian. As long as there is a single non-meat dish, I’ll work around everything else based on my internal signaling. I’ll bring my own meal if they cook exclusively with lard. I never settle for an upset stomach, but I never offend a host who is sharing their table with me.

For that matter, if prompted, I will describe in polite or graphic detail the agony of bacon, the indigestion of orange juice, the nights I spent literally on the floor screaming… best not to ask at the dinner table, because I will indulge them for their edification. No, bacon does not go with everything. No, I don’t miss the feeling that a small gnome with a giant pick-axe is trying to cut his way out of my intestines. (The imagery helped me cope when I was a kid. Now it makes people chuckle.)

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I prefer when friends can speak the truth, about me, about themselves or otherwise. The truth does set me free. I can accept self-denial from friends, but insist on an open-book, self-aware model from me outward. So what if I’m blunt, awkward, and keep myself to impossible standards? I’m also kind, generous, and supportive. I’ve crossed a lot of bridges, and I’ll help anyone cross theirs too.

Do I drive over the speed limit? Sure. The speed signs in my area were posted in the 1940s and 50s, when anti-lock breaks and power steering were nonexistent, when cars were giant metal boxes with no safety equipment, boats on wheels, so to speak. So I may drive 5-10 over the posted limit, but … what are those drive 30-40mph over the limit thinking? It’s dangerous for us all. Everyone. It’s not an oppressive rule, it’s a matter of civic duty and safety. Survival.

We all have rules in society and we all know them to some extent or another.

There are rules about when to water the lawn. If it’s 2pm on a hot day and the sprinklers are on, not only are they breaking a rule in my neighborhood, but they’re actually boiling their grass from the inside.

Rules about right-of-way on the road.

Rules about hygiene.

Rules about equity, and equanimity.

Rules about greetings and parties and phone calls and comments and the pandemic has made all of these rules entirely unique for everyone, which is just a field day for my mental filing system. If they tell me what they expect from me, I’ll file that away too. Make a mental preference note.

When I learn a new rule, I ask why, what for, unless the reason is obvious.

Do the nondivergent NEED to know WHY it’s a rule? I’d say most don’t acknowledge how many rules they follow, let alone why. People in the herd for one thing or another. Others exist in a world of their own making, with no structure, and nothing but this moment to guide the next. I’m guessing, of course. I have no idea how they think. I just know that its nothing like me.

I’m all for mindfulness, but also learning from experience, mine and others, always learning, and planning for a healthier, safer tomorrow. Growth mindset. Keep growing.

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who fall many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

For Them to Listen, You Need to Be Listening

A Plea for Child Carers, Rearers, and Engagers

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Scenario 1

I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.

I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.

The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.

I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he? 

Scenario 2

I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)? 

All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.

Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.” 

When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?

Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store. 

I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.

Real Stories, Not Exaggerations

In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways: 

  1. Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
  2. Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here. 

The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them. 

Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children. 

They’re Doing Their Best

The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.

Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.

To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised. 

Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated. 

If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Listen, We’re Not Listening

As a culture, we need to get back to basics.

First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable. 

To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.

“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.

LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time. 

Reaction Time and Space

In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers. 

Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be. 

If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.

What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?

The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.

The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario. 

The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.

Emotions Speak Louder than Words

While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.) 

So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.

Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.

If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them. 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

What are we actually asking?

Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet. 

This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.” 

Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW. 

For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.

Realistic Expectations

We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.

Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age? 

Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long? 

Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules? 

What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough? 

Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?

We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in. 

Path to Success

The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:

“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”

“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.

“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?” 

“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”

“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.” 

“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”

“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”

“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water? 

“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?” 

“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Every Interaction Guides Them

Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change. 

If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.

If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for?