Akira, Swimming, and the Power of “You’re Weird”

I go swimming most Friday evenings with my six-year-old friend, Akira. We started about a year and a half ago, calling it “swimming lessons.” Now we just call it “swimming.” It has been a joy to watch him learn to swim, just the way I think people should learn to swim: Having fun in the water, discovering new skills and games at whatever pace feels right. It took him almost exactly a year before he actually swam. He had slowly gotten comfortable putting his face in the water of the hot tub, and then found that when he did, he could lift his feet off of the bottom and float, which he started doing for 15-20 seconds at a time. Then one night he just started swimming, face down, slowly and relaxed, all the way across the hot tub. When he came up for a breath he was so excited. “Nathen! I don’t even have to swim! The water holds me up and all I have to do is pretend to swim!”

He is swimming three times a week now, and looks like a real natural–complete comfort in the water. You would never guess how nervous and circumspect he had been about water. He wouldn’t even blow bubbles for eight months–the bubbles popped uncomfortably close to his nose and eyes.

I am also getting to watch him grow up, which is mostly delightful. He is getting confident and funny–not surprising, since his parents are two of the funniest people I know.

Tonight, we were in the hot tub with another kid Akira’s age, and that kid started trying to make friends. “What’s your name?” “Can you do this?” Stuff like that. He seemed like a nice, friendly kid, and Akira was playing along. At a certain point the kid made an awkward move, standing too close and smiling too much. I realized later that he was going to try to lift Akira up out of the water a little, like he had seen me do. It created this awkward moment, though, and Akira said, “Weird.” The kid’s smile turned a little anxious, but he didn’t move away. Akira said “You’re weird. Get away from me.” The kid followed through with the lifting-up move, but instead of the original, playful feel, it ended up feeling aggressive, like, “This is what you get for calling me weird.”

I had an impulse to intervene, to stop the misunderstanding somehow. I had thought of this kid as a potential friend for Akira. I just didn’t think of anything to say besides, “Stop!” or “Don’t be mean.” Neither of those seemed right. The kid’s dad was there too, watching, and he didn’t say anything either. Akira started staying close to me, making a game of walking over my lap. I realized that he was nervous, that when he had said, “You’re weird,” he had been uncomfortable, a little scared.

Then it hit me what a powerful tool “You’re weird” is to a kid. Weird is the worst thing you can be at that age, the doorway to isolation and bullying. Being able to say “You’re weird” with enough poise shows where you stand in the hierarchy and rallies the troops of conformity to your aid. It is also a way to avoid vulnerability: A year ago, Akira would have just retreated, outwardly scared and confused. He would have whispered in my ear, “Can we go to the cold pool now?” Saying “you’re weird” was standing up for himself, a six-year old’s way of saying, “The way you are standing close to me is making me uncomfortable. Please stop doing that.”

So partly I was proud of him, and partly I was sad about the struggle he is entering into. It takes constant vigilance. Don’t be the weird one, the one who cries, the one who stands too close, the outcast, the one you can safely tease. Then, a few years later, don’t be the uncool one, the awkward one, the kid who gets beat up with impunity. Then, a few years later, don’t be the unhip one, who doesn’t quite know the right music in time, who has to pay close attention to stay on the tail-end of trends, the wannabe. For God’s sake, don’t let yourself be vulnerable! Every action must shout invulnerable and in control. And inside it’s, “Please believe me. He is the weird one. Not me. Him.”

I think conformity is a stage, unavoidable unless you are truly incapable of achieving it. I think it has to be negotiated by the kids, between the kids, for the most part. When Akira told me, “That kid is weird,” I said, “Well, I think he just wants to be friends,” but I couldn’t tell if it sunk in. And I don’t know how useful it would be if it did. Maybe the sooner he masters conformity, the sooner he can reject it and start exploring the joys and pain of vulnerability again.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, February 26, 2011.]

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The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

I’m learning about child abuse and neglect in my Child and Family Assessment class. Today I read about the ACE study, by the US Center for Disease Control. It is a huge study, with over 17,000 participants, where they gathered information about childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, and then proceeded to see what health outcomes and behaviors they could predict with that information. It turns out they can predict a lot. They’ve published 50 articles on the study and the research is ongoing–they are continuing to collect health information as the participants in the study age. I’ll present a few of their findings below. For more, see the ACE Study.

Here are some of their findings. I’ll paste in the definitions of the categories of adverse childhood experiences below. Strong correlations were found with the following:

  • alcoholism and alcohol abuse (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (that is, lung disease)
  • depression (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • fetal death
  • health-related quality of life (way more inactivity, severe obesity, bone fractures)
  • illicit drug use
  • ischemic heart disease (IHD)
  • liver disease
  • risk for intimate partner violence
  • multiple sexual partners (4 or more categories of ACE correlated with 50 or more sexual partners)
  • sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • smoking
  • suicide attempts (4 or more categories of ACE meant 4-12 times increase)
  • unintended pregnancies

Here are the kinds of abuse, neglect, and dysfunction they asked about, quoted from the site:

Abuse

Emotional Abuse:
Often or very often a parent or other adult in the household swore at you, insulted you, or put you down and/or sometimes, often or very often acted in a way that made you think that you might be physically hurt.

Physical Abuse:
Sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at you and/or ever hit so hard that you had marks or were injured.

Sexual Abuse:
An adult or person at least 5 years older ever touched or fondled you in a sexual way, and/or had you touch their body in a sexual way, and/or attempted oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you and/or actually had oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you.

Neglect

Emotional Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether their family made them feel special, loved, and if their family was a source of strength, support, and protection. Emotional neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Emotional Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form.

Physical Neglect1

Respondents were asked whether there was enough to eat, if their parents drinking interfered with their care, if they ever wore dirty clothes, and if there was someone to take them to the doctor. Physical neglect was defined using scale scores that represent moderate to extreme exposure on the Physical Neglect subscale of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) short form constituted physical neglect.

Household Dysfunction

Mother Treated Violently:
Your mother or stepmother was sometimes, often, or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her and/or sometimes often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard, and/or ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes and/or ever threatened or hurt by a knife or gun.

Household Substance Abuse:
Lived with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic and/or lived with anyone who used street drugs.

Household Mental Illness:
A household member was depressed or mentally ill and/or a household member attempted suicide.

Parental Separation or Divorce:
Parents were ever separated or divorced.

Incarcerated Household Member:
A household member went to prison.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, May 9, 2010.]