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Education, Control, and Abuse

August 7, 2013 1 comment

My apologies for the length of this post.

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How do we teach children what they need to know in life? What do they need to know?

They need, at some point, some measure of self-control: the ability to delay gratification, to think before acting, to modify aggressive instincts, to consider the well-being and desires of others, and to endure things that are boring or yucky or uncomfortable, from sitting through class to going to the dentist.

Observe the average 18-30 month-old child, and you will see what people are like without this control. Toddlers are 90% “id” — desire unmodified by conscience or inhibition. They grab what they want, become violent toward anyone they disagree with, and refuse to cooperate with anything they dislike. You can’t function in society this way. (Well, you can, but you have to already have a lot of money and/or political clout, and you certainly won’t have many friends).

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who has been trained to completely sublimate their own will. As a society, we consider this more acceptable, even necessary at times. Anyone who joins the military steps into this role– choosing to follow another’s orders above all else. But that is an adult’s choice to make, with adult reasons for doing so. There’s a reason why you have to be 18 to enlist. Brainwashing children to do nothing more than follow orders is abuse.

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Finding the middle ground is hard, even with typically developing children. Cultures and experts disagree about when and how to discipline children, and about what level of self-control they should be expected to have at what age (either physical, such as toilet training, or psychological, such as not talking out of turn).

Ideally, I think the modern-day parent imagines explaining every rule and its reason clearly, and the child responding “Oh, that makes sense” and following the rules from then on. But anyone who has spent any time caring for a child knows that this very rarely occurs. Inevitably, one is faced with a child who has preferences that are incompatible with their own well-being (e.g., refuses to eat healthy foods), the well-being of others (e.g., refuses to share), or the general necessity of a given situation (e.g., won’t follow classroom policies, won’t get in the car when it’s time to go, etc. etc. etc.).

We want, at least in this day and age, for our children to have minds of their own. But we also want them to comply with the majority of our wishes. Somehow, we have to find a balance.

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When your child does something wrong, do you slap them? Yell at them? Reprove them gently? Order a time-out? Restrain them physically? Options get more complex as children get older. They can be sent to the school principal, grounded, given detention, required to apologize or otherwise make reparations, assigned more responsibilities, stripped of privileges, guilt-tripped, spanked, publicly humiliated, and so on. And although many parents insist they know exactly how to fix their children’s misbehavior, I won’t believe that until I meet a child who behaves perfectly… and then I’ll just think I’ve run across some sort of “Stepford Wives” style of mind control.

The science of behavioral psychology can help. We’ve demonstrated, for example, that children mimic what they see and hear. The injunction “do as I say, not as I do,” is probably the most useless phrase ever used in child-rearing. So if we want nice children, we should be nice people. But we also know (perhaps more anecdotally) that doormat parents bring up children who walk all over them (and everyone else). Being nice doesn’t do the job alone; you need structure and rules.

We know that rewarding desired behavior works better, on the whole, than punishing unwanted behavior. If kids hear “no” constantly, they start to tune it out, unless you manage to break their will completely. But punishment has its place too– if you ignore your child punching other children to get their toys, that behavior is not going to just go away on its own. Unless the other kids beat up your kid and they learns their lesson that way. Letting your child learn from the consequences of their mistakes is a good strategy in some cases, but not in all. You don’t just let your kid jump off the roof to find out that they’ll break a leg.

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I think we can all agree that, at some point, too much or too severe discipline becomes abuse. We know that abuse does not have to involve physical harm, just as mockery and the silent treatment are genuine forms of bullying. But we can’t seem to agree on how to bring up good kids (any more than we can agree on what to do with adults who break the rules).

It’s even harder to know how and when to discipline children with developmental disabilities. It would be abusive to teach them nothing, and just let them do whatever they feel like all the time. Every person deserves the opportunity to work hard and improve themself; this is something human dignity demands of us. Every person deserves to be taught to be as independent as possible (note: independence is not self-sufficiency. Being able to decide what food will be placed in your mouth by an aide is as much an act of independence as being able to feed yourself). And every person deserves the opportunity to interact with others, to be a part of society.

It is on this last point, I think, where we get a lot of the disagreements between the disability community and certain parents and therapists of disabled children, particularly those on the autism spectrum. These parents and professionals assume that, in order to have good opportunities in life (social, educational, career), the disabled child must be taught to hide as many markers of their disability as possible.

Now, it is true that societies are largely unaccepting of those who break social rules and mores. So rigorous programs are put in place to teach autistic children everything from “keep your pants on in public” to “say please and thank you” to “don’t drool” to “don’t stim” to “make eye contact.”

And somewhere in there, well-meant intervention becomes abuse. It becomes “Quiet Hands” and pathologized childhoods. It gives the messages, however unintentionally, “don’t be who you are” and “you do everything wrong.” It results in teens and adults who are depressed and self-hating and feel guilty for their every instinct, habit and preference. People who don’t know that they have the right to say “no” even when someone is doing something terrible to them. Their whole lives have been a constant litany of others telling them what to do, how to act, what constitutes friendliness, when to smile– how can they trust themselves, or even know their own mind, after all that?

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But how do we determine which things are worth teaching? I counsel parents to forget about their child looking or acting “normal” and focus on them developing self-determination skills, but somewhere in there, kids DO have to learn to keep their pants on in public or they won’t be allowed to go to school. Or someone will call CPS and claim that letting children run around without pants is a form of sexual abuse, because nudity is such a serious taboo in our culture.

