Investing in Relationships: The Core Business of Parenting

At a workshop a few weeks ago, I was talking to parents about how they spend their time with their children. We were talking specifically about how they devote themselves to their Autistic children. There is no doubt that parents are busy. The struggle of the juggle is real. Work, domestics, parenting … they all very often result in parents being stretched too thinly. Let’s face it, it makes me exhausted just thinking about the never-ending rotation of cooking, cleaning, washing, groceries, ironing, not to mention the diplomacy required to negotiate the tricky business of sibling interactions, or the extra-curricular routines that require a dedicated taxi service, or the day-to-day skirmish required to achieve clean bodies, hygienic teeth, full tummies. And, for many parents of Autistic children, you can add into that mix of commitments appointments, therapies, interventions, planning and executing funding agreements, working on goals, lack of sleep, repeated meetings with schools and preschools, preparing visuals and social stories. The list goes on. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that the parents with whom I was speaking at said workshop talked about the time they spend with their Autistic children in terms of appointments, therapies, and the general overwhelm of ‘jobs’ to be ‘done’.

We are very low on therapy in our family. We do only just as much as we need, and nothing intensive. But even still, I am entirely sympathetic to this position. I’m an Autistic Mum, homeschooling her three Autistic boys, working part time, a volunteer, a writer, and the designated keeper of ‘home duties’. It’s a lot. But I’m lucky: in homeschooling my gorgeous boys, I have an opportunity that many other parents miss out on… I have the opportunity to invest deeply in my relationships with my boys.

So, to those parents who are swamped by the ‘jobs’ to be ‘done’, by the appointments to attend, by the therapy goals to achieve, I want to offer a different perspective. I can’t take away the need to provide clean clothes or to satiate hunger. But I invite you to stop and reflect on the core business of parenting. I’d suggest that the real core business of parenting – and especially parenting an Autistic child – is not to insert therapy and intervention into every moment of their life, not to focus on their development at every turn, not to engineer every moment for social skill development, but instead, very simply, to invest in a genuine, unconditional, compassionate and loving relationship with your Autistic child.

What do I mean by investing in your relationship with your child? Well, I’m talking about relating to your child beyond satisfying their biological needs and beyond working towards your priorities for their development. It’s not about taking them to the park to expend some energy and watching them play, although that may be involved; it’s not about ferrying them to soccer on Saturday morning or Drama after school and watching them participate. I’m talking about actively and consciously becoming your child’s companion and their friend, learning from them to marvel at the berries they pick in park, sharing with them in a moment of wonder and satisfaction at a perfectly organised line of toys, appreciating fun and play in the way your child does.

Investing in your relationship with your child is about getting to know your child on a profound and authentic level, so that they know that you not only love them because they are your child, but that you love them because you genuinely enjoy spending time with them: that their company is so enjoyable to you that it is worthy to be given some of your valuable, precious time. Play with your child, engage in their passions, stim with them, and accept that whatever they do, you can find delight in doing it too. And by play with them, I don’t mean ‘playing’ within some normative construct of turn-taking and sharing and imagination, but the very simple idea of engaging in something for enjoyment, with no expectations or prescriptions.

Sharing in your child’s passion is powerful. Before I had my children, I was typically Autistic in my deep and abiding passion for one subject. Since I was seven years old, I have been interested in one, single subject, to the exclusion of all others. I spent my whole primary and secondary school career waiting for the moment that I could do a degree devoted to my one subject, then I did a PhD  in it because I Just Needed More. For me, that subject framed my everything. You couldn’t understand me, couldn’t connect with me, couldn’t enjoy my company, unless you were willing to engage with me about this particular subject. Because I have the insight of this lived experience, I understand that my children have similarly consuming passions. And I know that just as I felt most loved, most competent, most alive, most connected, when someone invested in me by investing in my subject, so too do my children.

When I say that my subject is totally and completely unrelated to steam trains, war planes, the universe, and bats and zombies (my children’s areas of passion), I understate the distance between my children’s interests and my own. But just today, I have invested hours with my littlest guy investigating the differences between Megabats and Microbats, their anatomy, understanding echolocation, and exploring the unique quality of the membrane that makes bats’ wings so incredible. We talked. We researched. We watched YouTube videos together. We trawled the internet for every single bat plushie available online. We debated which would be best to go on his Christmas list. Maybe that doesn’t sound like play. But it was for him, and who am I to say otherwise? And at the end of the those hours together, he and I had shared something intense and exceptional and utterly delightful and enjoyable. We shared companionship and friendship and love. And he was so generous with his passion, his enthusiasm, his pleasure. For those precious hours, when it was just him and me, with no jobs, no motives, no goals, we could just appreciate each other’s company and love. We could enjoy each other.

Now don’t get me wrong. I still don’t find bats an especially compelling subject. I shall not dream about them tonight. But, well, it was fun learning about them today, partly because I loved seeing my son’s enjoyment, and partly because, to be honest, it was liberating just to be curious. My son’s passion was more than enough to ignite an eagerness in me to learn, to be educated. He made me a better person today, and certainly a more knowledgeable one. It’s not always that case that your children’s passions will excite you deeply. One of my children loved flicking light switches on and off. Another enjoyed watching the blades of fans rotate. There’s not as much there to interest my intellect. And yet, sharing in my children’s joy, recognising and being instrumental in their happiness, trying to see and to experience what they find compelling about these pursuits… well, that’s more than enough motivation, and reward, for me.

Which brings me neatly to something I’ve noticed since I spend more and more time investing in my children’s passions. For the longest time, I framed our interactions by using rewards. Rewards which accumulated over days and weeks to motivate my children to do the things that needed doing. Extrinsic motivation. Goal-driven motivation. What’s incredible to me is that as I have dedicated more and more of my time investing in my relationship with my boys (mostly, as I said, by engaging and playing with them around their areas of passion), I have noticed that rewards and extrinsic motivators have less and less currency in our house. Part of that decrease in rewards stems from the general increase in well-being and happiness that accompanies someone (i.e., me) valuing something of value to you (i.e., my kids’ passions). And part of it stems from our new (and I’m arguing, better) relationship. My kids come to eat dinner not because they necessarily want the dinner I’ve cooked, not because they don’t want to finish whatever they’re doing  at the moment before dinner, and not because I’ve offered them a tokenistic reward to do so, but because they actually enjoy spending time with me. And they know — really, properly know — that I enjoy spending time with them too. They know I will ask knowledgeable questions about their passions. They know that their preference for a topic of dinnertime conversation will not just be tolerated, but actively embraced. I am not resigned to engaging with them, I relish it.

Looking back, I am honest enough to realise that I often used rewards to abrogate my responsibility to establish meaningful relationships with my children. I rewarded them into compliance because I was too busy to dedicate the time to invest in building the relationship. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but the busyness of life trumped nurturing a reciprocal connection with my kids. But now, the relationships I carefully and consciously and continuously foster with my children has become their intrinsic motivation. They are loved, and they love, and it is joyful. For me. And for them. The attachments that I share with my children don’t negate every challenge, or provide solutions to every barrier we face. But those challenges and barriers are far less daunting now, because at the end of each day, I truly appreciate what wonderful humans my children are, and they appreciate that in themselves.

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