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How I'm Encouraging My Son With Down Syndrome to Be More Independent

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Do you do too much for your child?

Today my son received one of his delayed Christmas gifts. He needed help undoing the cardboard box. Because it was one of those complicated boxes that are perforated, he was struggling with it. He was valiantly wrestling that darn cardboard box, but it just did not want to be conquered.

I immediately reached out to help, but he turned away without saying a word, wanting to do it himself.

It made me stop.
It struck me, in that moment, how much I do for him.
It struck me, in that moment, how much I am taking away from him when I do so much for him.

He had now wrestled the box open and was down to the phone case tucked into a plastic casing. It looked equally complicated, covered in layers of plastic.

He turned, handed me the package containing his phone and said, “please do this for me” and walked away.

I understood. That had been quite an ordeal! He had conquered it and won. But he wasn’t finished yet. He had more to complete. He expected me to help. He knew that I was always there to help.

But what if I wasn’t around?

I resisted doing it for him. It was hard not to just do it for him.

My son has Down syndrome. I help him a lot. He needs help a lot. I do things for him a lot. With a heavy heart, I set the package down. It wasn’t easy to not do this for him, but I knew his phone was important enough to him that he would be back shortly. I pretended to be busy.

I left the phone on the counter. I watched him go by the phone several times over the next 20 minutes. Then, he finally asked, “is it fixed?” pointing to it, asking without words for me to fix it.

I calmly looked at him and said, “You can do it yourself.” He stood still. He paused for a moment, looking at me, then picked it up and went into his room. He was not happy.

A part of me wanted to rush in behind him and make sure that he was able to do it by himself. To ensure that it was fitted on correctly. To do it the same exact way I would do it. To ensure he wasn’t struggling too much. It would have been so simple for me to just do it. It would have so much quicker for me to have just done it myself. It’s my job to make his life easier, make things go smoother. As his mom, I strive daily to make his life less complicated. That’s my job, right?

But, what if I wasn’t around?

Twenty minutes later, he burst into the room, jubilant, a smile plastered across his face!
He wanted me to take a picture with his new phone case. See, he had designed the cover himself with some help. He loved it! He was so proud that on it was the name of his favorite girls’ band that he loves! He was beaming from ear to ear — he had done it all by himself!

That’s when I realized how much I would have taken away from him by doing it for him.

It may have taken a lot longer for him to do it, and it was certainly a lot more work for him than for me. But the amount of success he felt by doing the entire project himself was priceless.

We want him to be independent. We want him to one day live in his own apartment with a roommate. We want him to have a job and friends and live independently. He wants those things too.

We talk regularly about chores as he helps by emptying the dishes from the dishwasher, cleaning the kitchen, and taking out the recycling. He can do his own laundry and he has great cooking skills. We discuss college and he asks about the costs of things, and how much his rent will be. Does he understand it completely? I’m not positive, but the more we talk about it, the more that will sink in. One thing I do know — the more he practices, the easier things will be later.

If we don’t give our kids the chance to fail, if we don’t teach them how to ask for help, we are failing them.

It’s our job as parents to give them a safe place to make mistakes.
It’s our job as parents to help them feel success, be it big or small.
It’s our job as parents to give them the confidence to keep trying, to push forward and to grow.

Without failure, we cannot grow.
Without trying repeated times, we cannot learn from our mistakes.

At lunch today, instead of making his sandwich for him, I left out the ingredients for him to construct the sandwich himself. I am thinking of how he can start making how own school lunches daily, how to teach him to make a grocery list, meal plan and cook breakfast by himself on the weekends. I am thinking of how he can start to clean his own bathroom, become more organized, do more daily chores and how I can create a visual checklist for him.

So, parents, let them try!
Let them fail!
Let them have the dignity of failure.
Let them have the dignity of risk.
But relish in the success!
Build them up so they are brave enough to try again!

I smiled as I sat back down with my coffee.

What if I’m not around?

With practice, and the encouragement I give him now, he will be just fine.

Originally published: January 26, 2021
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