Some Kind of Help is the Kind of Help We All Can Do Without: Getting Things Done with Children who Don't (or Can't) Help

Sharon February 29th, 2008

Zachary Zugg took out the rug,

And Jennifer Joy helped shake it.

And Jennifer Joy, she made a toy

And Zachary Zugg helped break it.

And some kind of help is the kind of help

That helping’s all about.

And some kind of help is the kind of help…

We all can do without. – From “Helping” on “Free to Be You and Me”

When I speak of children who can’t or won’t help, I am referring to two groups of children. The first are babies and toddlers, who lack the capacity or temperament or understanding to be at all helpful. That is, they either are babies, who can’t do much, or they are toddlers and sometimes the youngest preschoolers so busy learning to be people that they cannot accomplish much else.  These groups often have a lot in common, despite their significant differences, and I’m going to treat them together.

The age at which children become generally helpful, and both want to participate in your daily life and can without making much more work for you varies a great deal – some especially calm and mature 18 or 20 month olds might actually fit the bill, although I have personally never raised such a child. In other cases, a child as old as three and a half might be unable to focus on helping as much.   Or, in the case of disability, helpfulness might come at 8 or 15, or 30 or never – I call these children, but some adults will, in their own way, always be like these children and some of my readers presumably care for them.

But generally, in developmentally typical children,  it seems to me that the major transition occurs sometime between 2 1/2 and 3. At this point, they may still slow you down, because they demand to help make the pancakes, hang the laundry and would like to drive the car, but they at least can participate, to some extent, in home and garden life, where for the most part, younger children, delightful and sweet as they are, fall the category of “hindrance” in one’s attempts to grow and preserve food, keep a home that will not be condemned, or get much of anything else done.

The second category of children who can’t or won’t help are those with serious disabilities. Some of these children are those with neurological impairments, that limit their common sense, impulse control, ability to understand danger, or simply their interest in participation. Other such children are so severely disabled in a physical or mental sense that their participation, while perfectly possible, requires enormous amount of investment of time and energy by their parents or other caretakers.

I have one of each of these types of children. Asher is two, and about as classic “terrible two year old” as can possibly be imagined. I recall that when his older brother Isaiah was about the same age people used to say when he spoke, “What a sweet little voice he has.” Asher, on the other hand, regularly garners good natured comparisons to longshoremen.

My older children were always a little shy and reserved around strangers. Last week, in synagogue, Asher was marching with all other children in the “Torah Parade” when, as is traditional, one woman reached out her prayer book to receive the blessing of touching on the little children’s heads. Asher stopped straight in the middle of the march, and yelled “You don’t touch me!!!” at full volume at the kind elderly woman who had dared to gently brush her prayerbook above his head. Asher believes he should run the world, and when (as is often the case) he discovers that he is not in charge, the results are screaming display of temper and blind fury that ends in thrown objects, discipline and tears. The world is very difficult when you are small.

Then, there’s Eli. Eli is autistic, and that means that his priorities and ours do not always match up, or even make sense to us. At least in our experience there’s nothing tragic about having an autistic child – Eli is sweet natured, with a merry sense of humor and a great deal of energy – but it is rather like going to the shelter to adopt a kitten, and getting a puppy. That is, Eli’s worldview is different in fundamental ways from our own – thus, he’s not much interested in my attempts, say, to engage him with stacking wood – he’d rather whack the ice covered branches that have fallen from the tree against the house. No persuasion of mine will convince him of the necessity of helping – he’ll do it, if I stand over him, but he simply cannot understand my own interest in this activity, and will abandon it the moment something else catches his interest.

It isn’t that Eli is trying to be difficult, it is that he genuinely doesn’t yet grasp what is wanted or needed, or why we would care about these things.  His world, his mind are different, and it is hard for him to work through the distractions of autism to understand our perspective.  He does, and we require him to do so, but there’s only so much of that we can do in any given day, and have anyone have any fun.

