Motivating Kids With A ‘Loving Push’
When Tristan was three, he started Pivotal Response Training. At the time, he hardly spoke. So, like any good parent, while we waited for him to take this first verbal step, we took care of all the others that would come next. I bathed him and I changed his clothes for him. I brushed his teeth and tied his shoes. I did these things until they became habits, as unthinking as my own self care routine.
I probably would have continued doing things for Tristan until one day — two years later — as I struggled to wedge Tristan’s foot into his shoe, our trainer and mentor asked why I did everything for him.
“Put those shoes in front of him and tell him to try to put his shoes on,” she advised.
I remember setting the shoe down and mumbling that he wouldn’t be able to – before noticing my son reach for one and attempt to put it on himself.
I thought about this moment recently as I read The Loving Push, by Dr. Temple Grandin. The book urges parents to ask a very important question: Am I encouraging my child — or enabling my child too much?
The struggle to balance doing things for our kids and enabling their dependence, pushing our kids to be a little more independent and setting them up to fail, is such a fine and fuzzy line. Out of love, protection, even convenience at times, we may step in when a child is struggling. Sometimes, we don’t even give the child a chance, keeping actions both big and little on our to-do list, rather than theirs. It will take them too long to do it, we think. They’re not ready for it. It’s too difficult.
The line is even fuzzier when a child has autism. In the grand scheme of typical childhood development, speaking is one of the first skills children develop. It had never occurred to me that Tristan might be capable of other, ‘more advanced’ skills, when he still hadn’t mastered that. And it hadn’t occurred to me to let him try, even if it meant he failed. He had had so few (typical) successes yet.
Children with autism can be their own worst enemies. If left to their own devices – and we to ours – they can become passive and helpless, too dependent on our pattern of indulgence.
Most parents, when they veer into overdoing, can rely on their children to help them course-correct – a child throws a tantrum because she can tie her shoes herself thankyouverymuch; later, he announces he wants to use the bathroom by himself. Even later, that she can walk to school or wait for the bus on her own, like all of the other big kids.
But children with autism can be their own worst enemies. If left to their own devices – and we to ours – they can become passive and helpless, too dependent on our pattern of indulgence to live a full and satisfying life.
So we are left wondering what is the best way to motivate kids to try new, maybe difficult things, without unknowingly discouraging them. It is a journey in itself. And I like Dr. Grandin’s book because it explores just that. She writes of different ways that parents can determine how much they should “push” their children, so they can blossom into adults that thrive. She writes that the balance between children’s independence and parents’ support is different for every family and difficult to strike — but it’s important to presume competence in a child, then push the envelope just a little bit. Keep testing their boundaries so they don’t get stuck. Give little, loving pushes in the direction of new skills and experiences.
When I write and talk about raising Tristan, I often describe it as helping him learn to “optimise his autism.” Optimising – making something as strong or useful as possible – doesn’t happen overnight. Strength is built little by little, through small ventures and smaller setbacks. Through trial and error and practice and trial again. Through habits — Tristan’s habits.
Last year, Tristan started going to a new school, at which he had gym class twice a week and judo class twice a month. For these lessons, he had to change out of his normal clothes and shoes into his exercise attire — and then back again. At 6 and a half years old, Tristan was quite capable of changing his clothes, but he had never been asked to do it so frequently and quickly before.
So, we decided to have him practice before school commenced. He cried and kicked up a fuss every time we had him go through the changes; he had so many excuses. So we broke up his “training” and gave him more control over it. We let him choose his clothes every day — so, when he had to put them on himself, he didn’t feel pressured or frustrated but in control. We used lots of praise and rewards, and slowly, his confidence in his ability to do quick-changes grew. Now, while he still gets lazy and asks a teacher for help now and then, we can simply remind him how easy it is for him and that he is capable.
Loving pushes aren’t sudden shoves into the unknown. They are simply the momentum – the encouragement, the practice, the love – that propels our children to take their first step in shoes they’ve put on themselves.