Last week’s issue of U.S. 1 featured a father’s account of how he took on the school system to get proper treatment for his son’s nervous disorder, one that was terribly misdiagnosed. I took advantage of that cover story to tell my own, much less dramatic, story of how I intervened when some playground horseplay by one of my sons was misconstrued as a violent assault on another student. The lesson for me: It pays to know your kid and it pays to know what’s happening to them at school — in and out of the classroom.
This week I offer a postscript. I do so in part because it deals with another lingering bit of stereotyping in the school system, in part because it offers another positive reflection on the professionals who deal with our kids, and in part because it offers an anecdotal response to a question posed by several people commenting on last week’s cover story: Will the elementary school child in question be harmed by his story being told in public?
My postscript begins where last week’s column left off. By figuring out that my son’s “brutal assault” was in fact part of an ongoing game conducted — with great glee — by the kids in the playground during lunch recess, I was able to keep my kid from being committed to a regimen of psychotherapy.
But, as it turned out, my son ended up in psychotherapy anyhow — at the behest of his mother, my ex-wife. A word to the wise for divorced parents of school children — kids from a “broken” home are more likely than kids from a “nuclear” family to be on the radar for troubled behavior.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you read Rev. Peter K. Stimpson’s column on page 13 of this issue, you will note some of the difficulties children of divorce can experience. And if those difficulties are manifested at school, you want to hear about them. At that point your job as a single parent is to make sure the difficulty is real, not imagined, and that the response is appropriate, not hysterical.
One of the philosophical differences I had with my boys’ mother was over the use of counseling. Sure enough, when the school declined to pursue the counseling route to address my boy’s playground behavior, his mother followed up on her own, and arranged for counseling through Rev. Stimpson’s Trinity Counseling Service.
I was wary. My son, who could turn sullen at the suggestion of eating his broccoli, might put his act on for the counselor, triggering yet more counseling to get at the bottom of his disaffection. My son, who spent half of every week with me, reported glumly that he was still visiting the counselor. This went on for five or six weeks, with no end in sight.
What to do? Rather than arguing with the ex-wife, or with the therapist who would have no reason to believe either one of us over the other, I decided to treat it as a management problem. I sent a letter to the counselor, asking the following questions:
1.) Can you describe my son’s problem or condition that has created the need for this counseling?
2.) Have you detected any signs of progress toward remediation of this problem or condition?
3.) What kinds of behavior should we look for that would indicate improvement (or worsening) of this problem or condition?
4.) At what point might my son be deemed “cured” or at least capable of proceeding on his own without continued counseling?
5.) Given that my son spends 50 percent of his time each week at my house under my direct care, is there anything that I should know about the counseling process or about his condition?
6.) Are there any other issues I should be aware of?
A few days after delivering this letter, I received a call from the counselor: She saw no need to continue the counseling and would recommend that to the boy’s mother (who was paying the bill). I was heartened: I had heard horror stories of kids being trapped in counseling. Here was a person willing to give up her fee in response to an objective review.
So now the big question (and perhaps the most important part of this postscript): How did the kid weather the storm of being called out for “brutal” behavior and then being subjected to psychological counseling aimed at uncovering his inner most anxieties? How will the first grader featured in the “Inconvenient Child” story make out?
Based on my anecdotal experience, kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for. Notwithstanding the parental war in the background, both my kids today are cheerful young men who probably communicate as much as any college-age kids do with both their mother and their father (as well as with a lot of other adults). The sullen act stopped many years ago.
Back at the time of this maelstrom I must have been equally confident that my boy would escape unscathed. But my memory always benefits from a little collaboration. A few weeks ago I was rooting through a decade-old file to resolve a U.S. 1 tax question. I came across the letter to the psychologist, quoted above, and the following letter written by my barely 11-year-old son, applying for a summer academic program (having nothing to do with his earlier run-in with the school):
“I believe that I am summed up in a few words: Imaginative, happy-go-lucky, and thoughtful . . . Some people think that my parents’ divorce gave me some ‘deep-seated psychological problem,’ but people who know me know this isn’t true.
“I want to eventually write cut-scenes (like a little pre-designed movie to push the story along) for video games. I enjoy movies, but I like to interact with my entertainment more than just passively staring at a screen. I especially like action games, and having the ability to have the story be what I think is a great story would be amazing, not to mention fun to write.”
The kid’s awareness surprises me. His even-keeled response does not. The video game career has not panned out, of course, but I think he will do just fine in some other arena.