Would I tell my son with Down syndrome he could be Prime Minister?

I saw a question posted online a little while back and it really got me thinking…

Are we setting our kids up to fail to tell them that they can be anything like Prime Minister or a brain surgeon even if the chances are slim? Or should we be more realistic about our expectations for our kids with Down syndrome?

I had a good think about it and (like most of my answers to complicated questions) I decided that it is a little from column A and a little from column B.

So, would I tell Wade he could be Prime Minister?

Yes, I would–and this is why.

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Grandad and Wade

There is a big difference between blindly promising Wade a world of things he won’t have and providing every opportunity in the world for him to find what he wants to do with it. This is the distinction for me. When it comes to Down syndrome, my philosophy is to know about it, then forget about it.

As an example, let’s presume for a moment that Wade does not talk.

To know about it means to understand the reasons why Wade may find speech harder to achieve whether that is due to the way his body works or the way his mind works or due to complicating health issues.  It is useful to know that children with Down syndrome often have speech delays. That sometimes there are fluid issues in the ears that may hinder speech development or it may be the shape of the mouth and tongue that is making it harder to talk. It may be a motor planning problem that is making it hard for speech to begin. It could be any one of those things, so by knowing that these are common hurdles it is possible to get specific information that will help get him over that hurdle.

However, to forget about it means to press on presuming that he will talk, that he does understand what I say, that I shouldn’t stop trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t talk back.

So in this scenario, eventually Wade will either talk or he won’t.

If he does, great! And as a bonus, he has been exposed to people who have been speaking to him and communicating with him that whole time; modelling what speech looks like, sounds like and so on which has undoubtedly helped get him to this point. Terrific.

If he doesn’t eventually talk, it will be because talking doesn’t suit him. And that will be fine too. He will learn to communicate in another way. By being around people who have spoken to him his whole life as though he has something to say and something to contribute, he will be motivated to use some other device to speak and join in the conversation, whether that is Auslan, an AAC device…it could even be a series of beats on a drum…whatever. How he ends up communicating is not the point, the point is that by presuming that he would talk…even though he doesn’t end up talking…means that he is more likely to have opinions, ideas and an interest in communicating because it will have been presumed that he does from the time he was born. It won’t have been setting him up to fail, it will be giving him the opportunity to get as far down the path of talking that he can and wants to go.

 It is the same principle for becoming Prime Minister.

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Learning about either clouds or fingernails…I’m not sure.

The first caveat I will put on this idea though is that Wade would have to want to be Prime Minister first before this could be an option. Me, personally? I would rather set my hair on fire than join politics and try to become Prime Minister. So, despite my presumed potential to achieve this, there is no way on god’s green earth that is going to happen. This is not me being negative and self-limiting, this is me knowing what I do and don’t want to do with my precious few days on earth.  It will be the same for Wade. Forcing him to enter politics when he would rather be a painter for example is not going to result in him becoming Prime Minister.

Now, presuming that Wade decides that he desperately wants to become Prime Minister, what now?

Well, how does anyone become Prime Minister? They have to have an interest in politics first so I would probably start by teaching him about how government worked from when he was a child. I could talk to him about the different levels of government, how laws are made, I could show him how to vote in an election or take him to council or parliamentary buildings to meet people and see politics in action.

As he got older, he might want to make a change to the way things are done in the school canteen for example so he might learn how to draft a petition or gather people around an idea and push for something to change with the principal. After that he might learn how to speak up about political issues that are important to him or join a public issue campaign that is happening in his local area. He might join a team as they door knock in an area or hand out How-to-Vote cards in and election. He might join a political party and get a job in their offices or on the campaign trail as they travel the country. He might even run as a candidate himself!

But if he really wanted to be Prime Minister, he would probably have to go to uni and study law or economics or business. To do that he would need to study really hard and spend a lot of time on those skills. He would need to pass exams and requirements for him to get qualifications. Qualifying might take longer for him and take up more of his time and energy to learn the things he needs to learn to pass. He will either enjoy doing that or he won’t. He might feel that while he is at uni taking extra classes or extra years to pass, he is missing out on the fun of the campaign trail or he has no time for his other interests like music and comedy.

So, at some point he will either become Prime Minister or he won’t.

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If he does…freaking fantastic. Job done.

If he doesn’t, it will be because becoming Prime Minister doesn’t suit him. He might have started out wanting to be prime minister but end up finding a love of politics and world affairs that he wouldn’t have found if I closed that possibility off for fear of failure. He might not end up being prime minister but he might end up with a whole suite of new skills and networks that lead him into a job he loves or a field of study that does suit him.

And the same goes for being a brain surgeon, or an astronaut. He might also learn that trying to be the biggest and the best at everything may not be all it’s cracked up to be!

Saying I am setting him up to fail seems to be the same as can’t win, don’t try. Would I say that to my child if they didn’t have Down syndrome? Would I say, you probably shouldn’t try anything difficult just in case you fail, stay here in this safe space with your safety net? Why is it ok to tell kids without Down syndrome to shoot for the moon and if they don’t make they will land among the stars but not Wade?

Do you know what I have in my bottom drawer of my cupboard? A very lovely science degree with a very pretty bow around it. Am I a Nobel Laureate? Nope. Did I ever even get a job in the field? Nope. Have I failed?…look, I probably could have made more of my opportunities…but was it a waste of time? No. I now have a good understanding of the natural world and scientific method. I am a critical thinker and have a healthy scepticism. Leaving home and going to uni was wonderful for my personal development, independence and maturity. I learnt a lot about the kind of work I do want to do and the life I want to lead by trying things that didn’t work out. A lot of who I am is because of the things I have tried and failed.

So, I won’t blindly promise Wade that he can be Prime Minster if wants to be, but I will provide every opportunity for him chase his interests. I will let him decide how far he wants to go down that path and see what he learns along the way.

And I will be right there to crack the champagne or wipe away the tears just like I would for any child.
Check out this great story of a young man on the campaign trail too.

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