My eldest daughter Macy loves people. Every day she asks us if we can invite someone over, she is always up for making new friends and she says “hello” to almost every person she encounters. But that’s not all, she also does this thing I like to call the “WHATCHA NAME?’ game” where she almost demands a person tell her their name. Let me explain. In some ways it is simple, it is just like it sounds, she asks the people she encounters throughout her day, “what’s your name?”. But in other ways it is very complicated. You see, my daughter has Down syndrome. Chances are when you read that a variety of feelings, thoughts and ideas passed through your mind. Depending on your experience with people who have Down syndrome your feelings, thoughts and ideas are either based on facts because you love someone with Down syndrome, or on inaccurate assumptions because of your lack of relationship to someone who has Down syndrome. It is these kinds of inaccurate assumptions that make my daughter’s “WHATCHA NAME?’ game” complicated.
Here is how the “game” goes. Because Macy loves people so much, she is unphased by what society has decided are less than appropriate ways to meet a new person. Sure, Macy will ask you your name in totally appropriate settings, such as if she is at a party and meeting you for the first time, but she will also ask you your name when she passes you on the sidewalk, or as you get out of your car in the parking lot, or as she walks past your booth at a restaurant where you and your friends and family are deep in conversation. If you are waiting in line for the same thing as Macy and you are standing in front of or behind her, you better believe she will ask you your name. And the complications continue because we live in a society where we are prone to stick to ourselves, where interacting with strangers in public is not the norm, and where the majority of people have never had an encounter with a person who has Down syndrome. It’s complicated because my daughter, with physical characteristics that are common with a Down syndrome diagnosis, wears her differences on her face, and in her speech making many of the people she hopes to interact with uncomfortable from the second she approaches.
This makes traveling with our daughter Macy an adventure all its own. And to be honest, as a family who loves to travel and does so often, I used to feel pretty stressed and uptight about her interrupting people’s days to ask them their name. I used to think about how to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ avoiding too many complicated interactions. But as the years have gone on, I have learned so much from my daughter, including how wrong I was to want to limit her “WHATCHA NAME!” interactions with the world around her. Because here is the truth, there is nothing wrong with the way she interacts with the world. Yes, it is different, but different is not bad. This simple lesson is one for the books my friends, so I’ll say it again before moving on: different is not bad. And this summer as we take our kids on trips, plucking them, if only temporarily, out of the sameness and comfort of their communities, I hope that we do so as a way to show them something different in this world. A different way to think, live, and interact. Different foods to try, different terrain to navigate, and different people to meet.
As a parent raising three kids of my own, two of whom have Down syndrome (yes my eldest daughter Macy has Down syndrome and so does my youngest son), I am constantly learning the importance of equipping my kids before heading out the door. So, while we are sure to pack sunscreen, bug spray and an a light jacket let’s also make sure we equip our kids for the differences they will be facing on their summer time adventures. Let’s make sure our kids know how to interact with the Macys of this world. To help us all out, here are three ways to equip our kids as they learn to embrace the ‘different’ they experience in this world:
First: It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Let you kids know that you too feel uncomfortable when faced with someone or something you are not familiar with. That pit in their stomach when face to face with a person, place or situation that is unfamiliar is totally normal, and totally okay. (It is important to note that feeling uncomfortable is not the same as feeling unsafe. It is never okay for our children to feel uncomfortable around a person or in a situation because they are unsafe.)
Second: It is okay to ask questions. As a mother raising two kids with Down syndrome I would much rather a child or parent ask about why my son or daughter look or respond to the world the way he/she does rather than ignore them all together. Curiosity is an important part of our growth as humans. As long as they are being asked in a polite and mindful way, questions regarding the people, places and things our children are unfamiliar with are always welcomed.
Third: You can feel uncomfortable and still be kind. As an adult I have learned that when I am the most uncomfortable with someone because they are different than me, the more intentional I am to get to know that person the less uncomfortable I become. Teaching our kids to simply say “hello” to someone and engage in simple conversation is a great start towards broadening their understanding of the beauty of diversity and humanity as a whole.
This is not an exhaustive list but rather a starting off point for all of us. Because while we need to remember these truths during our summertime adventures, our kid’s ability to interact with people who are different than them, the ability we all have to embrace the differences around us, may just be the key to unlocking the loving and inclusive world we all long for.