A couple of days ago I was visiting with a friend. She has a little boy, not quite 4, who has special needs. She was telling me that she wanted to make sure he had some sort of hobby or interest like music or sports so he could make friends easier in high school. I told her not to worry about high school now, it would drive her crazy. But it got me thinking.
If we think too far into the future, we will only put more pressure on ourselves and our kids. But at the same time we cannot forget that the future is coming. There needs to be some sort of balance between the two, and I think the way to find it is to give a lot of thought to our priorities.
Having my oldest with autism and my youngest as neuro-typical has given me some insight about parenting to-do lists. We all have them – whether you think you do or not. There are things that you plan to teach your kids. How to read, how to pick-up after themselves, how to cook, how to drive, how to be polite, the list goes on. What I’ve noticed with my kids, is that there are things on Marvin’s to-do list that are not on Wesley’s. I remember when Marvin was about 7, and his grandmother would call to talk to him. We’d tell him who was on the phone, and he would eagerly take the phone and say something like, “Hi Grandma! I got a new Transformer yesterday. His name is Bumblebee and he’s yellow and it’s really hard to transform him. I love you! Goodbye!” And then he would hang up. Grandma usually didn’t ever get a chance to speak, and would need to call back. So we came up with a rule. ‘You cannot hang up the phone until the other person says goodbye.’ We had to explain to him that the other person on the phone might have things to say, too. It took about 2 months for him to get the hang of this. And we had to do a lot of reminding, and poor grandma had to call back several times, but he did eventually get the hang of it. We never once had to explain this to Wesley. He just seemed to understand how a phone conversation worked without us having to tell him.
My point is that the parenting to-do list for a special needs kid has so much more stuff on it than the parenting to-do list for a neuro-typical kid. There are many things that Wesley just seems to know that Marvin is completely clueless about. We have to actively teach those things to Marvin, and it takes a while for him to learn.
So we have to let some things go.
And that is really hard to do.
It comes down to priorities. Which things are safety concerns and which things are simply harmless quirks? Marvin bites his nails. I mean, really bites his nails. I haven’t had to cut his fingernails since he was 3. That is a quirk that I need to let slide, because there are other more important things to worry about. Like looking both ways before crossing the street which is a safety concern. Which things are important for learning academics and social skills and which things are simply on the school’s checklist of things every student has to do? What behaviors are social taboos and what behaviors are simply my own personal pet peeves?
I remember when I finally came to the conclusion that recess was not a life skill my kid needed. As soon as elementary school is done, there is no more recess. So why was I spending so much time trying to make recess successful when he was happy staying inside reading a book? Why was I so insistent on making him have fun the same way other kids do – outside in a loud, wild, unstructured, barely supervised way? I needed to focus my energy – and have him focus his energy – on helping him with his peer relationships inside the classroom. Because that IS a life skill he needs. That is a skill he will need throughout high school, college, and in the work place.
So, my advice is this: Think about your child as an adult, and figure out the basic skills he/she will need. For example – being kind, respecting personal space, being responsible for him/herself, following directions and rules. Then focus on what your child is able to do now. Think about his/her age and abilities and work on one or two things at a time, like saying please and thank you, or not hitting his/her classmates.
This is hard stuff. And you’ll question yourself many times. And other parents will question you. And the school will question you. But if you are intentional about what you are teaching your child, if you’ve thought about what your parenting priorities are, you are doing a GREAT job!