Monthly Archives: March 2015

When Leading by Example isn’t Enough

Reposting in honor of World Down Syndrome Day 2015

(originally posted on 3/21/14)

While on vacation recently, we attended a church breakfast to meet an esteemed colleague of Paul’s.  They had an adult daughter with significant disabilities. After speaking with the mom for a while, I called Mia over to say hi.  But the minute she saw this woman in the wheelchair, she hid behind my legs.   I tried to pry her fingers from me and make her say hello but she refused.

You could see the fear in her eyes.

And I was mortified. 

Here her father and I have devoted our lives to loving people with special needs and their families.  To encouraging their parents and siblings. To spreading awareness about their abilities versus their disabilities.

And my own daughter was scared.

All she saw were the differences.  The wheelchair.  The drooling.  The erratic movements.

And I was so disappointed.  I wanted her to see what I saw.  A beautiful soul.  Someone who is as valuable as you and me.  A daughter, a sister, a friend.

Did I really expect my 4 yr old to run over and kneel down next to the wheelchair at the appropriate level?  To say hi and be ok with a non-verbal response?

Uh, yea, I did.  I actually did.

I thought I had been leading by example. That she had watched me interact with all the students with special needs at my theatre program.  That she had seen Paul’s disability ministry and the way we accept and love all the kids in that program.

I thought that our strong example would set the tone for her own response when it came to interacting with people with special needs.

Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as parents?  Lead by example?

Maybe.  But sometimes it’s not enough.

Sometimes it’s the conversations that make the difference.  That drives home the point. That allows the other person to ask questions, to explore their own doubts and fears and judgments.  To bring to light topics that might otherwise remain hidden.

It’s not enough to merely not bully.  We have to talk to our kids about bullying.  It’s not enough to accept and honor people with disabilities, I need to talk to Mia about differences.  About each person’s uniqueness.  About how cool it is that people who don’t walk can use wheelchairs as their legs.  About the little boy in her Sunday school class who uses a communication device for his voice – because he does in fact have a voice.  And how we all have a voice – whether we communicate with words or expressions or with sounds or with a device.

Setting the example sends a strong message.  But sometimes, it’s not enough.

And so that is my plea today.  To not ONLY lead by example, but also to have those conversations.

And guess what, it’s not just for the kids. You might have some of your own fears and misconceptions.  That’s ok – it’s ok to recognize and acknowledge that you have those fears.  Those judgments.  But it’s not ok to hold onto them.  Not anymore. Educate yourself.  Volunteer somewhere.  Befriend someone different than yourself.  It will change the way you see the world and ultimately the way you see yourself.

I’m not talking about tolerance.  I kind of hate that word. Things I tolerate?  I tolerate my kids fighting for about 5 minutes.  Then I’m over it and someone is in trouble. I tolerate my husband watching 9,763 basketball games during March Madness because I know he loves basketball (and because I don’t tolerate Fantasy Football).  Tolerance is not the goal when it comes to loving others who are different from ourselves.

What I’m talking about is acceptance.  About seeing others as equals.  About focusing on the similarities WHILE appreciating the differences.  Because as we’ve all heard before, we really are more alike than different.

jennaToday is World Down Syndrome Day. March 21st.  People with Down syndrome have an extra copy, a 3rd copy,  of the 21st chromosome – hence the significance of the date 3-21.  It is that extra chromosome which plays a role in the physical and developmental characteristics of someone with Down syndrome.  But that’s about it.  It doesn’t define their personality.  It doesn’t determine if they like the Cubs or the White Sox.  It doesn’t determine if they love to dance or play chess.

But that extra chromosome?  It does have power.

It’s got the power of unconditional love.

Of forgiveness.

Of changing perceptions.

Of changing people.

You have that power too.  With your words.  With your actions.

We are told that the 2nd greatest commandment is this: to love others as we love ourselves. Not to love only those that are like us.  Not to love only those we are comfortable being around.  But to love others.  All others.

If you are lucky enough to know someone with Down syndrome or any developmental disAbility, be sure to thank them today for the difference they have made in your life.

Be intentional about befriending someone with special needs.

I promise, it will change your life for the better.


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What’s for Dinner? (and why that’s my response to difficult conversations)

You can’t have 3 daughters and not have drama. It’s just not possible. I’ve come to accept that. But I’m starting to wonder how to respond to the Bigger Issues. Not the fighting over clothes, or the boys or the hormones but the deeper subjects. The feelings underneath the drama. Working with kids of all ages, I see many of the issues they are facing. Adolescents dealing with severe anxiety and depression. Addiction starting as early as 5th grade. Peer pressures I didn’t have until high school.

I told Paul that I want to be ready with a response. What are we going to say when one of our girls shares something that shocks us?

What if they bring home a boyfriend that we really don’t like but she just knooooows he’s the one? Or dyes her hair green and demands to keep it that way all through high school? Or has an eating disorder or wants to identify as a male or gets pregnant at 15?”

Paul was silent for a minute and then said, “What if she smokes cigarettes?” I looked up at him certain he was making fun of me. He wasn’t. And I burst out laughing.

Um, cigarettes? That’s what you’re worried about?

But Paul grew up where drinking and smoking were taboos. And I grew up where divorce and being gay were taboos.

And now, we don’t really see anything as taboos (except cigarettes, apparently), and we are trying to live our lives from a place of acceptance and not judgment. The older we get, the clearer it becomes that everything is complicated. That life is messy and full of gray areas.

