A Japanese proverb states, “One kind word can warm three winter months.” Given the winter we’re having in the midwestern United States, I wish this proverb were literally true. But as a metaphor, well, it works just fine.
Let me give you a bit of back story, first. On the autism internet forums, a recurring theme rears its ugly head far too frequently: mean strangers judging parents whose children have meltdowns in public. Many children with autism have major tantrums that result from an involuntary fear response to what typical people would see as a benign stimulus. Maybe it’s a noise that scares them, or a flash of red in their peripheral vision. Maybe it’s eye contact from a stranger or the flicker of fluorescent lights. Whatever sets them off, it’s not like they choose to pitch a fit. Their bodies flood with chemicals they can't control. They are terrified.
Unless the child is small enough to be safely removed to a private place, parents have to make sure he can’t injure himself and basically wait it out. A mom or dad can talk calmly, hold the child or sit near him, but most often, the tantrum will end more quickly if it’s completely ignored, especially if it is the result of sensory overload. Grabbing or yelling at the child just adds to his confusion and fear, and drags the tantrum out longer.
Often, however, strangers misunderstand what is going on. They think the parent ought to pick the child up off the ground, whack his butt, and ground him for a month. And sometimes people go beyond throwing dirty looks at the "brat" and his stupid parent; they actually throw hateful words instead. One mom, whose nonverbal, cognitively challenged son was melting down in the produce section of a grocery story, actually had a stranger yell at her: “You call yourself a mother! Your son is screaming and you’re doing NOTHING!” Of course the mom was doing nothing. That’s what worked with her son. When I read her story, I wanted to crawl through the internet, find her, and tell her to her face that she is a wonderful mother.
One afternoon last December, I was at Barnes and Noble (surprise!). The clerk behind the counter welcomed me as a regular customer and then glanced behind me and said, “Some parents are useless.” I looked over my shoulder and saw a man carrying a crying two-year-old girl through the store. Nothing unusual in that. She probably just needed a nap.
I turned back to the clerk, who said, with righteous indignation, “My children never behaved like that in public. They knew what would happen to them if they did!” I was stunned and wondered what she would think about some of the things we do with our children, both of whom had the bad manners to cry in public at the age of two.
As I walked to my car, feeling colder than the weather, I thought how terrible words are when they lack the warm breath of kindness. And I thought of Jesus’ words, “As you judge, so shall you be judged.”
That’s the scariest verse in the Bible.
A month ago, while I was sitting in the waiting room at Children’s Rehabilitation Clinic, a boy of about five or six melted down in a hard-core, violent tantrum. The father sat on the floor just a few feet from me and held his flailing son. Very calmly, he said, “I will hold you until you stop hurting yourself. Then I will let you go.” A speech therapist came out to get the boy for his session but after briefly attempting to redirect him, she and the father wisely decided to give him the day off. The therapist told the boy, “Since you’re upset today, we’ll just wait until next week. Okay? I hope you feel better soon.” She walked away, and the dad stood there for a few minutes over his son, who was now lying on the floor, spinning and moaning but no longer hurting himself.
The father knew, I’m sure, that any effort on his part to quiet or redirect his child would not work and might provoke worse behavior. He sat down next to me to wait it out.
Before my experience at Barnes and Noble, I would have said nothing, thinking that politely ignoring the situation was best. But since all the action had happened four feet in front of me and I could imagine how sad this father must be, I decided a kind word was in order. I glanced up at him and said, “Nicely handled.”
He looked at me like I was an alien from another planet. Then he said, astonished, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” Every time I think about his surprise, my heart breaks. Why should kindness surprise anyone? Is it such a rare commodity?
This Monday, I was in the waiting room again, and the father approached me. He thanked me for my kind words and introduced himself. We chatted for a bit. He is a mechanical engineer who lost his job a year ago. He’s building a wooden go-cart with his son and coaches him in soccer. He told me his son rarely has meltdowns like he had that day. I’m glad of that.
One kind word can warm three winter months.
Let’s all commit some global warming.
If you need a little inspiration, listen to the Youngbloods sing Get Together. Smile on your brother, indeed.