parenting divergent kids

One of the challenges of living with neurodivergent kids can be communication - not always, but especially for parents who are more extroverted it can be hard to know how to connect, because you're wired more heavily toward social cues so you tend to miss other kinds of cues. It's often easier when parents are neurodivergent too - although you may have to recover from the messages that there's something "wrong" with you! In any case, it can help to remember that communication starts with observation - looking and listening... by which I mean Parents need to work harder at looking and listening, not that kids need to be taught more aggressively Notice where your kid's attention is and what their body language is telling you - are they relaxed and comfortable or focused and intent? Those are good things.... but if you're looking for social cues you might see those states as "zombie" and "scowling/angry"! It's common for parents to police social performance and in doing so shut down communication.

So learning to be still and quiet, to be sensitive to non-performance body language, to look for natural shifts in attention before interrupting, to be patient and give kids time to cogitate before responding... those will all help you have a better handle on what's going on with your kid. Unfortunately, those are all exactly the opposite of the kinds of parenting behaviors most of us have seen modeled - and other parents may well criticize you! Kids are "supposed" to respond - promptly and pleasantly - to adults When they don't, adults tend to take it personally and retaliate. So it can also help a whole lot to remember that thoughts and feelings aren't the same as performance! A person can feel respect or gratitude or kindness or care without being able to perform the necessary social cues to standard.

None of these things are limited to neurodivergent kids, btw. They're really variations on... well on good parenting in general. Listening to kids, striving to understand where they're coming from and taking their thoughts and feelings seriously matters with All children. Making it easier for kids to explore the world in ways that work for them is good for All children. It just doesn't always look like you expect it to

(When I was a kid and a teen, I remember being shouted at for taking too long to answer a question - usually not from teachers, but definitely my parents and from other teens. Working retail helped me learn to have a set of "stock" answers that I could just blurp out at people. Living with Mo, I've learned to wait as long as she needs and not expect a response in words. But I've also seen her practice greetings, conversations, rehearse pleasantries. Now that she's a teen she's not as obvious about it as when she was little, but there's a big difference when she gets even an hour's prep time before having to deal with someone new. The other day we had someone over to look at our cable internet, and I'm sure the cable guy didn't even think she was "shy" - she was able to step up and tell him what was going on better than her technologically backward parents )

therapy for divergent kids, or just let them be?

Rather than thinking "let them be" on the one hand and "therapy" on the other, it can help to think in terms of what you can do to make their lives easier right now - easier by their standards. That usually doesn't mean getting them to perform more neurotypcially, but rather embracing them as they are and looking for ways to improve their home environment and help them navigate the world to the extent they desire right now.

The idea of making things easier on kids can be kind of startling! The common parenting mythology is that kids need to be pushed "or they'll never do anything difficult" - and it's pure garbage If your kids play video games, then you've probably already Seen them work super hard, doing things that are tedious and difficult, to meet some rather esoteric goals. And that same drive will extend to other things when your kids are ready to do that - it just may not look like other kids, or be in lockstep with the standardized timetable.

Sometimes making things easier can mean looking for lessons or therapy - same as with adults! But often it means looking at the ways our expectations for kids don't line up with their real needs and wants and wishes, and looking for ways to adapt, ways to help them solve the problems They see.


Joy and food and relationships

What about fast food? Are you saying that your children dictate where you eat?

Ideally unschooling families aren't centered around power, they're centered around communication. And part of getting there can involve stepping away from power-loaded terminology like "dictate" or "in charge" since words like that can nudge our thoughts into more antagonistic modes of interaction.

The trick with communication is that it starts with listening and striving for understanding - and little kids mostly aren't wired for those parts. They grow into them, but in the meantime it's up to parents to model the important parts of communication - the listening and understanding parts. Ironically, conventional parenting works just the opposite because it IS centered around power. And in a power struggle, the person in power doesn't have to listen or understand. So adults tell and kids are expected to listen and learn - while holding out for the day when they'll be the grownups and not have to do that any more
That's the baggage most of us bring to parenting and need to deschool from as we work to decentralize power in our relationships.

Food is a big hot button topic for a lot of people because it's also tied up in power dynamics. The people in power get to choose the food, when and how it gets eaten, and by whom, and we'd all like it to be our "turn". Recognizing that we're coming from these kinds of expectations is often part of learning a better set of expectations, a better set of relationship skills.

Woven into all of this is the expectation that kids will and should learn what parents want them to learn - and while some kids do, the results are based more on the personality of the kid than anything else. Unschooling involves recognizing that personality matters in big ways and working with that - listening, striving to understand, and then adapting to each child's needs and interests and personality so that we can make it easier for them to explore the world in ways that work for them.

So from my longtime radical unschooling perspective the question: "[do] your children dictate where you eat?" doesn't make a lot of sense. I like my kids. I'm interested in them as people. I want to know that they like, what they want, what lights them up and brings them joy. If they want to eat out, I'm interested in the reasons for that! Maybe I'd like to eat out, too - especially as we've moved up the financial ladder to "working poor" from "dirt poor" it's been a wonderful luxury to go out to eat that we all appreciate sometimes. Maybe it's not in the budget, but what other options do we have? How can I ride this wave of joyful enthusiasm with my kid? What can I do to keep on making life sweeter and easier, richer and more wonderful for all of us? Sometimes it's a lot of work for me! That doesn't mean it can't be joyful work, lifting myself up with my own hands while I lift up my family, too.

That doesn't mean you always "have to" go out at the drop of a hint, though. What is it about eating out that your kids like? Can you provide more of it at home? Learn to make something similar? Or is it more that eating out feels better somehow - easier, less constrained, more special? How can you make home easier, less constrained, more special?
Sometimes the appeal in going out for fast food, in particular, is that it comes packaged. You get to unwrap it - like a present. And some little kids really get into that - one of mine did. And we were dead broke at the time - foodstamps broke. I couldn't even afford those individually wrapped crackers-and-cheese packets. So I made my own - made little portions of things and wrapped them up in leftover gift wrap. That was fun, and it made being painfully poor not so painful.

Sometimes what kids like about packaging or eating out is that the food is made to be attractive in some way - so use that, make food that's attractive to kids. Add colors, add sprinkles, cut things in fun ways, make shapes and characters, make toys a part of the presentation. I had a lot of resistance to that - old cultural scars of poverty and puritanism - but with a little shift in my thinking it was delightful to rediscover playing with food. It let me heal some of my own inner child as well as connect better with my kids to make preparing and eating food acts of joy and celebration.