And parenting is about as gray as it gets – there is no right way, no one size fits all. And yet, as parents we have certain expectations of how it’s going to go. Maybe it’s school, meet a boy, get married, have kids. Or maybe it’s take over the family business or go to medical school. X then Y then Z then happily ever after.

So what happens when the reality differs from the expectation? What happens when she chooses a different faith or lifestyle or ideology?

I know I won’t agree with all of my daughters’ choices but I want to send a very clear message with my response to whatever they have to say;

That no matter what you do, you cannot change my love for who you are.

That’s what the foundation of any disagreement should stand upon. And while my hope is that my reaction to the Big Things will be natural, I don’t think it can hurt to be prepared.   So I came up with a response to any shocking thing the girls will say to me:

What should we have for dinner?

Hear me out. For those of you who know about my cooking skills, or lack thereof, don’t worry. It’s not about the actual meal, it’s about the emotional place I want to respond from.

Because this is what I want:

If one of my girls comes to me and says, ‘I’m a lesbian,’ I want to gather her in my arms, squeeze her tight, tell her I love her and I’m so thankful that she shared it with me and then ask, what should we have for dinner?

If she comes home and smells like smoke, I want to tell her she smells disgusting, (warn her about her father’s aversion to cigarettes), and then ask her what should we have for dinner.

If the police bring her home for underage drinking, I want to hug her tight, tell her how thankful I am that she’s safe, ground her for a month (and a ton of other consequences), and then ask her what should we have for dinner.

When she comes home from school, quiet and tearstained and tells me that someone is not being nice to her, I want to gather her up and tell her that there is NOTHING wrong with her and offer to make her favorite dinner.

Because that’s where it will happen. Around the table.

*So when did you start thinking you were a lesbian?

*Do all your friends smoke? It’s kind of an expensive habit, isn’t it?

*Do you feel a lot of pressure to drink alcohol? Do you know that wherever you are and whatever time it is, you can always call me and I will come pick you up?  

*What do you hate about school so much? Is someone bullying you? Is there a teacher you really don’t like?

And I will share with her.

*Did you know I used to smoke? I’m SO thankful I quit. It’s stinky and expensive and actually a pretty mean thing to do to your body. Don’t tell anyone, but Mormor even sat on the deck with me and we had a few together.

*Did you hear about the time that your daddy drove a car on a golf course? Grandma and Grandpa were so angry, he had to do community service for months!

*Look at this picture of me and my best friend when we dyed our hair red in high school!  

Because guess what girls, we have been there. We know the feelings. All the feelings. We have felt them and guess what else, we still do. We can relate to you. The world is different now but the feelings are the same. And the best thing to do is to feel them. Even the yucky ones. They are signals. Talk about them. Let them out. Cry. Scream. Talk. Sometimes sleep on them. If you take care of yourself, you can trust your feelings. Don’t numb them. Don’t ignore them.

Let’s have dinner together tonight and see what kind of feelings are there.  

I want dinner to be the safety net. Where no matter what happened or didn’t happen that day, dinner is the reset button. Where we sit together. And we talk. And we feel. And it’s safe. I know about enabling and the need for tough love and all that stuff but I also know that grace and love, those matter. They win. I know I never felt closer to my mom than those times she smoked a cigarette with me on our back porch. The times when the differences between us didn’t take precedence over relationship.

Because here’s the thing – it’s true. There is nothing my kids can do that will change my love for them. And what should we have for dinner?’ means I love you no matter what. It means you can’t shock me into loving you less no matter what you are dealing with in your life. It means even if you are grounded, or your choices have natural consequences, or you are living a different lifestyle than I imagined for you, I love you. I accept you. Not in spite of. Not anyways. Just period.

Sounds easy, right? Here’s the tricky part. I’m learning that in order to truly show love and acceptance, you have to love and accept yourself first. Don’t you hate that? Why is it that in order to help someone deal with something, there’s always something about you that has to be dealt with first? The whole remove-the-plank-in-your-own-eye-thing. When I think of trying to accept myself just the way I am, those internal critics come screaming out. But you know you can do better! Now that was a dumb choice. Seriously, you’re going to eat that? Again?

You think you can parent from a different place. You think you can judge yourself harshly but love your children unconditionally. But guess what, I don’t think you can. Because that voice that you have inside your head? That critical voice? That’s what comes out when you parent. Maybe not with the same words because you’d never talk to your kids that way, but it comes out. In the reactions and the looks and the sighs and the tones. Oh the tones.

I had a youth pastor in high school who would always say to us, “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He was of course teaching us that that’s how God sees us. He’s not an angry God. He’s not disappointed in us. He’s not mad at us. He is, in fact, the Perfect Parent that loves us no matter what we do. He gives us a platform every morning to stand upon – a platform of complete love and acceptance.

feetAnd as we step onto that platform, the love and grace we extend ourselves will naturally flow to our children. That’s what I want for my girls. Every morning when their feet hit the floor, I want them to know they are standing on a platform of love. Of complete acceptance.

So I’m practicing. Practicing accepting myself. Practicing responding instead of reacting.  I’m sure there will be times when they are teenagers (or toddlers) and I will want to scream or cry or yell. That’s when I want to be aware enough, conscious enough to choose my response instead.

And during those times when I’m about to ground one of the girls FOR LIFE, Paul will hold up a spatula as my reminder, and I’ll take a deep breath and ask,

What should we have for dinner?


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