Colorado College Bulletin

Exceptional Education for Exceptional Parenting

By Kara Wallar Debacker ’90

Adam and Kara get creative with Easter eggs and dye.Circles, lots of them, over and over, looping around the page. Little circles inside bigger ones, sometimes overlapping, sometimes singular and complete, never ending. My four-year-old son Adam loves to draw circles.

Watching the fascination and intensity with which he endlessly scribbles across the page reminds me of the perpetual metaphor of the circle, and how I trace my path of learning from a liberal arts education at Colorado College full circle to the job I hold now as a parent.

When Adam was three days old, my husband Mike (’90) and I were faced with an unexpected challenge. Adam was diagnosed with Down syndrome, an unpreventable chromosome disorder which can cause physical, intellectual and language delays.

Knowing that Adam has Down syndrome is not central for understanding who he is. In fact, we seldom make it a point of conversation because he functions rather typically in his four-year-old world. Down syndrome does not distinguish him individually, but it has made me a different kind of parent. It compels me to do and value many things that more typical parents may take for granted. It also forces me to reflect on what it means to be an educated person, and how to foster that potential in my child.

The dynamic learning process emphasized at CC is the same one from which young children most benefit, where the result is education of a whole person, individually confident and able to explore solutions rather than simply repeat the academically correct answer. I continually draw upon this liberal arts experience in my efforts to be an exceptional parent, especially as I help my child to become an educated person too.

The ability to acquire, judge, and synthesize disparate information, as well as the ability to learn continuously by instilling appreciation for the process — we are all aware of these goals of the liberal arts experience. Learning and reaching our potential, or helping others to do so, occurs as an integrated process, through shared knowledge and experience. These skills are not just academic — they have determined my ability to respond to situations of personal importance.

Meeting the challenges of raising a child with “special needs” has consistently reminded me that a good liberal arts education truly prepares us for confronting all of life’s demands. Colorado College taught me about the integrated nature of learning, how to meet challenges by doing good independent research, and how to think critically while communicating results, all of which gave me the confidence and ability to pursue many disciplines of study that affect Adam’s development and well-being.

Soon after Adam’s birth, when his diagnosis was confirmed, Mike and I encountered an array of emotions and questions. After reaching an initial acceptance and understanding of Down syndrome, we began to research exactly what it would mean to us, and to Adam as an individual.

During the first few months of Adam’s life, we attended the National Down Syndrome Congress, where we learned about issues from genetics to education laws, from neurology to child development. I vividly remember returning home with the overwhelming idea that I would need advanced degrees in many disciplines to capably fill my parental obligations and to critically determine what would be best for my child. I would have to become a physical therapist, a speech pathologist, a nutritionist, a lawyer, a child psychologist, and more.

Today, as a result of hard work, inquiry and insight, the scope of what I need to know feels less overwhelming. Knowing how to acquire information and how to creatively use that knowledge to solve a problem has been central to my success in parenting. Often there is no “expert” to answer my probing questions. Aided by my firm belief that there is an answer and my strong desire to find it, I have the ability to learn independently and to judge confidently the best course of action.

Adam and I interact regularly with a variety of professionals who aid me in understanding how to help him in each of their domains. He talks to a speech therapist, is examined by a cardiologist, exercises with a physical therapist, and so on. As his parent, I alone understand how each of these disciplines affects Adam as a whole person — how these areas of study are intrinsically connected as part of his development. And as his parent, I have transdisciplinary team leader responsibility — linking sources of information to best suit his needs. As a graduate of Colorado College, I know how to do this. I see the big picture, apply a broad base of knowledge to our experiences, and complete circle after circle, just like Adam.

One poignant example: last fall, as Adam and I sorted through a drawer of winter clothes, he came across a pair of mittens. He put on the left mitten, and as I helped him adjust the right one on his other hand, I said to him, “Look, one mitten and another mitten make a ?” The answer was obvious. “Puppet show!” he yelled, and jumped down to demonstrate how to make the mittens dance.

Yes, the answer was obvious. To me, it was obviously a pair of mittens. To Adam, the answer was equally obvious, but entirely different — something much more creative and far more relevant to him. That spontaneous puppet show is an example of countless moments of learning that make me excited and proud — proud not because he had achieved a developmental milestone or demonstrated a new skill, but because he reminded me of what the learning process is all about. He is thinking. He is problem-solving. And, as he guides me to think about what is important to him, I am learning too.

I learn about his movement and coordination by watching him put on the mittens and dance on a chair. I learn about his cognitive process and use of language by listening and responding to his answer — he has moved beyond the concept of ‘pair’ to a more abstract and creative form of playing. I learn about his interests, his motivations, what he is thinking about. And often, I am reminded that there is not always one “right” answer.

As a parent, I try to keep in mind that my expectations for Adam should be based not on what he can do, but on what kind of person he can become. Adam has the potential to develop a strong sense of confidence, independence, self-discipline, respect for others, and a life-long love of learning. In an era of increasingly fragmented knowledge and specialization, these values which embrace diversity of thought are vitally important. These are tenets of a liberal arts education that we can instill in all our children.  

Kara Wallar (Philosophy ’90) DeBacker and Michael DeBacker (Political Science ’90) live in Springfield, Missouri. Kara is a full-time parent to Adam, who is receiving a good liberal arts education at a young age. In addition to regular preschool classroom activities, he is involved in music, literature, art, science and exercise experiences at home and in the community. Mike is a botanist with the Prairie Cluster Long-Term Ecological Monitoring Program for the National Park Service.

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