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.