Some Kind of Help is the Kind of Help...:Getting Things Done With Kids Who Can't Help

Along the theme of time - finding it, using it, fast, slow, in-between - I thought I'd re-run this post. I have a *lot* of experience with four little boys, one autistic, in getting things done around the kids ;-) - they help now a lot more, but sometimes this is still necessary, so I thought it might be worth rerunning my meditations on how that works. Asher will turn five this week, and Eli is ten now - and while Asher is now one of my primary aids, Eli is still sometimes a lovable hindrance, despite some improvement - but in a nice way, and we're used to it. Still, getting everything finished (or even as much as I ever do) requires some strategizing some days!

Zachary Zugg took out the rug,

And Jennifer Joy helped shake it.

And Jennifer Joy, she made a toy

And Zachary Zugg helped break it.

And some kind of help is the kind of help

That helping's all about.

And some kind of help is the kind of help...

We all can do without. - From "Helping" on "Free to Be You and Me"

When I speak of children who can't or won't help, I am referring to two groups of children. The first are babies and toddlers, who lack the capacity or temperament or understanding to be at all helpful. That is, they either are babies, who can't do much, or they are toddlers and sometimes the youngest preschoolers so busy learning to be people that they cannot accomplish much else. These groups often have a lot in common, despite their significant differences, and I'm going to treat them together.

The age at which children become generally helpful, and both want to participate in your daily life and can without making much more work for you varies a great deal - some especially calm and mature 18 or 20 month olds might actually fit the bill, although I have personally never raised such a child. In other cases, a child as old as three and a half might be unable to focus on helping as much. Or, in the case of disability, helpfulness might come at 8 or 15, or 30 or never - I call these children, but some adults will, in their own way, always be like these children and some of my readers presumably care for them.

But generally, in developmentally typical children, it seems to me that the major transition occurs sometime between 2 1/2 and 3. At this point, they may still slow you down, because they demand to help make the pancakes, hang the laundry and would like to drive the car, but they at least can participate, to some extent, in home and garden life, where for the most part, younger children, delightful and sweet as they are, fall the category of "hindrance" in one's attempts to grow and preserve food, keep a home that will not be condemned, or get much of anything else done.

The second category of children who can't or won't help are those with serious disabilities. Some of these children are those with neurological impairments, that limit their common sense, impulse control, ability to understand danger, or simply their interest in participation. Other such children are so severely disabled in a physical or mental sense that their participation, while perfectly possible, requires enormous amount of investment of time and energy by their parents or other caretakers.

I have one of each of these types of children. Asher is two, and about as classic "terrible two year old" as can possibly be imagined. I recall that when his older brother Isaiah was about the same age people used to say when he spoke, "What a sweet little voice he has." Asher, on the other hand, regularly garners good natured comparisons to longshoremen.

My older children were always a little shy and reserved around strangers. Last week, in synagogue, Asher was marching with all other children in the "Torah Parade" when, as is traditional, one woman reached out her prayer book to receive the blessing of touching on the little children's heads. Asher stopped straight in the middle of the march, and yelled "You don't touch me!!!" at full volume at the kind elderly woman who had dared to gently brush her prayerbook above his head.

Asher believes he should run the world, and when (as is often the case) he discovers that he is not in charge, the results are screaming display of temper and blind fury that ends in thrown objects, discipline and tears. The world is very difficult when you are small.

Then, there's Eli. Eli is autistic, and that means that his priorities and ours do not always match up, or even make sense to us. At least in our experience there's nothing tragic about having an autistic child - Eli is sweet natured, with a merry sense of humor and a great deal of energy - but it is rather like going to the shelter to adopt a kitten, and getting a puppy.

That is, Eli's worldview is different in fundamental ways from our own - thus, he's not much interested in my attempts, say, to engage him with stacking wood - he'd rather whack the ice covered branches that have fallen from the tree against the house. No persuasion of mine will convince him of the necessity of helping - he'll do it, if I stand over him, but he simply cannot understand my own interest in this activity, and will abandon it the moment something else catches his interest.

