Leaving the Nest: On to First Grade

bike chain number one
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

Last month I was excited to find a note sent home in my daughter’s homework folder that she would be receiving an Outstanding Citizenship award, designated by her teacher, at the school’s monthly awards ceremony.  Now in another set of circumstances, that might have seemed a bit “ordinary” of an accomplishment to me, but for my daughter I know it represents a lot more.  In my previous Leaving the Nest post, I shared what a huge, and often scary transition mainstreaming can be for a special needs student and their family, as they leave the all-hands-on-deck support of a special education classroom to a general ed setting.  SDC preschool to kindergarten was a big change, and rough in spots, though with a lot of guidance between teacher and home, we made it across the finish line, at right where we needed to be – whew!  Kindergarten to first grade is perhaps just as big of a change.  The day is twice as long, staff and volunteers in the class about half, lunchtime included, recesses doubled (and on the “big kid” playground), and homework regular and required (including the debut of the dreaded spelling lists/tests).  By all means, so far, we are on track, and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.  Receiving this award indicates just how far my daughter has come in adapting and thriving in an often out-of-place world to her.  And despite how I or others might feel about these ceremonies, or the “safety” of a medal, I believe there is little safe or ordinary about what she had to overcome and accomplish over the past four years following her diagnosis.

New Risks

Academics – Fortunately, the actual work of the classroom has provided the most continuity for my daughter’s learning and progress.  The elementary grades do a nice job of overlapping and phasing in new content.  It’s been encouraging to see her reading improve, and how she’s gained the confidence to add writing to her already prolific drawing and create stories on her own.  Decoding newer words can still be a challenge (it involves a lot of sensory integration!), and she is definitely a visual/whole-word reader.  A weekly sharing page provides good, though sometimes tedious practice for her (and me) at home, as well as spelling lists and learning to use a dictionary.  Attending, or focusing attention in class has been a long running challenge, but my daughter continues to improve, and by the details she recounts to me of activities and her teacher’s anecdotes, I know she’s regularly checked-in.  Interestingly, the newer challenge has been “whole body listening”, showing others she’s engaged, and participating in discussions.  That’s a change from last year, where she couldn’t wait to share, use the teacher’s microphone, and yes, occasionally do things to seek negative attention!  For better or worse, it seems she’s become more self-conscious of what she says and presents.  It’s quite a balance for sure, but for an autism parent, just about any move towards being more socially aware is a welcome one.  My daughter also seems to have inherited my perfectionism, and I need to make an extra effort to assure (and model for) her that the process of learning is more important than avoiding mistakes.

Things Social – This is where I believe my daughter has taken the biggest risks of the year so far, and though she may not know it yet, strides.  I recall telling myself and others at the beginning of our journey, that more than anything else, I wanted her to have friends – a really good friend or two, the kind that would truly get to know and understand her and “have her back” when the going got tough.  Now I know that’s a tall order, for any person, but I believe relationships are the essence of life, and that a child living with disability craves connection just as much as anyone else.  One of the most heartbreaking things told with an autism diagnosis to a parent is that your kid will struggle with this basic human need.  We all require practice in having and being a good friend, but this can be especially true with the spectrum.  Mixed in with her therapies, my daughter has had to learn and refine everything from eye contact, to reading and responding to emotions, to conversation skills and turn taking, to now practicing more complex social interactions in a group setting.  She eventually took significant steps, first in connecting with extended family and her younger cousins, then with classmates in her special ed preschool, and on to a good buddy in her mainstream kindergarten.  Interestingly, her strongest or most confident connections to date had been with boys.  Then there was this year.  I credit much to her involvement (and great, intentional facilitation) in an all girls social skills group, but I’ve been thrilled to see my daughter become best friends with another girl in her class.  And this is a full-on friendship in the typical sense of the word – I know because I get an almost daily briefing from her in navigating the drama!  My daughter’s new BFF grew out of a small group of girls she began interacting with at recess, that shared an interest in finding bugs.  (She’s already a naturalist at heart, but we began welcoming more than a few beetles, ladybugs, and ladybug larvae specimens at home!)  “Cassie”, I’ll call her, has an especially big heart and personality, and took the initiative to “be friends”.  Now my daughter tends to be drawn to more laid back boys, and lead them, but also more assertive girls and follow them.  This relationship has been no exception, and her challenge has actually been being able to speak or stand up for her own interests and needs, and say “no” when warranted (those who know her would be surprised that she ever has a hard time saying no to someone!)  And so I get the ever frequent counsel session on “Cassie asked or told me to do this today – what can I do?”, as well as reports on “mean boys”, who’s friends with who, and other first grade happenings and mishaps.  Again, as draining as all these “teachable moments” can be (and I’m reminded of just how much there is to learn), for an autism parent it’s nothing short of thrilling to see my daughter now take these social roles head on.  I admire her resiliency, and hope she stays in the race (and Lord help us when middle school comes round!)


As the classic Newton theorized, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  I believe this sort of thinking might extend to coping with change and anxiety, such as what many on the autism spectrum are asked to do every day.  My daughter, especially in this first grade year so far, has shown remarkable ability to adapt and thrive in a general ed school setting, both inside and out of the classroom.  Receiving an outstanding citizenship medal is just one indication of this progress, and I am most certainly celebrating, however as her primary caregiver and therapy support, I am also aware of some of the costs.  Another dad I’ve gotten to know at my kids’ OT clinic mentioned a while back how his now 12 year-old son was doing great in school, but just fell apart, or de-stressed at home, and I think I’m witnessing the same thing with my daughter.  Her anxiety has spiked at home and in other less structured settings, particularly with needing to be in control of her space and belongings, handling unexpected problems, and testing limits.  In her own, sometimes teary eyed words, she’s told me “I like things staying the same!”  Having a curious and unpredictable-enough younger brother on the spectrum increases the likelihood of some challenges, and things are perhaps complicated (for everyone) by the loss of ABA support this past year.  My daughter’s room is her sacred space, and though I still have to remind her to close and lock it off from her sibling, we’ve been able to work out some compromises.  She can still save whatever odds and ends she feels the need to (everything from drawings to toy packaging), but she needs to safeguard them there.  She may have things in our shared space (living room, kitchen), but they might be moved or need to be cleaned up.  We’re staying the course and making some progress.  Her room had become a stockpile of immovable monuments, to the point where she couldn’t use her desk or chair anymore and changing bed sheets was a traumatic task, but I was super encouraged lately when she initiated a desire to clean up her work space, and is drawing there again instead of just the kitchen table.  She let me reorganize her closet to create a little hideout (every kid needs one!), and now she’s carrying out plans to tidy up other areas, and even throw or give things away.  The balance of coping may shift to something else, but for the moment I’ll take delight.

