Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On The Dignity of Risk

"Over protection may appear on the surface to be kind, but it can be really evil. An oversupply can smother people emotionally, squeeze the life out of their hopes and expectations, and strip them of their dignity.

Over protection can keep people from becoming all they could become.

Many of our best achievements came the hard way: We took risks, fell flat, suffered, picked ourselves up, and tried again. Sometimes we made it and sometimes we did not. Even so, we were given the chance to try. Persons with special needs need these chances, too.

Of course, we are talking about prudent risks. People should not be expected to blindly face challenges that, without a doubt, will explode in their faces. knowing which chances are prudent and which are not - this is a new skill that needs to be acquired.

On the other hand, a risk is really only risk when it is not known beforehand whether a person can succeed...

The real world is not always safe, secure, and predictable. It does not always say "please", "excuse me", or "I'm sorry". Every day we face the possibility of being thrown into situations where we will have to risk everything...

In the past, we found clever ways to build avoidance of risk into the lives of persons living with disabilities. Now we must work equally hard to help find the proper amount of risk these same people have the right to take. We have learned that there can be healthy development in risk taking... and there can be crippling indignity in safety!"

From: "Hope for the Families" By Robert Perske.

I was recently presented with three excellent examples -- besides the daily example set by/with/for my beautiful little boys who, as you may have heard, happen to have Down syndrome -- that demonstrate beautifully, the premise of the "dignity of risk":

As usual, at pick-up time my boys run rampant around the school yard. They chase each other, play hide-and-seek, crunch on the rocks, hang on the bars. Recently, they even tested how slippery a small patch of ice was (with mommy standing close by, of course). All the while I watched another parent attempting to keep her child in tow. Despite multiple protests, she held tightly to her son's hand and even resorted to picking him up to prevent his cavorting about with my boys. It was clear that the little boy wanted to run free... But, it appeared, she was afraid to let her son with special needs go... run.... swing.... play... Perhaps, too afraid that something bad might happen to him if he did.

On another occasion, a Mom reported that her son with Down syndrome was being OVER shadowed by his classroom aide. At 10 years old, the aide did everything for him including buckling him in on the bus. She was being so "overly helpful" that her son never had the opportunity to do anything for himself. This mother very much wanted her son to be allowed to try things on his own and, if necessary, fail on his own as well. But, the aide felt it was her job to help him keep up with the "typical" kids in his mainstreamed classroom even if that meant doing things for him.

And, finally, one of our therapists told of a Mom who had NEVER allowed her 2-year-old children to go anywhere near the stairs. The children were permanently corralled with gates in one room of the house to "keep them safe". How would these children ever learn to navigate stairs if they were NEVER allowed to attempt going up or down any stairs?

Fear of injury, fear of failure, fear of embarrassment or an inflated sense of the obligation to protect -- within the parents' and/or the caretakers' -- creates an atmosphere not conducive to a child trying OR ACHIEVING anything new. Without the opportunity to TRY on his own a child with special needs -- or, for that matter, a typically developing child -- cannot SUCCEED on his own. I also know first-hand that it's hard to know when to let a child try some thing on his own and when to draw the line when something is potentially dangerous to him.

I remember hearing a news report that an 8-year-old boy was killed while attempting to fly solo around the world in a small plane. I thought that was outrageous! In my opinion, a child that age should not be allowed to do such a dangerous and obviously, life-threatening thing. But, I'm not his Mom. I have to allow that she knew her son better than me and, obviously, didn't agree with me. So, she allowed him to try. It would be easy to say I was right because the boy failed. But, in fact, I don't know who was right. Her son may have been an excellent pilot. I don't know him. But, I DO know my boys. And, though I would never allow them to try flying solo around the world or even get on the bus without an aide at this age, I would, and do, let them run rampant all over the school yard and push their physical abilities to whatever limits they can find there.

Know that I am far from perfect in this "dignity of risk" arena though I consistently try to let them try. Sometimes I think I might be letting them try too many things. (I know a few mothers who think I do) For instance, when the Pediatrician says, "you shouldn't let children with Down syndrome do somersaults" and I let them do that and more on our indoor trampoline... MUCH more! Perhaps I should not be so willing. I don't push them, they push me and I not so much LET them as I don't STOP them from such things. I know my boys. And, I guess I've made OK decisions given we've had no injuries -- knock knock -- or major failures even. Just lots and lots of attempts and many many successes.

There are times, still, when I fear I might not be letting them do enough for themselves. Like when I put their juice in sippy cups instead of letting them try open-top cups. Or, when I cut up their food into tiny bite-sized pieces and help feed them rather than letting them feed themselves. Why don't I allow them to do THESE things? Their safety, perhaps. Selfishly, cleanliness might have something to do with it too! I know they can feed themselves with a fork but cutting things up into small bites prevents choking. I'm not sure they will take small enough bites of a big thing not to choke. I've seen them do this numerous times. And, honestly, I'm afraid if they choke, I won't be able to "save" them. I also know they can drink from a cup... because I HAVE let them try... just not all the time. Because when they've taken their sip, they frequently dump the entire cup on the floor and, occasionally, on themselves. But, I'm not sure if they can fully put on and take off their own clothes? Coats? I'm not sure about this in part because I'm always in a rush to move on to the next activity or get out the door... so, right or wrong, I do these things for them too.

And, so it is! With each task standing as a barrier to their independence and success, I must determine my motivation, the potential danger to my sons and decide whether this is something they should be allowed to attempt for themselves. I can help further by breaking down complex tasks into more doable chunks -- get your coat, put your arms in the sleeves, zip the zipper (even if I have to start the zipper for them). I need to push the "dignity of risk" envelope further with my boys if I hope to give them the experience of success.

As I re-read, I guess I've written this column as much for me as for any one else out there. This is MY wake up call. I must allow my children the "dignity of risk" in order to help them succeed. It is the small successes that lead to the big triumphs. My boys deserve a shot at a life of successful independence as much, if not more, as anyone else. And, it is within MY power to give them that by letting them try, allowing them to fail and learn, AND, finally, helping them to succeed in their own rite.

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