Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fall Camping Trip – Kettle Moraine

We went on our fall camping trip this weekend. This year, our destination was Kettle Moraine State Forest in southern Wisconsin, which is less than two hours from home.

After coming home from our New England vacation, I was thinking of skipping our camping trip this year. I was tired of all the travel, and tired of Kai complaining about everything. The last thing I wanted was to spend a weekend arguing over how much iPad time he could have in the tent.

But my wife mentioned that Kai had asked when we would go camping, so I decided we would give it a go.

I told Kai before we went that we would not be bringing the iPad along and he could not use any electronics while we were camping.

We arrived at campsite late Friday afternoon. We got the tent up quickly but it was dark by the time I got the campfire going and cooked dinner.

We had hot dogs, edamame, and some Sun Chips. And then roasted marshmallows and made s’mores. Kai nearly ate his all up before I thought to take a picture.

We slept well in the tent… it was by far the best night’s sleep I had gotten all week as I had had a stressful week at work.

We got up and I got the campfire going. Kai enjoyed “helping” to keep the fire going.

Then we went on a hike on one of the many trails in the State Forest. I chose the Scuppernong Springs Nature Trail because the length seemed right for Kai (only a mile and a half), plus this particular trail had 13 numbered points of interest along with an accompanying leaflet that I had printed out at home that explained each of the 13 spots.

Here we are at point #2, standing on the remains of an old railroad bed that used to run here.

At a couple places along the trail, we walked near the Scuppernong River.

The weather was perfect for a hike, with temperatures in the low 70s.

Here we stopped to rest and look at the view.

At the far end of the trail, we found a spring that is the source of the Scuppernong River. The water was cool, delicious, and a perfect thirst quencher.

Here’s a photo of one spot where the water is bubbling up to the surface.

We continued on the hike as the trail looped back around to take us back to our parking spot. Kai remained in good spirits the whole time, never complaining about being tired or unable to walk.

It was a far cry from all the complaining he did in New England. Perhaps that numbered-trail had something to do with it.

When we got back to our campsite, Kai went in the tent and fell asleep for about an hour and a half until we woke him up for lunch. The hike may have worn him out a little bit, but a change in medication this week has also made him more tired during the day. (He fell asleep at school for a couple hours earlier in the week).

In the afternoon, we went for a bike ride.

Kettle Moraine is famous for its mountain biking trails, but we knew Kai wasn’t ready for that. Instead, I found a straight, flat trail.

After traveling less than two miles, Kai started to complain that he was too tired. We hadn’t been biking much this year, so he was probably out of biking shape. It was discouraging, though, that biking remains something that we kind of have to force him to do rather than being something he enjoys. We turned around and headed back.

What he did enjoy, though, was riding back and heading over to a nearby ice cream shop.

After we got back to our campground, we changed into our swimsuits and went over to nearby Ottawa Lake. We had saved Kai’s favorite activity for the end of the day.

The water was cold but that didn’t deter Kai from wading in.

I eventually joined him but didn’t go out too far.

Kai got used to the water and joyfully immersed himself in the water and swam.

Back at our campsite, his second favorite activity was going into the tent, wrapping himself up with his sleeping bag, and playing games with Mom and Dad.

Dinner was roast chicken, and then more roasting marshmallows to make s’mores.

Here’s a photo from this morning shortly before we took down our tent.

We went on one more short hike and found another spring.

Kai enjoyed drinking the cool, refreshing water right from the source.

And that capped off this year’s camping trip.

It was surprisingly enjoyable.

The campground was the best we’ve ever experienced with wooded campsites spaced relatively far apart. Our loop was a 24-hour quiet zone – no music or pets are allowed, so it was peaceful. And the showers were clean and roomy.

Moreover, Kai showed that he could go a couple days without electronics and actually enjoy himself.

Let’s hope that his relaxed mood can carry over now that we’re back in the real world.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Explosive Child - Understanding Why Conventional Parenting Strategies Don't Work for Some Unconventional Kids

My parenting philosophy has always included a system of rewards and punishments that are intended to teach my son to behave the way I wanted him to. If he did well, he would reap the rewards; if he did not, he would suffer the consequences.

My parents employed a system like that (well, more heavily on punishment and light on rewards in their case), and I'm guessing that most of you were brought up on a similar system as well. If it worked with us, surely it would work with my son.

