How do children learn about difference?

I want to tell you a funny story about what happens when two kids who are incredibly advanced for their age interact with a kid who is developmentally delayed. I want to tell you this story because,

A) it was absolutely hilarious.
B) it’s a story of what happens when competition, ego and status don’t influence relationships.

First a little bit of background.

My sister and I are an interesting pair. Basically we are the same person but we couldn’t be more different. What I mean is, at our core, we hold the same values, same ethics and same outlook on life but we have always been a bit opposite in how we ended up there.

Growing up we fought like cat and dog. Only 18 months apart in age I was never quite older enough to assert full dominance of my superior age all over her and we were fiercely competitive in every mundane aspect of our lives. Who got to sit in front seat of the car, who got to push the trolley, who did our parents love more….(yes, I actually asked them that once)

I was the one who found school work easy and didn’t have to try too hard to get good marks whereas Sammy found it more difficult. Yet, she was the one who had a million friends by lunchtime and I was still working out how to keep the two or three I’d had for years.

She was short, blonde haired, blue-eyed and adorable and I was tall, lanky, and well….I guess my neighbour summed it up when she said to us...”Sammy will always be pretty, but one day, you will be beautiful”.

I think?

(I spent many years wondering if that “one day” had arrived yet!)


We didn’t become friends until I moved out of home. As we moved into our separate lives as adults, married and became parents, we became incredibly close. Basically…we grew up…and now we understand who the other one is. I don’t talk to anyone like I talk to Sammy, both in a good way and a bad way! We still drive each other batshit crazy in the way we do things but deep down there is respect and an unbreakable bond.

She often gets the faltering voice on the end of the line saying “Have you got a minute to talk?” And I also answer the phone to hear “I just need to vent!” She is the one who tells me to get a grip when I’m losing rational thought and acting like a crazy person and I am the one who tells her that yes…on this particular occasion, I think you were wrong and you might need to suck it up.

She has two amazing kids, 5 year old Cohen and 20month old Emily. It was interesting when Cohen was born. He was the first child born to this generation on both sides of his family. None of us had any idea what “normal” development for children looked like in a day to day sense, but it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that he was knocking it out of the park. He was curious and funny. His language developed early as well as his compassion and empathy. Basically…he is brilliant. Reading, writing, puzzles, art and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the animal kingdom….although he can’t catch a ball to save himself but you can’t have everything!!

Emily is fierce…has been from the day she was born. She is cheeky and independent. More than an old soul, she simply suffers no fools, is completely comfortable in her space…and wields it like an axe. When I am trying to wow with something exciting like a nursery rhyme, no one floors with me with a look of such tired disdain as Emily. When she learnt to stand…at around 8 months or so, she didn’t teeter or stagger. She just thrust her arms in the air like a weightlifter doing a snatch-and- jerk, let out a roar and pushed up from her knees. She is Amazon.


Cohen will melt my heart by walking up to me and saying something like “Teeshie, I just love it when I get to spend time with you.” and Emily will have us in stitches as she turns, looks you right in the eye and growls if you try to tell her what to do. Don’t get me wrong Emily is a lovely and beautiful child but she is very determined and very singular in her opinions…which is what I love about her.

Although Cohen’s development was obvious to us as he grew, I didn’t really pay much attention until Down syndrome entered my world. When your own child has developmental delay and your sister’s kids are advanced, the differences are stark and impossible to ignore. As Emily grows up beside Wade, closing the gap on his developmental abilities at a stunning rate, it forces me to test how I truly feel about his intellectual disability…

So…on to the story

Sammy and the kids had spent a wonderful day with us at the Down Syndrome Victoria Family Fun Day. There were a range of activities but Cohen was completely obsessed with the native animal petting zoo. The unsuspecting handlers had their knowledge severely tested as this polite and charming 5 year old quizzed them about the feeding habits and social quirks of each of their exhibits! I watched with deep pride as Cohen took Wade’s hand and showed him every animal and told him all about them. My ovaries went ‘squee’ as I watched Emily following Wade around the event saying “Wate?, Wate?” Because she adores him and follows him around like a little duckling. The first thing Emily says to me EVERY time I see her is …“Wate?, Wate?, Wate?….” ad nauseum until I either produce said child or explain where he is. I am less of an Aunty and more of a vehicle of delivery for Wade. The love the three of these have together is deep and real and beautiful to watch.

When we got home the kids all took turns to jump off a box that sits on the lounge room floor. I have been using the box to teach Wade how to jump off the edge as practice for his swimming classes. Currently he swan dives with great gusto but he needs to learn how to bend his knees and jump properly. It’s been a slow and laborious task but he thinks it’s a great game. Cohen wanted to help by showing Wade how to do it properly and wanted to catch him when he tried. After I convinced him that a 5 year old catching a 3 year old in mid air was not a good idea, he helped by holding Wade’s hand and guiding him to jump off correctly. Meanwhile, Emily leapt up onto the box effortlessly and jumped off like a pro landing on her feet and headed back for more. Wade was watching all of this and after a while, his jumping improved, as did his confidence…and his need to get proactive if he was going to beat Emily to the box and get a go!


