Nobody’s perfect

Posted: January 10th, 2009 under communication, life on the spectrum, parenting.
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When you have a child with disabilities–especially developmental disabilities, whether autism or something else–you want to do the absolute most for that child you can.    That child, you feel–or I felt–deserves–needs–a perfect parent.    That child, of all children, shouldn’t have to deal with parental imperfections–he has enough problems already.   He/she is so fragile, so vulnerable, that any mistakes parents make are likely to be the tipping point that makes it impossible for the child to have a happy life.

Then comes the day…you know the day.  The day you lose your temper.  The day you forget something vital.   The day you aren’t perfectly controlled, calm, supportive, firm enough and flexible enough,  diligent in getting through his/her therapies, the house isn’t clean enough, the vital paperwork goes missing.  That day.

Here’s the story of the day I contributed to stunting our son’s initiative.

I knew–I had read–that autistic children have little if any initiative.  They have to be forced to do things, to try things–that’s what the books available 20-odd years ago said.   I picked him up from preschool, and was in the kitchen fixing supper, chopping vegetables.  He was wandering, as he usually did when we got home, unwinding from preschool.   It took me a few minutes to register that he’d taken the damp sponge off the sink divider.

He was in the living room, washing the piano.   The mahogany spinet I’d grown up with.   It was a bit dusty,  but water wasn’t improving it.    I said NO very firmly, said that we don’t wash pianos,  removed him and the sponge from the living room, and gave him paper and crayons.    Usually he’d settle to drawing geometric figures.    I went back to fixing supper.

And yes, he got hold of the sponge again and was back in the living room washing the piano.     I followed, really annoyed by then.  He did understand “no” and wasn’t usually that stubborn about something as odd as washing the piano (he’d never wanted to wash anything.)   I snatched the sponge away.  I yelled.   He cried.

The next day,  at the preschool, I found that the new teacher had been teaching the kids to sponge down the shelves on which toys were stored.  To clean up.

I had scolded him for showing initiative–for noticing the piano was dusty and trying to clean it himself.    And it was far too late to undo the damage–I had taught him that showing initiative, cleaning up, got him in trouble.   You can bet he didn’t show any initiative (especially about housework) for years after that.

What I could have done–if I’d slowed down enough to think about it–was gently demonstrate, that first time, how to clean a piano.   But I was tired (my mother was sick at the time) and in a hurry to get supper done.

I am not perfect.   Our son isn’t perfect.  Nobody’s perfect.

But on my good days, I did slow down to his pace and demonstrate and explain and let him lead where he could.     Slowly,  in fits and starts, he began to show initiative, and this time we were alert enough to recognize the fumbling attempts as genuine.    He taught himself to swim.  He taught himself to ride a bicycle.    He did that in spite of our mistakes  (and that wasn’t the only mistake I made, or others in the family made, by a long shot!)

We parents don’t have to be perfect.   We have to be good enough, which is hard enough, too.     We have to be able to see our mistakes (even if too late for that particular teaching moment), admit them,   and not repeat them.     But one of the important things our kids (including our disabled kids learn)  from parents is that parents can make mistakes, recognize mistakes, and correct themselves.

From that, they can learn that their own mistakes can be outlived–they, too, can learn to recognize when they’ve goofed,  admit they’ve goofed to themselves and others, and not make that mistake again.   They can learn strategies for avoiding the really dire mistakes, tempering initiative with forethought,  and ways to clean up the messes they make–physical and emotional.

I still wish I’d been (and was still) a perfect parent.  But I’m not.    Nobody’s perfect.    That isn’t an excuse for not trying to be better than I am now…but it’s a recognition of a basic human truth.


  • Comment by fran ludwig — January 11, 2009 @ 10:14 am


    Bravo! You can teach even those parents whose children are (normal) valuable lessons. Unfortunately all of mine are grown now. I really do wish that I had known some of what I’ve learned over the years when they were small enough to hav e done some good.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 11, 2009 @ 3:02 pm


    I think that’s the universal parenting experience, and the real secret to grandparent success with kids–enough experience and a chance to start over with another generation.

    In addition, we often face situations our parents didn’t–or maybe our parents weren’t very good at parenting–and so we have to improvise, experiment, and find out what works (in general, and for that specific child.)

  • Comment by AnnMCN — January 11, 2009 @ 5:22 pm


    We all want desperately to be perfect, and no one accomplishes that. All the books said never say “You’re bad,” so I told my first child that I didn’t like his behavior when he misbehaved, but when he was about 6 or 7, I found out that he thought that meant that he was ugly to look at. So much for non-judgemental wording.

    I’m linking to this post in my LJ. Three of my flist are expecting, and many more are parents, and several of children with special needs (at least three that I know of have children on the spectrum).

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 11, 2009 @ 8:22 pm


    Our son couldn’t stand it when I expressed enthusiastic praise…he could not distinguish an excited happy face from an angry face (he told me “Your face is shiny! Your face is shiny!” once he could talk that well.) As a naturally…um…enthusiastic person (Oh, well, just admit to “loud”), it was hard to learn to express praise very quietly. Then I found that a smiley face on a card was even better.

    NOW he likes spoken praise and doesn’t mind a bit if it’s loud, but back then…and I didn’t know except by his reaction.

