My niece got married recently, and Kane was the ring bearer. As he walked up the aisle, I strained to catch a glimpse of him from the second pew, my eyes welling up with pride as he made it to the front of the church and handed the pillow to the best man. As he turned and came to sit with us, I could see it in his eyes: I did it!
Little did anyone, other than my husband, know that the night of the rehearsal, my son acted out in a million different ways trying to get out of it. He said, “I don’t want to be in the…damn wedding,” hoping as he whispered the word “damn” that I would let him off the hook. I hid my smile. I was pleased that, at age 8, it was the worst thing he could think of to say.
I don’t even remember all the things that he tried, but as I got more frustrated with him, thinking Didn’t we prep him? Didn’t we help him understand what this is about? Haven’t we talked about this event for weeks?, the more gas he threw on his raging fire of insolence.
I don’t always do the first right thing as a parent. Often, I have to move around the behavior, eyeing the situation, figuring out the best tactic, and trying something out for size. Then, a new behavior will flare up and I have to do the same thing again. I try to avoid going head to head, unless it’s something incredibly important or a non-negotiable safety issue, because it usually doesn’t work. I also know the risk when I force things. If I push too much when he’s already anxious, he falls apart, and him falling apart at that moment wouldn’t gain either of us anything except more stress and exhaustion.
“Kane,” I said, my voice softening, “I know you’re anxious. This is something new. But we committed to this. You committed to this when your cousin asked you to be in her wedding. We talked about what it means to be a ring bearer. It’s a responsibility.”
We’d been working on what it means to be responsible, to be counted on for something, to be true to your word. He wasn’t buying it.
“No, I won’t do it. You can call her and tell her.”
“I can’t do that, buddy. When we commit to something as important as this, we have to follow through. But we’re going to the church to practice tonight. That’s why we have a rehearsal. So everyone can know their part in the wedding.”
He switched tactics. “Please tell her I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t. I won’t.”
“I can’t do that. You told her that you would be in her wedding, and it would make her so sad if you weren’t the ring bearer.”
I could see the realization on his face as he thought about that. “She would be sad?”
There it is, I thought. That’s the breakthrough.
“Yes, this is a day that she has dreamed about, and she wants you to be a special part of it. Do you think you can try to do this? Please?”
He let out a big sigh. I waited patiently, holding my own breath.
“I can try,” he finally said.
“That’s all I’m asking, that you try.” I tried to appear understated, but inside I was ecstatic. I hoped that if we could break through the anxiety, if we could practice that night, and if we could find the things that he could focus on that were positive, he’d get comfortable enough to actually do it. I knew that it wouldn’t be strange or new anymore.
That night, we talked about how his cousin was also nervous. We talked about how he could look at the front of the church and see the groom and the best man, and yes, those were friends in a crowd of strangers. We talked about how it’d be nice if he smiled, but okay if all he could muster was a “straight face,” but please let’s not make it an “angry face,” which also sometimes happens when he’s worried. We talked about exactly where he needed to go and where we’d be sitting, and all the other details we could predict.
And we planned around the events. We were the first to leave the rehearsal dinner, when the signs of overstimulation told us he’d had enough. We created a schedule the next day so that it could be predictable, and also provided plenty of downtime that morning. We came to the church in just enough time to take pictures. And the second he saw his cousin in her “princess dress,” everything else fell by the wayside. He was visibly elated.
Right before he walked to the back of the church with the wedding party for the procession, he said, “Mama, I got this, right?”, holding up his hand for a fist bump.
“Yes, buddy, you got this!” I said, returning the gesture.