It isn't that Eli is trying to be difficult, it is that he genuinely doesn't yet grasp what is wanted or needed, or why we would care about these things. His world, his mind are different, and it is hard for him to work through the distractions of autism to understand our perspective. He does, and we require him to do so, but there's only so much of that we can do in any given day, and have anyone have any fun.

I suspect I am not alone in struggling to get things accomplished with multiple small, cute hindrances around. And while I do take the time to include them, sometimes we just need to find a way to get things done around them. I'm excluding paid childcare as a choice here - I'm assuming that whoever is doing this either is the paid childcare provider working out of their home, or is the parent. I figure "get a babysitter" is something you can figure out without me .

So here are a few suggestions I've come up with. Most of them probably involve a degree or two of bad parenting - but they get the jam made .

1. Let them make a giant mess. There's nothing that attracts either Eli or Asher more than water. They both love to "help" with the dishes, but can't actually do them. So if I need to do a whole load of dishes, my favorite project is to put one of them in the tub with a dishpan of warm soapy water, some unbreakable dishes (enamelware cups are great) and let 'em go at it. They love it, and I might actually get a full load of dishes done.

I also feel strongly that sometimes it is worth letting the kids make messes, if cleaning them up will not be too onerous, and it gets me a few minutes to work. So I am probably repulsively laissez-faire on this subject - recently three of the boys were kept happily occupied slicing my husband's old exams into shapes (Simon and Isaiah) and shreds (Eli) and then throwing the shreds up and yelling "snow." I realize good Mommies stop their children from doing this. But all I could think was "fine, I'll pick up the snow later, I get to make bread."

2. Don't look them in the eye. I have noticed that my children will be happily and productively self-entertaining while I am busy doing something else and nowhere in sight, but my toddler especially (but my other kids too) thinks that Mommy in the line of sight, or, say, talking to him, means "Mommy wants to pick me up." When you get those blessed moments of self-engagement *STAY OUT OF VIEW* - if there are safety issues, that's one thing, but try and make sure there aren't - or recruit an older child and bribe them to come running if anything untoward happens.

This also applies to children with disabilities doing things for themselves. I find that much more help is needed if I'm available to do things for them. That's not to say we should allow children to struggle to the point of suffering to do something they are genuinely incapable of on their own, but I notice how creative they get when they think they are responsible.

3. Make use of big siblings - or even developmentally normal younger ones. I know this is a somewhat fraught issue. In some societies, siblings have enormous responsibility for one another, but in ours, we are less inclined that way. Still, I haven't noticed any negative effects - and have seen some positive ones, from giving Simon and Isaiah the responsiblity, say, of helping Asher up and down the stairs, or keeping an eye on him in an enclosed space. Obviously, one has to be realistic about this - 5 year olds have limited powers of rationality. But I do think that the practice of being responsible for one another - mutually - is a good one in building family unity.

For children with physical disabilities, having a sibling be eyes or hands or feet can be empowering and positive for both of them, as long as it is done carefully. I have a friend whose 10 year old with cerebral palsy cannot walk in the woods - so her brother brings her the woods, each day returning with a collection of woodland artifacts - acorns and sticks, small dug up tree seedlings, etc... They then make woodland fairy houses in the corner of their yard together, and wait for acorn seedlings to sprout.

4. Create enclosures. Particularly for toddlers, and roaming older children this is essential. We spent an awful lot of our inheritance from Eric's grandparents fencing 1/4 acre of our front yard - and it may be the best money we have ever spent. Eli cannot be trusted not to roam, but he also is an almost-8 year old, with a low tolerance for his parents following him around all the time. This allows him some freedom - and I know that grants are available in some areas to low income families seeking to keep disabled kids safe. I've heard of several people who fenced with such grants.

