Your child looks at you and (loudly) asks, “What’s wrong with that person?” Do you know how to answer? Did you know there is a way to approach this awkward situation that benefits you, your child and the person with a disability? Read on for some ideas to make an uncomfortable situation easier.
“Either he’s a pirate or his eye’s broke!” Hunter of Missouri recounts her 4-year-old daughter’s humorous reaction to a man’s eye patch. Humans are curious by nature, and human children even more so. Everything is new and interesting and worthy of investigation to a mind so ready to learn, so it’s completely natural for children to ask questions about people who seem different. But their honest curiosity is often met by shushing and being physically removed from the situation.
Well-meaning parents scold their children, saying, “We don’t stare,” “It’s rude to point,” or, “We’ll talk about it later.” Certainly, we should teach our children these basics of social etiquette, but perhaps in that moment there is a way to answer the curiosity with action, knowledge and an example of what respect looks like.
People with disabilities usually welcome questions.
Carrie from Oklahoma lives with a disability and offers her advice to parents. “Usually smaller kids are just curious and I hate when parents ignore their kids’ questions. If they want to know, I don't mind them bringing their kids over and asking me things."
Curious kids aren’t rude, they’re just kids. They deserve to have their questions answered. People with disabilities encounter children regularly, and expect nothing less than some wide-eyed gawking and maybe a little pointing. Most would be happy to answer any questions and show that disabilities don’t have to be weird or scary. But, as parents, even worse than ignoring our children’s questions is to pull them away from someone who is different.
Moving away from someone different makes kids feel they’re being protected from a threat.
“No matter what, don't pull your child away. When you do that, you're teaching your child fear of us,” Star from Vancouver says. Star echoes what many people with disabilities request. To abruptly relocate a child for fear of offending a person with a disability actually has the opposite effect. The child is wondering where the danger is, and the “different” person is left feeling ostracized.
Though we may feel embarrassed, if we can stay where we are we can take advantage of this lesson in awareness.
Model respect by having a relaxed conversation with someone who could otherwise seem scary.
In all likelihood, your kid may feel uncomfortable asking questions for himself. Again, this is perfectly normal and they should not be pushed to interact if they’re nervous. As parents, we can teach our children how to gracefully handle this situation. Kids learn very quickly from our example, so we can set a great standard for them by approaching people with disabilities and engaging them in relaxed conversation. No probing questions necessary, just simple small talk communicates to your child that this is a real person we’re dealing with — a normal person with normal thoughts who is just living life.
Be extra considerate when approaching a child.
Dealing with other people’s kids is always a little touchy, so do be tactful when approaching children with disabilities. Many special-needs parents try to shield their children from hearing questions like, “What’s wrong with her legs?” or, “Why do his arms look funny?” While an adult would probably just chuckle at such a question, it might be best to engage with the child in a more laid-back way. “Hi! I love your shirt. It’s my favorite color!” or, “That’s a pretty cool truck you have there. My son loves trucks, too!” are both perfect conversation starters. They will likely be excited to discuss what makes them happy, and you’ve shown your child how to see the person, not just the disability.
To teach our children about awareness, tolerance and diversity we have to show them. We can’t rely on our schools and churches to instill these values. Their values come from us. If we want them to be comfortable around people with differences, we can recognize these awkward moments for what they are — the kind of learning experiences we can’t find in a curriculum. So next time you feel your cheeks turning red at your child’s lack of social graces, take a deep breath and show them how it’s done.
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