Well, Youth School ended last week, so I don’t have the usual kid story today, but I thought I would share a little story from another kid who visited here this week. Phoenix brought along her little charge to visit on Wednesday. While I usually use real names on my blog, I’ve had the impression that this little one’s parents don’t like his real name out there, so I’ll just call him the Kidlet.
In keeping with my usual Friday style, I’m not going to tell the story of the whole day because it’s overwhelming, and who really wants to read that much all at once anyway? But the thing that stands out to me about the day is the realization that one of the reasons I like hanging out with kids is that they force me to recognize and push boundaries that I didn’t even know I had. So at one point, the Kidlet wades across a muddy part of the spring to chase down some wild salmonberries, which he was very excited about. He stepped into some of that particularly gooey, sticky mud that you often get in springs, and his foot got stuck. If he hadn’t been so panicked, it would have been hilarious, since I couldn’t help picturing Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby as he tried to push off with his second foot, which also got stuck, and then found himself off balance but with both foot firmly planted but *really* not wanting to touch the obviously demon-possessed mud bog with his hands in order to catch his balance, he wavered and wobbled there in the bog like one of those air-powered balloon men that you see out in front of car lots. Screaming at the top of his lungs the whole time for someone to come help him. I didn’t laugh, because I knew that for him this was a genuinely terrifying experience.
Had it been up to me, I may have stood nearby, repeating calmly that everything was okay, and that he was in control of the situation until he just calmed down and stopped yelling long enough to get his balance. He was in a spot where he couldn’t possibly hurt himself no matter how panicked he had become, and I sort of get the impression that he’s not used to having to solve a lot of problems for himself. Or perhaps he’s just really smart, and good at getting other people to solve his problems for him no matter how many times he’s done it himself. It is certainly true that he’s very smart, but I don’t know about the second part. I can relate, I was a bit like that too. Some folks might find this a bit uncouth, comparing horses and children, but it’s a technique we used to use with training horses and it works really well. You put them in a situation that you know will bother them, but you also know poses no real danger. And you just let them be afraid until they figure out how to deal with it on their own, and then they are never afraid of that thing again.
With horses, one of the things that is hard to train a horse to deal with is the rider putting on a rain slicker while mounted. Horses are instinctively against the idea of things on their backs in general (being prey animals and all), so once they’ve been trained to allow a rider on their backs, it’s still often pushes them over the edge to have a loud, often brightly-colored, rain slicker flapping around in the wind just out of the corner of their peripheral vision somewhere over their backs. Many a rider has found themselves plopped right in the mud on their backsides as a result of trying to pull a rainslicker out of a saddlebag and slide into it. So to train them not to do that, you take them out in the middle of a corral where there’s nothing much to run into. You hold onto the leadrope with one hand, so you can keep up with the horse as it circles away from your other hand, in which you are holding a big black plastic trashbag. You rub that trashbag all over them, making as much noise with it as you can, and it freaks that horse right the fuck out. That horse will buck and run and circle around the corral. Depending on the horse, it might take five minutes or it might take an hour for it to realize, “Hey wait a minute, this isn’t hurting. I’m expending a lot of energy here for no reason.” Horses, like people, don’t like to expend energy for no reason. So once this occurs to them, you’ve pretty much proven your point.
Of course, there are horses that this doesn’t work with. My mom has a horse who, if it was allowed to diagnose horses with autism, I would definitely call autistic. I don’t know if she’s tried this “sacking out” technique with him, but I’d say its possible that he would never stop being freaked out. So I don’t really know the Kidlet that well, and maybe in the moment I would have decided that that wasn’t the way to go, but in any case, the choice wasn’t mine, since Phoenix had spent rather longer with the Kidlet than I had, and had reached her tolerance limit for The Loud Shrieking (as I believe she calls it). So she stepped over to haul him out of the mud by his armpits, which action left her with an armful of Kidlet, and the bog with a score of two small tennis shoes. This caused the Kidlet to engage in further Loud Shrieking while I held him and his stocking feet out of the mud and Phoenix retrieved the shoes.
Okay, so here we are where I get to the point about stretching my own boundaries (did you remember that that was the point?). So, as it happens, I don’t really like the mud either. I don’t like my feet sinking down into stuff that I can’t see and I don’t know what’s down there. I’m thankful that I live in a place where there are no snapping turtles, but I still don’t like the idea of not being able to see my feet. That suction feeling doesn’t make me shriek out loud, but I can relate to feeling that way. But it seemed really important in the moment to show the Kidlet that mud isn’t something to be afraid of. I had convinced him to breathe (“Take a deep breath, Kidlet. Take a deep breath. Take a deep breath. Here, like this..Innn……Ouuut. Take a deep breath.”) and asked him if he wanted to see something cool. He was sceptical, but ya, he wanted to see something cool. I told him we’d have to take his socks off, and he agreed to that. And then I was going to have to set him down on some rocks in the water, and he agreed to that. And then I whipped off my boots and socks, which made him giggle, and stomped right out into the boggy mud.
“Look, Kidlet, it’s just mud.” I sank up to my ankles, took a few more steps, and sank up to mid-calf. All the while, I’m watching Kidlet, who still looks very sceptical. I scoop up a double handful of mud and ask if he wants to touch it. He doesn’t. About then, Phoenix sees the game, and comes up with a brilliant touch. Getting his attention, she grabs a couple fingerfulls of mud and applies war paint to her face. Kidlet giggles. Following her lead, I take my double handful of mud, cover my whole face, and even smear it all over my hair. Kidlet giggles. We explain about camo for hiding. He’s interested, but he still doesn’t want war paint. Okay, that’s cool, because at least he’s not doing the Loud Shrieking. We get his shoes back on him, and head up the trail.
It wasn’t until later that it occurs to me that under no other circumstance would I have been wading around in calf-deep mud without a really high anxiety level. It was only because it seemed important to model to him a level of comfort with mud that I was able to actually have a level of comfort with mud. So I don’t know if Kidlet actually learned anything from the experience. He never did go back in the mud. But he definitely helped me to learn something from the experience. Turns out that I’ve been expending a lot of energy for no real reason in order to avoid stepping in deep mud. It doesn’t really hurt. Huh.