In the barn, we only have small livestock, so we don't worry too much about the kids, but a friend of mine who has draft horses and cows tells me that one of the best things she ever did was simply allot a spare horse stall to her kids. There are kid sized barn tools, some toys and bales of hay to sit on, and a few old chairs and horse blankets to make tents on. That way, when she was working, her younger kids were out from underfoot. We don't have enough space in our barn for this, but if you did, it is a great idea. Even a small gated area can help, or playpen. I know some people feel strongly about "baby jails" but as long as the kids spend short times in them, I don't have a major problem.

Making points of access is also important for children - if you can, it is well worth spending money to bring the wheelchair into the barn, or move the chicken house to where you child can get to it themselves. Your child might not yet be able to go get eggs herself, and it may even be hard to imagine that she ever could, but making the coop accessible means the possibility is there, and many disabled children accomplish remarkable things.

5. Nurse toddlers as long as possible. I say this for two reasons. The first is that when they are in their "I am only sort of a person" stage, they have a lot of complicated feelings that they cannot yet express. Often, the world just seems unbearable. Somehow, nursing is a less fraught experience. And it is amazing how much time you can save if you can short-circuit a tantrum by settling down together for some mutual comfort.

It also has a powerful tranquilizing effect on some kids - that is, you can get a kid to nap by nursing them even if they will no longer nap any other way. Since two of my kids gave up naps long before I felt they should, this was very important.

If you don't or can't nurse, create sleep routines and comfort routines. The idea here is to have short ways of sending various mesages "It is ok, the world is not falling apart just because you can't hold the credit card" or "Now it is time to go to sleep, even though it seems like it would be much more fun to throw the dog food." Think about it as keyboard shortcuts for your children .

6. Toddler-wear. Not one of my four kids would ever tolerate a sling, backpack or other constraint after they could walk - not one. But I know many people all over the world do this. And it is good way of keeping your child about and contained. I laud those who can do it. Me, I never could pull it off.

7. Put them to bed early. We have a firm 7:00 pm bedtime at our house. They don't have to sleep, and they often don't. Eli often stays up as late as 9pm. But barring an emergency, all children go upstairs and read or play quietly in their room at 7pm - period, no discussion, no negotiation. Actually, there's no battle here - my kids look forward to bedtime, and their time together. We check in occasionally, they have water and plenty of books and toys, and often I find Simon reading aloud to the other three, or elaborate games being made up. But to bed they go - and Mommy and Daddy get to work on whatever project awaits us, until we collapse together. Alternately, if your kids are night owls, you can get up early.

On a related note, I'm a firm believer in tiring children out - all kids need plenty of physical exercise to get them ready to sleep, and I think kids who spend too much time indoors or sedentary often have more behavioral issues. We find that lots of exercise is good for everyone - if everyone is too cranky, taking a long walk or a run around the local school track is good for Mommy - and for the boys. For children with physical disabilities, finding good exercise can be difficult - but it is important, nonetheless. And it is good to find a fun form of exercise - which can be tought for kids who do lots of physical therapy and are wary of such things. A friend of mine's wheelchair-bound son is very resistant to anything that smacks of "theraputic" exercise, but will happily play catch from his chair.

8. Get a good dog or an alarm. For those children with escape urges, you need a way to protect them, and still be able to look away from them now and then. Some kids really push those limits. There are both cheap and expensive options. One would be a well-trained dog, that was trained to give the alarm if a child goes beyond a particular perimeter, and to go with the child. Not all dogs could meet this need, but many might.

Some children with disabilities might be eligible for an assistive dog - these are now available for a range of disabilities, not just blindness and deafness. I've even heard of miniature horses and monkeys being used in these capacities - obviously, such a thing is a large decision, and up to each family, but it is something to think about. Strong relationships with animals, and the experience of being in "charge" of something is very important for kids.