Far From Done

As I referenced the closing song from the Hairspray musical/movie in one of my first posts, “I know we’ve come so far, and we’ve got so far to go” – these words still capture my sentiment during this year and juncture.  Leaving the nest into a mainstreamed setting can be a thrilling journey, but it sure is a lot of work, and the to-do and try list seems never ending.  I am celebrating the tremendous growth, but the truth of the matter is that we’re still living with autism, and we still have significant challenges and delays to overcome or accommodate (recent comprehensive testing with her psychologist has identified at least some of these present and potential future needs).  My son in particular reminds me of the incredible work of therapy and intervention to be done, and we are quite far from being ready for mainstreaming.  The combination of my kids’ different needs has made for one of my most exhausting years, and I am now exploring the possibilities of childcare aid so that I can better focus my energies!  I think we all cherish success stories and milestones, but I will always know there is a backstory, written in less spectacular, but nonetheless important perseverance.  It’s always a delicate balance and walk.  On one leg I dance with joy, victory, and gratitude; on the other I attempt to move forward, anticipate the inevitable setbacks, but also reserve hope for future celebrations, both here and in our Home to come!

My Disney(land) Side

disneyland rivers
Rivers of America and Mark Twain Steamboat at the original Disneyland

It’s still known as “The Happiest Place on Earth”, though however subjective that description might sound, I believe it is certainly one of the most magical places around.  The original Disneyland (and a number of its Disney Park siblings) has been like an old friend to me, though if we were connected through Facebook today, our relationship status might have to be “it’s complicated”.  To be sure, this California classic has a fond place in my heart and memories.  Disneyland is Disney magic at its best – the uncanny ability to transport its guests to faraway worlds through a synergy of sight, sound, story, creative design, and meticulous production.  When I lived closer, I remember the thrill of being whisked away from a hot Orange County day, to the balmy jungle of Adventureland and the cool breezes of a New Orleans bayou.  Some time later, I remember walking into the newly opened Cars Land (in the Disney California Adventure park), after just re-watching the Pixar Cars movie, and literally feeling like I was walking into Radiator Springs – it was that good.  Disneyland has also been a place to experience with, and connect with family and friends over many years of my life.  As a kid, it was the place we managed and looked forward to visiting once a year, usually mixed in with visits to grandparents.  As a young adult, I had a rebirth as an Annual Pass holder, discovered a whole new world of casual, spontaneous visits, and grew some of my strongest friendships over relaxed meals and waits in line (yes, waits!)  Disneyland was my first big-deal date with my soon-to-be wife, and an Annual Pass my first big-deal gift to her (or so I think!)  I proposed to her under the disco ball of the now re-imagined Plaza Garden Stage, where we’ve danced to the swing bands (now the Fantasy Faire – so glad they kept room for the bands and dancing!)  (The big proposal, though not really a surprise at that point, came after a multi-land/park scavenger hunt I was able to execute with the help of friends)  We honeymooned in Disney World (my first visit there), celebrated our first anniversary on our first Disney cruise, and continued to hang out at our home park as a young married couple, often with fellow die-hard friends, getting in line for a last ride on Space Mountain before midnight closing, and grabbing dessert/coffee on Main Street until they shooed us out at 1 am.  When our new baby daughter was just shy of a month-old, we made our first visit as a young family, and have made countless other visits since, including adventures to Disney World and cruises.

Yes, we are, by definition at least, serious Disney destination fans, and have been quite fortunate to be able to live out these experiences!  On a deeper level, though, something has changed for me.  I’m just recently putting words to it, but I’m not quite the fan I used to be.  Disneyland is still a special place to me (and maybe even more so for my wife and kids), but it’s gotten more complex.  I still have my Disney(land) side (referencing a past ad campaign), but I’m living in a bit of a “post-Disney” world, at least for the moment.  Here’s what I believe has happened, or is happening during this detour…

Saturation.  Disney has got to be the ultimate brand.  Like Coca-Cola, it’s become ubiquitous.  I don’t recall it being that way not too long ago.  As a kid, there were Disney movies, Disneyland/World, and a decent selection of Disney licensed toys and clothing (similar to other franchises).  Now it’s a media giant that includes Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, and ABC, six theme resorts around the world (three just in Asia), and a pipeline of merchandise, found in every major retailer, that rounds out the repertoire of every production.  Disney Parks are also a brand of sorts, and certainly culminate the ultimate Disney experience, executed in spotless fashion.  Looking at just the resort stores – at one time it was your basic character themed items, clothing, mouse ears, and souvenirs.  Now it’s an ever changing and diverse inventory that includes, of all things, turkey-leg and churro gear (from the beloved park snacks) – wow, what did they do with all of that store space back then?  Needless to say, I’ve become a bit saturated.  While there is still nothing quite like a Disneyland visit, I get so much Disney from the outside, that it warrants a break.

From escape to overtime.  Disneyland used to be my ultimate, accessible escape, and to be sure, the elements for it are still there.  Where else can you step into such an immersive world-away and story, within an hour of everyday, real life?  This is the essence of Disney Park magic, and if it can be appreciated by a grown-up, I think the experience is magnified for a child.  And I believe this hints at how things started to change for me.  I’ve had a friend or two tell me they’ve appreciated Disneyland more with their own or others kids, enjoying the wonder with which many little ones take it all in.  Having two kids on the autism spectrum has put a definite twist on things.  My daughter and son certainly love their Disneyland visits, as a whole at least, but it also exposes them to a host of challenges and triggers.  Disney Parks are perhaps the ultimate sensory feast, and for a child with sensory processing difficulties, this easily translates to overload.  There are also multiple transitions, waits, procedures, rules, and social and safety encounters – things we practice at home and in therapy settings, but here all in one place!  It’s a bit much for me too, and I can’t help but notice the constant buzz of people and activity, show production, and amped volume that must tax my kiddos’ buffers.  Adding my already everyday responsibilities as primary caregiver and parent therapist/interventionist, an escape to The Happiest Place can quickly feel more like overtime.  The inevitable anxieties and meltdowns aside, my daughter and son do quite well (with all of the practice!), though at least a few other autism families we know must think we’re crazy!  I might not be crazy, yet, though having gained my appreciation for Disneyland pre-parenthood and special needs, I can’t help but feel some of the magic has been lost.

