High hopes I hold for my children

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2009

I never cared much for Valentines Day, or perhaps I should say never until four years ago, when it became my son's birthday.

My little Valentines Day baby can be quite a charming lad when he wants to be, affectionate and playful, and a little mischievous. He's everything you might expect in a little cupid.

He has even endeared himself to his sister, becoming her best friend and playmate. Best of all, he talks to her.

In the last year his use of language has exploded. So has his sister's. Between the two of them there now exists an almost constant dialog where a year ago I heard virtual silence.

The dialog is an enormous step toward the realization of my highest hopes for my children: that they grow to be competent, capable adults.

My daughter was diagnosed with autism shortly after her third birthday, but we knew even before then that she needed extra attention, someone to interact with her and keep her engaged long after her mother and I were both worn out from the effort. I pinned my hopes on my son.

Along with my hopes came profound fears. While my son did not display the typical signs of autism, he waited a very long time to begin speaking. Younger siblings of autistic children are known to have a statistically higher incidence of autism. I was worried.

In my darkest thoughts I fretted that both of them might have difficulties that would unduly burden their adult lives, difficulties that could be compounded by the advancing age of their parents. If they needed continuing help as adults, how could we continue to provide it?

Actually, both of my parents are above retirement age and enjoy good health. My dad's dad, at 95 years of age, is one of the oldest licensed drivers in the state of Illinois. My mother's mother and grandmother both lived well into their nineties.

If family history is any indication, the chances are good that I'll see my children well into their adult years. I certainly hope so, but life is uncertain and there are no guarantees. That is why the bonds I see developing between my children gives me great comfort.

In the last year my daughter has progressed from someone for whom kindergarten was only a remote possibility to a child who knows letters and numbers and is already starting to read. She also is thinking and reasoning, solving puzzles and sharpening reflexes. Whatever challenges she might face in life, it is increasingly apparent that she will have skills to address them.

My son has progressed in one year from a few words to relating his wants and needs in complete sentences, right down to "please" and "thank you". His vocabulary is not the equal of his sister's but he uses what he has to better effect, forming more complete sentences than she does (on average) and using better inflection and pronunciation. He also has a broader imagination and is more willing to improvise and accommodate change, whereas his sister has a narrower view that prefers structure and rote.

The result between the two is a symbiotic learning experience. The girl teaches the boy content and logic. The boy provides constant dialog and repetition for the girl. There is pretend play too, more and more of it as their experiences and knowledge broaden. They are good for each other.

In part, my kids are open to cooperation because my wife and I model it almost daily. Their relationship is further helped by our diligence in mediating the disagreements that still (and often) arise between them.

Even so, I cannot help but be delighted by how well my kids get along with each other. I will certainly do my best to keep it that way, so that they may always feel they have each other to rely on.

Our family Valentines Day celebration was great. We all celebrated my boy's birthday. My girl opened a sack full of treats brought home from her kindergarten class. My wife got lots of chocolates. I spent the day in the company of those I hold most dear, celebrating the progress my children are making toward fulfilling the high hopes I hold for them.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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