Give Your Student a Net, Not a Fish
By Douglas Gould, Residential Coordinator, The Berkshire Center
Young adults leaving home for the first time have to overcome many challenges. They are about to enter a new and difficult social environment. They must meet new academic and vocational expectations and make decisions on their own, while taking care of themselves in areas that parents have previously been responsible.
These new obstacles are faced by every young adult. All expectations are made more difficult by the student having learning differences. Those who parent or work with Aspergers, NLD or students with Learning Differences understand that these students have difficulty adapting to change.
All parents of children have served as driver, cook, housekeeper, laundry worker, and maid to list just a few of the responsibilities. In addition, parents of children with learning differences have served as advocates and tutors.
They have invested substantially more time at all of these chores than parents of typical students. Parents have done these chores longer than they would have for neuotypical children. In fulfilling these responsibilities, parents have kept their special needs children on track to compete in society.
The Parent Trap
This focus on helping dependent children to be successful with the many facets of adolescence has a hidden trap. The parents’ work and dedication to the success of their children” is time-consuming and exhausting.
Making things run smoothly has become ingrained in the parents’ relationship with their child. However, chronological age outdistances parents’ ability to keep up with all that is going on with their child. This is the conflict. Parents are doing things to assure success for their child. This encourages the child to become dependent upon their parents for their achievements.
Many times the work parents have done has fostered dependence, not independence. Parents are caught in a time bind. They are doing what is necessary to allow their children to be successful, but that very work inhibits the child’s success once they leave home.
Parents must learn to do less for their young adults. Once away at school, students will need to make decisions and judgments on their own. If the sink is stopped up, students need to handle it without parental support. Hopefully, they can be proactive and unplug it themselves. If not, they need to learn the channels available to them.
Parents of more dependent student may get a call. The parents tell their student that they will take care of it. Then the parent calls the landlord or a staff member and demands that the problem be taken care of. Most times when this happens, it is the first time that it has been reported. Why then didn’t the student go to the landlord or staff and ask for help first? Because they are used to having the parent[s] solve their problems.
What can parents do to help students make the transition to being away at school?
First, students must begin to make decisions themselves. Parents must insist their student engage in problem solving and advocacy for themselves. Secondly, parents can cultivate daily living skills that their students will need once they have left home.
The student has grown older and has a new set of challenges. Parents can assist in the development of independent living skills by expecting them to initiate chores while they are home. Laundry is a good example of a chore that everyone, learning difference or not, needs to do for themselves.
With all the new expectations of living away from home, the greater independence, the decision making, the academics, the social milieu of their dorm or apartment, they have their plate full. Learning to do laundry in that setting is going to be just one more demand they are poorly equipped to handle.
Students who are already experienced at doing laundry have one less area to address in the new environment. They started doing their laundry at home. Doing their own wash, folding and putting it away has been a regularly scheduled weekly responsibility. Laundry is an excellent example of a chore that is easy for the parent to do, but in the end serves the need of the parent more than the child. Doing laundry for our children taps into our maternal or paternal sense. We can feel like we are nurturing while still being somewhat removed. It seems like a “nice thing to do”, and it is easy.
The reward for this modern-day parenting role is often internal – it means more to us than to our children.
Students tend to take laundry for granted, not even noticing that they have an endless supply of socks or tee shirts. Teaching the skill early and having them be responsible for their own wash will give them a leg up once they have left home.
Another area that should be addressed at home is cooking. When students are on their own, they are going to be planning, shopping, preparing and cleaning up food for themselves and their roommates. Cooking at home is something that can start immediately so that they will have basic skills when they arrive at school. Students need to learn basic prep work. They should be experienced with cutting, chopping and julienne before they arrive at school. They should learn to mix, drain and sauté.
Students that have basic cooking skills find their early months away from home to be much easier. It is recommended that families choose one night per week for their child to cook for the family. Assist them with meal planning, shopping or cooking as needed. Do not assist with the clean-up. Clean-up is something they will have to do on a daily basis, and requires more work than skill. Expect them to complete kitchen chores by sweeping, taking out the trash and wiping down the counters at least one time per week.
Students also must learn to pick up their own space. Students whose parents have “assisted” them by picking up their dirty clothes and organizing everything in their room have little skill when they arrive at school. Parents can assist students by helping them to simplify and pare down things in their rooms. Cluttered, busy and overfilled rooms are especially difficult for people that are “organizationally challenged”.
Helping them discard the old childish things and move into adulthood will serve them well once they arrive at school. Along those lines, parents can do a great service to students going off to school if they encourage simplicity. Sparse is always better.
The dedication and hard work of the parents pays. It is time for parents to help their students by doing less for them and expecting more.