The image above shows an illustrated washer, dryer, dishwasher, mop, bucket, broom, dustpan, two sponges, hand broom, and two bottles of cleaning solution. Text above and below the drawing reads “If Your Child Can Operate A Smartphone They Can Use Any One Of These”.
I laughed when I saw this, remembering how early my autistic son picked up on modern technology, and how much longer the learning curve for laundry was. I thought of my friends who are disabled adults, who can’t or can’t always do these things, yet consistently use smartphones. I recalled my own unmopped floors. I can’t do all of these reliably as an adult but you’ll have to pry my tablet from my cold dead hands.
Children, all children, develop skills asymmetrically. One might master crawling before beginning to walk, and another might skip crawling and go right to cruising, after months of imitating a slug. They do not learn all the skills at once, and unrelated skills might develop in any order. When a child is particularly slow to acquire certain skills as compared with their peers, we call that a developmental disability.
Developmentally disabled children are far more likely to struggle with these tasks, or to need accommodation to do them comfortably. Cerebral palsy is one of the more common childhood conditions, marked by stiffness and weakness on the smaller side of their body. All of these look harder to do one-handed. Autism, another common disability that begins in childhood, can include sensory sensitivity and challenges with emotional regulation, making it harder to stay calm while learning something new.
With other disabilities, the challenges with everyday chores persists. A top loading washing machine can’t always be comfortably used from an adult wheelchair; a child’s chair is even lower, and their spines and arms shorter. Unloading the thing is simply not possible under those conditions. Young children live in a world built for adults, much like we disabled live in a world not built for us. It’s pretty easy for me to empathize with their struggles.
A smartphone however can be used by most children. It doesn’t require strength or height or stamina or balance. It can be operated with just one hand, with just one finger. A smartphone is also a lot more rewarding. Children are not usually motivated by mundane future rewards like clean clothes in an hour. But flashing lights and cheerful sound effects celebrating their game play tap right into the reward center of the human brain. That’s why casinos and video games use them. It is no surprise that very young children would devote themselves to learning smartphone skills.
And they are skills. It may be trendy to hate on phones, but they are here to stay. Now that we’ve experienced a phone book, atlas, computer, arcade hybrid we can carry in our pockets, we won’t be going back. Just as my generation really did need to learn computer skills growing up, our kids need phone skills. New technologies require new skills. And children learn best through play.
Now of course I’m not advocating never teaching kids to wash, sweep, and mop. My goal is to give my son every chance of success as an independent disabled adult. That means teaching him life skills from personal hygiene to budgeting to housekeeping to yes, modern technology. He’s gotten quite a few of those down over the past ten years, and we still have time for more. He didn’t learn what he knows all at once, or in an order preferable to those who don’t understand children. He has learned as humans do, with starts and stops and diversions.
I’m advocating for patience. Childhood is a time of constant learning and also constant physical change. What is impossible this year may be doable the next. If a child isn’t ready to master one skill, focus on another that they are. Remember that children learn through play. While a full size broom may be too tall to use, a child’s play broom is perfectly suited and more fun to use. Play at chores with domestic toys and involve them in tasks appropriate to their body and development, like sorting dirty laundry into light and dark piles or folding hand towels. And be willing on some days to hand your child an electronic device to keep them content while you do chores undisturbed.