Rule One: Failing to talk about something won’t make it go away. In all likelihood Nate will have to live without us some day, and we’d like to help him prepare for that while we’re still around. We try to talk about the future. Nate’s Dad and I try to bring up things like what kind of living arrangement he’d like (apparently a house with a bunch of guys is the preferred one for now) what he might like to cook for himself or where he might like to work when he’s a grownup just as a way to remind all three of us that it will happen, and it’s not so scary. This brings me to rule 2.
Rule Two: Never let ‘em see you sweat. Frankly, the idea of Nate living without us scares the daylights out of Mike and me, but we don’t want Nate absorbing that fear. When I think about the moving parts that make up independent living individually I can generally imagine solutions for the challenges he’ll likely encounter. Trouble understanding a bus schedule? Make a cheat sheet or find a walkable neighborhood. Making sure he takes his medicine? There’s an app for that. We’ll put a lot of planning time into Nate’s exit plan so that it’s as positive and unscary a process as possible. And we’ll continue to deliver Oscar-worthy performances as we do.
Rule Three: Forgive failures and move forward. And of course I’m talking about my past failures, not my son’s. As parents of a kid with challenges Mike and I are completely guilty of hovering, fixing, and doing for, when doing with would help our son more in the long haul. In our defense, it’s important to choose your battles with kids who melt down easily and recover slowly. That said, we have definitely missed our share of teachable moments with Nate because of our reluctance to let him mess up or become frustrated in his efforts not to. The thing is, if we don’t provide Nate with opportunities to mess up on our watch then he won’t have any recovery strategies for when he’s not - his first job, living in his first non-home setting or figuring out how to engage in leisure activities as an adult. If we don’t hold him accountable for his mistakes he’s going to be a less valuable employee. If we don’t let him spread his own peanut butter or clean up spills now, will he magically acquire those skills when he’s living with that group of guys? Which brings us to the down time thing; will his house mates want to watch TV with the guy who doesn’t clean up his spills and takes no responsibility for the messes he leaves behind. We don’t want him to be that guy.
Rule Four: Lead by example. While Rule Three reads like we’re going to be following our son around micromanaging him about how he’s messed up and what he needs to do about it, it’s really not about the nag. Trust me, I’m a fine nagger and micromanager but my skills are far outstripped by my son’s ability to ignore me. How then to carry out Rule Three? Lead by example. When we make mistakes, we try to model how to recover from them and repair the damage they caused. Nate’s certainly seen me get prickly and defensive when my mistakes are brought to my attention, but hopefully he’s more often seen me accept responsibility and fix what needs to be fixed. We also talk with Nate and each other about our mistakes and model for him the process of recognizing, dealing with the disappointment, addressing and then learning from, our mistakes and poor choices. When Nate was tiny a mentor taught us the phrase “I hate it for ya’” as a way to convey the message “You’ve messed up, I know you’re not feeling good about the consequences, I expect you to fix it; and I still love you.” But you have to say “hate it for ya’” with the right delivery: not punitively or sarcastically, but with humor. Which brings us to our fifth and final rule…
Rule Five: Find the humor in the learning process. We expect imperfection to be the norm in the process of living in community in our home. When mistakes are made, we ask each other for forgiveness and even find humor in our errors. I sometimes tell our son and live-in nephew that the fairies that put their randomly discarded socks and drinking vessels where they belong are on vacation and they’ll have to pick up after themselves today. This usually elicits an eye roll and smirk followed by the desired tidying. One of the things I retained from my psychology courses is that the brain works best when it’s in a relaxed alert state. Humor can help to create the state of mind that can accept that we’ve messed up and allow us to process correction. Feeling accepted goes a long way with this too. So if you find yourself at the end of this post feeling cheated of more specific advice on how to make your kid “work ready” consider this. Most young adults with disabilities don’t get fired because they couldn’t perform the required tasks of their job, but because they lacked the interpersonal skills to deal with correction, get along with co-workers or respond appropriately to supervisors. As the supervisors of your household you have the opportunity to practice these skills with your kid every day, so do that. And when things get messy, don’t forget to laugh.