It happened again. I was at the movies with my son. A little girl looked at me then asked her mom, Is she an adult?
We were all about to see the same movie, Finding Dory. It was the perfect setting, I believed, for a great teaching moment. She could have explained we are all born in different shapes, colors and sizes, and the lady you’re asking about has dwarfism. She could have said, Yes, Honey, we are not all born the same and that’s OK. But, the little girl’s mom did nothing. Worse yet, she said nothing. Literally, she pretended as though she never heard it.
The little girl asked again. Louder this time. She needed an answer. I wanted to answer the poor girl: “Yes, honey, I am an adult, my bones are just short and sometimes I wish I were a little kid.”
With children it really is just that simple. They don’t want ridiculous details. They want their answers like they want their Kool-Aid. Straight up.
This sort of thing happens more often than you might think. I have diastrophic dysplasia, one of the rarest forms of dwarfism. In short (no pun intended), my long bones simply just don’t grow. No matter if I’m in a public bathroom washing my hands, standing in line at the movie theater, or even grocery shopping, a child will more than likely ask about my stature. And per the norm, their parent will become too embarrassed to respond, and they’ll ignore it entirely. What parents don’t know is that not responding is the worst response. Ever.
I heard it. You heard it. We all heard it! Mom and Dad, stop making things awkward. Here’s how you talk about it.
First, remember the questions your child asks about someone’s disability have little (if nothing at all) to do with the actual person. They are no different than asking why the sky is blue or why a dog has fur. Take their questions at face value. And let them know it’s OK they asked. If your kid asks why someone uses a wheelchair, keep the answer simple, “Good question! Some people have trouble walking and the wheelchair helps them move around.” The same can be said for someone who is deaf and uses their hands to speak or blind and needs to use a walking stick — praise plus the answer in its most simple form will do fine.
One day, while at my son’s gymnastics lesson, a little boy near me asked his mother sweetly, “Can she do gymnastics with her cane?” This little boy didn’t care that I used a cane. He wasn’t interested in why I used a cane (though I’ve been asked that before, too). He simply wanted to know if there was anything I could do in the gym. But, his mom froze in place. I had to chime in.
I asked the little boy, “What do you think I could do while using my cane?” And his response shocked me.
“I think you could do the rings, because you can just hang on to those like you do your cane.” How adorable. How brilliant. And in his own way, how incredibly inclusive. In my mind, he deserved a damn medal for it. His mom smiled. Since then, he always says hello to me and makes an effort to say hi to my son as well.
Sure, I could have snubbed his curiosity. I could have easily been annoyed, offended or insulted, or just ignored him altogether. But, he deserved an answer. Children deserve answers. They’re trying to make sense of the world we live in. They simply want to know how something works. Or doesn’t work. Either way, I feel like it’s a responsibility to help parents find a response that, well, works. And that means chiming in when they can’t seem to find the words. In many ways those with a disability are setting a precedent with the way they respond. If we’re mean, nasty or condescending, a child may assume all those with a disability are mean, nasty or condescending. Really, it does take a village.
The second worst thing a parent can do when their child asks about the obvious is apologize.
“Oh God! I’m so sorry! We’re still learning manners!” One father cried out when his daughter asked why I was so small. His reaction perplexed me while her question was understandable. As a parent, questions should never embarrass you. They should be embraced, because they come from a very genuine place. I’m not sorry I’m handicapped (though it does certainly suck sometimes). So, don’t be sorry your child is noticing differences in the world. It’s natural.
It’s also a cue that now is the perfect time to talk about the beauty of being different. It’s time to make a comfy spot at home, sit down and explain how absolutely boring life would be if we all looked the same. Use your child’s dolls as examples. Son, imagine if all your dinosaurs looked alike. Honey, imagine if every Barbie had only blonde hair and Skipper never existed. Imagine if there was only one toy in the whole world. That wouldn’t be fun, would it?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about kids, it’s the art of the deal. Like, when your kid falls, they look at you first and wait for your reaction before they react. The less of a production you make it, the less of a production they’ll make it. The same goes for those off-the-cuff, wildly unforeseen questions kids ask. When a child wonders about my height, I would love for that child not to be reprimanded and then swooped away as if I were contagious. I would love to hear their parent open up and begin a conversation with me. I would love the opportunity to introduce myself after they have said, Yes, sweetheart, she is small. But, so are you and so is Mommy compared to, say Daddy or Uncle Tom. People come in all shapes and sizes.
I’ll let you know if that day ever comes…