Children are full of grace.
When I was a child, I was a free spirit for a while, picking up friends and dropping them off as I went. Books were my best friends for a time, but then something clicked and it was friends that meant the most to me. Friendships were the stuff I breathed. Making connections with other people remains important to me; it’s important to all of us. You could argue it’s why we are here.
I recently set up a play date for Elyse with a friend in her class after she was invited to the friend’s birthday party, but was unable to make it due to the timing coinciding with her dance recital. With three children’s social and extra-curricular schedules to coordinate, a conflict in the past may have meant I would have left it, but as Elyse gets older, it’s becoming even more important to me that she not miss out on this social opportunity. A chance to play with a peer and foster a friendship.
When a friend invites her to something, we pay attention.
More and more frequently, in attending conferences and reading the stories and being given advice by the generation of parents who have children with Down syndrome who have gone before us, I’m repeatedly hearing the importance of teaching social skills and supporting social development. Generally speaking, social skills are thought to be a strength in most children with Down syndrome, but of course, every person is an individual. As my friend Debbie Boycott writes in Common Threads, “As with all children, responding to others in a kind, compassionate way, making eye contact, creating a healthy self-image, are all essential for making friendships, working in a job, taking instruction, enjoying others, and showing compassion and empathy for others.”
I remember saying to Dan when I was pregnant with Elyse that just because she had Down syndrome didn’t guarantee that she was going to be a good person – that would be up to us to teach her. He laughed and teased me saying, “yeah, she’ll probably be a jerk.”
“Maybe if she takes after you!” I lovingly jabbed back.
Elyse’s little friend, who we’ll call Marcie, arrives in the afternoon. We were a bit late finishing lunch, so Elyse hadn’t yet finished her pizza. Still, she abandoned her slice to see what the commotion was about at the front door, and she instantly recognized Marcie and gave her a kind welcoming hug. Almost immediately afterwards, all of the children were outside in the backyard, with Ariel, the oldest, taking the lead; Marcie and Penelope not far behind, and Elyse – rushing to get her shoes on – the last one out the back door. Though Elyse lagged somewhat behind, the kids were eventually all outside, all of them together and somewhat playing together. Dan and I smiled at each other weakly, silently each worried about how long this might last.
What I’ve noticed about Elyse is that she likes to do what she likes to do. She often chooses to do what feels good in the moment, and chooses not to pay attention to social conventions. Being able to be in the moment, and fully enjoy what you are doing is an amazing skill, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good friend, unfortunately.
As the kids came back inside, Elyse slid back to the table and her pizza, and Marcie pulled out some craft supplies she brought along with her and sat at the same table. Ariel squeezed in beside Marcie, and the two of them sat colouring, nicely sharing the same page of the colouring book. Again, this was fine. Everyone was engaged and together, though what I really wanted was for Elyse to be playing with her friend.
Dan and I thought it would be best if he were to disappear with Ariel, the big sister with a big personality, to give Elyse a chance to shine and play with her friend. Dan would take Ariel along to the barbershop with him while he got his hair cut, and I would stick around to watch the three girls.
With everyone now up from the table, craft time over, I watched to see what would happen. The girls were looking at toys in the other room, so I went upstairs to fold some laundry and give the kids space. Elyse followed me up. I put on some music so Elyse could dance (one of her favourite activities), but Marcie wasn’t interested in doing that so she wavered between Ariel and Penelope’s room, each of them happy to engage with her. Elyse would not have been happy if I were to turn off the music and suggest she play with Marcie. “Play” can be a difficult, abstract concept for a child, even though we want to believe it’s something that happens naturally.
As it were, Elyse could have cared less about what Marcie was doing. She was too busy doing her thing. While this sounds good at first glance, let me tell you that it was not a good feeling as her parent.
Gauging that Elyse was in a solitary kind of mood, I quickly assessed that the rest of the play date wasn’t going to go well. I decided to take the kids to the park, where everyone would be on an equal playing field and could play at their own physical ability level, but I wanted Dan and Ariel to come too. I was suddenly feeling less confident in my ability to successfully support this play date alone. I pleaded with him to stay and come with us to the park, but Dan was having none of it. “You’ll be fine! We’ll only be gone an hour.” He still thought it would be better if Ariel wasn’t around to interfere.
