My youngest son, Carter, is almost twelve.
When I say that sentence to myself, I say it in the deep, reverberating voice of Morgan Freeman, with a little foreboding in it: my son it almost twelve-twelve-twelve. With 12 approaching, his body has begun to change.
Where most parents have trouble discussing puberty and sexuality with their children, I was fine with it. I followed my three eldest children’s leads, gauged what kind of information they were ready for and what kind of information they needed, and I told them. Through their late childhood and teen years, I explained about eggs and sperm, testosterone and estrogen, periods, consent, erections, birth control, and everything else related to changing bodies and sexuality. I made sure they knew everything they needed to know to keep themselves safe during adolescence and, hopefully, to enter adulthood prepared for healthy and satisfying intimate relationships.
But recently, as my three eldest, neurotypical children are rounding the corner toward adulthood, on my youngest son’s chin appeared…a pimple.
That pimple, which appeared this past winter when Carter was eleven, told me that I had dropped the ball. Where I had started teaching my older children about puberty when they were about 8, my youngest son hasn’t reached the developmental level of an 8 year old yet, and I hadn’t even begun.
In spite of his delayed emotional and cognitive maturity, his body is moving forward apace. He is physically on the cusp of puberty, and ready or not, he needs information.
We started slowly, with hormones. “Do you mean there’s a timer in my brain?” he asked, when I described how, at a certain age, a person’s body knows to start releasing the substances that trigger the changes of puberty.
“No, not an actual timer. It’s more like a combination of age, and weight, and how old your parents were when their bodies start to change,” I said, knowing he’d have a hard time with such a nebulous, non-definite answer.
“So it will happen when I’m a certain height? How tall were you and Daddy when you got pimples?”
Oh, my little concrete thinker. We had a long way to go, and as we went, I found that I was deeply uncomfortable in ways I never experienced with my other children. Where I was able to let my eldest children’s developmental lead the conversation, I had to lead Carter whether he wanted to go with me or not.
Unfortunately, helping Carter understand puberty and sex when he’s not really ready is representative of many realities that exist in his life and his world. The world expects him to be what they see: an almost-twelve-year-old. The fact that he is developmentally closer to age 6 didn’t matter to the woman in the public restroom who called the manager about a young man in the ladies’ room. I’m afraid to let him use the men’s room in large public places and afraid to leave him waiting alone outside because as the world expects more and more of him, his ability to respond appropriately lags increasingly behind.
My husband and I struggle constantly with how to share information with Carter, in part because so much of it is traumatic or upsetting for him. He thinks in absolute, concrete terms, many of life’s gray areas all but invisible to him.
In recent months, our city, Albuquerque, has made international news for having one of the deadliest, most militarized police forces in the nation. Among the victims of what the Department of Justice deemed “a pattern…of violating residents’ Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force during police encounters” were many people with diagnoses identical to those my son carries. They were people in the midst of psychotic or manic episodes, or people who were attempting to end their own lives, or people who lacked the cognitive capacity to understand the instructions that police were shouting to them.
In the stories of my city’s violence, I realized that I do not have the luxury of time when it comes to educating Carter about how to respond to police instructions any more than I have that luxury when it comes to puberty and sex. The future is rolling toward us at an astonishing rate, and in a few years Carter will look like an adult man, whether he has the brain of an adult or not.
My husband and I know that we had to help Carter understand that if he is given instructions by a police officer he must follow those instructions immediately. Somehow, we had to do this in a way that didn’t make him terrified of every cop he ever saw.
I began by telling Carter of several interactions I’ve had with police that were positive and helpful. I reminded him of the time police helped find one of his friends who got lost, and about my uncle who was a cop. Then I explained to him that even though police wear uniforms, they’re still people under their uniforms, and sometimes they get overwhelmed and afraid. Carter understands overwhelmed and afraid.
I explained to him that, should a police officer shout at him to get down, he has to get down immediately, even if he didn’t do anything wrong or it doesn’t make sense. I hurt when I told him that; we did not raise any of our children with an expectation of blind obedience. It seemed to contradict all the conversations we’d had about consent, and respecting one’s own and others’ bodies.
Sadly, I can’t expect Carter to think around corners in a charged situation. His instinct, given a loud instruction by a stranger, would be to take some time to understand why, and to explain himself. If he was in the midst of a psychotic or manic episode, his instinct could be wildly inappropriate or confusing.
I hope I handled it right. I hope I’m handling even half of this right, but parenting a child whose mind is very different from mine is a challenge, and there are no experts who can tell me when the time is right to talk about difficult things.
About the Author
Adrienne Jones lives in Albuquerque with her husband and children, and in the hours just before dawn, you can find her at her desk in the little office next to the kitchen, writing stories. She blogs at No Points for Style.
Find links to almost everything she does on the internet at about.me/AdrienneJones.