Years ago, we set up a formal system of rewards and punishments at home. Mimicking Kai's therapeutic elementary school, we opened our own "point store" where he could trade in the points he earned for good behavior for preferred items such as small Lego sets or new apps. Conversely, whenever he had a major incident at school, Kai would lose his iPad time at home.

This system certainly provided strong incentive for Kai to do well. But when his actions didn't follow his motivations, we grew frustrated.

We increased punishments. Another ripped up shirt? Double the time he would not be able to use the iPad! Surely that would get him to behave better.

Except it did not.

When Kai fell short of the goals we had set for positive rewards, he became very discouraged. When he had an incident at school, the anxiety over losing his iPad time increased his stress and brought on further dysregulation.

Our strategies were not working. What were we doing wrong? Were we just really bad parents?

It has only been in the past few weeks that it has really started to sink in as to the problem has been.

Earlier this summer, we started to see a new private therapist for Kai. In our first meeting, he recommended a book for me and my wife: The Explosive Child, A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.

On our flight out to and back from New England last month, I finally had time to begin reading.

The author posits that children like my son are already motivated to do well, but they lack the critical skills of flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving that enables them to do so. The book explains that the reason why reward and punishment strategies don't work for kids like Kai is because they don't teach these skills that they lack.

These thoughts resonated with me.

There is certainly no greater motivator for Kai than the threat of not being able to use the iPad. Yet, that appears to have no impact on his ability to control his behavior. In the heat of a frustrating situation, he doesn't control his behavior. It's not because he doesn't want to - he is certainly well motivated to - rather, it is because he lacks the skills to do so.

The author argues that rewards and punishments are not what behaviorally-challenged kids need. If all those consequences were going to work,they would have started to work years ago. Rather, he makes the case that a new approach is needed, one that focuses on solving problems collaboratively with your child rather than the imposition of adult will.

The author goes on to describe how that can be done. I won't go into the details here. I will say that it seems that it will be a long, difficult process. But after years of trying it the old way, I think it makes sense to explore a different approach.

Let's see how it goes.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

New England Vacation – Day 16: Home

Today was getaway day. After over two weeks in New England, we would be flying home.

At the hotel, we had another tiff, this time over breakfast. Kai was upset when the waiter brought out cinnamon French toast instead of cinnamon pancakes. It was his own fault as he wasn’t clear when ordering, but the waiter said he would bring out pancakes for him. But even after that, Kai complained that he didn’t like pancakes.

My wife and I had had our fill of his complaining over everything. When we got back to our room, my wife told Kai that next summer she would put him in a summer camp while she and I would go on a vacation without him. There was no point in him going on vacation if he was just going to complain about everything and not enjoy anything.

This got him upset, probably not so much over the thought of missing out on a vacation, but of being away from home without Mom. He tried to tell us that he would behave better. Well, we’ll believe that when we see it.

We had a couple hours before we had to go to the airport, so I drove around Cambridge to show my wife and Kai M.I.T. and Harvard. We got out of the car and walked around Harvard Yard, but I don’t think our hearts were in sightseeing. We cut short the tour and went to the airport.

Kai’s mood noticeably brightened as the time to take off neared. I think most kids mourn the end of the vacation, especially since he starts school tomorrow, but Kai was gleeful.

Our plane was delayed slightly, but nothing could dampen Kai’s spirit.

And when we landed in Chicago, he was very happy.

“I missed home, Dad. Did you?”

I told him I did, too, a little bit. But I enjoyed the vacation as well.

He said that after thinking about it, he realized he did enjoy the vacation, too, at least 75% of it.

I asked him what things he enjoyed the most and was happy that he was able to mention some specific things including whale watching, Ben & Jerry’s, ziplining, Diver Ed, and the baseball game.

But still, he was thrilled when we finally got home. He first went to play with some Legos, and then went to his bed and beloved blanket.

My wife and I are glad to be home as well. I think we both missed home-cooked meals, among other things. Plus, we’re physically and psychologically exhausted.

A year ago, when we went to Japan for our summer vacation, we marveled at how well Kai handled the heat and humidity. He seemed mostly genuinely interested in seeing the sights and was pretty much a happy kid.

A lot has changed in a year, and not for the better.

