Teaching What Matters

January 19, 2005


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 come 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 bounce off.

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 communicate
with students through email. So not checking email meant risking not
knowing about assignment changes or school announcements.

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 computer to automatically open his email
program every time he turned on his computer as a reminder to check for

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 company. "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

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 clichés "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 comparison with showing him and then having him do it himself. Many of
our kids also need to have complex 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 in line.
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
7. Handing the clerk enough money to pay for the purchases.
8. Waiting for the clerk to hand you your change, if you have any coming.
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 leftovers...

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of a series of
Asperger Syndrome-related videos, including: "Asperger Syndrome Dad:
Becoming An Even Better Father To Your Child With AS." You can find more information and articles on his website: coultervideo.com

Copyright 2005 Dan Coulter   Used by Permission    All Rights Reserved


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