Finding respite within the restlessness.  Given the new reality of things, my challenge now has been to recapture at least some of this lost magic.  Disneyland may no longer be the escape it was, but I’m having to believe I can still find respite within the restlessness.  To Disney’s credit, they are the champions of customer service and “Be Our Guest” culture, and despite the sensory tsunami that Disney Parks can be, they do much to accommodate their guests and families with disabilities.  We were fortunate to discover their DAS system pretty early on, and it has been a silver lining to the stress and feelings of isolation in helping our kids navigate a typical childhood experience.  On even the most crowded of days, we can now count on getting “return times” for our favorite rides, which basically allow us to fulfill our wait without having to physically be in line.  We can also “red tag” our stroller, giving it the same accessibility privileges as a wheelchair – this is especially helpful in keeping my son secure and regulated.  If you, or anyone in your family lives with disability, by all means check out this service!  We’ve also learned that it never hurts to ask – though there may not be official accommodations for some attractions, such as shows, Disney cast members (employees) seem to have sufficient flexibility to meet your needs (they want you to be happy!)  My accessibility dream would be for Disneyland to host a sensory friendly day or evening, with reduced volume and even quiet areas of the park (a number of movie theaters already have sensory friendly screenings).  They could even tack on a charity fundraiser.  I think the autism families would be lining up at the booths – any execs from Disney Parks reading this?

New happy places.  My current post-Disney paradigm has also led me to seek new “happy places”.  My favorite for the time has got to be the Huntington Library and Gardens, just a short drive from where we live.  This place has its unmistakable magic too, though it’s created through wonderfully landscaped eco-worlds, a tranquil and sensory-soothing environment, and curated art and culture.  It is, for me, the flip side of a Disney Park experience, and a true escape during this season of life.  I try to come here around once a week while the kids are in school, and often just sit with my Chromebook and a cup of coffee in the plaza or cafe before the gardens open, and then perhaps venture in for a casual walk, bit of reading in the grand library, or quick visit to one of the many galleries.  To boot, a family membership with nice benefits costs less than a single comparable Disneyland Annual Pass!  I know, the die-hard would argue it’s apples and oranges, but for now I’ll take the orange – or apple?  Even in the midst of an otherwise hectic Disneyland visit, I’m also being challenged to rediscover the “happy”.  Sometimes it might mean simply planning another visit without the kids, or when that’s too hard to come by, taking a sanity break on a bench, while my wife takes the kids on a couple of rides, and try to re-soak in some of the magic.

It is complicated.  Disneyland, you’ve been a wonderful and magical old friend, and you still do best what no one else can do.  Things have changed, but likely it’s not you, it’s me.  Life is more complex now, and for this season at least, our relationship might be more about passing a legacy and tradition on to another generation, while I seek calmer, much needed pastures.  Though it may continue to change, rest assured I still have my Disney(land) side!  Thanks for the memories, and being a catalyst in my life, and I’ll be seeing more of you.

Building My Support Team

achievement blur charity collaboration
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My daughter (and I) have now officially been exited from ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy services – no more sessions, no more consultations, nothing!  It’s been well timed with her longer school day this year, and though there is a great sense of accomplishment and freedom, it is still overwhelming for me, especially being the designated trained parent interventionist.  One of my biggest needs and goals has been to now build my “team” by equipping more family and friends to provide strategic support for the kids when we’re all together.  It’s quite a task, even as I’m working out my own skills, and requires a better understanding of roles and coaching.  My teaching, and engineering side likes to create tools, and so I put together a bit of a primer or how-to guide to break the ice (vetted now by a couple of our therapists and family members). (Excerpt below)  Every child, family, and parenting personality is unique, so this is just how I’m recruiting support into our particular situation.  And as I’ve mentioned in a previous post or two, my current strategies largely reflect our involvement in ABA (behavioral therapy), balanced a bit by Floortime/DIR (social-emotional development), so it is by no means intended to be exhaustive or conclusive, but a look at what becoming more involved in a kiddo’s autism interventions might be like.  Thanks again to Autism Spectrum Therapies and Professional Child Development Associates for equipping my foundations!

Family and Friends Support Guide

Thank you for your interest and willingness to be a behavior support for the kids!  Time spent with family and friends provides great opportunity for fun and social-emotional learning, however the new environments, and multiple peers, expectations, and adult authorities can contribute to challenges.  Having some knowledge and strategies beforehand can make a big difference.  Please feel free to ask questions at any time.

(Our kids’ names have been changed in the examples)

What are common functions of challenging behavior?

  • Attention: I want you to pay attention to me.
  • Access: I want something that may not be available, or need help.
  • Avoidance: I don’t want to do something you’ve asked of me, or that I’m supposed to be doing.
  • Sensory: I need to meet my sensory needs or cravings.
  • Complex: I have a mix of the above needs.

A key is to not provide attention, access, or escape (avoidance) until the kids use or are redirected to a more appropriate behavior or initiation.

Use Antecedent Strategies Before Challenges Arise

  • Prime for changes and transitions: “This is what’s going to happen or what we’ll do, at such a time, what will be different, and what will happen after”
  • First/Then: First do this (less familiar/preferred thing), then you can do that (more familiar/preferred thing).
  • Choice Making (shared control): “Here are choices of things or activities you can do, how you can do them, or what you can be in charge of”
  • Environment: Arrange to reduce distractions, sensory overload, easy access to attention seeking behavior, easy access to unavailable items and activities, easy escape.
  • Non-Contingent Reinforcement: Provide an abundance of positive attention, access, or breaks in regular intervals, in absence of potential challenging behavior.