We’ll be thinking about what we can do to turn things around.

With the official start of middle school tomorrow, this will be the start of a big year for him.

New England Vacation – Day 15: Portland Lighthouse, and Kai’s Happiest Time

The day started off quietly and ended with a roar, but in a good way (mostly) this time.

Maine is said to have a lot of lighthouses, but we hadn’t seen too many of them, perhaps partly because of the fog that was present during most of our stay.

But on our last day there, the fog finally lifted. So, on our way out of Portland, we went to see the Portland Head Light.

This lighthouse is Maine’s oldest, and one of its most photographed. After seeing it, I understand why.

The park surrounding the lighthouse is beautiful. And on this day, we were finally able to get a clear view of the shoreline, and of the islands nearby.

And then we were off, stopping briefly in Kennebunkport to get one last look at Maine’s rocky shores.

Once back in Massachusetts, we visited Salem, famous for its Witch Trials in the late 17th century.

We went to the visitor center and saw a film that described the events of the day, where hysteria reigned and people were hanged on the flimsiest of evidence. We then walked through a memorial that honors the victims.

We made it to our hotel in Cambridge around 3PM which left plenty of time to hit the pool and then leave for our final major activity of the vacation – taking in a baseball game at Fenway Park.

Being a big baseball fan, this was the one activity on the trip that was mostly for me. I had never seen the venerable old ballpark and it was on my bucket list. Kai did have a good time last summer at a baseball game in Japan, so I was hoping he would tolerate this okay,

When we found our seats and sat down, I was a bit disappointed. We had seats in the last row of the lower deck grandstand, and while we could see the playing field fine, our views of the rest of the park were obstructed by the upper deck hanging over us. Plus, as my wife pointed out, the seats themselves were very small and uncomfortable. And with Boston not scoring any runs early in the game, the crowd was somewhat subdued. It did not compare at all to the fabulous experience we had at the baseball game in Hiroshima.

But just as I was resigned to leaving the park early, Kai started to get really into the game.

From the time we were in the car earlier, he was making comments about how awful Boston was, primarily because of all the walking he had to do when we were here at the start of the vacation, and how crowded the city was. (He seems to have forgotten that we had some good times in the city as well including visits to the aquarium and science museum). And so, he would be cheering for the opposing team, the Kansas City Royals, just because he wanted to root against Boston.

Kai wasn’t paying too much attention to the game at first, but when the Royals jumped out to a 5-0 lead, he started to get excited. I was happy that he was enjoying himself, but was concerned about him disturbing the fans around us as he was cheering for KC (or more accurately, cheering against the Red Sox) quite loudly.

He did pause his cheering of the opposing team to join me and the crowd in the traditional singing of Sweet Caroline.

With Kansas City leading 6-2 late in the game, Kai was very loud on every pitch.

“Get him out! Get him out!” he exhorted when Boston was batting.

“Dad, I’m finally having fun in Boston!”

He thought the game was won.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, the Red Sox loaded the bases and brought the winning run to the plate. If the Red Sox were to miraculously come back and win the game, we’d have a very angry boy on our hands.

So, though I was cheering for the Sox the whole game, I was very relieved when they made the final out.

Kai was thrilled. It was the happiest he had been the entire vacation.

The only thing that made him even happier is what we are doing tomorrow.

“Dad, we’re going home tomorrow! Woo hoo!”

Saturday, August 22, 2015

New England Vacation – Day 14: A Foggy, Wet Day

It was another foggy morning in Maine.

We took the Casco Bay ferry to Peaks Island, just 17 minutes away from the dock in Portland. When I was planning the trip, I had envisioned that the ferry would enable us to see some spectacular sights of the Casco Bay islands. Instead, here’s the view as we’re coming into the island.

We rented a golf cart to tour the island. It allowed us to travel the entire circumference of the island in less than an hour.

The rocky shores looked hauntingly beautiful in the fog and mist.

In part of the shoreline, we saw dozens of cairns like the ones we saw the other night when we trekked over to Bar Island.

As we were circling the island, rain started to fall. We were glad the golf cart had a roof that kept us relatively dry.

We ended up back at the “downtown” area of the island and visited the world’s only umbrella cover museum. The proprietor collects umbrella covers (not umbrellas themselves, just the covers) from around the world and displays them in her very small museum.

