Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Tween is a Tween

My friend Aidan is a single mom. Not only that, but she is a single mom to a special needs child. Twelve year old Caitlin has Down's Syndrome. Because of that, Aidan has seen her lag developmentally in some areas. However in other areas, she is right on track. Caitlin demonstrates a complete understanding of what it means to be a tween--that stage in between child and teen. She has long ago given up her Disney movies for Lindsey Lohan and Hillary Duff shows and music. Kidz Bop has been in her turntable and on her lips for a couple of years. She recently received an ipod for her birthday and loves exploring new groups such as Barlow Girl and Zoegirl.

One morning before school, Caitlin woke up and got dressed as she did every morning. The problem is that it was March and she was wearing a Christmas shirt. "Caitlin, why don't you change your shirt. It's not time for a Christmas shirt." Caitlin wanted to stick with the shirt. She liked it. Aidan kept insisting that she change. Finally mother and tween found a shirt suitable to both of them and Caitlin changed. Unbeknownst to Aidan, Caitlin tucked that Christmas shirt into her backpack, and as soon as she got to school, she went into the bathroom and changed. At the end of the school day, she went back into the bathroom carrying the shirt that she had worn to school. The teacher stopped her. "I'm not sure what's going on, but you need to wear the shirt home that you wore at school all day." When Aidan got home, Caitlin sheepishly presented the note from the teacher explaining the situation.

Along with this typical sneaky pre-teen behavior has come physical change as well. Yes, Caitlin has started her period. Aidan had begun educating her about it each month as the opportunity presented itself. When that day came, Caitlin told Mom, and Mom set her up with the necessary supplies, giving her more of those crucial facts for taking care of herself. Caitlin hasn't missed a beat in taking care of herself. Fortunately, it started in the summer, without the added pressure of school, but when that first time of the month came once she was in school, she proudly walked into school with her purse over her shoulder, carrying those supplies that signified her as Woman.

None of us like the struggles that those teen years inevitably bring: defiance, independence and self-reliance as opposed to thinking that mom knows it all; strange music and strange clothes; mood swings and physical changes that come along with puberty. . . . but along with the frustration, Aidan has also experienced some delight over the emerging teen with whom she's sharing a home.

Amanda and Caitlin have been friends since Amanda was 2 and Caitlin was 6. At that time in Amanda's life, she would not even have thought to fear, judge or ridicule because someone was different. Her only criteria in a new friend was someone with whom she could run and play, or sculpt playdoh, or agree to the same show on TV. I am so thankful that because of the friendship with Caitlin she learned a lesson that different is no cause for alarm or avoidance.

Caitlin, 6, on the left and Amanda, 2 1/2, on the right

How do I know that this is true? In second grade, when I was looking at her class picture, several months into the school year, she was identifying each child by name. There was another teacher in the picture, and I was fairly sure that she did not have a full time aide this year, as her first grade class did, so I asked who the teacher was.

Amanda said, "That's Ms. Fitzgerald. She helps Stephanie."

"What does she help her with?" I asked.

"She doesn't talk very well," Amanda explained.

I came to find out that she had Down's Syndrome and had been mainstreamed into Amanda's class for part of the day. What amazed me was that I had never heard any mention about a girl in the class who couldn't talk well, or who needed help with Math, or any of these things. I think that part of it is Amanda's lack of judgment due to past experiences, but I also think that part of it is due to changes in children's sensitivity in general. I was delighted to see Stephanie at the first birthday party of the school year, included along with all the other girls in the class.

Aidan and Caitlin have moved away, so they are no longer a frequent, visible part of our lives. One thing that Aidan and I always worried about was that as Amanda grew up and matured, at some point she might outgrow Caitlin as a playmate. Even though they haven't seen each other in over 2 years, I would say that hasn't happened yet. At eight, Amanda is still solidly an elementary kid--enjoying kid stuff, kid shows, and kid play (and I am praying that she stays that way for a long time). Caitlin, at twelve, is as tween-aged as they come.


Heather said...

That's a mature little girl you've got there. Sounds very sweet.

Katrina said...

Great post. Caitlin's a beautiful girl and I enjoyed this glimpse of her entry into tween-hood!

Also, I agree that it is so good - and so necessary - for our kids to learn that different is just that - different, no more,no less. And how wonderful that Amanda and Caitlin have had that friendship connection.

Tammy said...

Neat story, Jennifer!

Lindsey @ enjoythejourney said...

Jennifer, this story blesses my heart and is like balm to the soul. Thank you (as a mom to a special needs kiddo who sometimes gets looks and stares...)

Raising our children to see the heart, the human condition is of the utmost.

Blessed Beyond Measure said...

This was just precious. I loved seeing that you see that tender heart in your daughter; that's something that will serve her well all her life. YOu should be proud of her. Couldnt we adults take some lessons from our kids.

org junkie said...

Jennifer I can totally relate to your post. My best friend has a special needs child and he is only 5 weeks younger than my son. They have grown up together and it melts my heart to see my kids interact with him. They don't see the differences...he is who he is...they just know they need to be a little more patient and they are. It's a beautiful thing!

kailani said...

My niece is 10 going on 18. I pray that my daughter's tween/teen years are not too traumatic for me.

Anonymous said...

I think it is so neat that Amanda just accepts Caitlin as she is. Both are just adorable little girls. This was a sweet story - thanks for sharing.

L.L. Barkat said...

My daughter isn't special needs, but she definitely has a special sense of fashion... an early Christmas shirt would be a godsend over her practice of wearing one red sock and one purple, with teal pants and a pink shirt.

No, she's not color-blind... just quite independent and "colorful"!

angeleyes Blue said...

I was just poking around when I came across your blog. I just gotta share--My daughter is 13 and hasn't started her cycle yet. We were watching tv and that commercial came on about a new pill that would make your cycle 3 days.

My daughter asked what they were talking about 3 days? I explained to her that a woman's period was usually 5-7 days every month.

EVERY MONTH!! You have to deal with this EVERY MONTH?!

I said Yeah--every month. She was so funny. Apparently taking the 'woman in me' classes while in Elementary School didn't make the impression that I hoped it would.

Your children are beautiful :)

e-Mom said...

This was a lovely post! I can't imagine being a single Mom to a special needs child though. Wow, prayers here.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post! The fact that she brought the shirt in to school and changed there, it made me giggle thinking of my teen years.