When a Behavioral Challenge Does Occur

  • Who’s in charge?  It’s best to have the one grown-up most involved to lead any response.  Fewer voices provides more clarity for the kids.
  • If in doubt about what to do, it’s ok and sometimes best to hold back, calmly observe for a bit, and “do nothing”.  This avoids reacting and unintended reinforcement.
  • If safety or access to something inappropriate is a concern, by all means block or redirect.  This is often best done with a non-verbal gesture or light physical prompt – calm, yet clear.
    Ex. Katy is wrestling Calvin and he’s crying (she knows he doesn’t like it): Calmly step in between them, with no eye contact or words to Katy, and help Calvin remove himself.
    Ex. Calvin is standing on an end table and rocking a lamp: Calmly take his hand, lead him down, and off to a better play activity or sensory outlet.
    Ex. Calvin keeps opening up the refrigerator to look for unavailable goodies: Calmly take his hand, lead him to a different area, and block entrance to the kitchen if possible.
  • If the kids are upset (dysregulated), it’s best to give them time and safe space to calm down, and validate how they’re feeling (“I can see you’re feeling ___, or really want ___”).  After calm, you can work on resolving the problem or issue.
    Ex. Calvin’s puzzle pieces don’t fit, and he starts screaming: “It looks like you’re really frustrated!  Let’s calm down first.”  After a moment of calm, “Do you want some help, or are you all done with this puzzle?”
  • If a behavior involves manners or inappropriate verbal/physical communication, you can begin to redirect by calmly saying “Try again or try better.  What can you say/do instead?”  Prompt if needed: “You can say/do ___ instead.”  Reinforce when ready: “Thank you, much better!  Now you can ___”
    Ex. Katy finishes a snack, hands you the wrapper, and demands “Throw it away!”: Pause, then calmly say “Try more polite.”  Prompt if needed, “You can say ‘Can you please throw this away for me?’”  Once she does, “Thank you, much better!  There’s a trash can over here.”
    Ex. Eddie accidentally knocks over part of a block castle Katy is building, and she yells “Hey, you can never do that!”, and proceeds to push him away: Observe for a bit, then calmly say “I see you’re upset, but try telling Eddie using polite words.”  Prompt if needed, “You can say ‘You knocked over my blocks – can you please be careful?’  If he doesn’t listen, come get me for help.”
  • When possible, let the kids’ peers provide social input/feedback.  Support as needed: “It looks like ___ really wants to play, or has an idea”, “It looks like ___ doesn’t want or like that, or is feeling ___”, “How would you feel if ___?”, “What can you do?”
    Ex. Katy is tickling Annie and she says “Stop”, but Katy giggles and continues: Observe for a bit, then calmly say “It looks like Annie doesn’t like that.  What should you do?”  Prompt and block the tickling if needed. “How would you feel if someone was bothering you and didn’t stop?”
  • If a behavior is obviously for (negative) attention, it’s best to pay no attention (no eye contact, talk, physical contact) until he/she redirects to something appropriate – then reinforce with positive attention!
    Ex. Katy climbs behind you on a chair, starts playing with your hair, and makes comments about underwear (she knows it’s not appropriate): Wait it out, avoiding eye contact, words, and physical contact.  If needed, stand up and move.  When she gets your attention in a polite way, enthusiastically reinforce “Thanks for gently tapping my shoulder!  What do you need?”
  • Keep your requests and rules simple, clear, and limited to essentials you’re willing to follow through on.  It’s much better to be consistent than exhaustive!  If not mandatory, begin a request with “You can …” vs. a directive.  Use positive language: “Please ___” vs. “No ___”
    Ex. “Times up – we need to leave the playroom now.  You can put your shoes on by yourself, or I can help you.”
    “You can use the potty here.  If not, you’ll need to wait until we get home.”
    “Please use a quieter voice.  Please walk in the hallway.  Let’s leave the blinds alone.”
  • No strategy or implementation is perfect.  If something doesn’t work out, keep trying – there will be another opportunity!

Some of Our Basic Rules and Expectations for the Kids  (for your reference)

  • Use a calm voice and polite words when talking to someone.
  • Have calm hands and body around other people.
  • Give other people personal space (arms length) until they invite me closer.
  • Ask before touching or using someone else’s things.
  • Ask for help before doing something too hard or not safe to do by myself.
  • In a public place, stay close enough to Mom or Dad that they can always see me.
  • Wait for Mom or Dad’s ok before conversing with a stranger (beyond “Hi” or a wave) or accepting anything from them.
  • Basic consequence: If I choose something not safe or polite, Mom, Dad, or another grown-up will need to help me make a better choice.

You may be thinking, these are things my kids do too, so why the extra focus?  Yes, our kids are still kids, and strategies you’re already using with your own are certainly helpful!  Keep in mind that with the autism spectrum, the behaviors tend to be more frequent, intense, and rigid, and some are just unique to the challenges.  Hence therapy provides the much needed practice and consistency to master vital skills and improve flexibility.

Thanks for taking a peek into my current world of parent intervention!  Simple and sane?  Complex and insane?  It can be either or both at times.  Providing a positive and caring environment for everyone should always be the goal, with the right balance of fun, freedom, choice, and comfort, with fairness, structure, consistency, and opportunity for growth.  Keeping things headed in the right direction overrides perfection!

The Other Side of the Moon

sky space moon astronomy
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s been a little over a year now since I started this blog!  One of my original intents was to provide a space to reflect on the significant changes, joys, and challenges that have graced my and my family’s lives to this point, and this format has proved to be an effective (and therapeutic) venue for just that.  And though it started as a bit of an experiment, it’s been encouraging to see those of you that have taken time to read and follow my posts (thank you!)

My personality and style tend to be very measured, and so my writing, even about sensitive topics such as disability, special needs parenting, education, and social norms gravitate towards balance, trying not to be overly pessimistic or optimistic.  And in particular, I think my fear of being too negative may obscure, at least at times, some of the harsher realities of work, struggle, and even gain that may not otherwise be obvious.  It’s kind of like the moon.  As a casual astronomer, I’ve learned there is a side of Earth’s own satellite that consistently faces us, and is illuminated by the sun to varying degrees at night.  There is also a “dark side of the moon”, that only astronauts have viewed firsthand.  It’s not that this side really experiences perpetual darkness.  It gets as much light as the moon we know – we just don’t get to see it from our perspective.  And so there are spaces in my current life and experience that are as real and bright to me as day, and sometimes as dark as night, but remain largely unknown to others unless I take them there.

So I’ll attempt to journey a bit from the usual!  To be sure, I am blessed beyond measure because I now know my Creator, who loves me, has redeemed me from my imperfections, and will work all things for good according to His purposes.  He’s guaranteed a finish to the race, as long as it may seem, with certain victory at the end!  And although I now have access to the faith to rise above my circumstances, they are still as real as the other side of the moon – being a stay-at-home, special needs (times two), recovering passive-aggressive, dad has been the most challenging assignment of my life to date.  Here are some of the tougher, often hidden realities that still have my attention and keep me in the fight…

The grief of lost dreams and expectations.  “This isn’t what I signed up for!” still enters my thoughts from time to time, and I suppose it always will.  Having a child (or children) with a disability is a major life change and literally rewrites the books, at least when it comes to those baby/toddler guides and milestones charts that my wife and I have had to retire.  There is still a sense of loss and accompanying grief when I look at other families and think about what might have been, what we all expect or dream about to some degree when starting out.  The spontaneity of our days, casual play dates in the park, and extracurriculars have been replaced with predictable schedules, hours of therapy/intervention, and social skills groups.  It’s by no means bad – my life has more purpose and beauty than I could have imagined – it’s just different.  Emily Perl Kingsley still captures this best for me in her classic and moving poem/essay Welcome to Holland (I just learned she was a writer for Sesame Street – how cool).  “Holland” (my new reality) is a wonderful place, but the pain of losing something never goes away, and it helps for others to recognize that.