 I suspect I am not alone in struggling to get things accomplished with multiple small, cute hindrances around.  And while I do take the time to include them, sometimes we just need to find a way to get things done around them.  I’m excluding paid childcare as a choice here – I’m assuming that whoever is doing this either is the paid childcare provider working out of their home, or is the parent.  I figure “get a babysitter” is something you can figure out without me ;-) .

So here are a few suggestions I’ve come up with.  Most of them probably involve a degree or two of bad parenting – but they get the jam made ;-) .

1. Let them make a giant mess.  There’s nothing that attracts either Eli or Asher more than water.  They both love to “help” with the dishes, but can’t actually do them.  So if I need to do a whole load of dishes, my favorite project is to put one of them in the tub with a dishpan of warm soapy water, some unbreakable dishes (enamelware cups are great) and let ‘em go at it.  They love it, and I might actually get a full load of dishes done. 

I also feel strongly that sometimes it is worth letting the kids do make messes, if cleaning them up will not be too onerous, and it gets me a few minutes to work.  So I am probably repulsively laissez-faire on this subject – recently three of the boys were kept happily occupied slicing my husband’s old exams into shapes (Simon and Isaiah) and shreds (Eli) and then throwing the shreds up and yelling “snow.”  I realize good Mommies stop their children from doing this.  But all I could think was “fine, I’ll pick up the snow later, I get to make bread.”

2. Don’t look them in the eye ;-) .  I have noticed that my children will be happily and productively self-entertaining while I am busy doing something else and nowhere in sight, but my toddler especially (but my other kids too) thinks that Mommy in the line of sight, or, say, talking to him, means “Mommy wants to pick me up.”  When you get those blessed moments of self-engagement *STAY OUT OF VIEW* – if there are safety issues, that’s one thing, but try and make sure there aren’t – or recruit an older child and bribe them to come running if anything untoward happens. 

This also applies to children with disabilities doing things themselves.  I find that much more help is needed if I’m available to do things for them.  That’s not to say we should allow children to struggle to the point of suffering to do something they are genuinely incapable of on their own, but I notice how creative they get when they think they are responsible.

3. Make use of big siblings – or even developmentally normal younger ones.  I know this is a somewhat fraught issue.  In some societies, siblings have enormous responsibility for one another, but in ours, we are less inclined that way.  Still, I haven’t noticed any negative effects – and have seen some positive ones, from giving Simon andIsaiah the responsiblity, say, of helping Asher up and down the stairs, or keeping an eye on him in an enclosed space.  Obviously, one has to be realistic about this – 5 year olds have limited powers of rationality.  But I do think that the practice of being responsible for one another – mutually – is a good one in building family unity.

For children with physical disabilities, having a sibling be eyes or hands or feet can be empowering and positive for both of them, as long as it is done carefully.  I have a friend whose 10 year old with cerebral palsy cannot walk in the woods – so her brother brings her the woods, each day returning with a collection of woodland artifacts – acorns and sticks, small dug up tree seedlings, etc…  They then make woodland fairy houses in the corner of their yard together, and wait for acorn seedlings to sprout.

4. Create enclosures.  Particularly for toddlers, and roaming older children this is essential.  We spent an awful lot of our inheritance from Eric’s grandparents fencing 1/4 acre of our front yard – and it may be the best money we have ever spent.  Eli cannot be trusted not to roam, but he also is an almost-8 year old, with a low tolerance for his parents following him around all the time.  This allows him some freedom – and I know that grants are available in some areas to low income families seeking to keep disabled kids safe.  I’ve heard of several people who fenced with such grants. 

