Future Reflections                                                                                         Summer/Fall 2005

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Help Your Child Go FAR in Life Daily
Living Skills Tips for Parents of Blind Children

by Jennifer Wenzel

The following account is adapted from an article which appeared in the September 2003 issue of the SPOTLIGHT NFBW, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin.

Editorís Note: Jennifer Wenzel, a blind parent and leader in the Wisconsin affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, recalls encounters with blind children and adults who, for whatever reasons, had not had the opportunity to make responsible choices in their lives. Her account of a childhood filled with opportunities, responsibilities, and choices is done so with a greater appreciation and admiration for a mother who taught her blind daughter that cooking and completing chores was much more than housework. Here is Wenzil with some tips for parents:

Jennifer Wenzel with her husband, Dan, and their children, Stephen, Tanner, and Roland.
Jennifer Wenzel with her husband, Dan, and their children, Stephen, Tanner, and Roland.

When I was little, I loved to bake with my mom. I also enjoyed helping her with the housework, especially washing the windows. Now that Iím older and a parent myself, I realize how lucky I was to have a mom who gave me the opportunity to cook and complete chores. In my lifetime I have learned some helpful alternative techniques from professionals, but much of my knowledge comes from having the opportunity to cook and do everyday chores with my mom.

During the five years I spent teaching daily living skills to blind teenagers and adults, I was shocked to discover how seldom many of them had been allowed to cook or help around the house. This meant that many of them were unaware of how to make a peanut butter sandwich, how to make a bed, or even how much cleaning needs to be done in a house.

Parents may feel insecure about teaching their children to cook or to do chores around the house, fearing that since they are not professionals they may not teach the best methods. But, even if the methods are not the best, the parent, as in everything else, is the childís most important teacher. Requiring a blind child to fully participate in household chores as an equal member of the family sends the message that she or he is no different from the rest of the family (all children like to feel normal!) and that she or he must become accountable and responsible. Finding ways to cook and clean that work for your child can be fun and rewarding. Itís never too early or too late to start!

The following passages contain several helpful tips I have compiled for working with your child on daily living skills. Since this seems to be the age of acronyms I have created an acronym of my own. When thinking about daily living skills, just remember F-A-R, as in wanting your child to go far in life, or perhaps far away when she or he or is older! FAR stands for fun, age-appropriate, and real.

Although it may take longer and be messier than cooking alone, cooking with a child can be very enjoyable. Bring a pinch of patience to the table and allow plenty of time for cleanup. There is no difference when the child is blind. Like their sighted peers, blind children will want to touch ingredients and the mixture they make. This is a good time to talk about such concepts as hygiene (hand washing) and safety (hot stove tops). In addition, this is also an ideal opportunity to discuss and describe aromas, textures, tastes, and sounds.

Touching is very important to the young blind chef, and should not be discouraged when it is safe. Of course, a curious child should not touch the dough while the mixer is running. However, explaining what the mixer is doing and stopping it several times so the child can feel the different stages of the butter and sugar being mixed together makes the process more interesting and gives the child a better understanding of what is going on. A child should not touch any part of a hot pan except the handle, but the food inside the pan is not as hot as the pan is, and some food, such as hamburger patties and other meats, can be lightly touched to test for doneness or when flipping them over in the pan. You may want to practice some of these touch techniques first so that you feel comfortable touching while cooking and thereby set a good example and model for your child.

All this touching while cooking with an inexperienced child can be messy, so if you are compulsively neat, take a deep breath and focus on the reward--for your childís sake. Iíll never forget working all morning with a ten-year-old boy to make a chocolate cake. By the time we had finished, we were both covered in chocolate but he had a perfect chocolate cake that he had baked and removed from the oven himself! We cleaned the kitchen and ourselves as best we could, but were not able to remove all of the chocolate from either of our shirts. When his mom came to pick him up, he was bursting with pride as he showed her the cake.

ďOh, no!Ē his mother gasped. ďLook at your shirt. Letís get you home so we can clean that up. I hope it comes out!Ē And she hustled him out the door, not once mentioning his accomplishment. The moment was ruined by the motherís distress over a shirt covered in chocolate smears and her inattention to a task completed independently--by her own child.

Finding fun ways to clean can be difficult; however, the time spent together while cleaning can be rewarding. For younger children, making up and singing songs while cleaning can help them remember to clean efficiently in a pattern. It may be tempting to praise a child for his or her effort and then clean the spots he or she has missed, but this is not a good idea. Children are very perceptive. The child will quickly realize what has happened and will feel inadequate. Instead, praise your child for what he or she did well, and then show him or her what was missed and work together to fix it. The next time, less will be missed because your child has learned to be more careful and thorough in cleaning and in checking his or her work. This is how a child learns to a job right and to do it well.

Blind children should have cooking skills appropriate to their chronological or developmental age. For example, if your childís friends are making macaroni and cheese, then it is appropriate to teach your blind child the same task. This can be hard for parents to do since it is only natural for parents to worry about a child getting hurt, especially in more advanced cooking projects. Remember that all children get burns, bruises, and cuts and live to tell about them; accidents will happen. Of course parents should take all normal safety precautions, but also expect the normal number and kind of small accidents that can happen to any child in the process of learning to cook. Blind children should have the same opportunities that their siblings and friends have when it comes to cooking, chores, and life.

Itís also important to give blind children other age-appropriate responsibilities around the house. A blind child can take out the trash, load the dishwasher, or help take care of a younger sibling. Responsibilities can be increased as a child grows older and gains confidence.

Be sure to teach your child appropriate table manners. Your child may not see how others are eating, but others will see your child. It is important that your child act accordingly whether at the family dinner table or out to dinner with family or friends.

Behavior and appearance are also important for fitting in socially. Watch what other children your childís age are wearing and select your childís clothing accordingly. Mark clothing with sewn-in color tags, safety pins, or a unique marking system that your child can remember when considering clothing combinations for outfits. Teach your child to examine favorite pieces for holes, missing buttons, and wear. Talk about colors, textures, and ways to tell what items belong together. The goal is not to turn your blind child into a fashion slave, but to help him or her to fit in with peers.

The skills and knowledge that your child learns should be practiced until your child can master them with confidence and use them anywhere. For example, your child should be able to make his or her bed at a sleepover at a friendís house as well as his or her bed at home. This is why it is important to be careful not to become overly concerned with expensive gadgets and gizmos, such as talking clocks, Braille timers, and talking thermometers. They can be very useful and have their place, and if something is helpful for your child you should by all means use it. However, too much dependency on special equipment will limit your child and send the message that he she can only cook in one place or when all batteries are functioning. The skills for cooking, cleaning, and so forth should be transferable to any situation.

When working on daily living skills with a blind child, remember that the ultimate goal is for the child to transfer the skills learned into adulthood so that she or he may live a full, productive life. You and your child can learn from professionals and blind adult role models, but donít be afraid to experiment and add new ideas of your own. You know your child best, and your child knows what works for him or her. Offer your child choices and opportunities to solve for her-himself the problems of how to do a daily living task. There is no right or wrong way to do something; if the job is done safely and hygienically, thatís all that matters. Relax and enjoy the time spent with your child. Your reward could be a dinner made just for you, or breakfast in bed. Or perhaps your reward will come when that child has grown into a confident, competent adult who invites you into his or her home and thanks you for all those early lessons.

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