It’s hard to know with any child when to say no, when to say yes, how much to push or set limits, or when to let him or her try to take flight, knowing he or she could fail. All that is doubly hard if the child has a disability.
At the age of seven, my daughter regularly threw her pencil or marker across the room in tearful frustration or ripped up the paper she needed to write for school. But for some reason she was driven to sit patiently in front of a keyboard, all her concentration fixed on pressing down one key after another.
When she pleaded for lessons, I put her off or changed the subject. Her occupational therapist at school was certain that lessons would prove to be an enormous frustration for her. My daughter had a right-side weakness, a pronounced tremor, and fine motor problems. The therapist felt certain that starting piano lessons would be tantamount to handing her another failure.
But after listening to her play notes on her own day after day, I found a beginner book under the seat of the piano bench and gave her an impromptu lesson. As the therapist had predicted, she lacked the coordination to move her fingers. The ring finger and pinkie on the right hand did not move at all. My daughter commented on this quite cheerfully. “Oh well,” she said with a slight shrug. “I’ll just skip those notes.”
Like most parents of children with disabilities, I felt conflicted. We all have a natural parental instinct to encourage and support our children’s interests, but if the child has a disability, we also don’t want to set them up for too many failures. The urge to encourage is in conflict with the urge to protect.
My daughter’s determination was bigger than my concerns. She began to spend two or more hours at the piano each afternoon. I answered her questions and showed her the notes for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Day after day I listened to the repeated sequence of notes, noticing the pause that occurred in place of the missing ones. Finally, I located a teacher who also had experience with physical therapy. Still worried that formal instruction would be too stressful, I agreed on a trial lesson.
A few days before her first lesson, my daughter came into the kitchen where I was fixing dinner and triumphantly announced that she had “figured it out.” I followed her into the living room and watched her play. “See,” she said. “If I make my arm go down, my fingers can play.” Amazed, I saw and heard the whole of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” with just a slight hesitation before the notes played by her right ring finger or pinkie. By the time I took my daughter to her first lesson, she was able to play an easily identifiable rendition.
There are lots of examples of children teaching themselves skills or overcoming obstacles on their own the kid who becomes a great basketball player by shooting hoops night after night on his driveway or the child who learns to read without being shown because she or he has spent hours looking at picture books. What we can forget, in our efforts to teach our children everything they need to know from reading to riding a bike, is that determination and the joy of discovery are responsible for so many human feats. Allowing children to play or discover an ability on their own can be a huge gift in and of itself.
Four Simple Rules to Help Your Child Succeed
When a child with a disability shows an interest in learning a skill, as parents we can find ways to support his or her interest without putting pressure on the child or setting him or her up for failure. In talking to other parents of kids with special needs, I’ve found that we have all fallen on a few simple rules for ourselves that make it easier for our kids to experiment and sometimes to succeed:
- Keep it low key at first. Instead of pursuing formal lessons or classes, find a way to help the child learn about the interest informally. Rent or borrow an instrument if you don’t already own one and allow the child to play on it, perhaps demonstrating a hand position or a couple of notes if asked. Or take the child to a dance performance and later put on dance music at home. Buy a softball or football and play a game in the yard with family members or friends.
- Search for a private teacher or class if the child shows a persistent interest. Look for a teacher who is relaxed and demonstrates some knowledge of, or interest in, working with a child who has a disability. Look for a situation that is noncompetitive and teachers who do not insist on sticking to a program that expects every child to progress at the same rate. Try to match the teacher and style of teaching to the child. If the child is shy, for example, look for a teacher who doesn’t push students to perform in recitals.
- Keep any activities related to the child’s interest fun. Try to avoid the pressure of performance or of meeting specific goals. Keep your responses to the child’s efforts positive and avoid criticizing or correcting, even when the child makes mistakes. (If the child continues to show an interest, the teacher may be the best one to make gentle corrections.) Rather than insisting on practice times, allow the child the freedom to decide how long to sit with the activity.
- Finally, reinforce the joy of simply doing the chosen activity. Offer praise when the child expresses enjoyment and tell him or her that it is enough to pursue an interest simply for the fun of it. Follow the child’s lead. If the child stops practicing or begins to argue about going to a lesson or class, it may be time to consider moving on to something new.
While my daughter only stuck with playing the piano for two years, the gains she made stayed with her long after the lessons stopped. Playing the piano improved her fine motor control, which meant the permanent gains of better handwriting and more confidence at school. But the biggest lesson learned was the lesson that determination can pay off and that there is joy in learning something new and pursuing an interest. That’s a lesson that brings rewards all of one’s life.