College, Down Syndrome, and the Plans we Have…

College, Down Syndrome, and the Plans we Have… June 23, 2011
Penny graduates from preschool

It happens all the time. Friends talk about our children, their own children, their grandchildren with reference to where they’ll go to college. College motivates some seven year olds we know (or, perhaps I should say, motivates the parents of some seven year olds) to play lacrosse, piano, violin. College comes up when William demonstrates his precocious language skills. It comes up when people assume that our children will follow in our footsteps and go to the same schools we did.

I know it’s normal to think about our children’s future. And I know it can be good to dream on their behalf. But assuming that I know where our children will end up in fifteen years or making them learn a skill for the sake of college admissions baffles me. I want to help them discover what they’re interested in right now, not direct them towards what they ought to be interested in decades from now. I want to help them push through the tedium of learning to play an instrument or dribble a ball or read a book not because it will improve their SAT scores or make them stand out in an admissions pile but because perseverance leads to character (see Romans 5 on this point), because there’s value in learning, and because music, reading, and sports bring joy and goodness in and of themselves, not because those things are tickets to the future.

I hope I would have this attitude no matter the chromosomal makeup of our children. And yet I know that having a child with Down syndrome has altered the way I handle expectations for all our children. When Penny was first born, all my hopes and dreams for her seemed to fly away with the words “developmental delays” and “low muscle tone.” I was tempted to replace expectations that she would be “just like me” with expectations that she would be “different from me.” Instead of dreaming of all the things she’d be able to do, I began to dread the things she wouldn’t be able to do.

But over time, as she introduced herself to me, I realized that I had been thinking about it all wrong. I expect great things for Penny. I just don’t know what those things will be. Will she go to college? Will she get married? Will she learn to play tennis or read novels or dance the Nutcracker? Who knows? It’s impossible to answer those questions, so I try to focus on what is possible–helping her become a child (and eventually an adult) who knows that she is loved, who knows how to love others, who knows the value of working hard, and who knows how to enjoy life.

This new way of thinking started because Penny has an extra chromosome, but it has extended to our other children. I don’t think about where William will go to college either. And we aren’t considering violin lessons for him because of dreams that he might get a scholarship for it someday. We’re considering violin lessons because he runs to the front of our church when the man with the violin is a part of leading worship, stands perfectly still and watches his fingers… because when music comes on in the car he asks us to help him identify what instrument is playing… because he pretends to play the trumpet in our kitchen and jumps up and down and dances with delight.

I try not to have expectations for our children. Instead I have dreams that they will live fully and love deeply and serve others with great joy.


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