Earlier this month, I mailed invitations for my daughter’s upcoming birthday to more than a dozen of her “friends.” In other words, I invited all of her classmates — each and every one. Why? Well, for one she is 3, and while she has a few besties, she plays well with everyone. All of her peers are playmates and buddies. But it was more than that. For me, inviting everyone was more than a courtesy; it just felt right.
So I can only imagine how Jennifer Kiss-Engele felt when she learned her son Sawyer was the only child in his class of 24 not to receive an invitation to one classmate’s party. As Kiss-Engele explained in an gut-wrenching open letter on Facebook, the reason Sawyer didn’t receive an invitation wasn’t “because he’s mean” or because he and his classmate “don’t get along.” No; according to Kiss-Engele, her son didn’t receive an invitation because he has Down syndrome.
“Hi there,” her post begins. “I know we don’t know each other well but my son Sawyer and your child are in the same class. I understand that your child recently delivered birthday invitations to the entire class except to Sawyer, who was not invited. I also understand that this was not an oversight on your part, that it was an intentional decision to not to include my son.”
But while Kiss-Engele probably hurt for her son and, without a doubt, became upset, Kiss-Engele didn’t get angry. Instead, she turned this painful experience into an opportunity — an opportunity to have an honest and heartfelt conversation about her son’s “disability” and Down syndrome:
“I am not mad at you. Rather, I think this is an opportunity for you to get to know my son better. You see, having Down syndrome doesn’t mean that you don’t want to have friends. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have feelings. It doesn’t mean you don’t like to go to birthday parties. People with Down syndrome want the same things that you and I want. They want to have close relationships, they want to feel love, they want to contribute, they want to have meaningful lives, and they want to go to birthday parties. It may be more difficult at times to understand my child. But the laughter and love that you share doesn’t need interpretation.”
Kiss-Engele explained that before she had Sawyer, she too was “scared, uncertain, and misinformed” about Down syndrome:
“I want you to know that I was also like you. I was scared, uncertain and misinformed about Down syndrome before having my son. I was so worried that my other children wouldn’t be able to connect with him in the same way as other siblings do. But I was wrong. In fact, my children are closer than most other siblings are.”
Since sharing her story and her words, Kiss-Engele has received thousands of comments and messages from parents of children with special needs — parents who have thanked her for honesty and candor, and for sharing such a positive message even in the face of discrimination and negativity.
What’s more, this story was seen by the individuals who needed to see it most: the party throwers. Kiss-Engele has since written the following update:
“The parent read my letter, spoke to their child about Sawyer, and the child created a special birthday invite for Sawyer. Of course he’s been beaming ever since and can’t stop talking about it.”
“I’m really proud that my letter has reached so many people because it’s not just this birthday party and its not just Sawyer. There are so many kids with special needs (and without of course) that just don’t make the cut. I think as parents we all need to do a better job of fostering these relationships, myself included.”
“I hope that parents who read this will help open that dialogue with their own child and perhaps make that one ‘extra’ invitation.”
And while this story thankfully has a happy ending, this mom’s powerful words should not be forgotten; because we could all stand to be more open, more empathetic, and more understanding. After all, our kids are learning that first from us.More On