And with that, we had pretty much seen what we wanted to see on the island, at least on a foggy and rainy day.

We caught the ferry back to Portland and had lunch. The cup of clam chowder was perfect for this wet day.

And then it was back to the hotel where we would relax and stay dry, at least until we went to the pool.

The rain stopped later in the afternoon and we ventured back out to see a bit of the Old Port neighborhood. Kai especially liked the shop that had a lot of funny items.

For our last dinner in Maine, we went to a Mexican restaurant. I somewhat wanted one last seafood dinner, my wife wanted Japanese again, but neither of us protested when Kai said he preferred Mexican. I think I had my fill of seafood for a while.

At dinner, Kai enjoyed reading the book of Maine cartoons by local cartoonist Jeff Pert.

And with that, our time in Maine is coming to an anticlimactic end. Next we are headed back to Massachusetts.

Friday, August 21, 2015

New England Vacation – Day 13: Traveling Down to Portland

This was a travel day as we left Bar Harbor in the morning and headed south. We took the scenic route along the coast, but as it was so foggy the entire way, we didn’t see much.

Kai slept in the car for much of the morning. Is it wrong to say how much I appreciated his nap?

The one stop we wanted to make was the LL Bean flagship store in Freeport, Maine.

The store has separate buildings for clothing, hunting & fishing, and home goods. As someone who enjoys LL Bean’s clothing, it was great to see the full selection here.

And yet, we walked out of the store without a single item – because we had everything we bought shipped home. ☺

After that, we checked in at our hotel and used their indoor swimming pool.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant that was near our hotel. Unlike Bar Harbor, we found out that Portland has several Japanese restaurants so my wife was able to finally satisfy her urge for Japanese food.

Kai and I had the miso soup with shiitake mushrooms.

My wife and I shared this appetizer.

For the main entrée, Kai had this big pile of tempura. He ate all of the shrimp while my wife and I helped with some of the vegetables.

My wife and I each had the omakase sushi (chef’s selection).

The waitress had told us that no soy sauce was needed with this sushi. We found out that many of the pieces of sushi had a unique taste that I had never experienced in sushi before. My wife said it was her co-favorite meal of the trip along with the lobster at Thurston’s. I enjoyed it, too, though with the price of the meal double that of “the best lobster ever” I would say that I preferred Thurston’s over this on that alone. All in all, though, it was very nice.

So, it was a pleasant, very low key day.

We needed a low key day.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

New England Vacation – Day 12: Diver Ed, Bar Harbor, and the Nice Day with the Terrible Ending

Does this sound familiar: we had a pretty good day, spoiled by a very ugly end to the day.

It was a foggy morning on the Maine coast.

Our activity for the morning would be to take the Diver Ed's Dive-In Theater boat ride.

Diver Ed is the captain and a very gregarious fellow. His outgoing, fun personality was a perfect match for all the kids on this trip, including Kai.

Ed takes his boat out about 15 minutes into Frenchman's Bay, then drop anchor. He dons his dry suit and dives down about 60 feet with an underwater video camera. We are able to watch on the large video monitor while he speaks to us from the bottom of the ocean. His wife, Naomi, up on deck with us, also comments on what Ed is showing us.

Ed found and showed us many sea creatures, including this sea urchin.

This lobster was feisty and Ed had fun with it.

Here's a colorful sea cucumber.

The underwater shots were amazing, but that was only half of the adventure. While underwater, Ed was collecting creatures to bring with him back up into the boat.

Here he shows Kai a sea urchin.

Kai is flabbergasted when Ed puts a sea cucumber in his mouth.

And Kai was laughing as Ed was about to kiss this crab.

Once Ed was done showing everyone the creatures he brought up to the boat, it was time for the kids to get hands on themselves. Here's Kai holding a sea cucumber.

And here he is enjoying another sea cucumber.

Let's examine this lobster. Is it a boy or a girl? Diver Ed showed us how to tell the difference.

Here Kai is examining a sea star. Diver Ed explained that the sea stars (formerly known as starfish) are all very small these days. They don't see any much bigger than this one.

Before we left the hotel in the morning, I had told Kai that there would be other kids on the boat. They might get to hold some of the creatures first so he would have to be patient and wait for his turn. We did not want him to get frustrated or angry. While he said he understood, my wife and I were on pins and needles the entire time hoping that nothing would set him off. Fortunately, he was happy the entire time.

