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Building A Child's Self Esteem

By Rosemary J. Gwaltney

I am the single mother of twenty-six. I have built my family mostly through adoption. Most of my children who have disabilities, are very active and capable children. Over the years, I have put much thought into trying to raise each one just as though they were just like anyone else. I don't see my children's handicaps when I look at them. To me, they are simply children. Children with strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. I want each one to be aware of all their strengths first, and thus, not to feel badly about their weaknesses, or worse, try to use them to get out of things! Every living person has weaknesses, I tell them. The things you can't do are not as important as the things you CAN do!

A disabled child's self identity, and feeling about himself can be very fragile. He will be disinclined to try to progress, if he believes himself to be incapable, a failure, or unimportant. Particularly vulnerable to this is the child who has experienced being in the foster care system. This child feels worse than useless. He has also been unwanted, maybe by numerous families, and knew it. Being in the foster care system, he has never learned how to be helpful. He comes to his adoptive family bringing virtually nothing. No happy feeling about himself inside. He is a human child who feels miserably like a non-person.

Building a child's self esteem is very important. The best way to do this is to make the child feel needed.

Even corrective casting did not stop Skyla from joining the dishes crew!

What makes a child want to help? The same inspiration as anyone else - being appreciated! A child with cerebral palsy, who has intelligence enough to want to join his or her siblings in their play, is able to learn to help. I searched my brain year after year, to find tiny things such a child could do, to feel needed. A child, with a weak body, but a willing heart can do many of the following things:

1. Put away small cans, or light dishes, on a shelf the child can reach.
2. Carry something from one part of the house to another in their wheelchair.
3. Shake a bag with chicken and shake 'n bake.
4. Pour salad dressing on a salad.
5. Sprinkle candies on cookies someone is baking.
6. Stir the stew with a long wooden spoon.
7. Come to tell the parent if a certain child gets out of bed.
8. Tell a parent if the coffee is ready.
9. Tell someone the kitchen timer has gone off, etc.
10. Drive around the house telling everyone that dinner is ready.
11. Smooth their own quilt on their bed.
12. Turn on, or off, a light, a tape deck, a TV, or any number of things. Lamps can be bought that turn on and off with the touch of a finger.
13. Cover up a sleeping sibling whose quilt has fallen off. (Only a child who won't wake a sleeping sibling!)
14. Watch over a pot until it boils. (Only a child who is safe around boiling water.)
15. Possibly open curtains, with an object fastened to the end of the cord for grasping.
16. Help load or unload the dishwasher.
17. One job everyone loves, is pulling frozen food out of the freezer onto the tray of a child's wheelchair, so I can defrost.

Defrosting the freezer is always great fun!

Of the twenty-one children who are still living at home, sixteen are able to help.

Usually my children's first job in life is picking up their own toys. From there, I teach them to put away their own clothes. Almost any child who is able to open and close a drawer, can learn this skill. If they can't open and close drawers, I get wide, sturdy shelves for them.

My daughter Cherise has severe Cerebral Palsy, (spastic quadriplegia) and normal intelligence. She is very careful and responsible. She gives her younger siblings rides around the house on their power chair. She holds them in her lap, lets them sit on her footrest, and lets them stand behind, hanging on to the handles. I remember several of my babies that their big sister Cherise helped me comfort when they were fussy. I would put the baby in an infant backpack, and fasten it to the back of her power chair. All she had to do was move around the house like she normally did, and the baby would be happy. This was a true and valuable help to me, and delighted Cherise beyond words! Cherise is helpful carrying things from one part of our huge house, on her wheelchair, to another. All of Cherise's help is done from her power chair, as she is unable to move around the house on her own.

My son Tony has severe Cerebral Palsy, (spastic/athetoid diplegia) and poor vision, and is most stable on the floor. He prefers the floor to his power chair, as he can reach things better, and move around more. Tony makes good and positive use of the intelligence God gave him, though he has moderate mental retardation. Tony has a very sweet and helpful personality. He thinks about others, and has a helpful spirit. He sweetly and patiently picks up toys, and the numerous things that end up on the floor on any given day. He remains the winner as my best floor picker-upper! For Tony, dressing himself is a chore. But he can do it, for the most part, and though it takes him a long time, he knows that it a piece of independence he can accomplish, and is a true help.

My son Chad has Cerebral Palsy, (spastic hemiplegia) and severe mental retardation. He only can use one hand, and walks unsteadily. Chad can set the table (non-breakable items, as he falls easily), make his bed, and clean his room. He can vacuum his own room with some success in places. He can load and unload the dishwasher, though unevenly, load and unload the washing machine and dryer, with someone watching that he doesn't over-fill them; and sort clothing into bins for their respective owners, as well. I must admit that he has broken the door off the dryer many times, by falling on it, and he has been known to break a washer by stuffing it too full. But all the help he has given, and his independence and feeling of success far outweighs the damages.

