Neglect, or good parenting?

The following ties in well with my recent post Parents should be leaders (not managers) and my overall theme for Autism Awareness Month, so I’m reposting it in its entirety.  I first posted this in April of 2008.
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What would you think if your friend/neighbor/sibling told you that they had left their 9 year old son at a department store in mid-town Manhattan, by himself, because “he had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own”? Would you call Child Protective Services, or would you say “good for you”? Would you ever do something like that?

After you’ve had a chance to think about it for a second, check out the essay Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone by Lenore Skenazy (also available on her new blog, Free Range Kids).

Was I worried? Yes, a tinge. But it didn’t strike me as that daring, either. Isn’t New York as safe now as it was in 1963? It’s not like we’re living in downtown Baghdad.

Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.

No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”

Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.

Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.

It’s that last sentence in the excerpt above that really caught my eye. It is no less true for our autistic kids than it is for our non-autistic kids. There are obviously some differences that need to be allowed for, but only by being given independence – true independence – can kids learn how to be independent, and parents learn how to accept that independence.

As you can imagine, there was a huge negative reaction. But she also received some support from her readers. Check out her follow up, America’s Worst Mom, for the details. Security expert Bruce Schneier also weighs-in on his blog, that is worth a read as well.

Sure there are risks, and there will be mistakes and issues along the way. But isn’t that what life is all about?

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On the subject of leadership, there is a lesson to be learned here for managers/leaders of all kinds.

Dysfunction as high function

During his New Year’s Day seminar, author Dan Pink shared five trends that he is following in 2010. In the science category, the trend he is keeping an eye on is dysfunction is high function. During the discussion he referenced the Atlantic Monthly article The Science of Success, which considers the possible “up-side” of genetic dysfunction:

Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts.

Re-reading the article last night reminded me of a story I heard many years ago in an episode of Fresh Air focused on Asperger’s Syndrome (paraphrased):

A boy with Asperger’s Syndrome is focused on snakes. He knows about everything there is to know about snakes, and can bring snakes into just about any story or subject. If he can’t make it about snakes, he doesn’t care about it.

For a cumulative school project this boy had to prepare a report about the Battle of Gettysburg. The purpose of the project was to teach research and presentation skills. You guessed it – no snakes, the boy didn’t care and wasn’t doing anything on the project. Until, that is, the teachers and staff came up with the idea, “What if we let him do his report on The Snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg?”

To make a long story short, this got the boy’s attention and he dove right in. To do the project, he had to learn as much or more about the battle and the geography, etc., as any other kid. His project was so good, and so unique, that he was asked to present his project to the entire school. Everyone wanted to hear the presentation about the snakes at the Battle of Gettysburg, and everyone thought it was great.

The kicker here is this: Before this presentation, everyone avoided this boy because all he wanted to talk about was snakes.

I recognize that humans are a social bunch that prefer to socialize with others like themselves, but it is unfortunate – for both the “typical” and “non-typical” populations – that anything that is different is so shunned, before even being given a chance.

Cultivate your kid's strengths

I found this bit of wisdom in the book Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. Though geared at self improvement, this quote struck a chord with me as a parent:

The trick is not to work obsessively on the skills and talents you lack, but to focus and cultivate your strengths so that your weaknesses matter less.

The story of Tony DeBlois is an example of this in action. His mother recognized that Tony had serious weaknesses/disabilities to overcome, but also realized that his strength in music could make much of that weakness irrelevant.

All of our kids have their own strengths. Much of it may be hidden from us as parents*, or their strength may be something that we don’t quite understand or appreciate as worth cultivating.

But it is by cultivating these strengths, in all of our kids (and ourselves), that we can help them be successful in whatever they ultimately decide to do.

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    * Ferrazzi also gives this observation from Machiavelli: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.”

Cultivate your kid’s strengths

I found this bit of wisdom in the book Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. Though geared at self improvement, this quote struck a chord with me as a parent:

The trick is not to work obsessively on the skills and talents you lack, but to focus and cultivate your strengths so that your weaknesses matter less.

The story of Tony DeBlois is an example of this in action. His mother recognized that Tony had serious weaknesses/disabilities to overcome, but also realized that his strength in music could make much of that weakness irrelevant.

All of our kids have their own strengths. Much of it may be hidden from us as parents*, or their strength may be something that we don’t quite understand or appreciate as worth cultivating.

But it is by cultivating these strengths, in all of our kids (and ourselves), that we can help them be successful in whatever they ultimately decide to do.

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* Ferrazzi also gives this observation from Machiavelli: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.”

Ignore everybody (but don't ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...

Ignore everybody (but don’t ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...

Don't write them off just yet

Seth Godin doesn’t write about autism, and yet much of what he writes and says comes across as if it were written just for the parents of an autistic child. Today’s article – Accepting limits – from his blog is a perfect example (emphasis is mine):

Isn’t it absurd to focus so much energy on ‘practical’ skills that prep someone for a life of following instructions but relentlessly avoid the difficult work necessary to push someone to reinvent themselves into becoming someone who makes a difference?

And isn’t it even worse to write off a person or an organization merely because of what they are instead of what they might become?

Much of what counts as autism intervention these days focuses on making the child – or the adult – “more normal” or “less autistic”.  Granted there are things that autistic people need to be taught and understand so they can function in the world, there is no denying that. But this doesn’t mean that their uniqueness should be driven out of them in the process.

Don’t write off your child’s future – or worse, your child – just because they are autistic. There is great potential there, if you are willing to do the work necessary to uncover it.