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Originally published in Summer 2007  Texas SenseAibilities
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Jeanine Pinner, Training & Outreach Coordinator, TxP2P

Reprinted with permission from Texas Parent to Parent Winter 2007 Newsletter.

To learn more about Texas Parent to Parent, visit their website at .

Abstract: The author shares strategies parents can use to help their child have opportunities throughout their childhood to become self-determined adults, capable of driving their own bus.

Keywords: Family, self-determination, parenting skills, family wisdom, evidenced based practice

Picture your childs life as a bus. Whos driving? Is it you or your child? Where is the bus going? Who chose the route, the destination, the speed? Who are the passengers? What about side trips along the way? (You know that side trips often enrich the journey!)

Of course, you realize that my bus scenario is really just a metaphor for self-determination, right?

When Jake was much younger, his father and I drove the bus for him, but for several years, weve taken on different roles as Jakes ability to drive his own bus has grown. In earlier years, because of his age and issues arising from his disability, we made decisions for Jake without consulting him. We did this with his best interests at heart, and with the hope (and intent) that he would be able to take over the decision-making process in his own behalf. Our vision of success is of Jake driving his own bus.

As parents of children with disabilities, chronic illness and other health care needs, we find ourselves in the position of having to make decisions and plans for a child who may not be able to completely comprehend whats going on at the time or communicate their needs or desires. While theyre in school and until they reach age 18, were seen as our childs legal representative, and were empowered with the awesome responsibility of making decisions about their school plan and their involvement in the community. We do this year after year, gathering information and skills along the way. We get used to driving the bus, and hopefully, weve gotten pretty good at it.

When our children reach age 18, what happens? Theyve reached adult status and are now supposed to drive their own buses, right?

Are they ready??? Do they have any experience making their own choices about the direction of their lives?

Here are a few basic scenarios to consider:

  1. Sams parents have made all of the decisions for Sam until now. Sam recently became 18, and all of a sudden, he has some control over his life and hes loving it. He doesnt have any experience making his own decisions, and is making bad choices. Since hes 18 now, he has control over whether his parents are invited to his ARD, and he has chosen to exclude them . . .
  2. Jane is 18 now, but relies completely on her mom to tell her what to do. She is a very capable person, but has no experience making her own decisions and lacks confidence in her ability to choose for herself . . .
  3. Sally is 18 and about to graduate from high school. Her parents are completely supportive of Sallys efforts and desire to take charge of her life and make her own decisions. They started very late in helping Sally learn how to drive her [own] bus and they still need more time...shes not ready to do this on her own!

How can we help prepare our children to drive their own buses and when should we start? There are many opportunities each day for our children to exercise their choice-making skills; those opportunities exist for every age and level of ability. It may be about food, entertainment, clothing . . . it might be attending or facilitating their own ARD meetings . . . its an opportunity for a person to have a little bit of control over his or her own little corner of the world. Its also an opportunity to experience the outcomes or consequences of choice-making.

What if they fail???

Ive always learned more from my failures than from my successes, so I dont see failure as a completely negative experience. Dont we owe it to our children to provide them with opportunities to learn how to make responsible choices (and that includes opportunities to fail in safe environments like home and school)? Shouldnt they have opportunities to express (and act on) their dreams for their future?

When Jake told me he was going to take French as an elective in his freshman year in high school, I said something like, Dont you think you should take Spanish? We live in Texas and knowing Spanish would be a really good thing. He said, No, I am taking French. So, I told him (after listening to the little voice in the back of my brain) that it was his choice and wed see how things were going at the end of the first six weeks grading period. Guess what? He made a B! He loves languages and I know that hell continue on his quest to learn as many languages as possible.

Does this mean that Ive backed completely out of the picture and let him do whatever he wants? NO! My role has changed, though, and my support and guidance look different than they did a few years ago.

When Jake chooses to sleep until 20 minutes before the school bus arrives, it aggravates me because I dont like rushed mornings. As long as he completes the required morning routine (shower, hair, food, etc.) though, Im not going to require him to get up earlier. If he pushes it too far and starts to miss the bus, it will become a teachable moment and well be working together to design a new morning schedule!

Jake is in the drivers seat now, and his choice-making skills are pretty impressive! Im usually right behind the drivers seat carefully watching and trying not to give too many directions and instructions (picture me as insurance). Before long, Ill be able to just ride along, perhaps taking a nap or reading a book in the back of the bus. Ill know Jake is on the road to success when he is able to take a trip without us (and doesnt run over anyone or anything!).

Many happy driving experiences to you and yours! Read on for a few more ideas about promoting and supporting self-determination&

We are all interdependent. No man is an island unto himself. We need each other. When we are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to provide selfless assistance, not only is the other person helped, we are too. We come away changed, feeling good about ourselves and what we have done. (Wilkins, 2000)

Things to Consider:

If youre not driving the bus, does that mean youre out of a job? NO! Use those advocacy skills you worked so hard to develop by becoming a leader in advocacy:

  • Work with others to help your childs school and other services provide the best for all children
  • Share your experiences and knowledge about your sons or daughters dreams and needs
  • Serve on school or agency committees involved with students
  • Become a member of advisory boards or councils dealing with young peoples issues
  • Testify on educational and youth disability issues before school boards, city, county and state legislative bodies

More Things to Consider:

  • Do I try too hard to sway my childs decisions?
  • Do I tend to speak for my child instead of letting him speak for himself?
  • Can I separate my own desires from my childs wishes? (PACER, 2002)

How You Can Nurture Self-Determination

  • Allow your daughter/son to grow (take risks, safe experiences) and try out new things
  • Recognize that all young people will make mistakes and change their minds before settling on a definite path
  • Learn how to assist or let your son or daughter advocate for himself or herself
  • Know when to step back or when to step in without taking over
  • Help your son or daughter feel good about himself/herself and to understand his or her disability
  • Emphasize what she or he can do -- celebrate accomplishments
  • Your own familys religious beliefs and cultural values provide opportunities for learning. (Ca. DOE, 2001)

Whats at risk if we fail to equip our children with the skills and education they need to face the future?

  • Chronic unemployment and underemployment
  • Social and emotional difficulties
  • Deprivation of economic self-sufficiency and related benefits (social security, medical retirement)
  • Susceptibility to changing economic conditions
  • Dependence on public support (Ca. DOE, 2001)