Pulling Out of Helplessness

I cannot help myself.  I want Robert to answer correctly whatever is there to answer.  So I give him signals. I don’t know what those signals are. But Robert deciphers them anyway. I catch my fingers  moving themselves toward a word that completes the sentence, or toward the  correct estimate of a number on a number line.  I put the hands under the table so they stop interfering.  But inside my mouth the air position itself in anticipation of the word that is an answer to the question I have just asked my son. My lips don’t say the word yet, but are shaped already for the first sound.  Robert knows what I want him to say because I am already saying it, even if I don’t hear myself.  I catch my tongue conspiring with  my lungs and my mouth to help Robert demonstrate to me that he knows the proper response. To prevent my mouth from meddling in Robert’s learning I leave Robert at the table and go to the kitchen.  Before I go I tell Robert  to read carefully each phrase printed on  one of 12 strips of paper, decide if it relates to the sun, the earth, or the moon, and place the strip with the sentence in a proper space.  From the kitchen I look  back and see that Robert doesn’t touch the strips of paper.   He waits for me to return.  “Use your own mind.  You know it.  You know that all”  I repeat from time to time as I watch Robert’s hands. I see pieces of paper slowly filling empty spaces below “sun, earth, and moon”.  Very slowly.

I ask, “Are you ready or not yet? ”

“Not yet”.

A few more minutes and a few more encouragements from the other room I ask again, “Are you ready or not yet?”


I return to the table and we are checking together if the phrases properly relate to the objects.  Seven correct answers, five wrong. Enough to assume that Robert hasn’t assigned those strips of papers completely randomly.  This is a success.  Because the goal for Robert is not to be correct yet, but to TRY to be correct without help.

In the past when Robert knew something well, like  multiplying two digit numbers by one digit, he could work alone on the whole page of problems.  He automatically followed a simple algorithm.  When, however, Robert was not completely sure how to respond, he would wait and wait and wait for me to come.  He wouldn’t touch the problem without me being present and giving him those unnoticeable  to me  cues.  The fact that today Robert worked independently, not afraid to make mistakes was a step out of learned helplessness.  The fact that in, at least,  a few instances he used HIS knowledge was a small  step but the step into independence.

On Laundry and Learned Helplessness 1

Around his 11 birthday (+/-1) Robert began helping with  household chores.  He folded laundry and  put away dishes.  At first, he was only assisting me.  Later, he took over and didn’t allow me to help him. Whenever I tried to join him, he directed me to the computer desk,  ordered me to sit behind it and not interfere with his work.  He repeated, “Robert, Robert” to make sure I understood that all the work was his to do. I tried to leave something for him to do every day. When he worked, I didn’t have to watch him. He was busy, focused, and didn’t do anything inappropriate.  When he didn’t work, he had to be observed closely.

Around that time he started doing laundry at home. He put dirty clothes in a washing machine, pour a cup of a detergent, turned the machine on, switched the clothes to the drier, set the drier on, and took clothes out.


1.He didn’t separate whites from colored or even black clothes.

2. He always put ALL the dirty clothes from a hamper or two into the machine.

3.When the washing machine stopped mid-circle because of the imbalance , Robert took dripping clothes out and placed them in the drier.

I had to intervene.    Whenever I heard the washing machine being turned on I ran to the laundry room, removed all the clothes (wet already), and told Robert to separate white and not white. Except he didn’t quite comprehend “not-white” and seemed to respond  only to the “white” part of the “not-white” phrase.  He made many mistakes I corrected.   Robert didn’t say anything, allowed me to correct him, but as soon as I left, he added all the remaining clothes to the washing machine.  This chain of events repeated itself a few times.   I always demanded that he separates whites and not whites. He always had problems  with that request.  I always stopped him from overloading, he always overloaded later. He didn’t protest, but as soon as he saw me disappearing behind the corner of a staircase, he returned to the laundry room and tried to “fix”  the laundry the way he considered it fitting.

Then one day he stopped putting clothes in the washing machine.

He continues to take dirty clothes to the laundry room.  He tells me to do laundry (“Laundry, laundry”) when his drawers get empty.  He still switches laundry from the washing machine to the drier.He still takes laundry out and folds it.

But for the last eight years, he has never turned on a washing machine.  Never.

With all my corrections, explanations, and instructions I convinced him that he was not able to  wash clothes.

And he believed me.

Could I do anything differently? Of course.  I could have prepared just one load of laundry for him to do each day, so he wouldn’t be able  to overload.  I could later add one or two differently colored items to the hamper, show them to Robert as standing out, and take them out with me upon leaving Robert in the laundry room to ” independently” initiate washing .

I wonder why I didn’t?