My adult daughter Priscilla has severe Cerebral Palsy (spastic quadriplegia) from being hit by a car when she was nine. She has normal intelligence. Her body and hands are very weak. But she was a meticulous and accurate sock sorter before she grew up and moved away. Believe me, a family can always use a good sock sorter! In our family, it's a huge job, too, and few had the patience to do it. Thank you again, Priscilla!

My daughter Skyla has Spina Bifida (partially paralyzed from the waist down) but she is very strong, nimble and quick, with a cheerful and brave spirit. She has normal intelligence. It is very difficult for her to get things out of the dryer, without breaking the door off. But she has found a way to do almost everything else. She can pull herself up onto the kitchen counter to get something out of a high cupboard, or put it away. Skyla is a capable, quick, and willing daughter, extremely helpful with her younger siblings. When they were tiny, she was an expert diaper changer, a patient toddler-dresser, a loving rocking-chair comforter, a tender band-aid putter-onner. Skyla has an abundance of energy, and the sweet spirit of helping others with it.

My daughter Cathy has Down's Syndrome. She is very low functioning. But even she can help clear the table, and put away her toys and clothes!

My two other daughters with Down's Syndrome, Julianne and Starr have helpful intelligence, and able bodies. While they were growing up, I noticed that both of them had weaker hands than a normal child. I don't notice that any more. Juli and Starr still live at home, and are independent, and magnificent helpers. Both of them know they are important to me, and feel good about being needed. Both Juli and Starr, along with Skyla, are able to change diapers, and help a great deal. But Juli and Skyla are dependable, and truly enjoy helping. They are fun to work with. Starr tries her best to escape chores. She does not enjoy helping, but she does bask in my approval! Starr takes literally hours to sweep and mop a floor. But when she gets done, the job is excellent. Clean and dry, it is a beauty! I could do it it myself in a quarter of the time, or less, but she would be deprived of the chance to be a winner. The chance to experience success.

My two little daughters Sarah, and Sheena, who have hemiplegia, but normal intelligence, can already sweep a floor at six years old! They work together. One sweeps, the other helps push the dirt onto the dustpan, and dumps it in the garbage can. Each daughter can only use her left arm and hand for this. They make a great team! Sarah and Sheena are good at putting away the cans on the lower shelves, as they are the smallest of my children. They clean up their own room very well, and put away their own clothes, but need help opening and shutting the drawers.

My daughter with Fetal Alcohol Effect, Katie, and son with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Jordan, both have an enormous amount of energy. This energy can be harnessed in positive ways, by keeping them busy. They are both good at outside things, which take a lot of running, and inside things that take a lot of walking. They are the best ever at unloading a van full of groceries! Filling wagons, and pulling them up the ramp into our house, and going back for more, they are right in their element. Among the things that get dropped, I always hope it's not five dozen eggs, a gallon glass jar of dill pickles, or a quart of jam. And if it is something messy, I hope it happens outside!

A more observant, and discerning group will sort these groceries, and put them away in their correct places.

Katie and Jordan both do any job very quickly, though it won't be done very well. Neither one is able to slow down sufficiently, to pay close and meticulous attention to details. If they exhibit a good attitude, and get things done, I don't complain too much about the quality of the work, if I can help it. God loves a cheerful giver. So does mommy.

Billy, a nineteen year old living with us for a year, who has Down's Syndrome, has never been taught to work. At first he would not help in any way, though he has a strong and able body. He would stand with his arms folded across his chest, and a frown on his face, and watch my children working together. Since he also has a mental illness, I did not try to change him at first. My children were amazed at him! They had never seen anyone who would not help, but just stare! Yet even he picked up a more helpful spirit as the months went by. He progressed from total refusal, to spending a lot of time watching my children work together, with apparent amazement, and quite a bit of interest. And now he joins in for one or two small jobs, and has his own name on the job chart, getting lots of praise from me! The way I got him to join in, was to finally require that he do the small chore, like carry the milk cartons to the table, in order to be allowed to eat. And he really enjoys eating!

Some jobs can be successfully accomplished with two or three working together. For instance, Julianne counts with Cherise's help, and stacks the dishes onto Cherise's wheelchair tray. Cherise drives them over to the table, and Chad, who has to lean on the table for balance, takes them one by one, from the tray, and puts them on the table. One place for each chair. It would be so easy for me to skip Chad and Cherise, and just have Julianne set the table. But what would Chad and Cherise do then? Just sit and watch Julianne achieving, while they felt incapable, or worse, unneeded. That is not an option in our family.

Unloading the freezer can be done so very quickly using the group approach! Any number of children can take frozen food out of the freezer and put it on Cherise's tray. When her tray is full, she can drive it to the other side of the room, and push them all off onto a blanket on the floor. When the food is out, we wrap it all up in that blanket, and set about defrosting.