A little while later I wanted to show Sammy how Wade can count to twenty. This is a BIG deal. I know that I shouldn’t get too excited by party tricks like this…I know that it is more important that he learns a deeper understanding of true numeracy instead of a series of sounds he has learnt by rote but frankly… I don’t care. It’s an amazing feat for him and it is super cute because, while he knows what he is trying to say, his articulation is still pretty rough so the numbers come out adorably mangled. I am so proud that he can do this. It has only been a few months since he learnt the concept of counting. We have incorporated a lot of counting into what we do for him to grasp the idea of numbers. I remember the first time I realised he understood it. I was driving the car and heard sounds coming from the back seat. “Daaa, daaa, Dee, daaa DAH!” I turned around to see him pointing to his fingers and trying to count to five…just like we had been showing him. Now, after many many repetitions of counting the 12 stairs up to the front door he can count to twelve confidently and then just ‘something-teen, something-teen’ his way through to twenty. It’s not just the enormity of him doing this well before I expected he would, it’s also the serious cute factor that accompanies it. He thinks it’s a riot and drags each number out melodramatically as we all get more and more excited by each number. And it was something I was keen to show Sammy.

“Wade! show Sammy how you can count to twenty?”

(I have to start him off and he always starts from two because I think he thinks One means Go but anyway….)



Then from Cohen comes…


We all turned to stare at him then he comes over all shy and says…”Oh, that’s Indonesian but it’s ok if you do it in English, Wade,”


After a short incredulous discussion about how on earth he knew Indonesian (!!) we returned to Wade and the enormous wonderment of this counting…


“Doooo, Treeeee, voooour, viiiiiive, Eeven”

“Six, Wade”

“Eeeees, Eeven…..”

Then from right next to him, this teeny tiny voice from this teeny tiny child…

“Eight, Nine, Ten!”

All of us burst out laughing and just couldn’t stop. Tears rolling down our cheeks because it was just so ridiculous! He couldn’t even get to ten because he was interrupted by a five year old speaking a foreign language and 20 month old who sounds like she has been speaking for years.

This story was really interesting for me because it could have so easily been different.

If Sammy and I weren’t so close…
If we were competitive and tried to out do each other with our kids abilities…
If we were embarrassed of our kids abilities in front of each other…
If we felt threatened or intimidated by each other’s differences…

If we acted like jerks about it…we wouldn’t have three beautiful children who adore each other regardless of their abilities.

I truly believe our attitudes as parents have a lot of influence on how our kids view the world. If we had rushed in and made a big deal of it, the kids would be watching and reading our body language.

If we had made it a problem, the kids would see it as a problem.


Cohen is self-aware that he understands things that a lot of kids don’t. I think HE is starting to see that he is different too, but because he has been raised where different doesn’t mean “bad” or something that needs to be made “normal”, he has also developed this wonderful sense of empathy and consideration for those around him. He has no need to show off in front of others or make them feel bad. Neither does he have a need to dumb himself down or be embarrassed by his knowledge. It is a beautiful wonderful part of him and something that should be valued.

There have been times over the past 20 months since Emily was born that I have smacked my palm into my face over the ease with which she learns things compared to Wade. Like the time I taught her the sign for “more” when she was 6 months old. She learnt it in 10 freaking minutes even though I had been teaching the same sign to Wade for 6 months and he barely understood the concept.

Of course it is hard to see one child do something with ease that another child struggles to do but I think the importance should be on the end product not how quickly he gets there. Seeing them grow up together, play together and have a genuine care of each other shows me that the concept of difference mostly comes from the outside. It doesn’t bother them and it certainly shouldn’t bother us.


Right now, these kids just love each other…no questions asked. They don’t see difference, feel threatened by it or seek to remove it. So…to answer my own question about how I really feel about his intellectual disability? The developmental differences between Sammy’s kids and mine shows me that it’s there. The emotional connection between Sammy’s kids and mine shows me that it doesn’t matter.

Wade has his place amongst other children. Sure, some kids might come to me and ask me why Wade isn’t talking yet or something along those lines. And that is the most important part….it’s not that they asked, it’s what we say to them next that matters. Children look to the adults for cues about how the world works. Every time they ask, it’s an opportunity to prove that different isn’t bad and to explain reasons why some kids do things before others.

Children aren’t born with a template for “normal”, they learn it….from us.

3 thoughts on “How do children learn about difference?

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