This week Liam and his friend went to a little camp put on by the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee. The idea was for kids with Down Syndrome to learn and play alongside age-appropriate peers. Liam and his friend were a couple of the peers. We signed them up because they're sweet kids and we figured they'd be patient and kind and understanding that people are people, no matter how different they might seem.
In fact, when we asked Liam's friend if he wanted to go he said, "Of course! I bet only nice kids will be there because mean kids might not want to play with someone who couldn't do everything they could do." I mean, you couldn't build a much better peer than that! Liam was not quite as altruistic but agreed to go if his friend was going. I figured it would be a good opportunity for him to mix and mingle outside his comfort zone, and hoped he would learn first hand not to judge a book by its cover.
When I picked them up after the first day and asked how it went, I couldn't help but wonder if sending him was such a good idea after all. They told me it was, "good and bad." Good because they got to play with each other; bad because "those other kids" were really mean. When I pressed to find out which other kids they were talking about, they were quick to tell me it was the kids with disabilities.
"Yeah," said Liam. "People with Down Syndrome are really mean!"
I couldn't believe it. "You guys!" I gasped. "These kids have Down Syndrome. Let's cut 'em a little slack, okay?" I tried to help them understand what it's like to have Down Syndrome (although, I'm certainly no expert) and asked them to try harder to be helpful and compassionate.
The next day was more of the same. When I asked them about their morning, they told me that some of it was fun, "But not when that girl poked me in the eye or pushed me out of the way!" By dinner time, they were both begging not to go back.
I was so disappointed. Why wasn't Liam more eager to reach out and help someone who might benefit from his assistance? Where were his big brother instincts? Was he going to come away from this experience completely jaded? Because no amount of thoughtful conversation can trump learning something first hand (even if you learn it wrong...).
Not knowing what else to do, I reached out to my friend who has worked with the Down Syndrome Association a lot over the years. I was hoping she could tell me exactly what to say to make the boys try harder. Maybe if they knew more about what it's like to have Down Syndrome, they would be more tolerant? Surely she had some magical words of wisdom I could use.
Her response caught me completely off guard.
Rather than telling me what to do to make Liam a better peer, she immediately took his side. "It is NOT okay for him to be getting hurt! There is absolutely no reason he should have to put up with that."
Honestly? That had never even occurred to me.
In my quest to teach Liam not to judge a book by it's cover, I was doing just the opposite. Instead of thinking about the situation at hand and trying to see what I could do to make it better, I was giving an entire group of people a pass. Those kids can't be mean, Liam. They have Down Syndrome!
I was embarrassed but still glad I asked for help. It made me realize that by not making a big deal out of the situation and telling Liam to just suck it up and be cool, I was completely ignoring the fact that within every group of people there's a wide range of personalities. Just because someone has Down Syndrome doesn't mean they can't also be a jerk (or have a bad day). By letting someone off the hook simply because of their disability (or job title or age or outfit or whatever else we initially judge people by...), it's like completely ignoring the fact that they're a person.
The boys weren't upset about the camp because some of the kids had Down Syndrome. They were upset because they felt like they were getting picked on. They're not mean or judgemental or impatient. They're kids. Kids who are fairly new to the whole camp scene. I mean, they probably could have used as much guidance as the rest of the kids!
The next day when I dropped the boys off, the camp counselors and director assured me they were aware of the situation and would do everything they could to make sure the boys had a good morning. I thanked them and took a mental note how effective it can be to just communicate when there's a problem. (Duh.) It's not mean to speak up when someone who happens to have Down syndrome is treating your kid badly; it's mean not to. To my own child, yes (I have to give him the benefit of the doubt...if he can't look to me to be his advocate, I've pretty much failed), but also to the whole group of individuals I thoughtlessly lumped together.
Fortunately we nipped this in the bud on Tuesday so we had the rest of the week to turn the experience around. By Friday, the boys were singing the praises of camp and I was no longer worried that they'd be forever jaded. Would I send Liam again? You bet. As long as he knew what he was getting into (the peers actually had quite a bit of responsibility) and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure he felt safe and had a good time. Even if I didn't think to come to his rescue. Although I have a feeling this lesson is going to stick with me a while. Nothing like a first hand experience to change a gal...