Cross words

My 9 year old and I are snuggled tightly together in a small armchair designed for one. His bare back warms me as he unconsciously presses his body into mine. Toes, knees, legs, back, shoulders tangle around me. Only his hands are his own, and they are holding my phone. His stormy face bends towards it, and his dark eyebrows draw together in concentration: he is helping me with the New York Times crossword puzzle.

Armchair decidedly for one

We should be outside. We’ve rented a cottage for a week with friends, and everyone else is taking advantage of a beautiful day at a quiet lake. But my boy got angry earlier, and his anger is a monster that swallows his words and hardens his body. When he is angry, he often will not speak and sometimes will not even move. He curls up, hides under a soft dark blanket and refuses to engage with the world or any of the people in it. Today, this meant that he could neither explain his anger nor participate and tidying the cottage after lunch. Tidying is not negotiable, so today he got in trouble, then he screamed, and then he cried.

He stomped off to settle himself down a little bit outside, and then he returned for the sure fix: a snuggle. “Crossword?” He pleaded, oral language still almost too much for him. We have declared this week device free, but three days ago, after another frustration, he sat with me while I worked the crossword. To everyone’s shock, he loved it. Today the only crossword in this cottage is on my phone, and I relent. We snuggle together, reading the clues and guessing. “Christmas ____” is easy, and he loves the clue “suds maker.” Slowly the grid fills.

I would never have guessed that these horizontal and vertical lines, these interlinked squares with so many possibilities and so few right answers, would calm him. His breathing slows; his face lights up when he gets an answer; his body relaxes. With each completed box he puts words in their place. Slowly his world becomes more orderly. We finish the whole puzzle in less than 30 minutes.

Now he can tell me what made him upset. It was nothing, really – a typical sibling spat, easily solved. But cross words and compromises are tough for my boy. I know this, though I can’t fix it. We agree on a non-verbal cue he can use next time to ask for extra time before we try to talk to be honest, I don’t think it will work, but it’s worth a try. And I think I’ll invest in a book of crosswords.

14 thoughts on “Cross words

  1. This personal vignette so richly conveys the observant teacher-parent in you, the never compromising on basics because of upsets. These are the most useful lessons he will learn and I marvel at your ability to navigate this with persistence and pedagogy 😊

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  2. This is a beautiful slice. It’s so telling that when he can’t communicate, he still turns to you for comfort and understanding. What a lucky boy to have a parent who so clearly “gets” him and knows when to be flexible and when to hold the line.

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  3. That kind of anger is so hard to understand, but you have given enough to open up his communication. I could use something to help my daughter deal with her 19 month old’s anger. Any tools in your toolbox?

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  4. This is a poignant, honest moment. I could relate to some of it for sure. I have a nine year old boy and I know those snuggles. I also know the anger and the hiding at times. I am glad your guy found something to help him calm down and share with you what upset him. Lovely writing.

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  5. I love the play on words: cross words and crosswords. Angry moments are difficult to navigate, even for adults. Sounds like you have figured out how to self-reg your way through them. Now he just needs to learn how to do it. He will in time. Kids have taught me a lot about managing anger in the last 20 years. It’s a very complex emotion and often so close to the surface for many of them. Good luck with the cross words/crosswords during the rest of your cottage week!

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  6. Thank you for sharing such a personal slice of your life. Having a “device free” time wasn’t nearly as important as your son’s needs. I’m glad you’ve found an activity that is good for both of you!

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  7. We are often device free at our cabin. Or, at least we were. My boys (3) are now almost all grown men with my last graduating this spring from HS. We are finding that some connections via the internet whether it be a phone or computer is okay. And, crossword puzzles would definitely fit the bill. I am encouraged by the fact he finds the crosswords calming! Yes, I would invest in some crossword books. Thanks for sharing this personal post!

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  8. We are often device free at our cabin. Or, at least we were. My boys (3) are now almost all grown men with my last graduating this spring from HS. We are finding that some connections via the internet whether it be a phone or computer is okay. And, crossword puzzles would definitely fit the bill. I am encouraged by the fact he finds the crosswords calming! Yes, I would invest in some crossword books. Thanks for sharing this personal post!

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  9. The description of you and your son in the chair tugged at my heart and had me wondering if I’m missing something having only daughters. Your connection and bond is strong… and you know your son so well. This is your gift I’ve decided…you see people…really see them. I’m going to print a crossword to try with my oldest. Enjoy your escape!

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  10. How this pulls on the heartstrings, Amanda, in so many ways – an angry boy who can’t find the words but finds release in crosswords, the healing power of words, you play on words with the title, a boy coming to snuggle – alas. I am out of words to describe the pull. Beautifully told.

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  11. I was that boy. I felt a real connection to what you described there. I did not have the crossword as an outlet or antidote. My mom didn’t let anyone help with the Sunday crossword, but she would offer to play ping pong in the basement whenever I needed that. She would sometimes let me win!
    I love the opening in the chair. The stormy face and the dark eyebrows capture the scene. He’s lucky to have a mom who knows when the rules need to be bent…or amended.

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