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Skimming stones and chasing ducks (What my son taught me about frustration and connection)

Each year, parents across the country are united in a cry of anguish. “Half-term already? But they’ve only just finished Christmas!”

Once the dates have been double checked, the task of filling the gaping heart of February begins. This explains why last week, my family found ourselves beside a lake for three nights of limited sleep, in-depth discussions about sea creatures, and inadvertent, unexpected workplace insights provided by my 6-year-old son.

Being the parent of an autistic child, we have had to learn over the years to reimagine our expectations of what a holiday should entail. Given his sleep intolerance, a week away is untenable. Scheduling multiple activities in a day is a recipe for disaster. The idea of sitting for food in a restaurant sees us break out in hives.

Over time, we’ve figured out what works. Short trips. A slow pace. A nearby McDonald’s with predictable red boxes of nuggets. A readiness to do nothing, or run endlessly, depending on unpredictable inputs that can strike from anywhere at any time.

Above all else. Listen to Benjamin.

Our son constantly surprises us. Not always by what he says, but by what he shows us. The uniqueness of his character. The situations which we navigate with him, for him, alongside him.

Being in Benjamin’s company on holiday offers a series of small moments - barely perceptible to others - that can offer insights into other areas of life. Particularly work-life. Last week provided a couple of lessons where Benjamin’s wisdom could teach me a great deal, provided I paid attention.

Lesson 1: Listen to Benjamin

Admittedly, this is a lesson that is easily forgotten after a severe lack of sleep and an early morning break for freedom. He broke free from our lodge to chase Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey and other assorted feathered creatures lining the pebbled shore just metres from our lodge. Throwing on my wellies, rubbing the sleep from my eyes I followed him to the water’s edge. There he stood, picking up seaweed, throwing stones, chasing birds and laughing loudly.

Initially, my ability to listen to his demands was limited. Non-existent even. I wasn’t tuned into his joy. My adult brain thought that if we were outside, then surely I should be in charge. For no apparent reason I wanted to walk to the other side of the lake. I wanted to be in charge of our direction. I felt the need to shift his attention away from the birds and towards something that I deigned to be of interest. I could feel a swell of irritation rise inside me as he just…didn’t…listen!

I can’t rush him. Gone are the days when I can sweep him up in my arms against his will and force him into an unsuitable situation. He’s too big now.

“frustration lies in the gap between expectation and reality.”

So I paused. And tuned into him. Became aware of his unbridled joy, simply at being outside and in the presence of ducks! Immediately, any frustration I was feeling ebbed away.

To bastardise the teachings of the philosopher Seneca, “frustration lies in the gap between expectation and reality.” You can’t change reality. The only thing you can change are your expectations. For a moment, my expectations were out of kilter with the inevitable. Benjamin was going to run, laugh and follow whichever direction the ducks led. My choice was simple. Rail against reality and generate frustration? Or embrace our situation and quell my self-initiated exasperation.

So we walked wherever he wanted. He eventually made his way to the other side of the shore, in his own time and under his own steam. And we laughed together.

Our journey continued, towards my second lesson.

Lesson 2: We have the ability to tune in to others…if we so wish

Benjamin is a friendly little chap. He shows no fear in approaching others, attempting to engage them in conversation. This is something we encourage. His conversations often consist of replaying whatever television programme is currently whizzing around his head. Words pour out of him. “Bluey, german sausage, the tiger shark is big and scary…ahhhhh!”

This tends to lead to confusion. Very often, children and adults will look to us to help interpret what he says. Yet it can be fascinating to watch the reactions of other people to language and behaviour that they don’t immediately understand.

At the other side of the lake, a few children were emerging from their accommodation. Everyone was engaged with one of the more enjoyable childhood occupations. Skimming flat stones across a glassy lake.

Benjamin approached the first group of children with the usual cacophony of noise. Heads went down, gazes were averted. No attempt was made to respond to what he said. He’d tried to engage, on his own terms and in his own way, but was met with an air of suspicion. He wasn’t speaking their language. Therefore why should they respond at all? Benjamin looked on for a moment, awaiting a response. When none came, he ran on to continue his adventure.

I followed on, mildly disheartened by what I’d witnessed.

Not Benjamin though. On he splashed, happily picking up stones and chasing ducks until we came to another couple of kids. The same stream of consciousness ran from his mouth. “Hey there kids, what are you doing with that goose, my friend daddy has a sword and shield and we chase the dragon!”

This time however, he was met with smiles, if not total understanding. They started to talk back in their own language, picking up on the phrases they could make out and responding as best they could. “We are throwing stones but we have to be careful we don’t hit the goose”. They offered Benjamin a stone, he took it, and for a moment they were communicating , simply because this time, these children had smiled. They made an active decision to find a common link, rather than follow the easier route of turning away.

I watched on proudly. Benjamin initiated the connection. The kids had made an active effort to understand him.

Frustration and connection

Without drawing an insultingly obvious line between these experiences and work, it became clear to me that we can learn a lot by wandering around a lake with a little boy who lives entirely in the moment.

He showed me how to tune-in and make an active decision to reduce my frustration. Something I will continue to try and apply to work, questioning what is within my control and whether my frustration is self-generated or not.

The kids we encountered showed that we regularly make active choices about whether we want to understand others or not. Whenever we are approached by someone with a slightly different perspective or style of delivery, it’s within our gift to deflect or engage. A little effort to make a connection made the world of difference to Benjamin. Your effort to engage could make the world of difference to someone within your workplace.

These efforts can open up the door to new connections and possibilities.

Or perhaps even the more simple joy of joining in with some laughter and skimming a stone across a lake.


4and20million run All About You and Emotional Intelligence, training modules designed to help people understand themselves, improve their connections to others and adapt our responses to different challenges.

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