Missed signals

My ten-year-old, whom I'd always thought of as cooperative, generous and thoughtful, was driving me crazy. He would hit upon a phrase that rubbed someone the wrong way and seem to delight in repeating it--over and over again. He would goad his older brother till he got a response--usually one that hurt--leaving me hard-pressed to know how to respond. What was going on for him? Why was he being so obnoxious?

The beginnings of an answer came when he started walking purposefully up to me, then turning around and waggling his butt vigorously in my direction. Asking him, in a somewhat bothered tone of voice, why he was doing that brought no useful response. Making a little game of it and telling him in playfully outraged tones that it was disgusting and gross caused him to smile delightedly, but not to stop. Finally I realized that this was not just an attempt to bother me, but some kind of a signal. He was looking for something. He was giving me a cue.

With that understanding (and remembering back to toddler days), it was easy to know what to do. The next time he waggled his butt in my direction I not only announced utter disgust as theatrically as I knew how, but then got up and made mock-threatening moves in his direction, saying that I was going to get him if he didn't stop right away. He squealed with delight and raced away. I followed, my yells of disgust mingling with his delighted laughter in the chase. Eventually I caught him and pummeled him lightly, while he laughed and laughed. So, this was what he was looking for!

I made a point of responding this way to every butt-waggle I could, and we must have run through that routine twenty times in the next three or four days. He ran and ran and laughed and laughed. And I chased and chased--and thought and thought. The problem was not the irritating content of the signal, but our misreading of it. He wasn't trying to bother us just for the sake of bothering us. He was trying to elicit a response that he could make use of to meet a real need. He wanted to be in contact, to have undivided attention, and to be able to run and laugh.

I knew this last year or two had been hard for him (and for me) as his earlier easy access to tears had gotten more blocked. Maybe this was his best shot at an alternative. He certainly came out of these laughing chases looser and more flexible and pleased with life, just as he used to do after a big cry. What a relief for all of us. I wondered how many signals had been sent and gone by unnoticed. Thank goodness I finally figured out this one.