There’s a sign on the way home from our daughter Penny’s school that reads: “Slow Down. Exceptional Children Live Here.” When I first noticed it, it bugged me. I saw it as a disrespectful play on signs warning cars that a child with blindness or deafness lives in a neighborhood. And then, as I thought about it more, I became even more annoyed. We live in a relatively wealthy community, and I saw the sign as one more indication of helicopter parents who think their children deserve awards just for putting on a uniform for a soccer game. As the mother of a child with special needs, I thought of that sign as other parents thumbing their nose at us. Your child might be special, I heard them saying, but ours is exceptional. On the honor roll. Scoring home runs. Winning the community service award.
I now totally disagree with myself.
I probably started to soften when I got to know some of the kids on that street. I realized that they are just kids, like my kids, like your kids or your neighbors’ kids. And I softened even more when I started to realize how much I believe that each of my children is exceptional. It is my privilege as a mother to be the one who knows why and how my kids are exceptional, even if no one else ever sees it. I don’t think my kids should get awards or recognition from other people for all the little things that I celebrate about them. But I do believe that parental love includes seeing the particular giftedness in each of our kids and believing in their particular purpose. I’m the one who knows that William can identify a sycamore tree. I’m the one who marvels at Marilee as she picks our her outfit in the morning and struggles to get her body to cooperate with the various polka-dotted items she has selected. And I’m the one who knows how hard Penny works as she learns how to add three numbers together. I’m the one who holds all their exceptional traits in my heart.
People within the Down syndrome community debate whether or not our children are “special.” I have written in defense of this idea, and I’ve also written against it. What I’ve realized lately is that Penny is no more special, no more exceptional, than her siblings. And no more special or exceptional than her classmates or her neighbors. The thing is, other people often look at kids with “special needs” and think that we parents have been given a defective product, that we don’t have exceptional/special children after all. But each of our children is a gift in his and her own particular ways. Penny is no more special than William or Marilee, but she is quite special in her own right, which is why I find much of the writing about Down syndrome in the medical community and the culture at large so problematic. Penny is a little girl who loves brides and doesn’t like fairies, who loves to read chapter books, who is worried that she will miss out because she is home sick today, who loves playgrounds and playdates and aspires one day to lead the singing at our church. It’s not because Penny is more wonderful than any other kid that I consider her exceptional. It’s just because she is wonderful as she is.
Slow down. And notice the exceptional ones all around you.