When I first heard the words “presume competence” I had no idea what that meant. I cobbled together some ideas of what I’d read and thought it meant and did my best to put them into action. I did a great deal of “acting as if” and reminded myself, when my daughter wandered off in the middle of my explaining something to her, to keep talking anyway. When she didn’t seem to look at whatever it was I was showing her I pretended that I knew she was taking it all in. I pretended I believed, even when I didn’t. And when my energy was depleted I would not place demands on either of us. If I wasn’t able to take actions that were centered in presuming competence then I tried not to take any actions at all.
In the beginning the best I could do to show a presumption of competence was to read age appropriate books to her. This was when Emma was eight years old. I still remember the first book I read that wasn’t considered “young” for her age. It was a biography of Balto, the Siberian Husky who raced through a blizzard in whiteout conditions delivering a much needed serum saving countless people sick with diphtheria in Alaska. After Balto, I read a biography of Helen Keller specifically for children and then, because Emma seemed to enjoy it so much, we read the autobiography of Helen Keller, all the Mary Poppins books, followed by The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, The Tale of Despereaux, Winn Dixie, Bridge to Terabithia, Little Women and on and on we went.
At first I was unsure whether she was even listening, let alone enjoying any of these books. But one night as she settled into bed, and when I didn’t pull out a book, Emma sat up and said very clearly and distinctly, “Helen Keller.” Emma was not typing yet, so I wasn’t completely sure she really wanted me to read Helen Keller or if she was just saying the name because it was what I’d been reading. I distinctly remember questioning whether she really wanted me to read the book because it interested her or because this was just part of an established routine and then I had a moment of guilt for doubting her.
As I said, Emma wasn’t typing yet, so there was little we could point to that backed up our decision to presume competence. There was no “evidence” to suggest what we were doing had anything to do with anything other than a hope and a wish. As presuming competence is not typically done in the general population or at any of the schools she went to, we were definitely doing things differently. There were times when I doubted what we were doing. There were times I didn’t believe. There were times I wondered – what if we’re wrong about all of this. What if what everyone says is true, really is? What if? What if?
In the end I just kept coming back to the thought that presuming competence harmed no one, but to not presume competence and to be wrong would do tremendous damage. As time went on and it became clear just how many mistakes we had made, I became more determined than ever to err on the side of support, encouragement and believing in her rather than the other way around. It is strange that the focus is so often on all that is challenging, rather than encouraging all that is not. Often that thought was the only thought that kept me moving forward. Sometimes one idea, just a single idea is all it takes.
To presume competence became a living amends and a way of life. At the very least it is something I can do that is not going to add another item to that lengthy list of mistakes made.