The “invisible” disability.  Every disability has its unique challenges and silver linings, though a developmental disability such as autism can be particularly frustrating.  Because there are no physical markers – just behavioral, my kids’ needs for accommodation or even understanding can go unrecognized and unmet.  My daughter might be written off as being “unruly” or “rude”.  My son might be seen as extra “immature” or labeled a “baby” by his typical peers.  And then there are the occasional looks that I can’t help but perceive as “Do something about your kids, Dad!”  I am a big proponent of inclusion, but sometimes I just want to put a t-shirt on them that says “I have autism and am working really hard here – please be patient with me!” (they really make such things).  It’s a perfect opportunity to develop a thicker skin, solidify who I am/we are, and love on my kiddos, but I’ve got a ways to go.  I treasure the therapy community, special ed classroom, and special needs ministries because they provide incredible refuge and support, but the “real world” is still the goal.  My daughter’s mainstreaming in school has been a huge step, but extra stressful as the labels have been largely taken off and expectations raised – she is my invisible superhero, and I have reason to celebrate things that may seem quite ordinary to others.

The not-so-invisible disability.  While my kids’ diagnoses may go largely unnoticed by strangers and acquaintances, and for moments even by close friends and family, they are a constant reality for me as a stay-at-home dad, primary caregiver, and parent therapist/interventionist.  And while I do get to spend the most time with them, deeply understand their needs and work to be done, and witness their growth, I also get the lion’s share of priming, prompting, redirections, conversations, on-duty meals, school business, homework, appointment logistics, teacher/therapist communications, and yes, the inevitable meltdowns.  Too much of a good thing really isn’t so good, and it can literally run me dry and drain my joy.  It makes my quest to set boundaries, and seek regular rest and retreat all that more crucial (still working on this too!)  What’s not-so-invisible to me can often be at odds with what others see, or aren’t able to fully acknowledge or understand yet.  I truly believe folks mean to be caring and supportive (I was in their place before too), but when they see my kiddos mostly at their best, their well-intentioned “They seem just fine”, interpretation of challenges as something “all kids do”, or discounting of their intervention needs (or accompanying programs and strategies) can be a blow to all of our hard work and struggle behind the scenes.  It’s almost as if others want to protect me from any stigma – an autism diagnosis can indeed be hard to accept.  I have accepted it, though, and am learning to embrace it as a valuable lifelong part of who my kids are, and a means to help them reach their fullest potential.  I just long for others to stand with me in that truth!

My not-so-visible work life.  I used to believe teaching was one of the hardest, most under-appreciated jobs on the planet, but now I know parenting, and stay-at-home parenting easily top that.  I think most careers and work are understood by their focus, but the huge scope of stay-at-home parenting is difficult for many to grasp.  My roles and responsibilities are all over the place!  I believe it can be particularly challenging as a stay-at-home dad, and from a cultural tradition that still has some rigid expectations for males.  I’ve experienced many an awkward pause after a conversation moves to “So what do you do (for work)?”  And then there’s the isolation – stay-at-home moms often have their mom groups and informal support networks, but there seems quite a void for dads, even in this day and age.  Despite these challenges, my mind is learning to grasp how my current roles are indeed “work”, and jobs I can take pride in (my physical tiredness already knows it!)  I am still a teacher to my kids and family, in every sense of the word.  I am also a developing and practicing parent therapist, interventionist, home maintenance technician, custodian, homework tutor, chef, barista, and Uber/Lyft driver.  My own therapist/coach tells me to call myself a “home executive” – I’ll take it.

The end of innocence.  For every major (grownup) season of life, whether it be college/career, single young adulthood, newlywed, or even new parent, there seems to be a honeymoon period (however brief) where the wonder, energy, and patience are abundant.  Then the realities and work of maturity set in, and while authentic joy is still to be had, it must be maintained through faith and perseverance.  Roles and responsibilities seem to accumulate with age, and the costs of not fully owning up to them greater.  Add to that a significant challenge such as career/financial hardship, illness, or disability, and the stakes of spiraling desperation can be devastating.  In my younger, more innocent years, there were tragic outcomes I could barely understand by name – depression, addiction, emotional and physical abuse, divorce, suicide.  And while I would never welcome these things into my or my family’s lives, I now get how they can happen.  Innocence is a good thing – it provides the safety to learn and grow.  But then we are called to be watchers and guardians against the “thief” who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10 NIV).  And though innocence may have passed, I have to believe the rewards of a ready defense and offense are unmatchable.

The open and winding road.  I’m reminded of the “long and winding road” from the famous Beatles song, though in my case I would add the word “open”.  An open road can be exciting, like a college road trip, where you’re not quite sure where you’re going, or what you’ll do there, but welcome it anyway!  In my older, less innocent (and hopefully more mature) years, I long for more certainty, so I can plan and make sure everything needed will be in place.  Having a child with autism can really challenge this, as long term outcomes are so unpredictable.  The spectrum is just too diverse, and at this point research just doesn’t appear to have a lot of data (my kids are part of the data).  This openness can fuel hope to keep moving forward and try new things – therapies, strategies, activities, but it’s hard to know when to stop, or even slow down.  My daughter, in particular, keeps breaking the mold, and I have every expectation that she will grow to be a fully independent woman, sustain a career that utilizes her talents, have quality relationships, and impact her world.  I’m just not wholly there yet with my son, as his needs are currently greater, and though I believe he will become a solid young man, I also have to accept that he may need my wife’s and my close support for the rest of our lives – and then?  This is the future I once took for granted, but not any more.  The road remains open, and keeps hope on its toes!

Pressing On

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  – Philippians 3:12-14 NIV

This is still one of my favorite, most motivating passages in the Bible, and it has withstood the test of time.  Life really is about the journey, but also the promise at the end.  For there, every hardship will be redeemed, all hidden things made known, and faith and perseverance not disappoint.  Thanks so much for journeying with me here on A Work in Process!

Borrego Springs R&R – Fall 2018

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Nightscape and fall Milky Way over Borrego Springs, CA

Growing up, much of my connection with the Great Outdoors involved the mountains of the Sierra Nevada – family camping trips, snow play, the Scouts.  Then during my college and young adult years, I discovered the wonders of the desert and formed a lasting bond.  I love the mountains for sure, but there is something peaceful and gripping about an arid landscape, where there is much beauty to be discovered, sometimes beneath, and sometimes because of its simplicity.  This continues to unfold in my current season of life.  Deserts are often used as metaphor for challenging times, though like the desert, I truly believe authentic beauty and purpose rise from the sands, valleys, and still nights.  And speaking of night, the breathtaking star-scapes draw me back time and again to places such as the Mojave National Preserve!

