Leave Your Kid Alone
It’s the middle of the day, the sun is shining bright, but all this child can see is darkness. Because his vision has been quickly deteriorating, he falls to the ground, tripping over a once familiar layout in his own home. His mother stands across the room, tears in her eyes, frozen, torn between helping up her child or letting him figure it out — meanwhile he cries for her in the background. It’s agonizing to see him scared, lost, and helpless…but a few moments later, the tears subside, and the child begins to feel his away around the room. Over time, he was able to become fully independent, because in that early childhood moment, his mother knew that leaving him alone — as painful as it was to witness — would be the best thing she could do for him.
That child was Ray Charles, and that scene from the biographical film, is a scene that has stuck with me since the first time I saw it many years ago. I’ve seen it a million times, and I’ll still bawl during that scene — especially now, having a son who can not meet all of his own needs. I think of this particular scene very often — maybe even daily. I see Oscar wanting to reach for a toy that is juuuust outside of his reach. If I get it for him, he’s happy. If I don’t, he keeps calling for me, getting more upset by the minute. Getting him the toy to make him happy isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but those moments are opportunities for him to grow, get stronger, and become independent. Every time I hand him what he wants, he misses an opportunity to practice reaching, or kneeling, or pushing his own wheelchair, etc.
In a recent meeting discussing my son’s goals for therapy, I was asked if I meet all of my son’s needs. (They were trying to gauge his level of independence.) The answer is yes. I work really hard to create opportunities for cognitive and physical growth every single day. I wait for him to pull his own arm through his shirts, I make him stand to pull his pants up, I make him reach for things that are a little too far away — even if it means he topples over (always on a soft surface, of course). I’ll even sit across the room from him, while he is in his wheelchair, and wait — for an hour if I have to — for him to move a wheel or two. Hell, I’ll wait until he even puts his hands on the wheels. He’s so used to being pushed around in his stroller / chair, and he’s also just gaining the strength and motor control to start independent movement — so it’s up to me to provide the opportunities for him to use and hone in on these new skills. (No pressure, right?) But at the end of the day, my child is still in a place developmentally, where I must meet all of his needs.
I see my friends’ kids who are around the same age walking up to the fridge to get food when they’re hungry, asking for snacks, running to whatever toy they feel like playing with. They are meeting their own needs. They exhibit a lot of independence — even though it might not feel like it for those parents. For the past three years, I’ve been watching the clock to see when it’s time for my son to eat, when it’s time for a nap, when it’s time to practice standing, the list goes on and on. Now that he’s three, and has more physical capability (although still very limited, very uncoordinated, and very delayed) and can use sounds (he has severely delayed speech), I’m finding that I need to essentially “leave him alone” to figure things out, or at least give him a chance to communicate his wants and needs to me instead of being on a presumptive schedule. He may not be able to say “Momma, I’m hungry. I want milk,” but, he can hit his mouth and gesture that he’s hungry. However, if I feed him before he feels the sensation of hunger, he’ll never know what “hungry” is. If he’s been sitting for a long time, whether in the car, in his wheelchair, or on the floor, I put him in his gait trainer to make sure he stretches his legs out, gets some exercise, and releases some energy. I need to find a way for him to gesture that he’s ready to move before I assume it — even if it means he starts thrashing around on his back from being restless.
It’s definitely not a natural way of acting / reacting — it takes a lot of effort, thought, and patience. But Ray Charles’ momma did it (in the movie, anyway) and he had a heck of a life. Lots of ups and downs, but he did it on his own, because she provided opportunities for him to become independent by leaving him alone.
So, do I think you need to leave your kid alone all the time and let him or her figure life out without any guidance whatsoever? No, absolutely not. All I’m saying is that, in the appropriate time and place, sometimes it’s best to sit back and see what our kids can do. They’re pretty adaptive and amazing.