Outside on the driveway, we readied ourselves for the park. I planned to take the stroller, just in case Penelope got tired, but Elyse insisted I bring the wagon, whining and complaining loudly in front of her friend. I was all smiles and cheer and super accommodating, trying to avoid conflict at all cost with this little friend in tow. I wanted the outing to be fun. Elyse and Penelope fought each other trying to get into the wagon, typical sibling spat, which wasn’t helping matters and only served to further identify the elephant in the room: Elyse completely ignoring her friend. In the end, Marcie asked if she could be the one to pull the other two in the wagon, so she did. I wanted nothing more than for Elyse to walk beside Marcie, hold her hand, say something to her – anything. But Marcie didn’t seem to mind, and chatted with me amicably while Elyse sat sullenly in the wagon.
At the park, Elyse and Penelope immediately gravitated toward the swings, and that is where both of them remained for most of our time there.
Does it matter that I really wanted to see my daughter playing with her friend? As long as they’re happy, but what if you’re not, because you know what it means?
Marcie played using the entire play area, as Ariel would have. She climbed and called over to me to show me what she was up to, and I called back to her in between shouts from my two children to be pushed “Higher! More!” Penelope, truth be told, was on the brink of a complete toddler meltdown, having skipped her nap, and Elyse, master imitator, copied her every word. Under these conditions, it became near impossible for me to try and get Elyse to do something else willingly, where her friend might join her, with Penelope in tow.
I can say, on the one hand, the outing to the park was successful in its own right in that each child seemed to have enjoyed themselves, more or less; but on the other hand, my goal, and the point of the play date, remained unmet because they did not have fun together.
Penelope cried most of our walk home, but thankful Marcie, being a big sister herself and full of grace, understood that little kids cry and didn’t let it bother her. When we got back there was time for a quick snack, then Marcie was on her way.
While I’d tried to shield myself from my own stormy feelings that were rising up, like holding up a flimsy umbrella when the rain is blowing sideways, there was nothing I could do to protect myself from the deep puddle of emotions I stepped squarely in and I was left sitting there muddy and soaking wet.
Why had Elyse ignored her friend?
What skills did we need to teach her in order for her to be able to be gracious with a friend who’s come to play with her?
What have we done wrong? I feel like a failure.
While I struggled emotionally to process these questions and dawning realizations, Elyse and Penelope started fighting over their snacks while sitting at the table, their little hands clawing at each other. This was too much.
“STOP,” I screamed at them. They froze, mid-swipe; Penelope’s bottom lip quivered. I burst into tears, head in my hands. My outburst filled the space in the room.
Dan and Ariel arrived shortly after, thankfully, but I remained pained and terribly sad from seeing my middle daughter struggle with a skill that comes so naturally and effortlessly to my other two. Academic skills are important to me, sure, but being a kind and generous person? Learning reciprocity and being a good friend? Acquiring and demonstrating these skills are non-negotiables.
If there’s one burst of gleaming hope to be taken from this story, it’s that I have seen Elyse play with other children beautifully with my own two eyes several times. Every time I am filled with pride. When she wants to, she knows how to play.
Dan and I know we have some work ahead of us as parents. We know there needs to be a conversation with the school where Elyse spends most of her time. If there’s one thing I took away from the Canadian Down Syndrome Society’s conference in Victoria this past year it’s that inclusion isn’t just about being in the same room as other kids, that’s a first step, but to take it a step further to TRUE inclusion it’s about building a sense of community where everyone belongs. For Elyse to be able to build friendships at school, she needs to feel like she’s a part of the community by being engaged in activities WITH her peers – not simply alongside them. As her parent, I need to make sure that is happening.
I’m often hesitant to write about negative experiences with Elyse because, as an advocate and being the person that I am, I like to focus on the positives, and to be sure, there are many. But to only see and report on the sunny side of life would be to do a disservice to Elyse as a whole person. Human beings are complex. We will continue to plant and water the seeds of friendship, bring light to where we are, shower her with support, and with time, I know in my heart Elyse will continue to blossom. As will I, as her parent.
Author’s note: In the hour after I finished writing this piece, still carrying around the emotional baggage and mulling over points, a friend said to me at the gym, “you’re looking strong!” I was feeling the opposite, quite weak, which is telling in that how we’re feeling on the inside isn’t always evident based on outward appearances. It’s like looking through the window on a bright sunny day, blue skies overhead, then stepping outside into the chilly air.
It is good to be aware of these areas of weakness and need, and you are doing well to address them.
