It happens, a lot. A child will see a person/child different from them and in the loudest outdoor voice possible they will ask:
“Why is that person black”
“Why are those two girls kissing”
“Where are his legs”
“What is that thing in that boy’s throat”
As parents we think we are doing the right thing by saying “don’t look” or distracting the child. But it’s wrong. When you redirect the child, when you do not answer their questions instead of teaching empathy you are teaching them that there is something wrong with the other person.
You are teaching them that person is not to be looked at, to be approached and most hurtful to be friends with.
A child will befriend anyone. Heck, Abby will befriend a squirrel if they make eye contact. Before Boo I might have been that parent who tried to redirect her attention. My actions could be justified, I might have been hoping to spare the other mother embarrassment.
But why should she be embarrassed by her child?
Is she not supposed to leave home with her child who happens to be in a wheelchair? Is her child to be locked away like he is something to be ashamed? Should the father of a child who is deaf not use ASL because another person might stare?
I thought we moved so far from the time when children were put in sanitariums. Instead parents are made to feel they should not go grocery shopping or to dinner with their child not to spare themselves but to spare others. We begin making our home their institution.
I hope you remember my friend Julia from the What’s Your Challenge Series. This past weekend her mom took her grocery shopping. Julia loves being out in the car. She and her mom endured stares while shopping. As Lisa said, “you get used to it”. It was such a beautiful day they decided to stop at Starbucks. A young girl approached Julia, Julia lit up. Her mom, Lisa said hello to the little girl. Then sadly the girl’s caregiver rushed over. Took the girl by the arm and told her to “not to look” at Julia.
Like Julia is a freak and should not be looked upon. That is how I am sure her mom felt. I know it is how I would have felt. Instead of enjoying her coffee in the beautiful day, she took her daughter to the car and cried the whole way home.
In the interest of fairness I want to give the caregiver the benefit of the doubt. Even professionals that work with people who have special needs wonder if they can do it, can they take on this care. I am sure this woman thought she was sparing Lisa and Julia hurt by any questions the younger girl might ask. She might not understand that Julia understood a potential friend was whisked away. That her mom was made to feel unworthy. That her sister, had she been there, would have asked why the caregiver was so rude.
There is the rub. So many of the uninitiated don’t know what to do. Do you let your child approach and ask questions?
Here is the answer: YES! A resounding YES!
Because here is what makes children awesome: the question they ask might not be the one you would. But they open the door for you to approach the parent. We are approached all the time with Boo. Abby tends to take the questions from the kids. I am consistently amazed at how few questions are asked before acceptance is born. (My favorite answer of Abby’s: Her brain just works differently than yours).
Kids just want to ask the questions. It’s the parents who want the details. That is okay too.
Ask away. Do it with respect but ask. If you are not comfortable asking, how about just saying hello? You will be teaching your child an important lesson. That we are not all the same but it is our differences that make our community. You can teach your child what empathy and acceptance means without ever having to say a word. Or you can teach them the opposite, it’s your choice.
Your actions will show that Julia is not a freak. She is not something to be locked in her parent’s home. Julia is the miracle of her parents. She is the younger sister of K who adores her. She is her daddy’s princess, her mom’s warrior. She adores her two German Shepherds. She loves swimming, horseback riding and driving in the car. Julia has inspired a runner in the I RUN 4 organization. She is the reason why her runner gets up and runs every morning.
You should get to know her and others like her if given the chance. It just might inspire you to teach your child acceptance rather than avoidance. You just must learn something more about yourself.
Thansk for yoru thoughtful post. One thing though: sometimes disalbed people don't like to answer all kinds of personal questions about their disability, and we aren't obligated to put ourselves out there like we're at a freak show.
I couldn't agreer more with this! Matthew (Little dude) went to his school carnival last weekend with his older brother and 2 friends. I warned him ahead of time that kids who have not seen him all year were going to come up to him and ask questions about his absence, whereas others might just gawk (he wore his hat so his fuzzy head was not really visible). Sure enough, only 2 kids came up and asked him where he had been.Matthew handled it like a typical boy — very vague! He said, “oh, I was home schooled this year.” funny thing is, that seemed to be enough for the kids. ok, I realize I got a little off topic here, but I so agree that we need to teach acceptance and not avoidance!
Thank you, Astrid. It is a great point which is why I say to ask respectfully. Most I have met are willing to give the Cliff notes version which is really all kids need. I think it is the parents responsibility to teach their child how to ask the question by modeling it.
Oh my gosh, Emily that is just it a short and sweet answer is all the kids are looking for they are not really looking for the medical terms, etc…just curious. I'm glad Little Dude knew how to handle it.
I love this so much I hardly know how to comment. Which is frequently how I feel when reading your blog. Great job, again.
Wonderful post! We encounter this frequently with children asking about my son's wheelchair. If the parents can stay calm and avoid getting flustered AND for heaven sake refrain from reprimanding the child for asking questions, it ends up being a lovely and quick interaction. “Why is he in that?” Because his legs aren't strong so he uses this chair to get around. The kids are almost always satisfied with that answer and can move on to the fun stuff like playing 🙂 Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this!
Kerri, what a great post! In the past, when my son, Joel was younger and we were out and about, and he was acting inappropriately (which was pretty often when he was a teenagers!), I would tell people “he has autism and his sensory system is overloaded” as they looked away in embarrassment. Education always helps, even for those who will not ask.
we see kids of all shapes and sizes and devices in the waiting room at our kids pt/ot office, and i know it makes me a better, more thoughtful person. in the past i'd be the one pulling my kids away, but now i just say hey i love the color of your walker or wheel chair or splints, and i realize that i'm slowly turning into my mother because now i will talk to anyone like she always did when i was growing up, there's no such thing as a stranger anymore!