My husband's sister has Down Syndrome. Now in her 50s, she lives in a group home about an hour away from us. We see her several times a year, usually having her visit our home over the holidays and going down to see her occasionally on weekends.
From the time she was a baby, SB has noticed there is something different about her Aunt J. But she had always been accepting of her until recently. Lately, SB has acted afraid of her.
On Sunday, we went to pick Aunt J up from her home to take her out for an ice cream treat with my MIL. SB was reluctant. Unsure.
One the one hand, I understand how she feels. Why she is afraid. And I think it is normal, especially for a child her age. On the other hand, I want her to learn to be accepting of others and above all, kind.
It can be a fine line to walk as a parent sometimes. I want to protect and shield her while at the same time exposing her to things that will help her grow into a giving, compassionate person.
Before we got in the car to go get our treat, we took a tour of the grounds surrounding the center where Aunt J lives. At one point I looked over and saw SB was silently crying. I went to her, picked her up and held her close, speaking in a soft, gentle voice:
"Sweetie, do you think Mommy and Daddy would ever take you someplace that wasn't safe?" I asked.
She stopped crying, sniffled a little, looked me right in the eye and said, "No."
"No, we wouldn't. We wouldn't bring you here if it wasn't a safe place for you. You are safe here, and we are with you. OK?"
"I know you feel uneasy because you are very aware now that Aunt J and her friends here are different."
"I don't like her."
"That's not a very nice thing to say. I believe what you mean is that you are scared."
"Yes. I am scared of Aunt J."
"It is normal to be scared of things we don't know or understand. It's OK."
"I don't want to be around her anymore."
"Let me ask you a question. Are all your friends at school the same?"
"They are? Do they all have blonde hair like you?"
"And do they all have green eyes like you?"
"Does everyone in your class have fair skin like you do?"
"Is everyone in your class a girl?"
"Ah. So really, they are different from you and each other in a number of visible ways. And you are not afraid of them, are you?"
"No, I'm not."
"Well, Aunt J is different because she has Down Syndrome. That doesn't make her scary."
She was clearly not convinced. So I continued.
"Aunt J is family, and she will be part of our life as long as she is alive. We love her and accept her for who she is. Just as we love and accept you for who you are."
From that point on, she seemed more at ease. And did well the rest of the visit. We all enjoyed our treats, and SB showed Aunt J her nail polish and her stuffed animals. She did not want to give Aunt J a hug goodbye when we dropped her off, and we told her that was OK. We did not force her.
Later, at the dinner table, we talked more about being different. Hubby and I pointed out the ways we are different from each other. But explained how we fell in love and wanted to get married and have a family together.
We talked about how differences are interesting and can enhance our lives if we let them. And that even when we are different, there are also ways we are the same. If we focus on those, we can build a strong foundation for friendship.
We discussed our neighbor who has Down Syndrome. She just turned a year old and SB adores her. We explained that when she grows up she will be a lot like Aunt J.
We went around the table and shared some of the things we are scared of, hubby and me included. Lastly, we talked about the Golden Rule. I told SB a story about a special friend I had when I was in school.
I will come back to tell you on Friday...