A few months ago, my son was playing air hockey at the bowling alley with one of the new friends he met at school this year – a typical 6th grader who has a good heart and, like many others in his class, seems willing to get to know my kid. After they were playing for a few minutes, this boy turned to me and said, “I was going easy on him … until I realized that he can play!”
That’s not an unusual reaction. My kid’s diagnosis impedes his abilities in so many areas that most people expect that he needs more help than he actually does. The first friends my child had in a typical classroom were the ones who wanted to help him. These were usually the girls with a “mother hen” instinct, but a few of the boys too. After they were told a bit about my son [see a story about that here], some went a little overboard to help make life easier for him.
I was initially thrilled to see kids competing to help him out – they’d want to put away his lunchbox for him, carry his books, pick up his pencil if he dropped it. Some were clearly looking to gain favor with the adults in the room, some wanted to prove to everyone they could be a “good friend,” some were just genuinely nice kids with an instinct to help someone who appeared to need it.
But, I started to get an uncomfortable feeling that my son was more of a “class pet” than a classmate. Their enthusiasm threatened to hinder my child’s progress – how would he ever learn to empty his backpack if he always had an eager little helper to do it for him? Whenever I volunteered in the classroom, I would encourage them to step back and let him do things on his own. They were always surprised by the things he could actually do when given a chance.
The hard truth is….they weren’t the only ones.
The first night that our son took a DVD out of its case, placed it correctly in the player, managed the remotes successfully and sat down to watch a movie without once asking for help – my husband and I were stunned. We had the same reaction as the kid at the air hockey game – when did he learn how to do that?
This was one of those instances where my child was extremely delayed in learning a simple independent skill that typical children learn at an early age – not because he lacked the ability, but because we forgot to teach him. We got in the habit of turning on his movies for him – his favorite shows are highly motivating and can be used to bring out language in my kid, so it was one of the early activities that we kept out of his reach to encourage him to “use his words.” And, until one of our habilitation providers recognized his lack of skill and taught him how to do it, we just continued to enable his dependence on us without even realizing it. While we were teaching him the benefit of communicating with others, we were also inadvertently training him to be dependent on someone else.
My son was never one to cry “Me do it!” as many toddlers do. He rarely challenged our actions to assist him – zipping his jacket, buckling his seatbelt, pouring his juice – so unless a skill got on the official (and very long) “target list” of things we were teaching him, he didn’t learn it. It was easy to forget all of the little things that I continued to do for him long after the time when he was old enough and skilled enough to do those things on his own.
I often find myself confronted by his Mom-enabled deficits when I watch some of his much younger typical peers doing amazing things for themselves that I am still, years later, doing for my kid out of habit. This, by the way, is one of the dangers in secluding yourself in a world of special needs parents – you forget what the “typicals” are doing and don’t realize that your expectations have lowered. Your kid pours his own cereal? What?!? He’s only 5! He must be a genius!
I also started to see the problem during his annual assessments. My son’s therapists would ask what he could do independently – make his bed? fix a snack? load the dishwasher? comb his hair? – and more often than not, the reason he didn’t get points for independent skills is because it rarely occurred to me to allow him to try. He didn’t learn to tie his shoes until we added it to his occupational therapy program, because it was easier, faster and less stress-inducing for me to tie his shoes for him. He never had an opportunity to learn, until his therapist made me realize that I was the one getting in his way.
All parents who have ever been late for an appointment know what I’m talking about. If I waited for him to get dressed by himself, we might as well just go back to bed. And, teaching my child new skills is often a painfully slow process, where every task needs to be broken down into smaller steps and practiced over and over with decreasing prompt levels and positive feedback and a calm tone and gentle patience and… oh, forget it! Just let me do it today, we’ll practice again tomorrow!!
Temporarily making my own life easier is only one of a myriad of reasons why I do too much for my kid. There are safety issues, a desire to avoid public meltdowns, and often an awareness that he has worked hard enough all day and needs a break. I have an instinct to be his “easy button,” to reduce his stress in a world that is already full of challenges. Sometimes I just simply forget that my son is able-bodied, and while his brain works differently, it still works perfectly fine to learn how to clear the table and clean up after himself. But now that my son is as tall as I am, and heading into his teenage years – oh great, he already feels entitled – it has really hit home that I am actually doing him a disservice by not requiring those independent skills.
Doing too much for him – and allowing his classmates to do the same – fosters the misconception that the only way to support people with disabilities is to provide caretaking, when what people like my son really need are appropriate accommodations and skill-building for independent living. Now, my kid is no dummy. If someone will turn in his papers, blow up his bicycle tire, or carry his lunch tray – he’s perfectly happy to let others do for him. Who doesn’t prefer “easy”? But in this assisted living mode, not only do the people around him never learn what he can do, he never learns either. The Easy Button mentality denies him the practice he needs to master critical physical coordination, fine motor dexterity, critical thinking and language skills. But, even more important, too much assistance can lead to a misunderstanding of his own abilities – he starts to assume that he can’t do things, and people around him all too easily believe it too.
I am learning that I can go easy on him today – or I can help make his life easier in the long-run by providing him the opportunities to learn the skills he needs and to gain the confidence and self-awareness to succeed. He’ll probably still surprise people with the things he knows how to do, and that’s how he’ll win the game.
They’ll never see it coming.