Each person has a basket in their room for dirty clothes. Every day, as it is written on the chart, it is two or three people's turn to wash their clothes. When the clothes come out of the dryer, Skyla and Chad, or any combination of children sort them into the basket on the shelves to wait their turn to get put away.

Putting away clothes is a job that works well with a group approach. I sort clothes fresh out of the dryer, into baskets. Each basket has a name on it. When it's time, Cherise carries one basket at a time, to its appropriate bedroom, and the child whose clothes they are, puts them away. Then Cherise comes back, and carries the empty basket back to me. If someone isn't there, or doesn't want to put them away, she comes to tell me. I go to see what the problem is. This doesn't happen too often. Cherise saves me a lot of walking, as our house has eighteen bedrooms.

Skyla saves me tons of time, doing wheelies in her chair around the house, changing diapers, putting away clothes, you name it, she does it. And her bubbly, cheerful attitude is a tremendous blessing! She is the only one who is able to go to the store for me at this time, unless her grown siblings are home. The store is a block away, and she can be there and back in just a few minutes. She also goes to the bank for me. She gets good exercise, and also enjoys this very much!

Tony is good at handing me clothes out of the basket on the floor by the washer. His face just lights up when he hands me each handful, because he knows he is helping. It would be so much faster if I did it alone, but then how would I help that feeling bloom inside my son, that he is a capable and needed member of his family! He is gentle and passive, and would just sit and smile all the day long, if I didn't encourage him to join in. But I want him to grow up and have the spirit of helping, so that he can possibly have some kind of a job, even if it's a sheltered workshop, and maybe he won't become bored or unhappy. Maybe he'll keep that sweet smile, and his own ethics will let him know he is doing something important, no matter how small.

I have a rotating chart for all my children's jobs. It is kept on the refrigerator. My grown children Noelle and Kyle, who do not have disabilities, have outside jobs, and Noelle is in college. They are well on their way to independence. They are marvelous in transporting some of their siblings to a store, or an appointment in their cars. They also help drive them to church. My young sons who also do not have disabilities, Matthew and Michael, are on the job charts like Noelle and Kyle used to be.

After meals, one person clears the table, one washes the table, one rinses the dishes, and one puts them in the dishwasher, and starts it. Streamlining makes any job faster.

It sometimes takes considerable patience for me to wait for chores to be done. But it is important to the child's self esteem. A parent could do these things in a flash, and never give it a thought. But even a child who is very weak, and can move only with effort, needs to be needed. A good way to tell if a little one is ready to start helping, is if he or she is beginning to try to play alongside another child. The beginning of desire for playing with other children, though not ready for much interaction yet, is a social developmental point that comes at roughly the same time as the ability to cooperate in helping, when taught how. It's a point most normal children reach by eighteen months old or so, when they begin to help mama wipe a table, or try to sweep with a broom. An older child with mental retardation will be more mature by this time in some ways, than an eighteen month old normal child, though similar mentally.

(I am specifically NOT talking about a child with profound retardation here. These children will not be able to progress to the helping stage in any significant degree.)

A child with mental retardation will be three, four, five or more when they reach the ability to start helping. My daughters Juli and Starr, with Down's Syndrome, and mild-to-moderate retardation, could pull out drawers, put clothes in the right drawers, with pictures taped on the drawers, and shut drawers, when each was three years old. I began with cheerful coaching, and hands-on help. By four, they did not need any coaching. By six, they did not need the pictures on the drawers. My sons Tony, and Chad, with moderate, and severe retardation, were five when they were ready to begin. Tony learned faster, because he was slow and he thought about it. Chad took longer because he was hyperactive, and couldn't keep his attention on it. Helping your child learn to help, is giving them a gift they will keep for a lifetime. This gift is more than just learning a skill; they blossom inside with a happy, fulfilled feeling. Nurturing that gift, develops the belief the child will continue to hold, that they are a helpful person.

A parent needs to use creativity to discover things a weak child can do. It is a wonderful thing when a child can know he or she is needed, and appreciated, like everyone else. Then, within each child, is set the cornerstone for a happy and confident future success!

(C) Rosemary J. Gwaltney

Rosemary J. Gwaltney's Biography: I was born on the Alberta prairies to Christian parents, and raised on a farm in Washington state, I married young.When I did not begin having babies at once, as I had so hoped, I began motherhood as a foster mother of disabled babies. That marriage dissolved when I was pregnant with my third child. Three years later, I began to adopt children as a single mother, and phase out of fostering. I've been a mother now for thirty-four years, and during my motherhood, I have been blessed with twenty-six children. Most of my children have disabilities of one sort or another. All of them are dearly loved, greatly admired, and deeply enjoyed. They are mostly grown now, and I am a grandma of two baby boys! I am a published writer of non-fiction - many articles, and a chapter in a book, about raising children with disabilities. I am also a poet. I am now married again. Our family lives in the mountains now. We have seven adult children still home, all of whom have disabilities. So now, with so little to do, I have more time to write! My website is
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