Fair, But Not Equal, Parenting
Our sons are two years apart in age, and our oldest was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 6. We have watched them both grow into pre-teens and teens and lived through the many phases of development that have brought us to the current ‘puberty stage.’ Developmental milestones were sometimes reached at the same time in our house, despite the two-year age difference. Sometimes the younger accomplished milestones before the older (riding a bike, tying his shoes). Both of our boys are competitive, and the added challenges of Asperger’s have always complicated stress levels and ability to cope with perceived injustices.
When they were younger, we always had to be sure there were an equal number of Christmas gifts under the tree. Their birthdays are six weeks apart, and we learned very early on that celebrating them at the same time saved a lot of tears and meltdowns. We cried over one present being smaller than another. We melted down over sharing toys. We were inconsolable over one toy breaking and brother’s identical toy being just fine. The amount of food on the dinner plate, the time spent playing with one parent or friend, the expectation of one having to complete a chore or homework before video games… the smallest issue would become an exploding volcano.
As our oldest son edged closer to puberty, he began to understand and accept that not everything needed to be equal. It wasn’t always easy, and it still isn’t. Finding out little brother had ice cream with mom is either met with ‘It’s okay, I had some yesterday’ or a furious demand for a trip to get ice cream NOW because ‘it’s not fair he gets something, and I don’t!’ The mental comprehension is there. Sometimes the hormones and rigidity, however, get in the way of the logic.
Now that both boys are working their way through puberty and the accompanying mood swings and quest for independence, some of the early challenges have subsided. We really don’t need to celebrate birthdays on the same day, and nobody will die if Johnny invites one to spend the night and doesn’t invite the other. We have spent a great deal of time energy shifting from an ‘equal’ to ‘fair’ mentality. Our biggest challenge, currently, involves behavioral expectations and consequences. Why do I have to go to my room for talking back to you when he just yelled at you for 10 minutes and you didn’t punish him at all (being a jerk vs. having a meltdown)? Why did he get 5 minutes more on Minecraft than I did (let’s not mention that yesterday you played an hour more than he did)? Yesterday when he unloaded the dishwasher there were fewer dishes (not true and, actually, irrelevant)!
Nothing will ever be equal, and we have moved away from trying to make that happen. Instead we try to make sure things are fair. We created a behavior contract for both boys that outlines expected and acceptable behaviors. They involve respect for selves, each other, parents, and teachers. The contract outlines the importance of daily chores and tasks that are necessary for our entire family. The document has had an unexpected bonus. Just as a daily schedule and routine are helpful for children with executive function deficits, the contract has worked in much the same way. “Have I had to ask you more than twice to unload the dishwasher? What does the contract say?” There are surprisingly few arguments because the contract is signed and understood as ‘law.’ The consequences of violating the contract are fair in that they offer repercussions and rewards that motivate each of them.
Parenting is never easy, particularly with the added challenges of having a child who is on the spectrum. We have realized, however, that changing our expectations and reactions have simplified and clarified how each person’s actions affect the family as a whole. Moving away from trying to make everything equal and instead focusing on fairness, we found the specific needs of each person are more easily addressed. The rollercoaster of hormones still wreaks havoc on any given day, but we find our family to be more grounded and able to manage unexpected stressors more easily.
About the Author
Tara O’Gorman, MSW, is an independent consultant and advocate for individuals and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and provides consulting for organizations working within the ASD community. She is a group facilitator for adolescents and young adults with ASD and is a proud mom to two sons, including an Asperger’s teenager.