But also don’t beat yourself up. I feel Elyse will learn social skills interacting with her sisters and her family, and she will build strong friendships when she finds the right friend. Some people, such as myself, only build real friendships with a few select people – people that we just click with and have chemistry with from the start, people who fill our gaps and compliment our passions. I feel confident that Elyse will have a friend like that also.
Thanks Elisabeth, you are right. I said it myself that early on I was less about finding best friends and more about doing my own thing. Even though I accept Elyse unconditionally, it’s sometimes still hard to let go of societal norms. Some areas you absolutely shouldn’t give up on, ie nurturing a kind human being, but it’s a process, this growing up thing. Thanks for reading!
I hear your angst Adelle. I have been at this parenting thing for 21 plus years now and this aspect, the friendships, is always emotionally ridden.
Funny, that when I think of Alise and her way, I think of a little person that gave Katie such a sense of comfort and confidence that she could actually sit and play with her hair. Physicality was (still is) super important to Katie, but not something she felt comfortable with anyone and everyone.
They connected happily, Katie doesn’t need a ton of “friendship ceremony “, she just needs to know the friend is there. The small things make her comfortable in the friend space. Although she can sometimes get what I call bossy, wanting to guide the play in her choice of direction.
Maybe it’s just going to take time to try lots of friend moments to see who and what and when works best for her.
I always hope that my friends give me a chance, try me out a few times, then learn to love me. Then I hope the want to put up with the parts of me they don’t!
Not sure if any of that reaches where I meant it to, but hope you know I meant it to be helpful!
I never knew, or didn’t remember, that Elyse used to play with Katie’s hair! That’s very sweet? thank you for sharing Katie’s friendship “preferences” because it helps me see everyone has a preferred way to play. We know these things, but it helps when others point it out? thanks for reading, and for your support!
I felt the same defeat after trying (intensely) to manipulate the kind of play my kids engaged in with any friends. Suggesting ideas, hovering (even from the kitchen), chiming in, feeling an anxious fluttering in my chest…It’s so difficult to not put yourself in the position of your child – or, like you have said, to not feel deeply discouraged/frustrated/anxious when the play doesn’t go the way you hope or expect. It’s the expectation of a certain outcome that causes our disappointments.
Is It possible to let our kids play without expecting a “way” of play (usually centred around our own play preferences) and being satisfied with the fact that they are trying out new friends and relationships? Some will fit, some won’t, as was mentioned above.
I totally relate to feeling like a failure when behaviours don’t seem to line up with our teachings. But, I also read this as an opportunity to honour Elyse’s play/relationship style, without it being a reflection of you in any way. Holding space for her need for side-by-side play rather than face-to-face play might be teaching her about respecting her needs and comforts versus being polite for the sake of it, or in order to make others feel more comfortable.
Family/friend values can be a conversation that you have together after or before the next play date.
And for what it’s worth, you’re doing great because I can definitely confirm that Elyse isn’t an asshole.
P.s. call me a pessimist but I infinitely prefer ‘negative’ posts because they show realness and vulnerability and I think we all need to see more of that side of people online. ?
Lindsey, omg i love this response so much!
You touched on a point of honouring Elyse’s side by side play in a way I hadn’t considered before, so thank you for that! The idea of “being polite for the sake of it” really hit home as well. I like the notion of extricating myself and my feelings of self-worth as a parent from being tied up in the way Elyse plays. Of course it sounds ridiculous when you put it like that! I’m really glad to hear Elyse is not an asshole!? Much appreciated LOL
Ps I’m going to continue to try and alwayswrite from a place that’s real and vulnerable – that’s where the meat is (or -insert vegan option here-) xoxoxo
Pps Lindsey, i feel like maybe you’re a writer.
Omg I just re-read what Dan’s response had been…. that ‘she’ll probably be a jerk’. Wow. Haha I took that straight from PG to at least AA! Didn’t mean to create my own semantics, but you got my drift! Elyse is wonderful and she has two incredibly loving parents. She’ll get all the really important stuff from your examples.
None of this is ridiculous because it’s all just our own learned behaviour! You put it so aptly, though. It stems from our own need for self-worth and that isn’t ridiculous. Just perhaps misplaced when put in the hands of others’ actions and behaviours. But I’m fairly sure most, if not all of us, are working on that one. ??♀️
And I usually say “that’s where the veggie ground-round is”. ?
P.p.s. Thank you ?? you’re so kind. But I will leave the writing to you and keep on reading!
LOL!! Looking forward to catching up in person soon!! Xoxo