I know it can be awkward when your child asks an innocent, valid question about someone who may look or act differently. We don’t want to say the wrong thing so sometimes we avoid the situation/conversation altogether. I’ve been there.
I think before we can teach our kids anything about how to treat people, we first have to examine how we treat people. If we don’t spend time with people who look, move, live, worship, vote, or speak differently than us, why would our children want to?
First, let’s talk about verbiage.
- PLEASE remove the “r” word from your vocabulary. You know, that word you’ve used when you feel silly or stupid. The word that means “late or slow.” This word, to a special needs family, is the equivalent of the “n” word to an African American family. It is degrading and ugly.
- When you’re talking to your child about someone who may be different, try not to use the word, “wrong.” This implies they are broken, not right…less than. Wouldn’t it feel awful if a blonde child asked your brunette child, “What’s wrong with your hair?” For example, instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you/him/her/them?,” ask, “Why are you in a wheelchair?” “Why do you only have one leg?” “Why do you use that device?” “What’s your name?” “What’s your story?” I like that one the best.
- Speak in positives, not negatives. We say Finn “uses a wheelchair to get around” instead of “he can’t walk.” Say what they CAN do, not what they can’t.
- Remind children that we’re all different in some ways, and give specific examples of people they know. I wear glasses because my eyes don’t work quite right all the time. He has lighter skin and not a lot of hair. Her dark skin is beautiful, isn’t it? You have freckles, but I don’t. He has more energy and excitement than you. She likes to be quiet.
- Most importantly, tell children that although someone may be different, we all have similarities. Finn loves Paw Patrol, do you? He doesn’t run, but he can race you in his wheelchair! She has red hair like you! He’s the oldest too. You guys both have the same color eyes…
To provide well-rounded insight, I asked six brave moms of uniquely different children how they want their kiddos to be treated. Here’s what they said:
“Sometimes the moms apologize for questions their children ask. And sometimes they join in explaining. I don’t think an apology is needed. Kids notice the difference but I also think they are better at adapting. They see beyond the wheelchair and see the kid (at least in most instances). They have an innocence…
Basically, I encourage the questions even if it’s awkward. It’s a learning moment for all! I never realized how “not” disability friendly our world is. The more we talk, explain, and educate the better the opportunities for change.
I’ve been so surprised by how many people are willing to think outside the box and help include my son. They just don’t know how to sometimes.
Last, thought…. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for my kid. Yes, he struggles with things and has been through so much throughout his short life, but I don’t want that to influence how you treat him. The more normalcy in the chaos helps him to develop and grow like his peers. It builds his esteem and character. I put him in time out just like others his age.”
No apology necessary. Ask questions and push through the awkwardness…your kid (and you) will learn a lot and you’ll make our child feel valued. Include us in creative ways! Don’t feel sorry for us.
“When kids ask “What’s wrong with him?” my response is, “Nothing. He was born where his legs don’t work like yours or mine, so he gets to ride around in this cool wheelchair.” Most of the time this is a satisfying answer and they move on.
My mom told me one time of a book she read, and in that book it said that everyone has their own disability. If you think about it there is something off/different about each of us. Someone who wears glasses obviously has poor eyesight, and that’s their disability. And not all are visible.
We just have to talk, educate and make it normal to not be normal. I tell Ryder all the time that it’s better to be different, because no one else is exactly like him and that is his power. “
We are all disabled in some way, right? Some of us came from crappy homes. Some of us aren’t very good in social situations. Some of us are too loud or too quiet. Some of us struggle with addiction. Some of us struggle in our minds. Some of us feel mastered by food. Finn’s disability (and others like him) is just more visible. He can’t hide it. I think this actually makes him MORE FREE to be himself.
I love how Christi tells Ryder his “ab-normalcy” is his “power.” Our differences can be like our super-powers! I cry like a baby in every super-hero movie because the story is the same: they are born a little different, pushed to the fringes of society, and then rise above it all for the greater good. Mighty Finn.
“I love it when parents and kids ask questions. I love to tell people about Caleb and about Down syndrome.
Caleb and Tyler (siblings) are quite a pair. Sometimes Tyler is a bit too much of a “mother hen”. Most often, though, he is Caleb’s biggest cheerleader, helper and friend. I love watching them together, and I think they are both better people because they have each other.”