The fall star party hosted by the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy and Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers, and planned for October 6, had been postponed due to a park road closure.  Having already arranged time to attend this now tradition of mine, I thought of an alternative.  It had been over 20 years since I last visited beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the town of Borrego Springs in its center (both in San Diego County), and more recently learned they were favorites of stargazers due to their International Dark Sky Association certification efforts and convenient access.  The dark skies of the Mojave are hard to match, but it’s a trek to get there, and I longed to check out this “astronomers resort”.  Borrego Springs is no Palm Springs, but that’s part of its draw.  Lodging, food, (electricity, flush toilets), and Milky Way vistas – was it possible?  I had to check it out!

The internet led me to Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort at the edge of Borrego Springs, which actually hosts the popular Nightfall star party each fall – match!  I opted to book and stay in one of their “glamped” vintage Airstream trailers, another dream of mine.  And so I headed out on a late Friday afternoon, waded through L.A. traffic, and carefully navigated the long stretches of backcountry highway.  The skies truly became dark as I climbed and descended twisty, narrow grades, and entered the vast Borrego Valley.  And then I arrived at Palm Canyon, stepped out of the car, and looked up.  My jaw (figuratively) dropped as I saw countless stars and a faint, but definite fall Milky Way – it was possible!

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Vintage 1962 Airstream trailer, “glamped” out

Living for a couple of days in a 1962 Airstream trailer was a blast.  It definitely had its vintage or aged elements, such as window cranks that no longer worked, but all of the right elements seemed nicely updated in glamp style – comfy queen bed, refurbished kitchenette, microwave, fridge, cable TV, glass bowl sink in full bathroom, strong A/C unit, ample electrical outlets, decked out patio, and plenty of charm.  The best part, though, was being able to step outside at moment’s notice, take in the awesome changing night sky, and retreat back to the comforts of home (no bundling up in sleeping bag required!)  I was able to set up my D3400 camera with Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8 lens at the edge of the campsite and try my usual astrophoto shots (20-30 second exposures).  There was more light pollution than the Mojave for sure, as I had to limit my ISO to 1600 to avoid overexposure, but I can’t complain.  Being able to see this many stars, the Andromeda galaxy, and Milky Way from a developed area is amazing to me!  (The spring/summer Milky Way would be more intense and colorful in photo by comparison)

I spent my daytime exploring the laid back, ultra low density town and area of Borrego Springs, wondering at its remoteness and how cool it would be to dark sky stargaze year round (though the summers are anything but cool!)  I included a visit to the famous underground visitor center just inside the surrounding Anza-Borrego State Park, the largest state park in California, a beautiful diverse desert environment, and reminiscent to me of a smaller Death Valley.  Anza-Borrego is a certified International Dark Sky Park, and Borrego Springs an International Dark Sky Community, due to their light pollution reduction efforts, so this area is truly an astronomer’s paradise.  These things aside, I simply loved being in such a simple, yet awe inspiring place, basking in the expanse of God’s creation, huddling in the comfort of my tiny Airstream home, and for moments unplugging from everything else.  I will definitely be back.

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Borrego Springs and Anza-Borrego vista from Palm Canyon Resort

Upping the (Coffee) Cup: Pulling My Shots

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DeLonghi EC155m Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine with Non-Pressurized Basket

It was time.  As a now verifiable coffee geek, I long ago retired my auto drip brewer and moved into the manual territory of whole bean grinding, pour-overs, and Aeropressed drinks.  Yes, I still have my K-cup machine for those mornings where there just isn’t time for anything else, but I’ll easily trade that for a fresh-ground, weighed, Kalita Wave (pour-over) brew when I do!  Being a home barista has become a hobby, passion, and practical retreat for me, though when I think of a typical cafe barista, it always includes the sights and sounds of a large shiny machine with knobs and pressure gauge, portafilter, and steam wand.  I love the intense, rich experience of espresso, but making such a drink myself has seemed out of reach, and not for the faint of heart or wallet.  (Starbucks wouldn’t be the giant it is without its espresso lineup, right?)  It would take baby steps then…  Fortunately, a good friend and founder/owner of the Copa Vida cafes handed down his DeLonghi Magnifica super-automatic machine for me to use (quite an honor from such a coffee aficionado!)  It was like a magical box in my kitchen, that just required beans and water, and dispensed shots of hot espresso at the push of a button, ready for mixing a tasty Americano or steaming milk for a latte (which admittedly isn’t that automatic).  I thoroughly enjoyed this piece of cafe paradise, but then it became a bit too predictable, a bit too safe.  I still longed to move into full barista-dom, learn to pull my own espresso shots, take some risks, and see what extra goodness I might be missing out on!  It was time for a semi-automatic machine and setup.

The Grinder

I need to start here, though admittedly I traded over my machine first!  Every coffee expert I’ve come across would likely advocate that a good burr coffee grinder is one of the most important investments in the craft.  Next to quality, fresh roasted beans, you just can’t expect much if the grinds aren’t controlled and consistent, even using hundreds of dollars of nice brew equipment.  This is especially true of espresso, where grind size is one of the critical variables in extracting a good shot.  I love my Baratza Encore – it’s a solid workhorse, a great value, and one of the undisputed winners in serious entry level grinding.  It’s transformed my pour-overs, however with only 40 grind click settings, it just doesn’t have enough precision to dial in espresso shots, at least with non-pressurized portafilter baskets – more on that later (my favorite coffee sites/channels, Seattle Coffee Gear and Whole Latte Love have some nice commentary on the Encore’s capabilities).  And so my continuing quest for value led me to the Breville lineup, first the Dose Control Pro and then ultimately its fancier sibling, the Smart Grinder Pro.  Breville engineers seem to have made a great entry into the coffee/espresso market, designing for solid performance and everyday usability.  At just about $200 (I know, but you can spend a lot more on a serious grinder!), it offers 60 grind click settings, programmable timed doses, a digital display, and cool extras such as a lock-off bean hopper (to easily remove unused beans), two magnetic portafilter holders, and a removable catch tray.  It’s not as powerful as the Encore, but easier on the ears, and more importantly delivers consistent fine grinds that are simple to adjust – so far a winner!

