Teaching What Matters
By Dan Coulter
Wouldn't the world be a better place if our
kids hung on our every word? If they worshiped our wisdom and lived to do
everything we told them to do?
Probably not, but it's easy to feel that
way. And it's so tempting to try and impart our gems of wisdom as they.orge to us. Often we do exactly that, as if we were applying post-it
notes to our kids' bodies, expecting them to keep each note handy and
reach out and find exactly the right advice at the right time.
Like that's going to happen.
So do we always have the right to get
frustrated when they do something we've told them not to do - or fail to
do something we now expect of them? For many kids, I think getting ad hoc
advice as it pops into their parents' heads must be more like getting
peppered with pebbles. The pebbles are annoying and most of them just
This all came to mind as my wife and I
talked with our son, who has Asperger Syndrome, on the last day of his
winter college break. We were bursting with advice and ideas on things
Drew could do to improve his study habits, keep his room cleaner, store
his clean laundry differently and on and on.
We had our advice pebble slingshots out and
had started peppering our son before we came to our senses and got
realistic. We wound up talking about just a few things we'd like him to do
differently and discussed practical ways he could make these changes.
This was much more in line with the way his
brain absorbs information. Like many kids, he has a hard time changing
habits he's developed over a long time. A habit is like a template in
your head. If you want to change the behavior, you have to rewrite the
template - and that takes time and effort.
So it makes sense to pick the most important
habits you want your child to learn -- or to unlearn - and work on them
one at a time. One of the things we focused on while Drew was home this
college break was using email. He routinely uses instant messaging to
talk with his friends, but has had a hard time remembering to check his
email on a regular basis. This was not only frustrating to us as parents, but had
the potential to cause problems at school. His college instructors and
administrators often.orgmunicate with students through email. So not
checking email meant risking not knowing about assignment changes or
Our solution was to send him emails while he
was home and remind him to check them every day to help him get in the
habit. Also, when I drove him back to school, we set up his.orgputer to
automatically open his email program every time he turned on his.orgputer
as a reminder to check for messages.
My wife and I were delighted when he began
promptly responding to our emails -- and ecstatic when he began generating
his own. We heaped on the praise in subsequent email messages.
That's important too. Sometimes its easy to
use on our kids what we used to call "exception reporting" when I worked
for the phone.orgpany. "Exception reporting," means only getting a report
when something goes wrong. If your kids only hear from you when you're
telling them what they need to change, you're probably not a lot of fun to
be around. You may also get tuned out a lot.
We've found some of the most important
things to work on with Drew involved safety skills and self-advocacy
skills. Safety skills include more than avoiding physical danger. We've
talked with him about scams and not giving out personal or financial info
on the Internet. We've also talked about how he needs to approach his
instructors to make sure he understands assignments and knows what he
needs to focus on to do the best possible job in a course.
Yes, we'd like his room to be neater and
cleaner, but as long as he's not breeding deadly E. coli or typhoid, we're
not likely to start staging surprise inspections.
The cliché's "pick your battles" and "don't
sweat the small stuff" have their roots in sound reasoning. Think about
the skills that are most important for your son or daughter to learn to
live independently. These are probably the most important things you can
work on. And it's much easier - as we've learned - to work on these
things while your kids are still living at home.
Test runs are also invaluable. Telling your
child how to do something pales in.orgparison with showing him and then
having him do it himself. Many of our kids also need to have.orgplex
actions broken down into clear steps. For example, making a purchase in a
store's checkout line involves:
1. Selecting your item or items.
2. Checking their prices and making sure you
have enough money to buy them.
3. Finding the checkout counter and standing
4. Keeping focused in line. Remembering who
you're standing behind and moving forward when that person moves.
5. When you reach the checkout clerk,
handing your items to the clerk or putting them on the counter where he or
she can reach them.
6. Waiting for the clerk to total your
purchases and tell you how much you owe.
7. Handing the clerk enough money to pay for
8. Waiting for the clerk to hand you your
change, if you have any.orging.
9. Waiting for the clerk to put your
purchase in a bag, if it requires a bag
or if the store's checkout clerks just
routinely bag merchandise.
10. Taking your purchase and your receipt
with you when you leave the checkout counter and the store.
When Drew was young and learning about
shopping, he was easily distracted and didn't always remember to step
forward as a checkout line moved up. I also observed him handing his
money to the clerk with his merchandise instead of waiting for the clerk
to ring up his purchase. With some guidance and practice, he absorbed his
"checkout etiquette" and was able to go shopping on his own with no
problem. Letting him handle checkout chores whenever it was practical
during shopping trips helped build his skills and confidence. There's no
substitute for letting your child do all these steps himself, only
stepping in to assist if you absolutely have to, and giving him or her
immediate feedback afterwards.
It's never too early to identify key life
skills and start practicing the most important ones. Working
consistently on these "core skills" will be much more effective than just
peppering your kids with advice as it pops into your head.
As for all those unused pebbles of wisdom,
I'm thinking of using mine to build a life-size replica of the Great Wall
of China. Now if I can just figure out what to do with all the
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the
writer/producer of a series of Asperger Syndrome-related videos,
including: "Asperger Syndrome Dad: B.orging An Even Better Father To Your
Child With AS." You can find more articles on his website at: www.coultervideo.org.
Copyright 2005 Dan Coulter All Rights
Reserved Used By Permission