Hello Nicole – September 2001

Hello Nicole, My four year old just got his first set of power wheels. There’s been a real change in […]

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Hello Nicole,

My four year old just got his first set of power wheels. There’s been a real change in his confidence level and he’s gotten much more popular with the neighborhood kids. It brings tears to my eyes to see him being independent (and not to have to carry or push him everywhere he wants to go!) However, his independence has brought up some new family issues as he is now able to be quite naughty. Is it ever appropriate to use the ‘off’ switch on a power chair as discipline when a child is totally dependent on their chair being turned on? How about if the misbehavior relates to the use of the power chair? Like not being careful, running into things in the house, or driving over toes on purpose? I can’t just pick him up and put him where I want him to be (as I would be able to if he were not in a power chair).


Mom in Shock

Dear Mom,

I was five the day I got my first power wheelchair. My mother told me not to put the chair into high speed and not to leave the building without her. However, when she got distracted finishing details with the wheelchair salesman, I promptly put my chair in high speed and took off out the door and down the sidewalk. For almost an hour, my mother circled the neighborhood frantically yelling my name out the van window until she found me, obliviously cruising the streets. I was overjoyed with my newfound freedom my mother was white as a ghost!

It’s a huge adjustment when a child who was completely mobility-dependent gains independence through the use of a power chair. The questions you ask are important because the way you choose to discipline your child now will have an enormous impact on his sense of confidence and security throughout life.

For those of us who rely on a power wheelchair, especially as children, the wheelchair quickly becomes a part of who we are, an extension of our bodies. When you are considering when and how to discipline your son, try to think in terms of the wheelchair as his other set of legs. You would not tie up a child’s legs because they ran recklessly in the house, or even because they kicked someone likewise, you should not take away the use of a power wheelchair because of reckless or irresponsible driving. You might however, hold an able-bodied child in one spot in order to gain control of the situation, or you might carry them to another room for a time-out.

For a child with a power chair, the emotionally equivalent experience might be that you turn off their chair momentarily and talk to them to calm them down or correct their behavior. Instead of carrying a child to a time-out , you might disengage their wheelchair and push them into another room for a time-out and then re-engage the chair.

It is vitally important that whenever the chair is off or disengaged you stay WITH the child just as you would have to stay with an able-bodied child in order to hold them still, or just as after you’ve carried a child to where you want them to be, you set them down. If your child leaves the spot he is supposed to be, disengage the chair, push him back, re-engage the chair and again ask him to stay. It is never OK to turn a child’s power chair and then walk away for any amount of time. The only way an able-bodied child would experience this type of helpless abandonment is if a parent tied them up. Leaving a child alone while their wheelchair is turned off means that during this time alone the child cannot independently move it leaves them as vulnerable and powerless as if they were tied up.

I think most parents wish their children had an OFF switch! Turning off you son’s power chair may sometimes be necessary, but be sure that you understand the significance of this act and that you never leave your son in a frightening, vulnerable or powerless situation. There are certainly ways for you to discipline your son while keeping him empowered.

Becoming aware of the emotional experience your child is having is key to fair and loving discipline.

— Nicole

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