When I Learned to Trust My Son With Down Syndrome at the Lake


This weekend, I took Evan, my 4-year-old son with Down syndrome, to a beach at a lake in the Poconos. We’ve been there before, and as usual, he loved the water. This summer, we’ve spent a lot of time in pools and the lake, and Evan has been gaining confidence in the water, swimming with a floatation device and putting his face in the water without taking in water.

This time at the lake, it seemed like he was on a mission. He walked next to the rope, heading toward deep water. I followed him, giving him some freedom, but kept close enough that if he fell or needed help, I’d be there.

Evan kept going, and I encouraged him to turn around when he got to a point where the water was up to his shoulders. He wasn’t very good at listening to my instructions so I would turn him around myself. After we repeated the process a couple of times, he gave me a look that said, “Mom, I’ve got this.”

Julie Gerhart-Rothholz the mighty.2-001

I’ve seen this look before. It usually means, “I’m about to do something I think you’ll want to see.” So the next time I let him go and trailed closely because I was wondering where he was going and what he was going to do. Again, he walked next to the rope, going deeper and deeper until the water was up to his shoulders. And then he did it. He jumped up, kicked his feet and moved his arms at the same time. He was treading water. It lasted only a few seconds and then his face went into the water. I picked him up and put him on my hip, and he raised his hands in the air and said, “Yaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy! Swim!” He was smiling with his whole body, and he immediately got down and treaded water again.

Evan treaded water about a dozen more times, each time lasting a few seconds longer. Some might look at that and say it wasn’t much, but to Evan and me, it was huge. And once again, it reminded me my son may have Down syndrome, but he’s just like me. In my life there have been some things — like trigonometry — that I didn’t understand, but one day it just clicked and I mastered it.

With Evan, I’ve seen this process over and over again—with walking, jumping, climbing the stairs, even with speaking some words. He spends time figuring things out then he does them and repeats what he’s done several times until it becomes easier to do, celebrating the fact that he’s done it each time.

This experience with Evan also reminded me I sometimes need to do just what I did in the lake: trust my son, but follow behind him at a safe distance, giving him the freedom to try something new.


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