Presume Competence

I’m a mediocre chess player. Apart from having limited reserves of patience, I sometimes get bogged down looking ahead to the next couple moves and instead just make sure that my next move won’t put my pieces in immediate mortal peril. What makes me truly mediocre though, is that at some point during almost every game I play, I rely on some sort of bluff or trick, the success of which is almost entirely dependent upon the premise that my opponent won’t notice it or understand it. And my opponents, at least those who aren’t playing chess for the first time, almost always notice. I underestimate them.

Sometimes when I’m playing with my daughter, I lose sight of how much she takes in. I underestimate her. I never want to do that. I try to be so careful around her, watching my language, not talking about her as if she’s not in the room, avoiding conversations that are too adult for her ears…in other words, presume competence. I do slip up, and just like a poorly played chess match, it comes back to haunt me. How much does she know? Almost always more than I think.

Why not presume competence? I don’t know why parents might take the route that their son or daughter cannot understand them or the world around them. I don’t see the appeal. Perhaps it’s just emotional fatigue, an inability to understand how to connect with their child and a twisted sort of “acceptance” of that in the form of giving up. Then, once they’ve given up, entertaining the idea that they were wrong, and that their child understood everything they said and did all along just seems too horrible to process, so…they argue it. I don’t know. Because the price of presuming incompetence means withdrawing some measure of that parental protection that children enjoy. Turning off inappropriate news, shielding them from headlines or gossip or outright bullying, becomes unnecessary because they don’t understand anyway.

Presuming competence means treating your special needs child just like you might any other child. Presuming competence means not giving up, but continuing to work to bridge the communication gap. It means not underestimating your child.

When I slip up, Lily lets me know in her own special way. Not long ago I stood up too quickly under a shelf I’d been kneeling beneath. I was facing away from it and as I stood, the corner of the shelf raked the middle of my back. It hurt.

“God…” I muttered under my breath.

“Dammit!” supplied Lily without looking up from the television.

Maybe it’s good that I slip up, it’s always a nice refresher that she’s paying attention. And taking it in. She’s listening, and just because I can’t tell you what she knows… doesn’t mean she doesn’t know it.

About Jim

Jim is a happily married father of two daughters, one autistic, one not. He writes about autism, parenting, and his busy family life at Just A Lil Blog when his busy family life allows.

22 thoughts on “Presume Competence

  1. One of the first work shops our local Early Intervention provider held after Ian was diagnosed had this awesome speech therapist. She was so positive and uplifting. One of the things she said, and I’ll NEVER forget it, is presume competence. Presume intelligence. Your children are exquisite and intelligent. They will find ways to surprise you. And she was right. Not that I presume he isn’t intelligent and then I’m surprised when he does something amazing. But he surprises me because he takes it all in stride, has all of these challenges and then does amazing things. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  2. I love Lily’s subtle reminders that she gives us…of course I blame you for this…I would never…does this mean that I have to relearn how to play chess so that you can practice your game??

  3. One of the first things a family member with two severely autistic sons told me was the same thing. She said that she really came to realize it the older they got. One day, her younger teenage child mentioned some incident that had occurred when he was just three or four. She had forgotten all about it. But he was able to articulate it clearly.

    • Yeah, Lily does little stuff daily that lets you know she’s listening. Even if all she does is echo something you just said sotto voce…it’s like…”ohhh, she can hear us all the way in there WHILE watching TV and scripting…”

  4. I have made the mistake a few times. It has ALWAYS come back to humble me. My son is quite competent, and he surprises us. I can’t bluff my way through much with him. And that’s a good thing. I think.

  5. I learned this lesson early on with my oldest after he asked me what a terrorist was when he was three (I was listening to NPR). But sometimes I forget with my other two because they seem to be doing their own thing…and then BAM! Some word, some skill, some thing happens and I realize they are soaking in everything around them and learning it their way. Thanks for the great post.

  6. This is the 2nd time I’ve heard that phrase in the past week and I must admit that I hadn’t really heard it before. It’s hitting me hard and convicting me of how very many times I talk about my girls as if they’re not in the room. It’s not a nice feeling at all.

    • Give yourself a break. Nobody just enters this with all the answers…I certainly don’t have them. But you pick up little things along the way, and this is certainly something I’ve learned the hard way. Thanks for reading!

  7. Well said and a great reminder! I have trouble with this since those reminders that my son is listening come few and far between. But every time he reminds me, I get a little better at it. I also think about the questions he might want to ask (but can’t yet) – the things that kids ask when they see and hear things in their world that they hope an adult can explain – and that helps me assume he hears and helps me to be a better parent.

  8. Why is it that I so enjoy that Lily busted you? Oh… yeah… because I just got busted almost the same way by Little Miss.

    Thanks for the great story, Jim — and the very important reminder!

  9. My mystery is not just about competence – it’s about age too. He’s not quite 3. How much does he understand just being such a little child? How much will he remember? I really hope not much of the times I’ve lost it.
    I don’t talk much about adult stuff around him – no more than around any other child during family gatherings where the adults chit-chat. But I do sometimes feel guilty about the talking about him in front of him. We do it a lot with the therapists, since we go over issues & progress. We do it when we visit relatives, to say how things are going or what our next step is. When I get home at night, I ask my husband how our son’s day went – with my son there. He can’t tell me & I can’t wait to find out, I guess. My comfort is that I know a lot of parents of NT kids who also talk about their kids in front of their kids. We parents can be such a rude lot.

  10. Thank you for the reminder, Jim! I try not to talk about my kids when they are in the room, but sometimes it happens. And I accidentally taught my 7-year-old the same swear word! Oops!

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