Why the Disconnect? Are Parents Living a Balanced Life?
As a sociolinguist, (someone who studies human behavior and communication), and, more importantly, a mother of a child with autism, I fear that we as a culture are on the wrong path.
While our culture is raising perhaps the most productive, specialized, and most efficient human beings on the planet than ever before, our drive to produce the most modern technologically “advanced” world has come at an extremely high (human) cost and we are all paying the price.
I find it ironic that for a world who touts how “connected” we are, we as an American culture have never felt so disconnected. The feeling of isolation is real. It is intense and permeates all walks of life. These days with the deterioration of community and familial life, everyone is at risk of physical, social, and emotional isolation. All we have to do is look at the daily newspapers or read the incessant news feed to see the unprecedented numbers of people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, social/emotional problems, and other related mental dysfunctions. It is no wonder why the number of suicides, especially those of our children, are at an all-time high. And worse yet, the special need population is among the most vulnerable.
What is going on?
In my opinion, we as a culture are so caught up in the rat race of life that we have lost sight of our most valuable assets—ourselves, each other, and our humanness. When everything is said and done, it doesn’t matter what we do (our jobs or our careers). In the end, what matters most are our families, our children, and the people in our lives. No amount of money or material wealth can ever replace what feeds our souls. We are first and foremost social beings. Your children don’t need more things—they need more love and compassion. Relationships are the key to true happiness. Relationships are the glue to building strong emotional health and well-being for ourselves, our families and for our community.
I think we know this deep down. I think parents know that connection and family are the most important things in their lives. Over the past 15 years, I have worked with hundreds of families and parents who have children on the spectrum. When I first meet with parents, one of my first questions is “In the grand scheme of things, what do you want most for your child?” The answers are always the same. “For him or her to be happy, have friends, hopefully get married and have children, and be able to live independently.”
What this tells me is that parents understand and value relationships above everything else. The irony is that most of us do not actually live this way. We are so focused on making money that we forfeit what matters most to us, seeing our children grow up, spending time with them and assuring them a healthy balanced life where people matter the most.
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When I go into our children’s classrooms, I find the same disconnect. I don’t see teachers teaching them how to be loving and loyal friends, how to put others first, and how to accept people’s differences. I see teachers having to fill our children up with academics and rote skills that are often devoid of meaning and real-world relevance. Certainly, the curriculum in our schools is not relationship based but skill based. It has always concerned me why we stress rote memorization for our kids on the spectrum when clearly what they need the most and foremost is a socially embedded model of how to relate to people.
The sociolinguist in me finds all of this behavior fascinating. The mother in me finds this absurd and frightening. How do we expect our children to grow up, live meaningful, fulfilling, loving, and well-balanced lives when we the parents are not able to do this for ourselves?
There seems to be a complete disconnect in how we spend our time vs. what our values are. Let’s take a client of mine, Sarah, a parent, and her 3-year-old autistic daughter, Celine, (both fictitious names.) Sarah is a single mother who works as a lawyer in a big metropolitan city. She makes a good living, has a beautiful apartment and can afford to give Celine everything she wants. It is not uncommon for Sarah to work 65+ hours per week. She leaves the house at 7a.m. when the babysitter comes and often doesn’t get home until 7p.m. each weekday. Celine has already eaten, taken a bath and is ready for bed. Sarah comes home completely exhausted, starving and eats her dinner while she spends about 30 minutes with Celine before she puts her to bed. If you ask Sarah what is the most important thing to her she won’t hesitate to say “My daughter.”
This scenario is not uncommon. Not all parents are as well off as Sarah, but most parents these days do have to work long hours, come home tired, hungry and have little to no energy left for their children. I point this out not to blame the parents. I point this out to say we as a culture have to stop and reevaluate our priorities. We may know that spending time guiding our children to become decent loving human beings is the most important job we could ever have, but we as a culture do not value this. We value expensive cars, big homes, lavish trips to exotic places and everything else that shows we are “successful.” But is this true success? Those of us with autistic children know the truth about what is most important. But how do we push against a culture that doesn’t support us?
How to find balance in an unbalanced world?
Finding balance in an unbalanced culture that we live in is not an easy task. I have thought long and hard about how I can help families live in connected and healthier ways. In my book, The Social Diet: The 7 Key Ingredients to Raising Socially Connected, Well-Balanced and Caring Kids, (Especially Those with Social Challenges), I came up with a tool called “The Social Diet Wheel of Balance and Health.” The purpose of the wheel is for parents to get a quick snapshot of the different relationships they have with the different areas of their lives. In this way, parents get to match their values to a more balanced and healthy lifestyle.
If we look below at the illustration of The Social Diet Wheel of Balance and Health, we can see that it is made up of seven major life areas: Family, Friends and Community, Emotional Well-Being, Physical Well-Being, Career or Job, Hobbies, and Money and Finances. Parents are told to rate themselves on a scale of 1-10 (where a “one” means practically non-existent to a “ten” meaning completely perfect. The specific directions for the wheel can be found at the bottom of the circle.
Basically, I tell my clients, “Imagine this is a bike wheel. How well inflated is your wheel and how balanced is it?” Let’s take our same lawyer parent Sarah to illustrate how this wheel works. Sarah would probably give herself a high score for her “Career” (maybe a 9 or 10) as well as in the area of “Money and Finances” (again a 9 or 10). But since she spends so many hours in the office, she does not have time to workout nor take care of herself emotionally. In those two areas, she might rate herself at a three.
Because she is so busy running to and from work, she has a limited amount of time for her family (Celine) and her friends and community. She might think she is at a seven with her daughter but only a four or five with time spent with others. Very quickly we can see that Sarah is not living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. She is so focused on her career that it comes at a great expense in other areas of her life. If your bike is only inflated in a couple of areas, your wheel will not run efficiently. Nor will your life.
Parents often report that by doing this exercise, they can get immediate feedback as to where they have been neglecting things. This Wheel allows us to see if we are living our values and if we are modeling a healthy lifestyle for our children.
To conclude may I offer you some suggestions that may help you and your family live more deliberately in the ways that feed your soul. First, never forget that as parents you are blessed with the most honorable gift in life—to raise another human being. Yes, it is difficult, and you will struggle, but think about it, you get to help form the life of a child, your child. It really doesn’t get better than that. Second, don’t worry about the here and now and what is missing. Keep your eye on the big picture and stay positive. Stay the course and focus on the long-term outcomes you wish to see. Focus on your relationship with your child(ren).
Don’t worry so much about them learning skills. Skills can be learned at any age, but learning how to connect and relate to other humans is vastly more important. Lastly, simplify your life and the life of your family. Do not get caught up in all the crazy distractions out there. Turn off the TV, the computers, and the cell phones. Go back to the basics. Share a nice meal, go for a walk in the park, create an original art project. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you are together connecting in heartfelt ways. Live a life worth living, in balance and in harmony with the people you love and who love you back.
This article was featured in Issue 86 – Working Toward a Healthy Life with ASD