Presume Competence

January 21, 2013

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.



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