Early on in our daughter Penny’s life, I read about “learned helplessness.” Penny was diagnosed with Down syndrome — a chromosomal condition that comes with developmental delays and intellectual disabilities — at birth, and as a type-A first-time mother, I read everything I could get my hands on about Down syndrome, parenting, and child development. In one book, the writers mentioned a study of kids with Down syndrome who seemed to regress between the first and second year of life. But the researchers eventually realized that it wasn’t regression they were seeing. It was “learned helplessness.” The children had learned that adults would accomplish tasks for them, that adults would intervene before they got going, and that adults didn’t expect them to learn how to do things for themselves.
Penny is thirteen now, and over the years her father Peter and I have sometimes fallen prey to the low expectations, impatience, and busyness that can result in this passive response to learning. But we’ve also taken heed of that study, and we’ve believed that Penny can always learn, that she can always take the next step, even if it is on a different timeline than her typical peers.
This summer, Penny signed up for a dance camp at the studio where she has taken ballet for most of her life. What we didn’t know was that this week of dance camp would include hip hop instruction every day, with a short performance at the end of the week. When I told her hip hop was on the roster, she pumped her fist with excitement.
The first night after class, I leaned towards her at the dinner table and asked, “How was hip hop today?”
She didn’t answer.
“Can you show us one new move you learned?”
Again, no answer. Eventually she said, “I’m thinking.”
We cajoled. She stood up and did a little jump. After dinner, she started to cry. “It’s just too fast-paced, Mom. I can’t do it.”
I gave her a hug, and then I asked her to write an email to her teacher. She wrote:
hi this is Penny,
So i talked with my mom and such about this but i wanted to let you know that hip hop is hard and challenging. I watched the dance that they made up today and i thought to myself there is no way that i can catch up. It was fast pace and super stressful. i thought to myself that i need to tell someone about this issue i am having with hip hop and it being to fast for me to catch up with the group. I was also tired. The main reason i wanted to email you instead of talking in person is that i want to quit hip hop i wanted to let you know first and then you can spread the word to all the people who are in regards to this dream of mine. I know i just said the dream of mine it is actually not a dream anymore. Its not fun anymore.
We talked again before she sent the email, and I said, “Instead of quitting, what if you asked for help?”
She thought for a minute, and then edited it to read: “i want to get help with hip hop. i need it to be at a slower pace.”
This story could end right there, and I would count it as a tremendous accomplishment. I can so relate to feeling overwhelmed and disappointed and scared and tired in the face of what seems like an insurmountable challenge. I only wish I had learned earlier in my life that asking for help is a good intermediary step between exhaustion and giving up.
Penny’s teacher emailed back and asked us to come in and talk about it. Penny said, “Mom, I can talk with her privately.”
Penny and her teacher agreed that she would focus on a few portions of the dance but didn’t need to learn all of it. Some other students overheard and asked if they could all go over the dance together before class each day. Penny came home that night beaming, ready to demonstrate her new moves.
At the performance on Saturday, I thought Penny would spend most of her time on the sidelines. But Penny performed right alongside her peers.
There’s plenty I learned about parenting a child with special needs through this experience: as Penny enters adolescence, we need to assume she can learn and grow just as much as we needed to believe she could reach the next developmental milestone as a toddler, even if it was on her own timeline. But Penny also taught me something about being human.
How many times have I accepted defeat because I wasn’t willing to admit my needs? How many times have I missed an opportunity for joy because I was afraid to ask for help? If Penny’s teacher hadn’t believed in her, or if Peter and I had agreed with her that it was just too much, or if she hadn’t summoned the courage to ask for help, she would never have learned about her own resilience and perseverance and potential for growth.
Penny started the week with a dream of learning hip hop. She thought her dream had been dashed forever. Instead, the dream was realized, not through natural ability or grim determination or a miraculous intervention, but through expressing need and receiving help and encouragement. Her dream was realized through humility, perseverance, and community. When we talked about her week, Penny shrugged and said, “That was fun. Monday was the worst day, but then it got better and I tried and I tried and I performed and I got it.”