My family of five, which includes my three children – ages 11, 9 and 7 – were at a local state park. They wanted to check out the gift shop at the end of our visit.
“Mom, this isn’t the accessible entrance,” my 7-year-old son said. “You need to ask someone where to go.”
My 9-year-old son is disabled and uses a wheelchair. The accessible entrance was locked, so we went to the main entrance, which had stairs.
It matters to my kids that we are all able to get somewhere, not just those of us who can use the stairs. They also know how to ask for help. Advocating has become second nature to them.
This isn’t anything I consciously taught them how to do. They learned through observing my husband and me, and they are proud to speak up for the needs of our family. It’s an important life skill I didn’t know they learned until they demonstrated it in front of me.
Before I became a parent, I knew I would be supporting my children and teaching them how to care for themselves and how to navigate the world. What I didn’t expect was how much I would learn from them. Here are some of my favorite lessons.
Advocating is essential
As I learned to advocate for my son who is disabled, I didn’t realize that my kids are not only watching when I intentionally teach them. They are also observing all the time.
My children are quick to point out when an activity isn’t inclusive, and to adapt it to their needs. When they trick-or-treat on Halloween, two of them run up to the door, ring the bell and ask the resident to walk down the steps to hand their brother candy. It’s a strategy they figured out on their own through trial and error. It makes their brother extremely happy that they include him and teach others to be inclusive, too.
They also mimic how I advocate. Instead of getting frustrated when a restaurant doesn’t have easy access to a table, I do my best to explain our needs and ask for accommodations. The way that I handle a challenge, by educating people who can help us, is almost as important as accomplishing my goal.
“It is important to communicate our own needs directly, clearly, and with confidence while also respecting the rights of others,” said Heather Watson-Perez, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New Jersey.
“Modeling assertiveness helps children learn how to appropriately communicate their needs and stand up for themselves.”
As a result, I’ve seen my children advocate for themselves when they don’t understand a homework assignment. They aren’t afraid to speak to grown-ups who have authority. And they understand that a situation can sometimes be reasonably changed if you express your needs or ask for accommodations.
All family time counts
I grew up an only child in a single-parent home and, when I became a parent myself, I was excited to go on adventures as a member of a bigger family. Yet kid-friendly attractions, like amusement parks, bouncy houses and even playgrounds, aren’t always easy for us to navigate with my son’s needs. Depending on where we go, we may need to split up so each of my children can participate, which doesn’t always lend itself well to quality family time.
We find other moments like driving to the local arboretum for a picnic, exploring the town library or family movie night at home. We have figured out how to adapt activities like kayaking and snow-tubing, and we find easily accessible beaches where we all can swim and play.
We try to get away so we aren’t distracted by chores or responsibilities at home. The kids get excited about being together and having their parents’ full attention.
“Children need focused attention,” said Jo-Ann Finkelstein, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago. “Not every single moment, but much of the time, and that’s hard in this multi-tasking world of ours. Spending quality time with children has significant effects on their well-being, including better grades, mental health and social competence.”
Finding adventures we all like, and can easily enjoy, is key.
Individual time is important, too
My 9-year-old has many doctors and physical therapy appointments that are essential to his well-being. But he also needs time to just be a kid and do things he enjoys – like playing accessible basketball and swimming.
So do my other two children. Nurturing each of their interests, like playing team sports and attending Girl Scout meetings, helps them feel independent, connected to their peers, and fulfilled.
“The feeling of belonging is truly fundamental to children’s healthy development, both physically and emotionally,” said Yvonne Hansen, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New Jersey.
“When children feel like they belong they are more likely to be motivated, engaged, attentive and willing to take risks.”
When possible, I take one of them at a time on a road trip or overnight that mirrors their interests and allows me to give them undivided attention.
The kids also like to support each other in their separate activities. Due to time restraints, they have inadvertently ended up at each other’s practices or physical therapy sessions. My neurotypical children cheer on their brother at horseback riding therapy, and my disabled son loves to watch soccer games and dribble a ball on the sidelines.
We are always growing and changing
My children are always trying new sports and clubs, deciding what feels like a good fit, and then changing their minds the following season. They are figuring out who they are and who they want to be.
They know very well that everyone grows in different ways and at a different pace. And they make gains related to their individual capabilities that we all cheer. Last year, we celebrated when my daughter got a part in the play that she wanted. We also celebrated when my 9-year-old stood independently for the first time.
I’m growing, too. I’m willing to learn about things I never would have previously found interesting so I can spend time with my children. I have more patience than when I was younger. I’m also more flexible with the constant changing needs in our lives.
I know I will continue to teach my children what I already know. But that, as we navigate life together, I will be learning, too.
Jaclyn Greenberg writes about her experiences parenting her three young children. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Wired, Parents and other places.