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Breville Smart Grinder Pro

The Machine

And now on to the better known part of the process, the semi-automatic espresso machine.  Compared to a fully or super-automatic maker that does just about everything for you with consistency, a semi-auto provides hot water, a pump, filter, and steam, and lets you control much of the rest.  I’m learning that espresso is a very exacting method of making coffee, largely because it happens so fast (less than 30 seconds) and leaves little room for error.  The key element is probably pressure (espresso), and done right, results in a taste like no other!  Given the hot water pumped from any espresso machine, this pressure is typically created by resistance from the coffee (in a removable portafilter) of a certain dose (amount), grind size, and tamp (packing).  Setting and controlling these variables is critical, and generally you know you’ve got a good setup if you can pull a 2 to 2.5 oz double shot of espresso in about 20 to 25 seconds.  If the flow is too fast, the dose can be increased, grind made (dialed in) finer, or tamp force increased, and vice-versa.  So why not have a super-auto machine do all of this for you?  I guess it’s a matter of preference.  Convenience and consistency often come at the cost of some quality and control of your product.  Taste and recipe are also subjective.  Prepackaged food and beverages can be good, but there’s always the allure and adventure of making them better!

As with grinders, there are many decent espresso makers to choose from, and many price points.  Machines such as the Gaggia Classic and Rancilio Silvia are hailed as serious entry level contenders, but those will set you back about $400 and $700.  Not ready for that type of investment yet, I had been curious about the DeLonghi EC155 (currently EC155m).  At just a tad under $100, it’s been in the stock of many retailers for a while, and has gained a best-bang-for-the-buck reputation.  It’s small and basic, but sports quality elements such as a single stainless steel boiler, has a strong following in the hack and modification community, and most importantly is capable of good espresso.  Being a value (or cheap) minded coffee geek myself, it seemed like a low risk no-brainer, and so I picked one up from my local Target.  So far, about a month in, it’s been fun and overall worth retiring the Magnifica to a new home.  And the drinks, at least more often than not, have been tastier or at least harder earned!  Here are the details of my current setup:  Special thanks to great online resources such as the coffegeek.com forum, Ethan Zonca’s Delonghi EC155 Resources, and 101coffeemachines.info.

  • Portafilter: This is the component of the EC155 that appears to be most often hacked or modified.  Like many entry level espresso machines, the stock model comes with pressurized portafilter baskets.  This is a bit of an automatic function that only releases coffee when a minimum pressure is reached.  It more or less guarantees a drinkable espresso, but takes importance away from grind size and tamp typically used to control this, and optimal extraction.  A pressurized basket is kind of like a set of training wheels, and most experts would probably say keeps you from making true espresso.  So off with the wheels!  The simplest de-pressurization hack from the community seems to be removing the pressure release valve, and so I purchased an extra double basket and popped this section out.  The other popular modification is to replace the whole basket with a same diameter DeLonghi or other manufacturer part – most seem to require removing or cutting part of the bottom of the portafilter holder off.  Hmm… too much.  While getting tastier results using the de-pressurized filter, I had discovered the 101coffeemachines blog and existence of a European version of the EC155, the EC145 that comes stock with a non-pressurized basket!  I needed to order this basket from the U.K. via eBay, but was thrilled to discover it fit in my portafilter perfectly – no mods!  So how has it been without the training wheels?  I definitely had to decrease my grind size (currently at 20 on the Smart Grinder) and increase to a moderate tamp pressure to slow the extraction.  I’m still learning to keep things consistent, but the drinks have been decent – maybe not as much crema, but real crema, and a handmade “essence” that just makes them better and pulling the shots more enjoyable!
  • Tamper: This simple tool used to uniformly pack ground coffee into the portafilter basket is perhaps the hallmark of a barista and most “manual” part of espresso preparation.  The EC155 includes a built-in tamping device near the brew head, but it really can’t provide the control and consistency needed for a non-pressurized setup.  I’m currently using a BlueSnail 51 mm Stainless Steel Coffee Tamper from Amazon.  30 pounds of force is the more-or-less standard, but I’ve been using a more moderate amount, followed by a short twist to get that polished puck surface.  Consistency, along with grind, is more key!
  • Steam wand: The one main drawback to the EC155 seems to be its steam wand.  It’s just too short (on an already short machine), has limited range of motion, and working a pitcher underneath it can be a chore.  The wand also has a stock plastic panarello tip, which “auto-froths” or injects extra air into your milk via holes on top.  This might work well for a foamy cappuccino, but getting micro-foam for a latte difficult.  A manual, single hole tip is preferable, but unfortunately not a ready option.  The easiest hack I’ve learned of is to plug the holes with toothpicks, and it does help decrease the foaming.  I also tried a recommended La Pavoni single hole tip from Orphan Espresso, with same M6 thread – it gave a nice steam output, but left the wand almost unusably short.  The all-in modification is to replace the whole arm with a Rancilio Silvia wand (the real deal), but requires some warranty-voiding tampering – too much at the moment!  And so I’m back to the stock panarello for now.  Some in the community have cut the shell off to reveal the basic tip, but I just don’t steam enough yet for any other such hacks.  It’s still a great little machine for 100 bucks!
  • Coffee beans: As with my pour-overs, I continued my search for good, fresh roasted beans and hit a nice spot.  Jones Coffee Roasters, not too far from where I live, has a laid back cafe and on-site roastery where I can buy roasts as fresh as that day!  I’ve become a fan of their staple Madison blend for brewing, and now JC Espresso blend for my shots.  I’m still on the lookout for new discoveries, but for now it’s closed a nice circle to my semi-automatic conversion.

Pulling my own shots has been a blast so far.  I’m feeling a bit more like my imagined barista, and sense just how much more there is to learn and try.  The quest and adventure continues.

The Power (and Challenge) of Validation

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
– John 11:33-36 (NIV)

John 11:35, famously the shortest verse in the Bible, is just two words long, “Jesus wept”, but the more I’ve understood it, I can see how it speaks volumes.  Jesus, the Son of God, left His rightful and perfect place in heaven, to walk among man and woman, experience the extent of their joy and suffering, proclaim God’s love and heart for reconciliation, and then pay for that reconciliation by taking on (and conquering!) our ultimate pain – death.  Those two words show how Jesus didn’t sacrifice His life blindly – He took the time to understand and feel what a fallen and imperfect world can be like.  Though He had every intention of raising Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from tragic death, He first took time to mourn and really identify with their sorrow, to validate it.  (I think it made the miracle to follow that much more powerful)  I often forget that this is the heart of God!  It’s the gospel message in a nugget – not just moving, but revolutionary.

This is in some ways a difficult post to write.  As I’ve moved through various chapters of life, from child, to young adult, to husband, to dad, to now special needs parent, I’m seeing and believing more and more in the power of validation, or of understanding and being understood.  I think the latter is easy to grasp.  We all want our experiences, issues, perspectives, and accompanying feelings (highs and lows) to be heard and acknowledged, at least whatever we’re willing to share.  The former, understanding, can be much, much harder for me to live out, even as my heart wants to.  It requires a level of empathy, something more on my mind these days as a purported “deficit” of autism.  My kiddos do struggle with this in significant ways, though I believe empathy doesn’t come easy to anyone.  It requires a measure of selflessness, something I believe must be learned and practiced to be real.

