Failure and the Non-typical child

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of articles about letting your children fail. There is talk about how important it is that, as parents, we not bail out our kids all the time. Let them forget their homework on the table. Let them lose things, miss deadlines, or not have lunch. Don’t stop them from failing.

I really hate those articles.

Opportunity for failure is all around us.

I hate them because they assume that, as parents, we need to facilitate our children’s failure. As an OT, it goes against my core beliefs. My work as an Occupational Therapist has instilled in me a strong belief in setting people up for success. Sometimes that means that I take away the obstacles and help them do things. Maybe I believe in that because the kids I work with don’t need any help to experience failure.

Kids who have autism, ADHD, or other learning challenges, are more likely to forget their homework on the table. They are more likely to lose their lunch box and all the other things that these articles tell us to let them do. But, the trouble is, that they don’t need to experience the failure of leaving their well-done homework at home. They’ve already experienced the failure of forgetting to do it or losing it in their desk between classes.

These kids need adults to put systems into place—schedules, brightly colored folders, double checks, and fallback plans—so that they can succeed. These kids need, more than anything, to trust that the adults who are in their lives will help them when they need it. They need to know that when they do their best and make it to school with 90% of their science fair project, their parent will help them get that last 10% so that they get a fair grade on their work.

Finding success is where the struggle is.

As a parent to more than one non-typical child, I have to work harder to help my children experience success. I have to make schedules and check in with them. I have to ask about how work is coming along. And sometimes I need to help them.

Sometimes the help they need is for me to take away a distraction. Or even just do step one of something for them to get them started. This might mean reading an assignment out loud so they can hear it instead of reading through it or helping them to make a list of what they need to do to complete an assignment. Sometimes I need to sit beside them while they work. Not because they need me to do the work but because having me present “just in case” allows them to stay on task and get their work done.

Now, this isn’t all to say that I believe in always bailing my children out of every bad life choice and doing it all for them, but I make a point of meeting them where they are.

Success is different for everyone.

When they were small and forgot to wear a jacket, I would keep a spare in the car. And when they realized they needed one it was no big deal. When they got older, I stopped doing that and relied on them to bring their own jacket.

I have spent years helping my teenager pack for camping trips. Now that she is in her teens, I don’t help anymore. She knows what needs to be done, what to bring, and how to pack it. At this point, she has been on over a dozen camping trips. We’ve practiced the process together enough for her to learn how to do it on her own. This week she had a trip and I reminded her several times during the week to pack up. She didn’t and I didn’t do it for her. The night before the camping trip, she was up long after midnight doing the laundry she needed for her trip.

As a person with ADHD, this will not be the last time she procrastinates and has to do something at the last moment. I had set her up for success though because I had taught her how to do her own laundry, how to pack her bag, and what to take. So, last night, I went to bed and left her working on solving her own problem. This morning, she left on her camping trip with a bag packed full of warm dry clothes. And if she forgot something? She has a whole scout troop around her to help her figure out what to do.

Cultivate a habit of support, not struggle.

To me, it is important to recognize that there are learning moments and there are challenges we need help to face. I want my kids to know that when they have those challenges, they can rely on me and others, like their scout friends, to help them deal with their problems. I don’t want them to think they have to face everything on their own, and I want them to learn they can count on me in a crisis.

My kids will fail at things. Heck, I fail at things all the time! So I don’t need to help them fail.

I am going to set them up for success by teaching them skills. I am going to teach them to ask for help when they need it and be there to fill that need. And when they do fail at things anyway, I am going to be there to help them pick themselves back up and try again.

Failure doesn’t just teach us to pay attention and learn from our mistakes. It teaches us who we can count on in a crisis. And I will always be that person for my kids.

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About the Author

nimble_asset_Laura-in-floral-shirt-with-treesLaura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator, and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

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