Despite the fact that they spent much of my childhood trying to beat the Autism out of me, and raised me in an incredibly abrasive and mentally/physically unsafe environment, my parents did do some good things for me, too. They taught me how to live independently. They taught me responsibility, and they taught me accountability. These are some of the most important things a kid can learn, regardless of ability. One of the hardest things for me to do is think in “shades of gray”. On one hand, my parents were abusive, abrasive and oftentimes neglecting. On the other hand, they taught me the most valuable life lessons that one can learn. Nobody is perfect, and I do believe that my parents thought they were doing the right things for me growing up on all accounts. That doesn’t make everything OK, but it doesn’t make everything all bad either. Shades of gray. Intermediates. Goods and bad in the same people. There is good in everything, if you look for it, and I always look for it. It’s my nature. Here are some of the great life-skills that my parents worked to instill in me that have helped me to function as an independent adult:
- I’ve been doing laundry since I was tall enough to reach into the top-load washer on a stool (and helping to fold it before then). There were consequences for not doing my laundry: I would have to wear dirty clothes. And since I *hated* dirty clothes, this was a good motivator. But that was the only consequence. Very straightforward: don’t do your laundry? (Or don’t fold it?) You have to wear the dirty/wrinkly clothes.
- I’ve been making my own breakfast since kindergarten. My mother taught me how to make instant oatmeal in the microwave (open package into microwave-safe bowl, add ½ cup water, microwave for 1 minute, stir), and that was basically my staple breakfast food for years. It was also my responsibility to get myself up and make my own breakfast.
- I either had to take a lunch ticket or make my own lunch. I used to be able to make a lunch in 2.5 minutes. And that includes toasting the bread so that it doesn’t get soggy. (BEST LUNCH TIP EVER: LIGHTLY toast the bread – not enough to brown, but just to make it a little stiff. Then make the sandwich. By the time lunch rolls around, the consistency of the bread will be back to “normal” – not too stiff, not too soggy.) Admittedly, my lunches were not always the healthiest of creations (though we didn’t have much junk food in the house, so they weren’t that bad), but they did serve the added bonus of getting me to intake calories, and that was a good thing. I’ve been told that this was the rule because I refused to eat the lunches my mother packed for me in preschool. After that, I was in “big-girl school” and I was responsible.
- On that note, I was responsible for getting myself up and moving every morning. If I was late (and I *HATED* being late), it was my fault, and I knew that. This started in kindergarten as well, when my parents bought me an alarm clock. Since then, I’ve only gotten up late a handful of times, nearly all accidently, and each time caused a meltdown because it was a break in routine that I couldn’t deal with. Usually if my mother had to wake me up, it was accompanied with utter panic on my part, and I tried to do pretty much anything to avoid a meltdown. The only other times I would wake up late were if I was sick. And even then, I would often try to go to school, because I hated a break in my routine.
- I’ve had chores since the last year of preschool. And not just “keep your room clean and make your bed”. Each year, I was “awarded” another chore, because I was older and thus “more responsible”. I was responsible for setting and clearing the table. It was my job to go through the house and collect all the trash from all the trash cans, put them into one bag, and bring it to the big trash can in the garage. Then I had to bring the trash cans and recycling down to the curb for pickup. When I was in 3rd grade, I started being responsible for one “family” dinner per week, and this increased over time. I helped to keep the house clean. I took care of our pets. I babysat my younger siblings. I often did odd jobs around the house. The list goes on. My parents expected me to be a fully participating member of the household, and if there was a chore they thought I should do, I learned how to do it.