It’s important, as I’ve written before, for children to be able and allowed to say “no” at times.  Two of the most important stages toddlers go through are “no” and “why?” Saying “no” asserts a sense of selfhood, the understanding that it is possible to have one’s own preferences and to control aspects of reality by expressing those preferences.

“Why?” occurs when children contrast their newfound independence with the fact that they cannot always control what happens to them. I believe that the question “why is the sky blue?” is not just idle curiosity, it is shorthand for “help me understand why I cannot make the sky be any other color.”

When children with developmental disabilities refuse to keep their pants on, we need to ask why. Perhaps they are reaching the “no” stage later… or the “why” stage. Because these children often can’t verbally ask “why,” no one thinks to offer them explanations, and their questions about the world go unanswered. Taking off the pants may be a way to ask “why do we have to wear pants?”

Or it may be a protest, to something related (maybe the child wishes to be toilet trained) or unrelated (the parent refused something the child wanted, so the child refuses something the parent wants). Often, parents of a disabled child assume that the child either fails to understand the rule “pants on in public” or is simply being obstinate. But it’s very important to establish what’s actually going on.

Chances are, the kid understands the rule—most developmentally delayed children understand more than is immediately obvious. Is the child then objecting to pants for the sake of objecting, or because there’s a sensory sensitivity issue? The first may call for some form of discipline; the second for finding a different kind of pants.

There are those in disability rights circles who think we should also take this as an opportunity to challenge the very concept of pants and view them as a source of oppression. I don’t disagree on principle (why should anyone be forced to wear pants anyway?), but change is slow. For now, if you want to go out in public, you have to wear pants of some kind. Or perhaps leggings or shorts or a skirt. If there is a battle of wills between parent and child, offering choices may allow the child to feel heard and result in cooperation.

There are hard choices involved in teaching and disciplining a child with certain disabilities. How do you help a child develop independence and self-confidence when the majority of things they do are “wrong,” even dangerous? How do you ensure that they have time to just be themselves while also making sure you provide them with enough training that they will be given as many social and educational opportunities as possible?

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The beautiful girl I call Tangles provides a good illustration of this point. Tangles is 10, with diagnoses of global developmental delay, profound mental retardation, ataxic cerebral palsy, and possible autism. Her mother and I agree that she’s smarter than most people think, but so far she’s got very limited ways of expressing it.

She’s very friendly, and likes to approach people and animals and touch them. The problem is her ataxia, which means she has trouble controlling or stopping a motion once she initiates it. The result is that when she reaches out to get someone’s attention, she doesn’t touch them; she hits them. And she’s pretty strong for a 10 year old girl. Her attempts at “hello” are sometimes rough enough to make me wince.

Her family is used to it. Her mother corrects “gentle, please,” and “careful, honey” again and again. When I’m at the playground with Tangles and her younger sister Curls, Curls apologizes on Tangles’ behalf: “she doesn’t mean to,” and “she doesn’t understand what she’s doing,” and the kids they play with regularly seem to have simply gotten used to being smacked on occasion.

But this isn’t a sustainable solution. Tangles is getting bigger and stronger. If she hurts someone badly by accident, or even gets past the age where adults are comfortable shrugging her actions off, I worry that she’ll end up being restrained or sedated regularly. I can’t bear the thought of seeing that happen to this vibrant and loving girl. So somehow, for her own sake, she has to learn not to hit.

I suspect most behavioral therapists would train her simply to keep her hands down, to not touch others at all… but that would be punishing her for reaching out and trying to interact. What a heartbreaking notion.  What if it kept her from wanting to socialize at all? I can’t help feeling there must be another way.

I often remind her (usually right after she’s managed to thwap some poor startled person before I could grab her) that it’s not OK to touch strangers who aren’t expecting it, to touch little babies, to touch people without their permission. I don’t know how well she understands. I remind her to reach for people’s bodies rather than their faces. We work on “gentle touching,” having her stroke her hand along my arm rather than striking out in a slapping motion. But I think often she simply acts on impulse, forgetting to follow the rules that she does know intellectually.

The other night she hit Curls in the eye. Curls usually responds to her sister’s slaps with a mild scolding, and occasionally hitting back, so when she starting sobbing, I knew Tangles had managed to hurt her worse than usual.

“No! Don’t hit! Not in the face!” I reminded her. She was already wandering off as I continued exhorting her to try and be more gentle, and a casual observer would think she didn’t notice, let alone care, that her sister was crying. Her face was serene, and she continued with her normal activities.

But then I heard her saying “oh-oh” (her version of “uh-oh”), which is something she says when she’s upset, and I knew she understood what was going on and was bothered by it. She’s still officially “non-verbal,” and it’s relatively rare for her to actually try and say something, so I knew this was a big deal to her, too.

“Oh honey, I know you didn’t mean to hurt her,” I told her and gave her a hug. Then I went back to comforting Curls and applying an ice-pack to her face… but my deeper sympathies were with Tangles, who doesn’t even have a way to tell her sister that she is sorry.

How many things, I wonder, does she feel bad about without us knowing? How much does it hurt when we scold her over and over for something she doesn’t mean to do in the first place? Does it hurt her to hear people say that she doesn’t know any better, when obviously, she does know and is trying to improve? How do we teach her all the things she needs to know without convincing her that she is a broken human being in need of constant fixing? How do we support her desire to interact with the world while trying to change the way she does it? I can only hope we’re on the right track.