This was probably his favorite activity of the entire vacation. He loves seeing and, especially, holding creatures so this was the perfect activity for him. It was very educational, but with Diver Ed and Naomi entertaining the kids (and adults), it was also very fun. We highly recommend this for anyone with kids who are traveling to Bar Harbor.

After we got off the boat, we went into town for lunch. We were tired of eating mostly western food. Surprisingly, Bar Harbor does not have any sushi restaurants so we settled on Chinese. I am not picky about Chinese food; you can't have a bad Chinese meal. But this restaurant was disappointing. It wasn't horrible by any means, but definitely nothing too special.

After lunch we took a walk along the Bar Harbor shore.

We came upon this Balance Rock. It looks like just one little push will send it into the ocean, but apparently, despite appearances, it is still standing there.

After completing our shore walk, we toured down Main Street and stopped for ice cream. It took the entire wait in line for Kai to finally decide on coconut, while my wife had blueberry ice cream (apparently blueberries are very popular here), and I tried the lobster ice cream (vanilla with chunks of lobster). I liked the blueberry the best; the lobster one tasted just like vanilla.

After that, Kai and I went back to the hotel so that Kai could have his break. My wife went shopping, then came back so I could see a few shops. Then, it was time to go to the pool.

For dinner, after walking all over town, we decided on a restaurant along the docks. My wife had crab cakes, Kai had a pizza off the kids' menu, and I had a baked stuffed lobster. I was hoping that the "baked" part would make the lobster different enough from the previous night's lobster, but the "lobster" part just could not compare to the phenomenal lobster I had the night before. Plus, despite that Kai's kids meal was very cheap, the cost for all of us was higher than the three lobsters we had at the lobster pound.

After dinner we walked over to the land bridge to Bar Island. This land bridge is exposed only for a couple hours during low tide, and connects the mainland to Bar Island. During high tide, it is under water.

As the sun had already set, and the fog had rolled back in, we could not see the island from the mainland. As we started walking along the land bridge, we had no idea how long the path was. My wife was all for turning back, but Kai wanted to keep going all the way to the island. I was surprised that he wanted to walk so much, but he was in a great mood and very curious about what lie ahead.

It took about 15-20 minutes, and we finally made it to the island. Although it was nearly pitch black by then, using the flashlight on my cell phone, we could see that many other visitors had piled stones into miniature stone sculptures.

We then hurriedly walked back to the mainland, my wife being concerned that the tide would come up and strand us.

Up to then this had been perhaps our best day of the vacation. Kai had enjoyed all of the things we did that day.

And then, suddenly, it all changed.

When we got back to the mainland, Kai saw where we were and he got very upset that we would have a long walk back to the hotel. He demanded that I find a short cut, but when I explained that there is no short cut, he got very angry. I told him that there was nothing we could do but walk back to the hotel. Of course, it was, as always, all my fault.

He was very angry the entire way back to the hotel, often using 4-letter expletives to loudly voice his displeasure. I tried not to think about what other people were thinking of us. I felt like I was seeing first hand what he must be like at school every day.

When we were back in the room, he continued to express his anger. And as is common when he is like this, he makes very nasty personal comments. We told him to just be quiet, but he continued to persist.

When he makes things this personal, it is very difficult to stay calm. And on this night, my wife and I did not.

We had had enough of his complaining and anger and being nasty. We felt like we do everything for him and he constantly behaves in the most selfish, spoiled manner. When we told him this, he said that it is because he has autism.

While I know that there are many challenges that arise from his autism, we hate when he uses that as an excuse for all of his problems.

How much of his behavior is the direct result of autism? How much of it is due to his own personality or mindset?

Having autism may cause one to become frustrated more easily and not think rationally, but does it also mean that you have to be so nasty to your loved ones when you are frustrated?

For a moment, my wife wanted to cut short the vacation and see if we could find an earlier flight home. I didn't think that was practical, but in that moment, I was thinking that I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to take another vacation with Kai again.

As time passes, I'm sure my thinking will change.

But I can feel that every time something like this happens, my resolve gets worn down little by little.

Can I be the Balance Rock that stays standing despite the odds?

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