What My Son with Down Syndrome Has Taught Me About Parenting

What My Son with Down Syndrome Has Taught Me About Parenting

Written By Ryan Sowell

What My Son with Down Syndrome Has Taught Me About Parenting

When you start having kids, people say things like, “You have no idea what to expect.”

I’ve often wondered if people think that’s helpful or if they’re just trying to get it off their chest. Regardless, it’s true. When you do something for the first time you don’t know what it’s like; parenting, especially. You start off as a complete beginner and learn as you go. As a father of 4, I’m no expert, but I’ve certainly learned some things and had a unique experience. My son has actually taught me more about parenting than anyone else.

My wife Jenna and I have 4 kids- Vincent (8), Rylee (8), Eislee (6), and Nolan (2). God blessed us with Rylee, Eislee, and Nolan the old-fashioned way, and Vin (we call him Vin) through foster care and adoption. Even when we were dating, Jenna and I talked about adopting one day. It was something God had laid on both our hearts. Through lots of prayer and conversations, we decided to pursue adoption through foster care. Since it can take a long time, we started the foster care and adoption process before we had any kids. 

Fast forward to November 23, 2015, when a 13-day-old Vin was placed in our care as his foster parents. 2 years later, he officially became our son when we adopted him.

Vin has Down Syndrome. People with Down Syndrome can have any number of physical and intellectual delays, including heart defects, respiratory problems, communication disorders, and many other conditions. Every individual is unique–just like every kid. And just like every kid, there are unique challenges to parenting children with Down Syndrome (or other special needs). But being Vin’s Dad has taught me a lot about parenting and myself.

I’m not nearly as patient as I thought.

It’s gotten easier over time, but Vin’s speech and language delays make talking with him feel more like charades because he combines sign language (and his own made-up signs) with his best attempt at pronouncing words. When we talk, I have to go word by word to figure out what he’s saying based on past conversations, context clues, and educated guesses. He may not be able to say most words in an understandable way, but Vin has a LOT to say.

I’m surprised at how patient he is during our conversations. He repeats himself over and over and remains calm. I’m usually the one who has to take a break. Even though he’s calm 95% of the time, I know it’s frustrating for him. Imagine having something really important to say, but no one can understand you. I would be frustrated and disappointed, too, if I were him. In those moments, I realize how impatient I can be.

Before I was a dad, I thought I was a patient person. Now? Not so much.

Vin, especially, is helping me become more patient. I often think, “If he can do it, I want to too.” I pause to ask myself questions like, “What’s really important to me in this moment?” and “How do I want my son to feel when we talk?” I ponder these questions with all my kids, as most parents do, and Vin has helped me consider them on a much deeper level. 

I feel greater joy than I could have imagined over the littlest victories.

Vin is one of the most joyful people I’ve known. He’s a cheerful, fun-loving kid who loves Buzz Lightyear, dancing, and cheeseburgers. He also has the purest, most contagious laugh.

He’s had so many challenges in life, yet none have robbed him of joy. In fact, when he overcomes each obstacle, even the smallest, his joy shines through all the more. And so does mine.

I’ll never forget the 1st grade field day at his school when the kids were doing relay races of various physical activities. They were running, crawling, and eventually got to a spot where they had to jump over cones. I assumed Vin was going to run around them, but I was shocked to see him bend his knees, look down, and then get both feet up and over the cones. It was the first time I had ever seen him jump! It had been a goal for his physical therapy for years at that point, and I didn’t know he could do it. I was so excited I almost started jumping up and down too!

Sometimes, the littlest things bring the biggest joy. Vin has taught me that even the smallest milestones are worth celebrating. 

I can’t do it alone.

I constantly reach my limits as a parent. On a regular basis, I say to myself (and the Lord), “I have no clue how to handle this. I need You, Lord.” Every time I pray that, I find a God who meets me where I am and says, “You may be weak, but I am strong. Rely on Me.” I feel like Paul when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, 

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

We can’t do it on our own. We can’t be the kind of parents our kids need on our own. We need God. That’s a good thing to admit. 

In our weakness, the Lord has placed an abundance of friends, family, and church family to support us in countless ways. They bring meals, watch our other three kids during Vin’s surgeries, and share their lives (and other lessons learned) with us. Above all, they pray for us.

Adoption and parenting a child with special needs is not something most people do, and that’s ok. Everyone can support families around them who are pursuing that path simply by praying, being there, and meeting tangible needs.

I’ve learned a lot as a parent, and I’m still learning. Thankfully, I have a great community around me…

…and a patient, joy-filled teacher.

About the Author

Ryan Sowell
Pastor for Worship and Sunday Experience, The Church at Green Hills

Ryan is the Pastor for Worship and Sunday Experience at The Church at Green Hills in La Habra, CA, where he's served since 2010. He has a Bachelor's degree in Music and an MA in Christian Ministry & Leadership from Biola University. He's been married to Jenna for nine years, and they live in Orange County with their four kids- Vincent, Rylee, Eislee, and Nolan.

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