Otherwise, you might consider either an alarm system in your house (if that's the issue) or an emergency alarm that attaches to the child and sounds when the child goes more than X distance from there.

It is also worth teaching your children "cue words" - many kids with disabilities may have trouble with language, but can learn a few key terms. All of my children, by 2 years, knew that STOP meant stop *NOW* without discussion. Any child capable of learning these things should have words or signs that indicate stop, stay, come, and if possible, mastering these should be a huge priority.

9. Integrate the child into the task at their level. We go berry picking, and Eli and Asher eat berries. They are participating. We are happy they are there. Both also occasionally contribute a squashed berry - they are lauded and praised extravagantly for this contribution (after which, the berry is discretely disposed of most of the time ).

When we make a quilt, Asher can find the red cloth. When we fold laundry, Eli can bring me the towels. The trick is to find jobs sufficiently engaging to keep the child busy, while also not actually adding any time on to the project. This can be enormously difficult - but every investment of time and energy is an investment in future helpfulness. Your child may not be coordinated enough to pour the cat's water yet - but perhaps they can turn on the faucet while you hold the bowl.

10. Accomplishment is relative. The glorious thing about having a disabled child is that you learn to appreciate every step - however small. Toddlers do that too - one day they can't button a button, and the next day they can get it halfway in. One day they can't put on their underpants, the next day they can - and on their heads. But the truth is, they are steps forward.

If you are the parent or caregiver of a small (or large) beloved hindrance, remember that for you too, the small accomplishments count. You, like them, do a little tiny bit more each day - some days. Some days it feels like you are taking a dozen steps back. But the truth is this - seven dishes done, up from six yesterday morning, is an improvement. 9 eggplants harvested before the tantrum is better than 5 last week. You, like them, are taking small steps. And just as the moment when the toddler who will never nap smiles and says "I go sleep now, Daddy." and the moment when the child who cannot speak says "Mama" are moments of glory, joy and wonder, so too is the day when the jars of jam are on the shelf, or the laundry waves in the breeze like a salute and praise.


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I was so amused that your first suggestion was to let them make a mess. I just started a weekly column over on my blog about making art on the cheap and my first rule of making anything was to let the kids make a mess so that you could too. It's amazing how absorbed they can be by water or mud or ripping something to bits. Great post BTW, it's something I work with every day.

Thanks for a wonderful post!
My older son is autistic. He was born in 1975 but wasn't diagnosed until he was 30. We knew he was different. For a long time it was impossible to hold a conversation with him. We would say something to him and he would babble on, stringing real words together without apparent meaning.
He started preschool when he was four. When I came home every night I would ask him how school was. I would get a response like, "Luke Skywalker, Snickers bar, Michael Jackson, Wheel of Fortune, shoe, banana." But I still asked.
One evening I asked and he said, "We had lots of fun painting and cutting and stapling. Jean said I did well. I told her she did, too." I just cried.

Lots of good ideas. As a mom who works out of the home full-time, I find that I really try to incorporate a lot of these ideas into my time at home. Since I am away from the kids all day, I really try to relish the time we have together. But I also have to get things done (like make dinner, do laundry, etc.), so I try to involve them when I can. My ds, who's three, loves to "help" me in the kitchen. My dd, who's 6, is responsible for folding her own laundry. Granted it's not the neatest folding, and she doesn't really enjoy it, but it's nicer to do an onerous task together. She'll spend the time chattering away about what's going on in her life.

And regarding idea #2, how many times have I ruined a perfectly nice brother-sister playtime, simply by checking on them (because they were SO quiet!). LOL. I can't even get angry with them when they make a huge mess or get into trouble together; I'm just glad they're enjoying each other's company!

Just so you know, the poem is NOT from Free to Be You And Me. It was actually first written by Shel Silverstein, and later became a part of Free To Be You And Me.

