By Adria Nassim
When I speak with different audiences, I typically mention one of the key elements that led to me living a meaningful independent life in young adulthood was my parents’ belief in the dignity and importance of risk in planning for independence. They both accepted very early on that I would have challenges. They knew I would need significant support to master skills most kids learn in just a few weeks (such as putting socks on or zipping a jacket). However, they kept the focus on what I was able to do and all the new skills I was learning and encouraged me.
Mom had a saying she used with me when I was young. If I would ask for help with something, she would first say, “Pretend Mommy isn’t here. What would you do if you were by yourself?” For about 10 minutes she would make me try to do the task myself (for example, opening a bag of chips), and then if I were still having trouble, she or my dad would help me. I don’t think I ever would have said thank you when I was about eight years old and struggling to brush my teeth or 12 and couldn’t put my socks on. However, now in adulthood, I look back and understand why my parents did what they did, and I thank them.
Being allowed to fail actually helped me progress
It isn’t that they wanted to watch me struggle. Quite the opposite. It is through challenge and struggle and being allowed to fail that I learned that I was capable of not only living a life with disabilities but also embracing it for the best that it could be. Even though sometimes I needed to ask for help and couldn’t do things completely on my own, with every failed attempt I learned there would be another chance to try again, and there was. And through their willingness to challenge me and stretch me beyond my comfort zone, my confidence grew with each newly acquired skill or positive experience. The more my parents challenged me and encouraged me, the more confident I became.
Before they would encourage me or challenge me to do something, they had a very thorough understanding of the ways my disabilities affected me day to day. They chose tasks that were developmentally appropriate and specific to the goals I may have been working on. They gave me responsibilities when I was young, and these gradually increased as I got older. As a child, they asked me to pick up my toys and put them away, hang up my backpack, and help bring in groceries (items that were not too heavy). I think that my parents beginning with high expectations and giving me responsibilities at a very young age, probably by age three, did a lot for my success in adulthood.
Fulfilling high expectations built my confidence
With an increase in responsibility came increased freedom and more time spent away from Mom and Dad. From a young age, I became used to trusted adults other than Mom and Dad caring for me during the day. Since this pattern started when I was young, by the time I was ready to leave for college, I felt prepared to be away and be independent of them.
Over my years in public speaking, I have found that many parents of children with developmental disabilities do not challenge them but tend to do for them rather than taking the time to teach or model a skill and encourage them (when safe) to try for themselves. Parents do this out of love. Often, parents of children with disabilities feel the need to protect their child, even more than parents of typical children, because they are often more vulnerable and more significantly challenged. Parents also may not want to place their child in a position where they may face significant difficulty or fail, because day-to-day life is already challenging for their child. However, as loving and well-intentioned as this approach is, it can often have the opposite effect on children.
Because of the decision my parents made to encourage and stretch me, when I reached young adulthood, I felt excited like most high school graduates to go away to college. I was not fearful of being away from Mom and Dad. I had done it many times, and hey—it was fun. I felt confident, and I was not fearful of what life had in store. I knew with the right support, I was going to do just fine.