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Please Don’t Tell My Kid She Can Do Anything

posted Sunday October 4th, 2015


Sophie has been really into groceries lately.

Not eating them. Her four food groups are still rice, noodles, cheddar crackers and chocolate ice cream. I’m talking about groceries in the grocery store.

It began at Trader Joe’s about a year ago, when she developed an interest in scanning all the items in our cart. Not one to take no for an answer, Sophie didn’t even ask — just shoved the clerk aside and began pulling out wedges of cheese and baskets of strawberries, waving them over the censor and reaching for more while I did that Mom-Dance on the other side of the counter: “Is that okay? Are you sure it’s okay? Sophie, you better hurry, the line is getting longer. Let the nice man –”

Oh forget it. I began to seek out particularly cheerful-looking clerks and hoped for the best. Sophie walks out with a handful of stickers and a grin every time.

Last week she upped the ante at Safeway. We were grabbing a few items before a dinner party, so I hustled her through the store and past a million temptations (“Mechanical pencils, can I have those? And I really need a cute binder for choir. How about more cheddar bunnies? Can we go to Starbucks PLEASE?”) and into line, gratefully accepting her help when it came time to unload groceries onto the conveyor belt.

At 12, Sophie can still barely reach, but she was determined, stretching all the way over till it looked like she might actually flip herself into the cart if she wasn’t careful. But she’s always careful.

She couldn’t get around to the clerk’s side to scan items and her braces mean no chewing gum, so Sophie was clearly at a loss for a few moments for something to do or ask for, as she stood at the checkout counter. I was distracted, digging for my debit card, swiping, donating a dollar to the day’s charity because I’m that superstitious, when I noticed Sophie was no longer by my side.

I found her quickly. She’d moved to the end of the check out counter, and was quietly bagging our groceries.

I froze. “NO!” I wanted to yell. “DON’T DO THAT!”

From the beginning, when we first learned she had Down syndrome, I’ve been telling everyone who will listen how determined I am that Sophie never bag groceries.

It’s not that I have anything against grocery baggers. It’s honest work. And over the years, as I’ve discreetly (I hope) observed other people with intellectual disabilities bagging groceries, I’ve come to understand why it’s such a good job for so many. It’s done in a public place with constant supervision, bright lights, a lot of activity. The work is not easy and you’ve got to do it right or the eggs get broken, the bread gets smushed — so it’s valued, and that’s good. There’s conversation, music, community.

I still don’t want that to be Sophie’s only career option. I want her to do — well, anything she wants, right? Isn’t that every parent’s dream, what we whisper to perfect little babies as they sleep? “You can be anything you want to be!”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a shitty thing to say to Sophie.

Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk about college programs designed for people with intellectual disabilities, and I think it’s awesome. I am confident that Sophie will be able to attend one, or do something else similar. It won’t be the same as what her sister Annabelle gets to do, there won’t be the same range of choices and brink-of-adulthood freedom — and Sophie will understand that.

And then what? What I don’t hear much is stories about people with intellectual disabilities having a lot of job choices once they do finish school. I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much that I don’t want her bagging groceries and more that I don’t want that be her only option.

But you know what else I don’t want? I don’t want anyone telling me that my kid can be whatever she wants. And I don’t want to tell her that, either. Because it’s a fucking lie.

I have a low threshold for inspirational sayings on a good day. On a bad one — keep me away from the Facebook Down syndrome groups and the memes in general. The other day someone posted an image of a cute, chubby boy with Down syndrome holding a sign saying, “I can do anything.”

Look, not to put too fine a point on it but I can’t do anything, either. Who can? I don’t see typical kids holding signs that say that because everyone knows it’s bullshit. About the only place it pops up for the rest of us is on the occasional fortune cookie. But for a little kid with Down syndrome it’s cute, because really, what sort of things will that kid want to do anyway? It’s safe, the kid doesn’t really get it, and the parents feel great. But really, what’s the point of the hyperbole? It might make you feel good as you scroll through your feed but in real life it’s just gonna kick you in the ass when you’re down.


I stood at the check out counter, debit card dangling from my fingers, staring at Sophie as she calmly bagged our paper napkins and instant pudding. How did she even know what to do? Is this, like, her birthright? Is it a genetic thing, that she’s drawn to this? I’ve never seen Annabelle do it. I know I never did.

I shook my head hard, grabbed my receipt, the bags and her hand, and headed out of the store.

Maybe Sophie will bag groceries for a living, I thought as we climbed into the car. Maybe that’s really what she’s suited for, what she’ll want. It’s so hard to know now. Or maybe she’s just a kind and helpful person — and a bit of a control freak.

Twelve is a hard age. Sophie is beginning to show physical signs of adulthood but she’s still such a little girl — twirling her hair, sucking her thumb, watching Peppa Pig. I’m pretty sure she was the only seventh grader who held her mom’s hand at “Take Our Parents to School” day at the junior high this week.

When I was searching for just the right junior high, a special ed teacher at a charter school who bragged that she had 20-plus years of experience with kids with special needs told me with great confidence that kids with Down syndrome stop progressing intellectually at 12. I looked it up and saw how controversial (and unproductive, not to mention hurtful) that comment was and soldiered on, ignoring it — for the most part. Sometimes it creeps back in, on a particularly bad day.

There are fewer and fewer bad days (knock wood) and Sophie keeps learning and growing. She is making friends (sort of), she is keeping up at school, her conversations are getting so mature and so (very slowly) are her television choices. She doesn’t always pitch a fit when I tell her to get in the shower or pick up her clothes (though she might be annoyed in an appropriate tween-y way) and the other day, when she overheard me telling a friend I needed to make a Power Point presentation for a conference I’m attending and admitting I’ve never made one, Sophie called from the backseat, “I’ll help you Mom. First thing you need to do is pick a background.”