In the barn, we only have small livestock, so we don’t worry too much about the kids, but a friend of mine who has draft horses and cows tells me that one of the best things she ever did was simply allot a spare horse stall to her kids.  There are kid sized barn tools, some toys and bales of hay to sit on, and a few old chairs and horse blankets to make tents on.  That way, when she was working, her younger kids were out from underfoot.  We don’t have enough space in our barn for this, but if you did, it is a great idea.  Even a small gated area can help, or playpen.  I know some people feel strongly about “baby jails” but as long as the kids spend short times in them, I don’t have a major problem.

Making points of access is also important for children – if you can, it is well worth spending money to bring the wheelchair into the barn, or move the chicken house to where you child can get to it themselves.  Your child might not yet be able to go get eggs herself, and it may even be hard to imagine that she ever could, but making the coop accessible means the possibility is there, and many disabled children accomplish remarkable things. 

5. Nurse toddlers as long as possible.  I say this for two reasons.  The first is that when they are in their “I am only sort of a person” stage, they have a lot of complicated feelings that they cannot yet express.  Often, the world just seems unbearable.  Somehow, nursing is a less fraught experience.  And it is amazing how much time you can save if you can short-circuit a tantrum.

It also has a powerful tranquilizing effect on some kids – that is, you can get a kid to nap by nursing them even if they will no longer nap any other way.  Since two of my kids gave up naps long before I felt they should, this was very important. 

If you don’t  or can’t nurse, create sleep routines and comfort routines.  The idea here is to have short ways of sending various mesages “It is ok, the world is not falling apart just because you can’t hold the credit card” or “Now it is time to go to sleep, even though it seems like it would be much more fun to throw the dog food.”  Think about it as keyboard shortcuts for your children ;-) .

6. Toddler-wear.  Not one of my four kids would ever tolerate a sling, backpack or other constraint after they could walk – not one.  But I know many people all over the world do this.  And it is good way of keeping your child about and contained.  I laud those who can do it.  Me, I never could pull it off.

7. Put them to bed early.  We have a firm 7 pm bedtime at our house.  They don’t have to sleep, and they often don’t.  Eli often stays up as late as 9pm.  But barring an emergency, all children go upstairs and read or play quietly in their room at 7pm – period, no discussion, no negotiation.  Actually, there’s no battle here – my kids look forward to bedtime, and their time together.  We check in occasionally, they have water and plenty of books and toys, and often I find Simon reading aloud to the other three, or elaborate games being made up.  But to bed they go – and Mommy and Daddy get to work on whatever project awaits us, until we collapse together.  Alternately, if your kids are night owls, you can get up early.

On a related note, I’m a firm believer in tiring children out – all kids need plenty of physical exercise to get them ready to sleep, and I think kids who spend too much time indoors or sedentary often have more behavioral issues.  We find that lots of exercise is good for everyone – if everyone is too cranky, taking a long walk or a run around the local school track is good for Mommy – and for the boys.  For children with physical disabilities, finding good exercise can be difficult – but it is important, nonetheless.  And it is good to find a fun form of exercise – which can be tought for kids who do lots of physical therapy and are wary of such things.  A friend of mine’s wheelchair-bound son is very resistant to anything that smacks of “theraputic” exercise, but will happily play catch from his chair.

8. Get a good dog or an alarm.  For those children with escape urges, you need a way to protect them, and still be able to look away from them now and then.  Some kids really push those limits.  There are both cheap and expensive options.  One would be a well-trained dog, that was trained to give the alarm if a child goes beyond a particular perimeter, and to go with the child.  We’re working on this with Rufus, our American Working Farmcollie.  Not all dogs could meet this need, but many might. 

Some children with disabilities might be eligible for an assistive dog – these are now available for a range of disabilities, not just blindness and deafness.  I’ve even heard of miniature horses and monkeys being used in these capacities – obviously, such a thing is a large decision, and up to each family, but it is something to think about.  Strong relationships with animals, and the experience of being in “charge” of something is very important for kids.

Otherwise, you might consider either an alarm system in your house (if that’s the issue) or an emergency alarm that attaches to the child and sounds when the child goes more than X distance from there. 

