Dalton pursed his lips and tapped them with the index finger on his hand. You could almost see the gears in his head spinning. He tightly held a quarter at his fingertips, moving it back and forth between the slots of two porcelain banks.
He had recently watched “Monsters University” with Amber, at the movie theatre. This sparked a new fascination with “Monsters Inc.” which he repeatedly asks to watch at home. Now, he was talking about monsters all the time. He wanted Monster books, Monster clothes, Monster action figures…Monster EVERYTHING. That is, until he was walking with his mom through the store and saw a large Monster stuffed animal. THAT was what he wanted.
Amber and I started to work with Dalton on the concept of accruing small rewards to a long-term end. We had utilized a sticker system with great success, but felt that this may be a good time to introduce money and the concept of saving for a goal. Dalton began officially saving to get a Monster. The rules were simple but following them wasn’t quite so easy. I would come home from work everyday and ask Amber if Dalton had been listening “the first time” that day. This was a subjective call, but her answer was the difference in him getting a quarter or having a stern discussion with daddy. He also had the opportunity to earn pennies, nickles, and dimes by going “above and beyond” in various ways throughout the day. You’ve never seen a child as happy as him, when he would get a quarter and put it in his monkey bank for storage. Soon, he claimed, he was going to buy a monster.
Before Dalton was born, expectations for him were set irrationally high. We only had Cailyn at the time and were focusing on how good it would be for her to have a brother. Amber and I discussed how having a (hopefully) typical child around the house could assist in modeling for Cailyn. We hoped he would help her become more social and that he would take an interest in being a friend and eventually an advocate for his sister. These, in hindsight, were lofty goals for a fetus.
After he was born and not long before his dedication ceremony, my dad asked me what I wanted for Dalton’s life. After writing all of my thoughts down, I read back through them, lowered my head in shame and erased it all. I realized that I was asking him to live his life for his sister. I preseted my thoughts to Amber before changing my approach. We decided that we most wanted Dalton to be independent and “not to be bound by our expectations.” My prayer was that my son would be free of obligations, but that he would have a sincere heart and allow himself to be led by that.
…And independent he would become. Dalton challenged us on nearly everything we asked of him. Many times, he refused to do things simply because we told him to do it. He’d scream, fight, and rebel over commands that seemed minute. He’d also obsess over completing tasks without help, trying fruitlessly for long periods to perform actions that were well out of expectations for his age. What was worse, we were struggling to find a good way to make an impact in discipline.
That is, until we took his stuffed dog away from him. We quickly learned that Dalton would get upset when we put his dog in the closet, because that meant the “Dog was sad.” We started getting a better reaction from him when we expressed sadness instead of anger as a disciplinary response. We also found that we could nicely ask him for almost anything he had and he would give it to us. Dalton’s independence, it would seem, was only surpassed by his empathy for others.
One day, Dalton and I had a very adult conversation about his sister, as we rode through in the car. I remember that he screamed at me for not giving him exactly what he wanted.
“Dalton,” I said “I’m not going to give you what you want when you scream. No screaming.”
“Sissy screams too.” Was his retort.
“Dalton. Sissy is different. She isn’t like other kids and she has different rules, sometimes. She is sensitive and when people scream, it makes her very sad. Do you understand?”
He subtly nodded his head and then looked out the window for a few minutes, before piping back up.
“Daddy, I scream and sissy cry. I want sissy happy.”
Dalton would come to learn and recognize many ways in which sissy was “different.” When she became upset, he discovered that she would respond better to him hugging her than to playing or talking. He began to freely give toys to her if she was crying or when she tried to grab for them. He patiently played her games, even when they didn’t always make sense. One day, I asked him if he was daddy’s boy and he calmly responded “I sissy’s boy.”
I’ve learned that these unselfish and loving responses to Cailyn aren’t unique. I’ve had many awe inducing moments as I’ve observed other children interacting with my daughter. One time, we were at a 5k run and I was watching our kids as Amber ran. All the other children were out running and playing soccer when a young boy stopped, turned to Cailyn and asked her to come play with him. For nearly a half hour, he ignored all of his friends in favor of including and entertaining her…yet he was the one with the biggest smile. I know his family and recognized that this was the fruit of discussions they’ve had and lessons he had been taught.
Every Sunday as church is ending, I walk back to Cailyn’s class and peek through the window. I like to see how she interacts with others when I’m not around. One day, I watched as she quickly ate her fruit snacks and then threw a fit because she had no more. The teacher did exactly what I would have done and began to explain that she had eaten all of them. Just as she began to calm down, one of the other kids waived their arm.
“Here Cailyn!” the four year old child exclaimed. “You can have one of mine.”
This set off a chain reaction of children offering Cailyn one of their fruit snacks. She went around the circle, from one preschooler to another, grabbing fruit snacks and popping them in her mouth. I stood there, mouth agape, and probably tearing up. As I took Cailyn away from class, I heard the usual choruses of “Goodbye Cailyn!” and watched as another girl told her mom “That is Cailyn. She’s my friend.” I know that these weren’t spontaneous acts of kindness, but blossomed seeds planted by teachers, who understand Autism and have made a point to translate this complicated concept into the language of children.
Although there are personality traits at work with these acts of kindness, the action is anything but random. In life, habits are formed through practice. Proper execution in any given moment is governed by preparation for the situation. Every night, I tell Dalton a story (or three) before bed. One way I prepare him for life, is through these tales. One of the most common stories goes something like this.
“One day, sissy was outside playing and other kids were being mean to her. They laughed at her and made her very sad.” Dalton is noticeably distraught by this part.
“THEN Dalton comes outside.” He smiles because he knows what is coming next.
“Dalton says, ‘Hey, don’t laugh at sissy! I love sissy and God loves sissy.’ This made sissy very happy, because she knew Dalton loved her. The kids even stopped teasing her. Dalton came inside and mommy and daddy were so proud of him, because he did the right thing and took care of Cailyn, even when the other kids were all being mean. The end.”
It’s amazing how proud Dalton is, for an action he has not yet had need to perform.
On this day, however, Dalton is at a crisis point. He has just discovered Cailyn has a coin bank too. Although She had broken her first one when we were trying to teach her to put change in it, she still has a small pair of porcelain baby shoes. For the most part, this bank is empty. Dalton asks us to bring it down and immediately notices the rattle of just one or two coins. Compared to his giant coin laden monkey, it’s a pathetic site.
“Clank!” The unmistakable sound of a large coin hitting the bare bottom of a bank. I look down to see Dalton’s empty hand still hovering over a small porcelain pair of pink shoes.
“I give quarter to sissy.” Dalton says with a big grin on his face. He jumps up, runs down the hall yelling “Mommy! I give quarter to sissy! Mommy! I give quarter to sissy.”
I sat him down shortly after the excitement wore off and explained to him that, although I’m very proud of him, his mother and I have no expectation that he will give his money to his sister. He has earned that money and has every right to it. I’ve also told him that, when he gives it to her, that money does not help him buy a monster.
Every time he runs to his room to deposit money, Dalton now asks for Cailyn’s bank too. He doesn’t always make the same decision, but the war is ever present in his mind. We’ve never rewarded Dalton for giving his hard-earned quarter to his sister, in part because his smile is bigger on the days that Cailyn becomes twenty-five cents richer. Dalton has learned a lesson beyond his years: There is an irreproducible feeling of satisfaction gained in sacrificing yourself for someone you love.
I’ve learned a lot through being a husband and father, but I often summarize it in one sentence. Dalton will learn it, know it, recite it, and hopefully see it through me.
“Boys live and men sacrifice.”
…and a man shall he be.