So what background do I pick for Sophie? I guess it’s somewhere between “all cognitive growth stops at age 12″ and “you can be anything.” Finding that place is going to be a lot harder than building a Power Point presentation — even with Sophie’s help.



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Tags: Filed under: Down syndrome, Uncategorized by Amysilverman

10 Responses to “Please Don’t Tell My Kid She Can Do Anything”

  1. Right. Right. Right.
    I can’t be anything I want to be. Neither can you, my kids, or Sophie and Annabelle. We don’t want unnecessary limits put on them, either, whether because of lack of aptitude in an area, the fact that they’re female, or any other constraints.
    You really nailed this.

  2. Loved the article. My daughter, Thea (11) loves to help out at the grocery store, especially with the bagging. One day a cashier jubilantly exclaimed something to me like “she’s so good at that, maybe she can be a bagger here one day.” And, I replied “I have bigger dreams than that for her” and went on about my business. I realized later that I may have sounded snobby and it was a comment that may have insulted the person who was bagging (who did not have special needs . . . even if the bagger did have special needs who am I to belittle that job). I just don’t want Thea to have a stereotypical job. But I’ve come to terms that if Thea likes bagging and that it will make her happy then that’s all I want for her.

  3. don’t ever buy that plateau in terms of learning thing .. ..which learning are they talking about anyway. . .. (maybe I plateaued before technology came in and that’s why even writing a comment like this is such a success) . Sophie will learn what she’s motivated and WANTS to conquer . she’s that kind of dear, tenacious human being . .she’s her own delightful self – entitled to sample the whole smorkasborg. She’lll do life with her own twist. You’ve opened the door. . . that’s what we do as parents . we give them the cheers they need to walk, prance, dance , skip or shuffle through it . .to embrace whatever’s next – How dare a teacher buy into plateaus. . .it’s an excuse for giving up not giving

  4. i do agree with you. telling ,claiming our kiddos with that extra chromosome can do anything is wrong for many many reasons.. i enjoy following the DS groups but tbh after 2 years i am getting kind bored of seeing ” my kid can / did this!wohooo, he/she is awesome ” posts by parents.

  5. My cousin was a grocery bagger. We were thrilled for him to reach a point where he was able to independently work and find pride in a job well done. He was popular and customers would go out of their way to get in “his” lane. He loved the social aspect, and people loved him. He learned to ride the bus to work, he budgeted his money and had his own bank account. His job as a bagger opened his world wide. He was a great success.

    After reading the article and comments, I do find it somewhat offensive to intimate that while this job is okay for *some* intellectually disabled people, it’s not nearly good enough for your children. It does sound snobby. My aunt knew her dreams for her son had to change from the ones she carried in her heart for the nine months she carried him. It was hard to come to the realization that his opportunities and limitations were going to be different from other kids. She never once would have looked down on someone for doing an honest job, whether or not they had special needs. She loved and encouraged, but was realistic. It would have ripped her heart out to know other parents, in the same boat as she, no less, are looking down on people making their way in the world.

    There is nothing wrong with shooting for the stars, for trying to find your niche and filling it the best way you can. Your children may not bag groceries, then again, perhaps they will. Whatever they do, hopefully they will be happy.

    I can still see my cousin’s face as he worked. He’s been gone for 15 years now; I’m glad he found work he truly enjoyed and found satisfying.

    Have you ever shopped at Fresh & Easy? All lanes are self checkout, and you bag your own items. You wouldn’t feel rushed at the checkout, and I’ve only ever had good experiences there with the employees.

  6. Hey Jen — I can’t speak for the comments, but did you read my post? My point (at least the point I tried to make) was that now that I am Sophie’s mom, I can see why bagging groceries is in many ways the perfect job for someone with intellectual disabilities. My other point is that I don’t care how awesome a job like bagging groceries is — it shouldn’t be the ONLY option. I’m sorry you didn’t leave a way to get in touch directly, I’d love to send this to you that way to make sure you see it. Like I said in the post, bagging groceries is hard, valued work and there’s a sense of community (if you do it right, I’m sure there are crappy working conditions) but really, there need to be a lot more options out there. What if you only had one choice for making a living?

  7. I just sent an article the Minneapolis Star Tribune did on the new college program at East Bethel University. It was really promising! One person mentioned in the article was working in a bridal shop; a job she obtained on her own. In the Build program they even offer a specialty in the arts. Nobody knows what the future holds, but I hope people keep pushing for more opportunities!

  8. OMG. THis was one of your best yet. And Jen missed the point. I want Sophie to have options, too. She deserves them.

  9. Amy, this just totally pisses me off and is the reason I left teaching in gifted ed programs years ago in Indiana. So much (if not everything) I had been trained to do with “gifted kids” was GOOD FOR ALL KIDS. I hate the exclusionary nature of gifted ed! At one point, I was trained to implement the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, created by Dr. Joseph Renzulli and Dr. Sally Reis from the University of Connecticut. Please google and research this and use as ammunition in your quest for ALL KIDS to have the opportunity for enrichment opportunities, especially for Sophie to be in the drama after school program. ESPECIALLY the drama program, for God’s sake. This is so freaking ridiculous I can’t stand it. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that public education can be so cruel, unreasonable, and close-minded.

  10. Thank you Lorie! I will most definitely research this!

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