It is also worth teaching your children ”cue words” – many kids with disabilities may have trouble with language, but can learn a few key terms.  All of my children, by 2 years, knew that STOP meant stop *NOW* without discussion.  Any child capable of learning these things should have words or signs that indicate stop, stay, come, and if possible, mastering these should be a huge priority.

9.  Integrate the child into the task at their level.  We go berry picking, and Eli and Asher eat berries.  They are participating.  We are happy they are there.  Both also occasionally contribute a squashed berry – they are lauded and praised extravagantly for this contribution (after which, the berry is discretely disposed of most of the time ;-) ). 

When we make a quilt, Asher can find the red cloth.  When we fold laundry, Eli can bring me the towels.  The trick is to find jobs sufficiently engaging to keep the child busy, while also not actually adding any time on to the project.  This can be enormously difficult – but every investment of time and energy is an investment in future helpfulness.  Your child may not be coordinated enough to pour the cat’s water yet – but perhaps they can turn on the faucet while you hold the bowl.

10. Accomplishment is relative.  The glorious thing about having a disabled child is that you learn to appreciate every step – however small.   Toddlers do that too – one day they can’t button a button, and the next day they can get it halfway in.  One day they can’t put on their underpants, the next day they can – and on their heads.  But the truth is, they are steps forward.

If you are the parent or caregiver of a small (or large) beloved hindrance, remember that for you too, the small accomplishments count.  You, like them, do a little tiny bit more each day – some days.  Some days it feels like you are taking a dozen steps back.  But the truth is this - seven dishes done, up from six yesterday morning, is an improvement.  9 eggplants harvested before the tantrum is better than 5 last week.  You, like them, are taking small steps.  And just as the moment when the toddler who will never nap smiles and says “I go sleep now, Daddy.” and the moment when the child who cannot speak says “Mama” are moments of glory, joy and wonder, so too is the day when the jars of jam are on the shelf, or the laundry waves in the breeze like a salute and praise.


10 Responses to “Some Kind of Help is the Kind of Help We All Can Do Without: Getting Things Done with Children who Don't (or Can't) Help”

  1. Marnie says:

    This gets printed out and put on the fridge. Thanks, Sharon.

  2. tk says:

    Oh, the last paragraph just makes me tear up. I’ve recently been robbed of a lot of my strength by a chronic disease and surgery, and it’s so hard to remember small steps are still steps, not compared to the life I used to live pre-disease, but compared to yesterday.

  3. Leila says:

    Thank you so much for this, Sharon. I too have a developmentally atypical child, 8 years old (whose middle name is Elias, cousin to your Eli! My father was Elias). I know the challenges of raising two small children close in age. You give lots of good advice, thank you.

    My 8 year old loves to cook; I have to assign him specific tasks like peeling & cutting the cucumbers (cut with dinner knife), else he will do things like dump pasta into stone-cold water, or add the salad dressing to the soup. Because of my health challenge this year we aren’t doing some of the projects and walking I would like (I had been walking them to school, a precious family time for us that also keeps them moving around and connects us to the neighborhood). But 8 year old is so interested in his school garden that I want to get one going for us this spring. We’ll have to hire somebody to prep the beds, which are devoted to perennial flowers and “volunteers” at the moment, because I can’t do it and hubby is overwhelmed with his extra responsibilities.

    6 yr old helps begrudgingly. We work on him…

  4. Greenpa says:

    Man, I am impressed! I’m a parent with lots of practice; and outstanding success (my 3 kids all make people gape in awe at my parenting skills…) :-)

    And, I learned a couple new things here. The “don’t look them in the eye” thing is new to me; and TRUE TRUE TRUE!! I love it.

    The Smidgen will play by herself, read to herself (in her way) – for very long periods of time; very happily. But just as you say – look her in the eye- and it’s a trigger for demands and turmoil.

