Build invaluable skills and efficacy
“It’s not fair,” Jesse cried. “How come I have to clear the table and she doesn’t?”
My heart clenched, and I felt my face get hot with the heat of shame. Jesse was right. How come his sister didn’t have to do chores or put on her own shoes or buckle her own seatbelt?
The hard truth was because I felt sorry for her. I felt that because her disabilities meant that she worked harder at everything, that I could remove some of the work by not asking her to do chores.
I thought I was making life easier—and I was—but easier for me, not for her.
That day, my daughter started learning how to clean and organize and take care of her belongings. Also that day, I stopped letting my own pain get in the way of her learning to function in the world we lived in.
Her two older brothers had taught me through trial and error that we needed to start small and make it successful (for both of us).
Kids with special needs grow up to be adults with special needs. The more skills they have to take care of themselves, problem solve, plan, and organize, the more options they have as adults. Chores are the perfect way to start teaching those skills.
Chores—from setting a table to cleaning a bathroom to making a bed to organizing a closet—require being able to do multistep activities. They require planning. (Do you have the cleaning supplies?) They require fine and gross motor skills. (Making a bed requires both.) They require visual acuity. (Can you see the stains in the pans?) They require time management, organization, and other executive functioning skills. These skills are, in many ways, more important than doing long division. These are the qualities adults need to find and hold a job, manage college, and live independently.
Equally important to the skills learned is the satisfaction from contributing to your world. When we take away our expectations for kids with special needs to do chores, we are sending a message that we don’t think they are capable (and then are surprised when they act so helpless). We also remove their opportunity to feel the sense of a job well done. That is why I felt so much shame when my son called me out—I knew it was my fear that she couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to contribute. I am so glad I was wrong.
We know there is a large spectrum in terms of our the respective
abilities, ages, and interests of our kids. We have to start with what we know our
kids can and cannot do at a particular point in time. Like everything
else, our kids work on a different
timeline. So if you have a 13-year-old who doesn’t put her dirty clothes
in the hamper yet, starting with the laundry may be a setup for
Speaking of dirty laundry, let’s use that job and break down all the components so you can start with what makes sense to you.
We think of laundry as lugging a basket to the washing machine, sorting hots and colds, darks and lights, measuring detergent, learning the machine settings, loading the washer, and pushing start. But there is a whole lot that happens before you get to the machines.
Consider these steps:
- Does your child know if a garment is dirty?
- Can your child change his clothes independently?
- Can she choose an appropriate outfit?
- Does he know that dish towels, bath towels, sheets, and blankets also need to be washed?
- Can she fold clothes, sort socks, and group like items?
- Can he carry a basket or hamper?
Work with your child to help him or her learn all the parts of “doing laundry,” and you will know when it’s time to actually go to the washing machine.
Another tip I learned by pushing too much is if your child is ready to do her own laundry, declare that it’s going to be time for her to take over doing the laundry the summer before high school or when she has a birthday or at some other transition time. I did this with my daughter. I told her several months before she turned 15 that she would be doing her own laundry. We kept working on the steps needed, and the week before her birthday, we went and got a new lightweight purple basket that she could carry downstairs.
Over the years, we have had to tweak the process. She had to learn what needed to be hung up, what fabrics could be mixed, and how to spray stain remover on the actual stain. I am confident that when she lives on her own in a few years, she will be completely able to do her laundry independently.
The same process can be applied to cleaning the kitchen or bathroom. We started with setting the table (a great place to practice counting) and then clearing the table and putting the leftover food away. (How big does the plastic container need to be to hold the food?)
My daughter learned to load and unload the dishwasher, but it took longer for her to really clean the pots and pans. As she gets better, I add the next step.
Now she and her brother complain about the chores, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Now she and her brother complain about the chores, and I wouldn’
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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