By gray Stanback (not verified) on 26 Oct 2010 #permalink

"I realize good Mommies stop their children from doing this." For once Sharon, I disagree with you wholeheartedly - it is the good mums who let their children make a mess. There is no better way to learn than by exploring materials such as water, sand, mud, pistachio shells (!), paint or shredded paper. We have a 'dirt patch' in the garden - a rotating area of garden bed which is given over to trucks and cars and little lego people. It rotates as needed with the other veges but it is always there and better if it rains and it gets muddy. We have to hose our son off at the door, but hey, he is occupied, it is educational and just wonderful for the imagination! We value play so little in our society, yet it is really through play that so many things are learned. BRING ON MESS!

I've trained my kids to make fresh pasta. It used to be a pain to have them "help", until I realized that the six year old was more than up to the task of running the operation. Now I just give her and the two year old the machine, the ingredients, and an hour later we have very competently made fresh pasta.

The lesson being: it's easy to get kids to go things (and do them well!) when the outcome is something they really desire. You just have to pay the cost of training up front.

By PBrazelton (not verified) on 27 Oct 2010 #permalink

Sorry to go off topic, but I might forget and I want to pass this on.

For the record, this is what Matt Simmons was warning about.

I just wanted to set the record straight because there was a lot of misunderstanding about what he was saying.

I grew up an only child on the family ranch and had chores and helped with other work as far back as I can remember. My kids grew up in an urban environment (except for summers on the ranch) and it was not easy to find things for them to do. As has been said, it was often much easier to just do it yourself.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 27 Oct 2010 #permalink

I remember when my son was two years old and I was putting together a large mailing for a good cause. He learned how to stick labels on brochures - a mind numbing job for an adult, but just the right amount of challenge if you are two! We often joked that he contributed more time to the organization than most of the committed adults. Even the youngest among us enjoy responsibility sometimes.

I skimmed this last time, and read it all the way through just now. It is a great inspiration because I've been too quick to blow up at the 3 boyos (8, 5 and 1.6) over trivialities.

I need to keep in mind the adage, "Everyting a kid does starts out as a good idea."

By Michael Enquist (not verified) on 29 Oct 2010 #permalink

"...involve bad parenting..."? BS! ;-)

I come from a large family, with lots of siblings, dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, 'normal' and developmentally or physically challenged alike - and I found so much of our daily life in your post, it brought tears to my eyes. Really, there's so much love in what you describe, it is awesome.

Yes, it can be a pain to have the little ones or someone with severe disabilities "help", but isn't it worth every additional minute we spend to know that they usually a) are happy because they can contribute to our shared chores, and b) learn something worth learning in this world?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 30 Oct 2010 #permalink

@PBrazelton #6

That sounds like a great job for my kids, too. What kind of pasta machine have you?

By Michael Enquist (not verified) on 30 Oct 2010 #permalink

@wrpd #2-I was born in 1975. I have a 9yr old son who has Asperger's Syndrome. He didn't talk much until he was about 6 (after a year of speech therapy) and couldn't carry on a conversation until just recently (and now he has to be in the right mood or you just get a bunch of random information about his latest obsession, which has ranged from trains to outer space to computer games to Dragon Ball Z). But when he is engaged in conversation with me, I am amazed by the insight he has that most other people don't.
I have let him help cook a few times a week for several years now, at first just mixing meatloaf and salmon patties by hand, but now he reads the recipes or directions and helps me measure things (and does the math when we have to double or triple a recipe), chooses the vegetables we will eat, sets the table, etc. I usually have to call him back to the kitchen several times, he is easily distracted, but his teacher told me he says his favorite thing to do is to cook with me. And knowing that he enjoys it as much as I do makes it totally worth the extra time and energy it takes to include him in these things. He may not be able to tie his shoes (but hey-that's what velcro is for!) and he still wets the bed on occasion, but he can tell you how to make a shepherd's pie from start to finish (as well as the relative gravity of every planet in our solar system), and the most important ingredient is always love.