    I’ll pass on one of my father’s sayings, wisdom gleaned from growing up with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Regarding work:

    “One boy- is a boy.
    Two boys – are a half a boy.
    And three boys – are no boy at all.”

    Oh, so true.

  5. Burbanmom says:

    Great post, Sharon! With a 4 1/2 and 2 1/2 year old constantly in tow, I know it can be difficult to get things accomplished.

    I, too, find that being out of sight keeps me out of mind and the two little ones will find ways to amuse one another while I get a task done. I try to include them as much as possible and, fortuantely for me, they both love to “cook” and “clean”. Sometimes it’s helpful, sometimes it’s not. I’m just happy they want to help, since I know it won’t be long before they’ll be whining and complaining about chores.

    The toughest “mom” adjustment for me was the realization that some days — nothing will get accomplished. Nothing. And that’s ok, because for better or worse, the chores will all still be there tomorrow.

    And Greenpa, I agree with your saying! Other than the noise level rivaling that of a Pink Floyd concert, having four kids here is often easier than just having my two. HOWEVER, when you’re talking about your own kids (especially as babies), I’m more inclined to believe that “one is like none, two is like ten”.

  6. Green Bean says:

    Wonderful post! I often feel guilty when I’m doing stuff, like baking bread, planting in the garden and so on, and the kids can’t or don’t want to help. These days, everyone expects you to spend all of your free time engaged with your children. I certainly try to incorporate them into what I’m doing but sometimes it is just not possible or they lose interest before the task is complete. What am I supposed to do? Throw up my hands and order out, I believe, is what most people would say. I appreciate your honest suggestions for the alternative.

  7. roy jones says:

    And then there are those who can’t be motivated, even with a cattle prod. Waste of space or waste of skin.

  8. M.Squirrel says:

    We have our own autistic little man, just a wee bit older than yours. I guess we are lucky with him, though…he’ll help cook (he can stir pasta or soup like a pro), he likes to fish (he has even caught a few), and he volunteers to help in the garden. Yesterday he pushed the wheelbarrow back and forth for me while I added compost to the beds. While that doesn’t seem like much, it saved me the business of “stop, move, and restart”. Yours will soon find a way to help as well.

    As for tiring them out…that’s what our teenager is for. Last night he engaged our autistic son and our toddler daughter in a game of “run around the table.” No actual goal, just run around the table. He had just as much fun as the younger two, and I had fun just watching the toddler try and keep up on her short legs.

  9. Sharon says:

    Leila, Eli’s name is actually Elias! I’m glad you are able to do so much, when you are dealing with so much.

    Greenpa, thank you for the kind words. Real praise, coming from someone who has already gotten some to adulthood. And I loved your saying.

    GreenBean – I think that our culture’s child centered-ness isn’t just bad for us, I think it it puts an awful lot of pressure on the kids as well to hold the center of a family. In some ways, I think it is healthy for children to be out of the center of the world, and just part of the mix. So I don’t think you should feel guilty – you may be doing them a favor. But I do know what you mean. Whenever disability comes up, you read about these magic parents who devoted every second of their lives to their special needs kids and magically made all their problems go away, and I occasionally eat some guilt for not being the kind of Mom who does that – but not as much as I’m grateful that Eli gets a normal childhood most of the time.

    Burbanmom, you know people always say, “Wow, four.” But my own take is that parenting goes pretty much 1, 2..many ;-) . That is, one is this huge adjustment from not being a parent at all, but also manageable because you outnumber them. 2 isn’t the same radical change, but it opens the dynamics in a host of ways, but after that, you put pretty much the same amount of energy into things, you just allocate it different ways. I’m not sure I work any harder than people with 2 kids – or that much less than people with 6 (which is not to say that I want two more ;-) ).

    M.Squirrel – I love to hear that other people with autistic children do find ways around this stuff – we are too, just slowly. That’s really great to hear.


  10. Fairy says:

    I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at

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