  • Comment by Leigh — January 12, 2009 @ 10:23 am


    Even neurotypical kids can have their attempts at a positive behavior extinguished as a result of parental misunderstanding and punishment. I can still remember several incidents in my childhood when I was trying to do something the right way (often according to what I’d read it in a book) and instead of the expected praise got ripped to shreds about how terribly I’d done it. Sometimes it was a case of my misunderstanding the directions and doing it wrong (I learn much better by having something demonstrated than by reading a written description), and sometimes I’m thinking that my parents thought I was being a show-off and fishing for praise, and that I needed to be taught humility instead, but in each case it made me feel like there was no use trying to be good, because no matter how hard I tried I’d just get stomped on.

    But I survived, and it didn’t totally squash my ability to try to do something right, even if I do have to work on my fear of failure and its power to cause me to freeze in place.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 12, 2009 @ 5:38 pm


    Absolutely. Karen Pryor mentions in one of her books on behavior modification–I think it’s _Don’t Shoot the Dog_, but I’m not sure– that parents who push their children eventually teach their children that they need pushing–that they can’t trust themselves to start and carry through things on their own. That’s another way of killing initiative (which, thanks to the earlier fiasco, I managed NOT to screw up when it came to our son and swimming.)

  • Comment by Sari — January 12, 2009 @ 7:58 pm


    I was just thinking doing *everything* for the child, the opposite of pushing, can have a similar effect.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 12, 2009 @ 11:07 pm


    Pryor mentions that, too…in fact, there are many ways to inhibit initiative.

    But actually, I think both doing everything for a child and pushing a child to do what the adult wants are more similar than opposite–at least in their effect on the child. Both teach the child that the parent, not the child, is the only judge of the child’s capability. Obviously, we don’t give a small child sharp knives–they’re not capable–we think. But there’s a really scary picture (to me, anyway) of a child less than two years old cutting a fruit with a knife at least a foot long in Rogoff’s book _Apprenticeship in Thinking_, a cross-cultural look at how–in what contexts–children gain competence in physical and mental skills.

    When the sociocultural prescriptions for how to raise kids (including when kids should be allowed/expected to do things on their own) clash with the abilities of a particular child…it’s a problem.

  • Comment by sari — January 13, 2009 @ 8:53 am


    I agree. A lot boils down to knowing your child, his limitations, her motivations.

    At one point we told the school to let child#1 fail. He would refuse his classwork, for whatever reason, and bring home all-A report cards. No question he’d mastered the material, at least those skills for which a grade could be assigned (sitting appropriately in a classroom was a little trickier), but the grade book held an uninterrupted line of zeroes. His teachers resembled the parent who plays every game imaginable to force a child to eat.

    I said, “Let him fail”

    They said, “We’d have to hold him back and we know through testing that he knows the material.” They also did not want to add to their statistics, jeopardize their status as an exemplary school, or deal with the meltdowns they anticipated when they pushed him to work.

    I said, “Don’t push, don’t force, let him see the consequences of refusing to do his work. Hand him the assignment and walk away. An “F” is a logical consequence. Lacking the grades to take higher level classes is a logical consequence. This child wants to attend college, and soon.”

    To cover their behinds, they wrote the strategy into his IEP. No late work, no work sent home for completion (bliss for me), and zeros whenever he flat out refused. No negotiating when he went on auto-meltdown. At the same time, he was rewarded for asking for clarification, asking for accommodation, asking to change the order of his assignments—any form of self-advocacy.

    Halfway through the first grading period, his SpEd teacher handed him the gradebook. He was mighty surprised to see nothing higher than a C, even in math. She stayed quiet and refrained from any criticism. When he asked, she explained the cause and effect thing (like we’d done a gazillion times; synchronizing home and school is *very* important). His grades went up and he began to make more of an effort to communicate his problems.

    This strategy will not work with every child. It worked for him because we knew how he thought (A=smart; F=not. He knew he was smart, therefore he should have all A’s. We played on his vanity.), knew his capabilities, and knew how his current strategy would impact his long term goals, particularly the opportunity to take higher level coursework at an early age.

    All this happened in fifth grade. It helped to have a terrific SpEd teacher that year.

  • Comment by Melissa Mead — January 17, 2009 @ 8:50 am


    My dad once said “You know, it’s amazing. You think you’ve made all these mistakes with your kids, and they still turn out to be good people.”

    Good parents are particularly important to disabled kids, (as I’ve seen with myself and my friends) but I’m glad mine aren’t perfect. Imagine trying to live up to that!

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 17, 2009 @ 12:42 pm


    If only we knew WHAT it was we did right, that produced the good outcome.

    R- used to take our son to get a haircut when we thought he needed one. Last week, he quietly went downtown and got a haircut…without telling us.

    How’d we do that? DID we do that? Or did some little switch flip that told him “Oh, wait, I can just go get a haircut…”

  • Comment by Jenny — January 21, 2010 @ 10:15 pm


    I really needed to read this post tonight. My son is not autistic (if fact the only thing the doctors can tell us is what he’s not) but I think that when you have a child who has different needs it changes your focus.
    I do feel a lot of pressure to be the perfect parent. It feels like so much is riding on what we do. It’s good to hear that when I screw up (like everyone else, how dare I be human, lol) it’s not the end and it doesn’t erase our love and care for him.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — January 21, 2010 @ 10:49 pm


    I’m so glad this helped at all…I do know that scary feeling, where anything and everything you do feels super-critical, the one thing that might fix the problem–or make it much worse.

    Thanks for writing this comment.

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