In May FDW is hosting a new series on stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by lovely friend and ministry colleague who has been an anchor to my own life and sanity though we’ve only met in person once – April Berends.
When my son, E, was two years old, he broke my heart a little bit. I have always loved making art—drawing, painting, shaping things out of clay. One day, I buckled him into his booster seat and spread paper and paints in front of him. He yelled, “No art!”
Now at age four, when I pick him up at preschool, I find brightly colored pictures pinned to his classmates’ cubbies, but it is rare for him to bring home anything that he has made.
E is happy, bright and curious. He can memorize long passages of fairly dense text about strange, scientific things. He has been speaking in complete sentences since he was about 18 months old. He makes friends easily. But there’s this one thing, or rather a whole constellation of things, that E doesn’t do very well, if he does them at all. He’s messier than the average kid. He still holds his fork with a fist. I’ve stopped buying light colored clothing for him because I’m tired of washing out chocolate milk and tomato sauce stains. He doesn’t like making letters and has never attempted to write his name. He still doesn’t like drawing, and his interest in Play-Doh is limited to pushing the dough through an extruder.
I recently realized that E he goes out of his way to avoid these things. When I ask him to copy shapes or letters, he often says, “I can’t,” or “That’s too hard,” or “But Mom, that will take me so long.” I mentioned this to his pediatrician. I wasn’t all that worried. I thought my son was just being stubborn. His doctor sent us to an occupational therapist for an evaluation.
The therapist diagnosed E with “developmental coordination disorder,” a catchall term referring to specific areas of his motor development. He can do many things without much trouble, but when it comes to gripping a marker or drawing a line, he’s about two years behind. For a four year-old, that’s half a lifetime.
I am well aware that as developmental issues go, this one pales in comparison to the daily struggles of families with children who have significant special needs. Still, learning this about my son set off a deluge of mom guilt. How did we miss this? Was encouraging my child to follow his own interests a bad idea? When I avoided fights about writing or drawing, was I just being lazy?
I worried about the labels. “I don’t want you to worry,” said the occupational therapist when going over some of E’s visual processing results. “This just might mean that he’ll never be an engineer.” My heart sank. E has been building contraptions since he was two years old. The Halloween when he was two and a half, E insisted on dressing up like the guy who operated the huge, elaborate coffee roasting machines at our neighborhood café. When he showed up in costume, the roaster guys took him on a behind-the-scenes tour of the machines. E, dressed as a tiny, bearded hipster, rattled off all of the parts and functions. As a parent, I feel like one of my jobs is to open his life up to possibility. Four years old seems young to place certain vocations off-limits.
The engineer comment notwithstanding, E and I love our visits to the occupational therapist. She teaches us strategies for making things better. She’s shown me a lot of little ways that I can pay attention to my son’s movements. We have a whole list of new activities to fit into our lives. I brush E’s body a few times a day, trying to get neural pathways to respond to sensation more effectively. I hold his legs like a wheelbarrow so that he can walk on his hands, strengthening his arms and shoulders. Every day, we try to practice some fine motor skills—drawing, painting, tracing letters, building puzzles, Lego. He used to avoid all of these things. E so adores his occupational therapist that he begs to do “my homework for Miss Rebecca.” I am beyond grateful that these activities no longer involve tears or complaints.
Little by little, E’s motor skills are improving. He sticks a little closer to the lines when he traces. He holds his fork more securely. He’s getting faster at seeing how puzzle pieces fit together and snapping them into place. He loves playing with “teeny tiny Legos,” and has started using familiar pieces to construct his own designs. With each small accomplishment, he gains confidence.
I can see that my son’s therapy is helping him, but it’s helping me, too. It’s encouraging me to notice the ways that E moves in the world. I’ve found a grace in these daily exercises that has very little to do with my abilities as a parent. All of these minute improvements add up to concrete skills, assuring me that we are working toward a worthwhile goal. The whole experience has encouraged me to consider the areas of my life where I could be paying more attention. I know that I have parts of me that are underdeveloped, as a person, as a partner, a priest and a parent.
Helping my son with his therapy has become a gracious reminder that commitment and practice can make a lot of things better. It’s true of the life of faith, too. I find my spiritual life enriched when I make an effort to pay attention, and it helps to find ways to practice this watching and this listening: gathering for worship, holding small pieces of bread in our hands, singing songs, opening ancient stories, finding a rhythm for prayer. All of these things make us stronger and more responsive, not only to what God is doing in the world, but also to what God calls us to do.
April Berends is an Episcopal priest. She lives on a mountain in Tennessee with her husband and two small, loud boys. She enjoys planting vegetables, sitting by campfires, family dance parties, throwing pots, writing to elected officials, and teaching her kids about birds, bugs and wildflowers.