- To go along with the chores, I was also given an allowance. It wasn’t much, it started at 35 cents per week (in 1995, it was still not a lot of money, but it felt like it back then). But each year as I got older and got more responsibilities, they increased it a little. They provided piggy-banks and then when I was 8 or 9, they introduced me to the real bank. I was encouraged to save up for things I wanted (eg. books, toys) and spend my own money on them. This taught me that money doesn’t just appear, and that you have to work for it whenever you are able to do so. If I didn’t do a chore or behaved badly, my allowance was docked accordingly. If I did something extra, sometimes they would give me a little more. Along these lines, I was also encouraged to use my pet-care skills that I learned to take care of neighbor’s pets when they were not home. (Babysitting was also something I did a little bit of, but I really didn’t like it and although the kids never had anything bad happen in my care, they didn’t have that much fun, and I didn’t either.) And to this day, I have a good sense of money. I am able to put away and save, and I have never, ever overdrawn my bank account, despite spending 7 months without a steady income recently. I have a “rainy day” fund that I spend enormous amounts of effort maintaining, and it has and will help me stay afloat when I need it. They also taught me how to balance a checkbook and other essential financial skills.
- I was taught manners. Often brutally, but there were good things they did too. For example, we used to play a game at the dinner table called “10 pennies”. Each person started with a stack of 10 pennies, and each time someone broke an etiquette rule we would lose a penny. Whatever you had left at the end of the evening was yours. If you got to zero, you had to go to your piggy bank and get more pennies. My mother was OBSESSED with Ms. Manners, and the rule-book was great for the pragmatic Autistic child – it explained everything! I was also taught about saying “excuse me”, “please”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome”, as well as addressing adults as “Sir” and “Ma’am” or Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss. Politeness came before everything.
- I was given the opportunity to take (low-key) music lessons, with the most wonderful piano teacher in the world. This will be the subject of a post in the future, but suffice it to say I LOVE classical music, I love playing classical music, and my piano teacher was one of most wonderful, kind, caring individuals I have ever had the privilege of knowing.
- I was allowed and encouraged to participate in sports. I wasn’t always good (terrible coordination, incredibly klutzy, bad at communicating/reading teammates/coach, too chaotic, etc), but I found a niche in an individual sport that still had a team. I learned a lot from my teammates, who ranged in age from 2-3 years older to 2-3 years younger than me over the course of my 12 years participating. And I learned body control, how to set goals, and how to keep in shape. No, I was never going to the Olympics, but I sure had fun while I was doing it, and I made some great friends, because we had the sport in common.
- There were rules. Lots and lots of rules. Excessive rules. While I’m not advocating for the amount or rules my parents enforced on me (and there were a *LOT* of them), I do think the structure was very helpful. I knew what was right and wrong, and I followed the rules. They did a pretty bad job of teaching me to question the rules, and that is a skill I’m still developing. But I do think having structure helped me a lot growing up. I learned personal hygiene based on the rules, and that is definitely one of the most important things one can learn. One of the rules I go back and forth on is the “NO TV” rule. While I’m grateful that I was raised without it, so now TV doesn’t play a big role in my life, it means that I have very little to converse about with people of my generation, and is just another thing that alienated me when I was younger. I didn’t know what Barney was until 4th grade! (Though come to think of it, that’s not such a bad thing, now, is it?). One thing is the rules stayed basically the same throughout my life. My parents never let up on them, and when I was a senior in high school, I was still bound by most of the rules I was bound by in kindergarten. There was no element of trust, no relaxation of the rules as I showed myself to be more responsible. My mother’s friend would often comment to me that my mother still treated me like I was 6. But as this is a post about what they did right, not what they did wrong, I will stop the griping. Rules are good and bad, and it depends entirely on the individual how they work.
- When I turned 5, I got a library card in my name for my 5th birthday present. I still have it, with my name barely legible, printed in big block letters as I struggled to write. They encouraged my love of reading. They allowed me to think and learn. If I started perseverating, that wasn’t tolerated (though I did learn to hide it sometimes), but I was encouraged to read, learn, explore, and love the written word.
So there we have it: some things that my parents did right. I learned from a very young age that I was responsible for my actions, and that the consequences were real. I learned life skills, like cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and maintaining finances. I learned responsibility and accountability and manners. I learned how to take care of my body, and how to set my own routines. I learned that not all adults are scary, and that music is a wonderful thing on many levels. I was taught to respect the rules (though I do think a little bit too much). I learned how to live independently. And I was taught to love learning. And when it boils down to it, those are some pretty important lessons.