“Mama, is this one still beautiful?” My son held up a brown Magnolia leaf. Peppered with yellow and red, the leaf was marred with a jagged tear straight down its middle. His eyes set on me, his heart awaited my response. We found several such leaves scattered about the park that afternoon. All brightly colored in an array of patterns, we made it a point to highlight their natural beauty. This one, however, stood out uniquely in character as well as in color. It wasn’t like the others as it was nearly torn in half. I managed to answer him honestly and without hesitation. I felt the full weight of this seemingly innocent question. “Yes, it sure is! That rip down the middle is especially cool!”
Children are naturally inquisitive creatures. They ceaselessly question unfamiliar subjects. While this is a positive trait, it can be downright embarrassing. Their lack of filter and discernment often precludes adherence to social norms. Just this past week, my son loudly asked, “Mama, why is that man so big?” He saw a gentleman who existed in a larger body than that to which he is accustomed. Despite my passion for body positivity and hatred for fat-shaming? In this instance, I could have easily whisked my son away with cheeks reddened in embarrassment. What prevented me from wishing I could fall into an adult-sized hole? The following: being mentally prepared for such a question. Also? Being comfortable with the answer to his question.
If we intend to raise children who are comfortable with the differences among human beings, then we must first learn to be comfortable with them ourselves. As they say, more is caught than taught. If we become embarrassed or quickly shush the child while running for the hills, this teaches the child there is something about that individual they are to fear, to mock, or to shun. Teaching social norms and appropriate times for questions is important, but if we whisk our kids away in the moment, their innate feelings of curiosity can transform into a different feeling altogether when they encounter such a difference in the future…such as pity, anxiety, annoyance, etc.
You may be thinking, “But I don’t know what to say! I don’t want to offend anyone.” I hear you. Neither do I! I reached out to my friends to discuss this very topic. Here is a bit of what they had to say (edited for brevity and clarity where appropriate):
It makes me hopeful that so many people seem to be trying to make our culture more hospitable to people who are different! We used to get a lot more comments when Micah had an NG tube [visible feeding tube] and still do when we do G-tube feedings in public from both adults and kids. When children notice others with assistive medical devices (hearing aids, tube feedings, wheelchairs, glasses, etc.), I find the best way to handle it is to just matter-of-factly explain how the device helps the person.
Young kids seem to gain a lot of comfort from understanding why the unfamiliar device is there and how it’s something helpful, not something to be worried about. So you could say “Glasses help someone see,” or ” That person may have trouble eating enough to grow, so the tube helps the food get right to his stomach so he doesn’t have to work so hard.” [In Micah’s case] I might say “His heart has a problem so he doesn’t always have enough energy to eat for himself, so this tube helps him get enough food right to his stomach so he can grow big and strong– isn’t that so cool we have something to help him with that?”
I think for every device there is a simple explanation that can help kids develop a comfort level with it. For my daughter, that sort of simple explanation normalized [her brother’s feeding tube] being there so she never felt it was strange. As a parent of a typically-developing child, I think it can also be helpful to relate the difference to something your child has experienced. For instance, if the child has glasses you could say this (insert device here) helps them (blank) just like your glasses help you see (or just like your cast helped your arm to heal after you got hurt, etc.) Even if the child hasn’t experienced something like that, a parent can calmly explain in a factual manner how some people need help doing things, or maybe they look a different way…and that’s okay! ~Carly Jo A.
Another friend of mine has two children of her own. Additionally, she fosters children with special needs:
My youngest foster child came to me with a tracheostomy and a g-tube, so you can imagine the stares we received in public. The questions from children don’t bother me at all because they’re legitimately curious. When they’d like to come and ask questions I have no problem answering them!
Parents: please educate your children! Don’t shush them or give them information unless you know it’s correct. 99.9% of the time children have medical issues completely unrelated to anything the parents “did” or “didn’t” do. The child in question can very likely hear you and most can respond to you in some way if approached. Please don’t say “bless his/her heart”, or “I couldn’t do it”, or anything similar. It’s rude. If your child had these issues you very likely could; it’s your child, and you have no choice. The best thing to do is educate your children, be friendly to the parent(s) and sibling(s), and know they’re enjoying their family time just like you are with your children. ~Jessica H.
While these are only two examples, I think they speak volumes. Don’t be afraid to kindly ask questions or to give simplistic answers in front of the individual in question. Be matter-of-fact and offer respect. Most people do not wish to be pitied or defined by their differences. My go-to response with my own son is to address his question, but follow it up with a sentence or two about how he and the other individual are also alike. “Yes, that gentleman is in a wheelchair because it’s possible he cannot use his legs well, but I bet he is enjoying being outside in this sunshine, too!” While we cannot expect ourselves to be prepared in every situation, have a few responses prepared if you can. And above all, investigate your own internal biases and limiting beliefs. We all have them!
In conclusion, I leave you with more wise words from Carly. I couldn’t have said it better myself!