Increase Chores and Responsibilities, Increase Expectations, Increase Independence, Raise the Bar – Improve Function!

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Vidya Guhan

kids_choresWhen you see these things listed on your program, it is easy to overlook them. After all, there are no assigned frequencies or durations, nothing you can check off your daily list, and they are so vague. You are likely thinking, “My child does his chores, she has her responsibilities, my expectations are high; otherwise I wouldn’t even be an NACD parent to start with! So what do these words really mean?”

At least those were the thoughts that ran through my head when I was assigned to write this article way back during staff training in October 2009. It was assigned specifically to me because it was the primary focus of my daughter’s program that quarter, so I would have firsthand experience as a parent. Even though I had “talked the talk” as an evaluator for a long time, it was an eye-opening experience for me to “walk the walk” as a parent and really figure out the how to accomplish this.

The first thing I had to address was “intention”—the purpose, the meaning, the significance of everything my child did. For many of our kids, the reason to read or do math or do a chore is that someone is making them do it. The purpose becomes going through the motions, getting through the activity, avoiding trouble. When this is the intention, it is not uncommon to find that they tend to “forget” chores or steps in a process or parts of passages read, without constant reminders from us. Things do not happen until the “final warning” is issued. The child does not seem to be paying attention, does not seem to get it, seems to be just drifting along, while we wonder what we are doing wrong. What are we missing? Processing—good, dominance—check, diet and sleep- under control, stimming—down. Now what?

Well, to start with, my daughter’s intentions had to change. There had to be a better, more intrinsic motivation for her to do the things that she needed to do. For that to happen, my intentions had to change too. I could not expect her to change if my goals were still to protect her all the time, keep her from making mistakes, and catch her every time she fell. No, now my intention was to support her as she made her mistakes and grew from them; to let her make choices and face the consequences—good and bad – and to learn from them; to set good boundaries within which she could be more independent.

As I engaged in this massive shift of perspective, I realized that in the past I had often stolen the responsibility from my daughter altogether. Being an attentive mom with a stimmy kid, I engaged her constantly. I kept her from stimming, directed her time, and assisted her as much as possible so she would succeed. And she thrived she stimmed less, processed more. She changed—but I didn’t. I thought I was doing the right things. After all, isn’t it important for me to continue to remind her to pack her snack every morning so she does not forget to take it to school? Isn’t it important for me to prompt her several times to get ready for karate, chorus, or school so that we will be on time and she will not miss out? Isn’t telling her what the time is so she would be aware of it the right thing to do? What about sitting next to her and keeping her attention on those little math problems? Pointing out the directions and reminding her to read all her choices—this is important, right? All of these methods got the job done, except for one very significant thing: She was not progressing much on the global maturity, responsibility, and independence fronts, despite the increasing digit spans. And I was burning out, wondering when she would “grow up.”

I started with little things. I stopped reminding her to pack her snack. So she forgot and went without it, and she never forgot again. I stopped reminding her to pack her karate gear, and she forgot, was the only one without it for an important activity, and lo and behold, she has never forgotten since. I didn’t solve the problems for her and offered no solutions.

Then I got bolder. How far could my backing off really change things? I stopped reminding her of the time and instead switched to, “We should leave at 3:30, so come and get me when you are ready to go.” So of course we missed chorus that day when she showed up at 4:00 p.m. and asked me, “Is it time to go now?” She also missed school a couple of days because the car left at 8:30 a.m. like it was supposed to, and she missed her ride by taking too long to get ready. Like magic, my daughter started paying attention to the clock and telling time on her own, to the extent that she will now stop and turn off her TV show/video game on her own and come tell me that it’s 3:30 and time to go to class.

So far, so good. Next on the list was “chores.” She had been doing her own laundry for a while now, but always with a lot of reminders on my part, and whining on hers. To start with I removed all but eight sets of clothes from her closet—one for each day of the week and one spare. She chose her favorite clothes—the dresses she loved to wear. I told her that I would not ask her to do her laundry anymore and gave her the guidelines: if she ran out of clean clothes, she would have to stay home until she washed and put them away and was able to dress to go out again. The following Sunday, she had used up her last clean outfit. I literally bit my tongue to keep myself from “gently” pointing out that her closet was empty and that tomorrow was a school day. Sunday night just before dinner she suddenly disappeared into her closet, ran down with her clothes, and started up the wash. Even more impressive, before going to bed, she remembered (on her own) to put them in the dryer. I was still holding my breath—after all, folding clothes and putting them away was the biggest hurdle. Monday morning she got out of bed, brought her clothes up and put them away, then put on her favorite dress and came to me, pleased as punch with herself. To say that I was proud would be an understatement—I was ecstatic!

