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This Small Act of Kindness Means the World to My Daughter With Down Syndrome

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Smiles mean a lot. They can break the ice. They can provide reassurance. They can symbolize solidarity and understanding. They can shift the entire atmosphere or context of a conversation in a positive direction. Smiling is a universally understood way of communicating without spoken words. Sometimes, a single smile can quite literally make one’s day.

But sometimes not smiling can hurt.

My youngest daughter Savannah loves to smile. And believe me, she is profoundly good at it. Her smile can always brighten the room and never fails to lift my spirits. It always brings a smile to my own face, regardless of the situation or mood I am in. Her smile is always genuine and sincere, coming from a place of pure innocence and beauty. I can’t imagine a scenario where I wouldn’t return Savannah’s smile. And that’s why not smiling hurts me all too often.

Savannah is 2 years old, a busy, inquisitive little toddler who loves shenanigans. And she just happens to have Down syndrome.

For those of us who know and love her, her diagnosis is just that, a diagnosis. It by no means defines her. It’s simply a part of the beautiful little girl she is, the same as how I just happen to have blue eyes.

Since Savannah was born I’ve worried about how people would react to her, how they would treat her because she has Down syndrome. My family is well aware of all the horribly inaccurate stereotypes. But for the majority of her life she has received positive reactions from others, for the most part. That has been changing lately though. I’ve realized that when she was a baby people were having a fit over how cute she is because she was a baby, and most people always gush over babies. Attitudes and reactions seem to change when they’re not babies anymore.

As I said before, Savannah loves to smile and is exceptionally good at it. She loves to smile and wave at the different people she sees when we’re out and about. She smiles at adults and children, but she really gets excited when she sees other small children. Her smile and wave is accompanied by what is almost a squeal of delight. More and more people just try to ignore her now. When she smiles at them they will look away, trying to act as if they didn’t even see her.

The look on her little face when she realizes this person isn’t going to smile back at her shatters my heart every time. It’s a look of confusion mixed with hurt. When she looks at me with her beautiful almond shaped eyes it feels like she’s asking, “Why wouldn’t they smile, Momma?” If it was an adult who shunned her smile, I’ll sometimes say just loud enough for them to overhear, “I’m sorry they didn’t wave back, baby. Sometimes people can be rude. We’re going to keep smiling anyway, aren’t we?”

When children avoid her it still hurts, but I know it’s completely different with children. Sometimes I just simply say, “It’s OK to smile and talk to her. She won’t hurt you, she just wants to be your friend.” But sometimes, a child and their parent ignore her as if she’s not even there. It breaks my heart that so many parents won’t take just a minute out of their day to teach their child about showing kindness to others who happen to be different.

Returning a smile is such an easy gesture that only takes a second of your time and can have the to power to  completely change a person’s day. When people smile back at Savannah it makes her happy. She accomplished exactly what she was trying to do. And just like any other mother, it thrills me to see my children happy. When people won’t do something as simple as smile at Savannah, it truly hurts.

So how do you respond? When a child with Down syndrome smiles at you, what do you do? What do your children do? Do you look away, trying to avoid the situation, because it makes you uncomfortable? Your children will follow the example you set. When you ignore Savannah, it confuses her and in turn breaks my heart also. But when you and your children take that extra moment, that one quick little second to smile back, it completely changes the atmosphere, and it ends up being a positive interaction.

A single smile can truly make a person’s day. Please remember that the next time a little girl with Down syndrome smiles at you.

Originally published: March 19, 2019
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