Keep asking questions! Don’t “shush” your children. Approach us. Value us.
I’ll never forget this little boy in a doctor’s office when we first moved to Tulsa. We were in the waiting room and my stomach dropped when a 7-ish year old boy approached Finn. He looked Finn in the eyes and asked, “Do you want to play with me on the slide?” Then he looked at me and said, “I can help him get up.”
I watched through my own tears as this little boy lifted Finn up the steps onto the next platform to go down the slide and then cheered him on at the bottom. Changed my life.
WHO ARE YOUR PARENTS, CHILD?! I WANT TO KISS THEM ON THE MOUTH! (He was with his grandma and I gave her the highest praise for her mature, kind little grandson.)
“Your friend’s intentional parenting is what is sticking with me today. As my kids have aged, it has been increasingly hard to keep them involved with peers who don’t have disabilities….
In the last year, we have been involved in Special Olympics, and I have found some spectacular ‘typical peers’ there! There are High School kids who volunteer to play sports with my kids…they want to be there. Several of them have a sibling with special needs, but they are there to help whether or not their sibling is. Parents should encourage their kids to participate in a peer program like this.
I wish that all parents would be intentional with their kids. Evaluate whether their schedule is adding lasting value to their life? Do they have time to help a neighbor or a friend in need? Do they have time to participate in activities that are inclusive of those who are different? …
I want them to be given the opportunity to succeed at age appropriate skills, but I feel like they are losing the ability to engage in age appropriate skills because everyone else is ‘too busy’ trying to achieve some unrealistic goal.
I do enjoy when kids are naturally curious about Micah. I don’t discourage questions. I like to answer them. The most common question is, “What happened to his leg?” when they see his AFO or his wrist splint. He will respond now, “Nothing happened, it just helps me walk better, or use my arm better.” And then they head off to discuss Star Wars or Captain America. Cool.
People need to know some of the ways he is different so they can understand him. He wouldn’t ever want someone to think he was being unfriendly because he didn’t wave back when they wave to him. He simply didn’t see them!
A doctor once referred to Micah’s weaker side as his “BAD SIDE” and that chapped me. I would encourage people to avoid using negative terms when referring to our kids in any way.
I want to ask my kids how they want to be treated…that may be Part III. 😉
“Just treat Cash the same as you’d treat any other friend. He can do the same things other kids do, especially when he is encouraged and cheered for. (But isn’t that what we all want?) If we were all the same the world would be a super boring place!
…Honestly it would thrill me to death if they took the time to research and maybe attend a local event that benefits people with Down syndrome.
I would want parents to tell their kids to be kind to ALL people. Just because someone is different than you are doesn’t mean they are weird or bad or scary. They want friends just like the rest of us. We are more alike than different. ”
Jordan:“Ask. Please ask. Don’t scold your kids for asking. I love the chance to de-mystify braces or a zip zac or the scar on Poppy’s back that most kids think is a “belly button on her back.” I’ve been the mom completely anxious around a kiddo with special needs, just cringing and praying that my kid wouldn’t be the one to say something insensitive.
…I love the opportunity to get to normalize something for a young, formative mind. I love to watch it not matter to them as much as I thought it would. Like when I said to the little girl asking why Poppy had a belly button on her back: “That’s actually a scar because she had a surgery when she was really, really small.” “Oh, I like her ponytail too.” Very un-scary.I also love to let Poppy hear us talk about her proudly and confidently.Please ask.We get a lot of “oh, what happened to her?” or “oh, what’s wrong with her”. While USUALLY these don’t upset me, the kindest and most inviting way I’ve ever heard a stranger ask about Poppy was “Would you share with me about why she wears those braces?” I loved it.Be mindful of the setting. I’ve had people yell questions at me across a crowded public space. I recognize this as someone who was probably really passionate about identifying a commonality, but it was embarrassing and made me feel like I should protect Poppy.Invite and include. We’ll decide if it’s something that we can’t do (ie. A gymnastics party or a party at a Bounce house). Most special needs parents and kiddos are pretty good at figuring out how to adapt, so we’ll either figure out a way to make it work. Don’t assume that being asked might be too painful. Being uninvited is usually more painful.