When Lenore Skenazy admitted, last spring, that she let her nine-year-old ride the subway alone, she set off gasps from many fearful and concerned parents. After all, her son Izzy was still single-digit age and the world is a “Dangerous place these days” and “Who knows what could happen.” I could call bull-shit on those theories, but Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller already did in an episode of their infotainment show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on stranger danger. See the episode below, if you like:
So what does all of this have to do with disability? Well, while it’s true that everyone has their mommy and daddy issues and parents of able-bodied kids worry about strangers, food on the floor and swimming after eating. All that paranoia can get ramped up tenfold when you have a disability. Parental support (or not) can very much mean the difference between an independent adulthood or a lifetime of dependence. Parents of disabled kids need to take a page from the “Book of Skenazy.”
I know what all you worried parents of disabled children are thinking: “Wait just a minute, Izzy didn’t have a disability! Doesn’t that change the game?” Well no, not really. Look, I know that there are some disabilities that make it impossible for those that have them to leave their house without assistance. Some people really don’t have the capacity to make the descisions to keep themselves safe, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use what they do have to live a life as independently as possible. Able-bodied people are paid regularly to be the physical bodies for their disabled clients and everyone should be given the opportunity to fail and learn from their mistakes. Just because it’s obvious someone can’t be independent in one way, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given every opportunity to be independent in other ways.
What I’m talking about here is not degree of disability, I’m talking about an attitude. It’s an attitude that can be adopted by any parent, no matter what their child’s disability is. For most parents, it doesn’t even matter how disabled their child is.
For example, I moved to Toronto from Vancouver with almost the full financial backing and logistical support of my parents almost six years ago. I knew that if I stayed in Vancouver, it would be way too easy for me to rely on my parents (with mom checking in regularly). I would never really know my full capabilities, my accomplishments would always be coloured by the parental asterix. I wanted to live or die purely by my own hand and I do. I live on my own, I clean my own house and make my own money, they all approve, and yet, at 23, with six years of independent living under my belt, I still have the types of conversations with my mother that rely on the worst case scenerio as their central tenant. I remember when I was moving to Toronto, my jacket was open and her reaction was: “You’ll never be able to survive in Toronto, if you can’t do up your jacket.”
It’s frustrating because I know that there’s “The Skenazy Parenting style.” The one where the parent feels the fear and the worry, but bites their tongue for the benefit of their child’s own self-concept. I know parents of friends with disabilities whose reaction to expanding one’s horizon’s is always, “Great, go. I’ll be here when you get back.” Their reaction to catastrophe is not, “I told-you-so,” it’s, “Figure out how to fix it and if you need my help, ask.” They are believers, who use their kid’s prior behaivor as evidence of their kid’s competence in a given situation. They worry too, but they trust their kid and let faith do the rest.
I would argue that this attitude is more cruicial for disabled children because many of them already have enough people telling them what they can’t do beyond their family. Problem solving is a skill they’re going to have to use more often than most and their parent’s won’t be there forever. That’s why Lenore’s Free Range Kids philosophy should be trumpted by parents of people with disabilities everywhere, especially when the statistics are against these children when it comes to ever leading an independent life.
I should mention too, that if you’re a disabled person whose parents are giving you every opportunity to prove yourself. You should routinely thank heaven for your luck. It’s you’re responsibility to match their support in every way that you are able, and be motivated enough to take advantage of every moment presented.
Aaron is a freelance journalist living in Toronto. His work has appeared in Financial Post Business, Investment Executive Newspaper, and TV Week Magazine, along with Askmen.com. He is a regular contributor to Abilities Magazine and is currently plotting a weekly web comic called GIMP, with artist Jon Duguay, about a handicap school bus driver who wakes up after a crash to find he’s the last able-bodied person on earth — and he’s being hunted.