Penny in her cheerleading uniform cheering at a basketball game

Responsive Parenting

When Penny was three months old, and we were so very new to all things parenting and all things related to disability, we attended a conference for parents of children with Down syndrome. One of the speakers talked about “responsive parenting.”

He told us that the problem with a lot of therapy and parenting focuses on deficits. We identify weaknesses and then work to overcome the weakness. In these situations, it’s easy for the child to lose interest, give up, and feel shame. It’s easy for the parent to feel frustrated, incompetent, and guilty for not doing enough. Parents tend to grimace through these interactions.

He talked about how important it is instead to look for our children’s strengths and interests. What do they love? Who do they love? Building on a child’s strengths helps create a positive feedback loop—a loop of wonder and joy and learning and hope. A loop in which the natural facial expression is a smile, an expression of shared delight.

For example, Penny always loved books, so one of the best ways for her to learn fine motor skills was by turning pages. It didn’t feel like a lesson to overcome weak fingers to her. It felt like an opportunity to see the next image in a story.

Penny as a toddler extending her finger to point at a book.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I’ve been longing for ways Penny can be more engaged and connected at school. She has taken dance her whole life—her small stature alongside low muscle tone and corresponding flexibility set her up well for it. So this year, she tried out for cheerleading and made the team. It has been a gift to all of us for her to be there.

I’ve done lots of things wrong as a parent, and I still have so much to learn. But one thing I know is that seeing my children’s strengths and helping them build from there brings great joy and leads us back to love.

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