I Think it’s Ok…

I think it’s ok to start with wanting to be understood, feel validated, and just feel safe to feel.  Because empathy is so others-focused, it’s probably difficult to really develop unless you’ve been on the receiving end.  The Bible speaks of this in terms of God, the ultimate source of our being loved – We love because he first loved us. – 1 John 4:19 (NIV)  Especially in this current season of life, with the realities of stay-at-home parenting and living with special needs, oh how I value being understood!  It’s not that others don’t care – they certainly do, and have been wonderful in coming alongside our family.  I believe the particular challenge of validation is that it requires stopping short of solving, normalizing, or even enabling someone’s problem.  When I share about a difficult experience, I’m not necessarily looking for a “Why don’t you try …”, “I know what you mean – we all …”, or “Things will be just fine”.  I’m simply longing for someone to listen, without judgment or condition, and validate that they hear me – “Thanks for sharing that”, “I can see it must be tough”, “How can I support you?”, or even “I think you’re doing a good job”.  I guess it’s not so simple, and I know I’ve struggled in my attempts to be understanding plenty!  But at least now I have a better grasp of the care and support I want to be able to offer to others.  And when I do get to be on the receiving end, it’s indeed golden!

Safety and Empowerment to Grow

Even though I’m becoming well acquainted with the power of being understood or validated, it’s been quite a different and difficult journey the other way around, particularly in this season of life.  Why is it so challenging to offer these things to others, when I know firsthand how empowering they can be?  I think at least part of it has to do with my own internal condition.  Parts of me are still in crisis mode.  Parts of me are still having to be broken and remade.  Parts of me are still healing.  Parts of me are still learning to be accepted and loved unconditionally, and even own certain emotions.  Parts of me are just too self-absorbed right now.  My mind is learning more and more about what I need and want to extend to others in my life, but it can be a long path to my actions, and these things definitely get in the way!  Here then, is some of what’s on my mind, and in my “heart’s queue”.

  • Loving my wife: I don’t think marriage was ever meant to be easy, but there is perhaps nothing as beautiful as the joining and partnering of two different lives together in mutual, selfless love.  The selfless part is indeed hard, and I’m seeing more and more how God intended marriage to develop our character to the deepest levels, and how it’s often compared in the Bible to the relationship between Christ and the church – mutual submission!  I think the truest test of this relationship comes through challenging circumstances, such as living with disability (we’ve heard staggering statistics), and it’s no wonder that the psychologist who diagnosed my daughter also recommended that my wife and I seek counseling, which we eventually did.  With my wife as primary income earner, and me as primary caregiver, the buffer of stress, “I needs”, and “I wishes” fills quickly, and we both want to unload and seek refuge.  It’s uncovered many unpleasant tendencies, such as my need to “fix” things quickly, suppress negative emotions, and respond to conflict in passive-aggressive ways.  In addition to learning more healthy patterns, I’m realizing how often being a better listener plays a part.  Without discounting my own perspectives and needs, my wife often just wants me to hear her at the end of a stressful moment or day, not offer a solution or worse, deflection.  Even if there were a solution, a validating “I hear you”, “That must be tough”, and “I love and support you” communicate the necessary care and safety for that to be realized.
  • Empowering my kids: If God intended marriage to develop our character, then having kids certainly puts it to the grindstone and refines it further!  I think a major challenge of raising kids is that it requires a lot of balance between extremes, and there’s rarely an ideal path between them, as every kid and situation is a bit different (not easy for an idealist and perfectionist like myself!)  Current parenting wisdom has advocated the assertive approach, a balance between being too authoritarian or permissive.  I think it is indeed hard to provide consistent structure and limits, while also providing your child freedom and individuality, and it’s easy enough to swing one way or the other.  Even in the midst of a challenging intervention or redirection, though, there is great power in first validating how a kiddo feels about what is happening.  As with grown-ups too, there is something wonderfully diffusing about doing this, and it provides the safety to problem solve or correct course – “Your feelings are legitimate, even if they seem out of sorts to me right now”, “It’s ok to feel angry, frustrated, sad, anxious, or excited”, “I’m here for you, no matter what”.  (The Floortime/DIR programs my kids are involved in have provided great examples of referencing and validating their emotions in a variety of contexts)  Why can this be so difficult for me to do?  Again, I think it comes down to a delicate balance – hearing strong emotions without taking things personally, practicing empathy with objectivity, being a compassionate leader (like Jesus, yes?)  My kiddos struggle enough with these things on their own – validation provides them the vital models and safety to grow.
  • Hearing others: What about other people, including those I don’t know, yet come across in daily life?  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I struggle with being too self-conscious, and it’s particularly challenging anticipating and dealing with negative emotions – yes, even from complete strangers.  The guy that honks at me because I’m taking too long to make a turn, or flips me off as they pass me, can literally spoil part of my day, largely because I take things personally that I really shouldn’t.  I think the key is to validate or let others feel the way they do, without making their problems my own.  Sure, if I share some fault in the matter, I should graciously own up to it, but I also need to have boundaries.  I can be empathetic, or at least acknowledge that someone is having a bad day or angry/impatient moment, but I need to let them own and work that out.
  • Hearing myself: I think there’s good reason why I mention the practice of understanding first in the context of knowing what it’s like to be understood.  It’s difficult to acknowledge and validate emotions in others that I haven’t recognized and allowed myself to feel.  I’m realizing just how challenging it can be for me to be comfortable with a negative emotion such as anger in myself, hear its intended message before reacting, and then respond in helpful ways.  It’s no wonder then that I struggle with hearing and responding to negative emotions in others!  Just as I need to create safe space for others to feel, I need to create that safe space for myself, and that can take time, healing, and practice.

A Most Important Journey

I probably can’t emphasize enough how long I have to go on this journey of validation (this post seems like a long pep talk to myself!)  It is a most important journey, though, and I believe it starts with awareness of the work to be done and the growth to be had.  It takes uncovering and acknowledging my own emotions, while accepting the safety of being accepted and loved, ultimately from God’s first (unconditional) love, and then from trusted others.  It takes loving my wife through a listening ear and supportive words and action.  It takes empowering my kids by modeling and providing them the safety to grow in empathy.  It takes the grace and space for others to feel the way they do.  It takes support and counseling.  It takes understanding and being understood.  It will take a lifetime, though one worth the living.