Life As A Prompt-O-Tron

On the weekend, Georgia and I had a Kramer vs. Kramer moment. Of sorts. The scene I’m referring to is close to the end of the movie: Dustin Hoffman’s character and his son make breakfast together. They work silently, in complete coordination with a smooth choreography that only comes from a shared routine. The scene is at once cute, funny and touching – and emphasizes the bond and rhythm that is theirs alone.

Georgia and I have a lot of routines, but few are silent and well coordinated. Shocking, I know. Our routines for even the most common activities are punctuated by me giving Georgia constant verbal prompts. Often I’m barely conscious of doing so. It’s part of my own routine: I’m trained to prompt, which is both good and bad. Georgia is highly distractible, so verbal prompts are required just to ‘keep her on track.’

It often feels like nagging to me, so I try to use a non-nagging voice and to keep it light. But when you’re in a rush to get out the door, it’s tough to remember to keep it casual and light.

This is us trying to leave the house on a typical day:

Me: “Georgia, put your shoes on.”

Georgia: “The chair falling over was funny!”

Me: “Georgia, shoes please.”

Georgia: incoherent mumbling and giggling.

Me: “Shoes on, Georgia. We’re leaving!”

Georgia: “That was so funny, wasn’t it Mommy?”

Me: “Great. Yes, it was funny. Shoes. Focus. Shoes. And hat. Get your baseball hat.”

Georgia: “Oh, Mommy — it was so funny.”

Me: “Georgia, focus. We’re going to be late. Sunglasses. Get your sunglasses.”

Georgia: “Oh, Rosemary, Rosemary* — it was funny!”

Me: “Georgia, are your shoes on?”

Georgia: “No, Mommy.”

We do eventually make it out the door. We start prepping to leave the house much earlier than one might think is reasonable, but this is the only way to ensure that we leave the house wearing shoes, hats and sunglasses.

One thing I’m learning about verbal prompting is that it’s complicated.

* * *

I’ve been reminding Georgia to wash her hands after she uses the washroom since she was old enough to actually use the washroom. That’s a lot of years of prompting. When I don’t prompt her, she sometimes washes her hands. Often though, she forgets and I have to send her back to the bathroom. When she gets into a bathtub, she’ll simply sit with a cloth in one hand until I prompt her to wash her face, and then I have to go through each of her body parts, with the prompts coming one at a time, and often repeated.

The thing is, I assume that since I’ve been prompting her for years, the steps of an activity must be ingrained and the prompt is no longer necessary. Not so much. But it’s not so easy to figure out why that is.

The other day, I had an epiphany. Georgia was in the washroom and I didn’t hear a flush or the water in the sink. I went in and reminded her of the steps. I was a bit exasperated, saying, “You know this, Georgia,” when suddenly I realized a few things.

First, she does know the steps to using the washroom and that information is in there somewhere. But I think she doesn’t store information the way that you and I do. Amazingly, Georgia stores a lot of random but marginally useful information — like the name of a stranger’s baby, or a dog on the street she met five years ago. She remembers the names of assistant managers at the grocery store or waitresses she’s met once. She can tell you the name of her ‘lunchroom lady’ from grade three or the name of the assistant in her daycare twelve years ago.

Yet she can’t remember – or appears unable to remember – the steps involved in basic hygiene practices she’s been doing for years. In some ways, this is very frustrating. In other ways, this is a bit scary: Will I be prompting a 35-year-old to wash her hands? And if so, will it be because she needs it or because it’s become ingrained for me? I worry that I have programmed her only to do things when prompted, and not to think for herself.

I’m like an automated prompt-o-tron in many ways, programmed to prompt just as much as Georgia is programmed to require prompting. I worry that she now requires the prompting as an inherent part of that process, and can’t think through processes on her own. At what point does it stop being helpful?

Holding back from prompting is often more helpful. The trick is figuring out which of the times I should hold back and let her figure things out or miss a few steps. For those of you who know me, you’ll also know that requiring me NOT TO TALK in a situation is a form of mild torture. I have to be the person who literally squishes her mouth shut with her thumb and forefinger in order to not talk.

I’ve learned from others who are a bit removed and who are far better at recognizing when verbal prompts aren’t necessary. Miraculously, sometimes without a single word of help, Georgia figures things out and gets the job done. Not always, but just occasionally enough to create a big space for potential and possibility.

Last weekend for example, while I was encouraging her to ‘push’ and ‘move’ and ‘go forward’ at her bike riding lesson, Laura the kid whisperer simply said, “I’d give up on the ‘push’ word.”

Ah, okay. I’ll just tell her to go ‘forward’ then. Laura smiled knowingly, and said, “I’d give up on all the talking actually. She can figure it out.” And Laura, of course, was right. While I was holding my mouth shut, Laura was chuckling and Georgia was figuring out how to turn her bike around, moving it forward and riding like a pro.

Prompt-o-tron: This is one of the moments I have learned to be quiet, and just watch Georgia figure out her bike.

So back to our Kramer vs. Kramer moment this weekend.

Georgia was in the bath. She washed her face and her various parts with barely any prompts. The plug was pulled. She stood up without being helped and I got the towel ready. Out of the tub she stepped toward me to be wrapped in the towel. Silently, I helped her dry herself off and put lotion on her back. She picked up her pyjama top and I helped her put it on. Then the pyjama bottoms. She brushed her teeth while I combed her hair and rebraided it. Silently, she passed the elastic to me over her shoulder as I reached the end of her braid. She proclaimed herself “all clean!” and hopped off to bed.

I followed in a state of mystified admiration at this little person and our not-often-realized rhythm — for once, uninterrupted by my constant scxript of ‘helping.’

It will be challenging, as she gets older, to prompt less and trust that she can figure things out.

Yes, we may end up leaving the house without shoes or forgetting to wash certain body parts, but I think I can have to learn to live with that.


* The name of an educational assistant who worked part time in her classroom five years ago. Yes, she remembers her name.