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"Explaining" Down Syndrome at the Preschool Level

Maggie Cheung

I know that one day Jack will go to school and grow up a little bit and start making his own friends. One day we'll be talking about birthday party invitations and going home with friends after school and how if he wants to hand out Valentines in fourth grade he better have a Valentine for everyone in his class. I hope he grows into a friendly, inclusive and, most of all, kind little boy.

But right now he's "friends" with my friends' children: a small group of two- and three- and four-year-olds whose mothers I've known for years. These are the kids we play with on a regular basis, the ones Jack remembers when we say our prayers at night. One of these kids, one of the only boys actually, has Down Syndrome, and I'm realizing that friendliness, inclusiveness and kindness are things we can start talking about right now. 

Caleb is a year older than Jack, and his mother is one of my oldest friends. Watching him morph from a tiny preemie in the NICU to a boisterous cheery four-year-old has been crazy ride, and I hate to say that I wasn't the most supportive friend along the way. Oh sure, I fretted over his baby gift - would seeing these giant clothes in size 3-6 months make his parents feel even worse about their preemie? - and I've always listened and encouraged in the best ways I know how. But I know there was a long stretch of time where I just didn't bring it up. We watched as the kids started talking and walking and potty training before Caleb, even though he was the oldest. But my kids were so small, so young, so clueless. They didn't notice that Caleb was different, and I didn't point it out. I thought that was the best thing to do. 

My friend, however, and you guys this was SO brave of her, began to gently prod us whenever we got the kids together. She had picked up some songs and rhymes and games from Caleb's preschool and encouraged all of us to do them together. We always wanted Caleb to play and participate, and here she was showing us things Caleb was familiar with, things he could do. My friend started suggesting that we explain to our own kids why Caleb was doing one thing or another. "If they want to know why Caleb has to sit in a buckled seat on the floor, just tell them that's what Caleb needs to sit still."

I looked at my then two-year-old and thought, "Jack doesn't even notice." And I continued to not worry about it, not mention it, not explain anything. 

But now? Now I have a three-year-old who goes to preschool and is learning how to walk in a line and clean up and share and listen to a teacher. He's a million times more aware of other kids' behavior and how they interact with each other and adults. Now when Caleb comes over I catch Jack looking at me for guidance. Caleb is eating baby food, Caleb is tapping toys against tables and bookshelves and chairs, Caleb is not listening to his mom, Caleb is ignoring Jack, Caleb is not interested in playing with trains - and Jack looks at me to find out why. My job is helping Jack understand that Caleb is not misbehaving, he has Down Syndrome.

"Little kids already notice that Caleb is different," my friend tells me, "but it's not as big a deal if the grown ups can translate what's going on." So maybe I don't have to explain Down Syndrome and chromosomes to a three-year-old, but I can say that Caleb taps toys against the table because it helps him feel better. I can say that Caleb isn't responding because he's being mean or rude, he just might not know how to respond the right way, or even that Jack is talking to him in the first place.  I can say that Caleb might not like trains, but we do know he likes to run and chase and suggest that Jack try that game instead. And I should never feel nervous or uncomfortable about asking my friend for guidance and suggestions - it's actually shows that I care about her experience, about her, and about her little boy.

I can't pick his friends and I can't tell him who to love, but I can show him HOW to love, HOW to take care of other people, HOW to include everyone, even if they're different. I'd love to know if there's any specific circumstance in which you are teaching your kids these lessons!