Any number of simple, day-to-day things are hard for Henry: new foods, new clothes, unfamiliar people and places, changes in the weather or our routine or the arrangement of the furniture. His frustration tolerance is low and his anxiety is high, and he overreacts to things that don’t register as important to the rest of us.
It’s just part of his quirkiness.
The combination of Henry’s anxiety and his inflexibility made the transition to middle school incredibly hard. Students at our school start changing classes in 6th grade, which means new teachers every period and the new responsibility of having the right books for the right class.
Last year, having to move from room to room while keeping track of his bag and his books and the various homework assignments from the different teachers nearly did Henry in. It was overwhelming and chaotic and he came home every day strung out and exhausted.
Middle school was a long time ago for me, but even 30-some years later, I am still acutely aware how hard it all was. Not only adjusting to harder classes and multiple teachers, but the drama and the politics and all the other things that are not actually school-related but that seem so much more important in the moment than a math test or an English paper. I was ready for that last year, for the social chaos, but on that front there was nothing but calm.
It was changing classes that got us.
I have a lot of days where Henry’s inability to do things the way other kids do them — or even just to do the things other kids do — makes my heart hurt. Henry is smart and funny and kind, but he can only successfully interact with people on his terms, never on theirs. He is unable to feign interest in things he just doesn’t care about, which is pretty much everything except video games and graphic novels, and he tends to talk too much (and too loud and too fast) about those things.
Henry is an outsider at school. He is friendly with a small group of really great kids, but he doesn’t have any real friends, kids he hangs out with and shares interests with. It’s just easier for him to do his own thing, ideally in our game room, where nothing every changes and he’s not anxious or worried.
But then Charlie started fifth grade and suddenly I was reliving my own middle school years, but this time with Instagram and texting as part of the picture. Keeping up with Charlie’s social life is a full-time job; fortunately, he hangs out with a good group of boys, kids I like and trust. He also knows that I read his texts and his emails and monitor his Instagram account almost obsessively. But still — the drama and social politics are exhausting, whether they’re happening in real life or on his idevice.
I’ve discovered recently that there’s a real benefit to having a kid who doesn’t engage with middle school drama — not because he chooses to avoid it, but because he just doesn’t realize it’s going on. Henry has no interest in social media; he only texts me, my husband, and his brother. He doesn’t have enough social connections to make social media work for him, and he’s fine with that.
He is also appalled at stories of kids his age misusing social media — to bully other kids or to talk about sex or just to be ugly in a public forum. He is a rules follower; if you’re not allowed to use certain language at school, why on earth, he asks, would it be ok to use it on Twitter? Especially if you knew that your teachers and other parents were following you? In his eyes, that’s just stupid, and a waste of time. And don’t even get him started on sexting — he’s pretty sure that’s something the adults made up because what kid his age does that??? (Which is exactly the attitude I want my 13-year-old to have, honestly.)
Also working in my favor is the fact that it doesn’t occur to Henry to be uncomfortable or embarrassed or self conscious about certain topics (or anything, really). He has no sense that some conversations are probably better suited for his father than for me; he will talk to me about his changing body, for example, even though I have reminded him, gently and repeatedly, that any specific questions about the male plumbing are better addressed by my husband. “But you know everything!” he will say, exasperated.
Henry is also compulsively honest. This week he got into trouble at school, for a fairly minor (in our book) thing, and has to write 500 sentences this weekend (Catholic school FTW!). The teacher didn’t call or email me; whatever happened was dealt with and is over. Henry could have written his sentences in secret and my husband and I would never have had to know about the incident. But that’s not how Henry’s mind works. If it happened, he has to tell us. Immediately and in great detail. Even if he was at fault or got into trouble.
Henry’s world is very small, and most of the time that makes me sad. But more and more this year, I am thankful for the things Henry is NOT doing, the things he could be doing if he were a different kid. I like to think that I’m ready to deal with the hard issues, but I’m also ok with the fact that, for my kid so, many things just aren’t issues at all. The same quirks that separate him from his peers are enabling him to enjoy his childhood, without worrying about grown up things like sex. Just for a start.