Wow— after years of reminders, nagging, and strategies that made no difference, what changed? What made such a huge difference in such a short time? Intention, expectations, and responsibility were more significant and powerful than I had imagined. Simple and profound at the same time, letting her make her mistakes and learn from them. As a parent I handed back the responsibility for her to her. And by doing so, I was no longer treating my 11 year old as a little child. I was talking to her like she was a big kid, and she was stepping up to the challenge. Instead of telling her what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, I explained what needed to happen and set boundaries with the choices I gave her. After a few weeks she had stopped whining and demanding that I make her life perfect for her, and she started dealing with the realities. To my surprise, she preferred this “harder” life because she perceived that she had way more control now, even if she had to work harder for it sometimes.

For example, I let her know that the law requires her to do her schooling 5 days a week. If she would rather not do it on a certain weekday or did not meet the required standards of attention, effort, and intention to do her best work, I would gladly give her the day off and do school on the weekend instead. It was up to her. Not so surprisingly, she has never refused, or “flaked” out on a school day since. I also started her on a weekly allowance and set up some parameters for spending it. She no longer expects me to buy her dresses on every whim or produce them out of thin air. She is now looking at price tags, figuring out how much more she will have to save; and when she does buy something for herself, the sense of pride, ownership and joy on her face is priceless.

So one step at a time, changing my intention, changing hers, and shifting responsibilities from me to her is paying huge dividends. Hopefully the examples above have given you several ideas of your own.

Here are some important guidelines if you are addressing these issues with your own child:

Discuss with your evaluator whether your child is at the developmental stage where we would push independence and responsibilities. A child with low processing, dominance issues, and sensory issues may not be ready for this stage yet. If I had tried these strategies 3 years ago, my daughter would have engaged in more sensory play and regressed developmentally. One rule of thumb is that we do not expect organized behavior from a disorganized brain. During my daughter’s disorganized stage, I was her external control box. But once the pieces were in place, she needed experience and opportunity for developing her own controls. Your evaluator WILL indicate on your program or during your evaluation if your child needs an increase in responsibilities, chores, and independence. Please take this part of your program seriously.

Identify one thing at a time that you are currently being responsible for that your child could and should be responsible for instead. Remember that if you are reminding, nagging, and supervising constantly, you are the one being responsible for the task, even if your child is going through the motions. Change one thing at a time.

If possible, set up and allow natural consequences to occur, like missing a class, going without a snack, not having clean clothes, etc. This usually works well if the consequence is something your child truly cares about. For example, my child loves her classes and hates to miss them.

When natural consequences are not possible, set up contingencies—for example, unloading the dishwasher and tidying up the living room are two of my daughter’s daily chores. This does not have a huge significance to her, but the contingency is that when she has completed those tasks, then she can have her free time activity.

Set up clear choices and boundaries that your child can work within, and be very firm about these. Expect some resistance when you first make the changes. For example, missing a class the first time resulted in a mega fit and tantrum. I had set aside that day for being patient and sympathetic (“I am sorry you missed school sweetie. I feel bad for you. What do you think you can do about it?”). I let her rant and rave, and then I started listening to her solutions. Some were off the wall and some were realistic. But she finally came up with how to prevent it from happening again. But at no time did I change the limit or choice – I did not drive her to school, I did not apologize, etc. Make sure your rules are non-negotiable.

Be very, very positive in your interaction with your child. Give her tons of positive feedback and appreciation every time she shows more self-discipline, or thinking, or responsibility. These are huge steps! I made it a point to give her a positive stroke every 15 minutes or so that I was with her. There is always something to compliment if you have the “catch them being good” attitude. This is especially important at this stage because you do not want your child to perceive that you are doing something negative to her and therefore engage in a power struggle with you. You want your child to see that she is making the choices that lead to good or bad consequences, and that you support her either way.

Happy Programming, and as always, kudos to all the wonderful NACD parents out there who are constantly raising the bar!

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 23 No. 2, 2010 ©NACD