“Look, Mom, that baby is missing her hand!”
My daughter was born in July of 2018 with a physical “difference”; she was born with just one hand. When someone is born with a physical difference it is called “congenital.” People usually aren’t sure what congenital means or how to talk about physical differences and neither did I, before finding out about my daughter.
We are continually learning new ways to talk about her difference. If we, as her parents, didn’t know words that are used to describe a difference, it’s probably true that our friends and neighbors did not know AND have probably not taught their kids how to speak to someone who looks physically different than themselves.
I’ve learned some valuable lessons about what our kids could say to someone like my daughter who looks different than they do. Resources like the Lucky Fin Project (which connects families with limb differences), friends parenting kids with differences, and the genuine kids we’ve met around Kansas City have been extremely helpful. Here are a few things I’ve learned that apply to any physical difference. This difference could be a hearing aid, wheelchair, prosthetic, physical malformation, or a noticeable birthmark.
Lesson 1: Curiosity is Good & Healthy
As parents, we usually alleviate our discomfort and nervousness about not knowing what to say to our child in a new situation by saying, “Shhhhhh” or “That’s not polite.”
A few months back at KCI airport, a little boy pointing at my daughter said, “Look, Mom, that baby is missing her hand!” His mom shot me a horrified, side-eyed glance and covered the boy’s face with her hand while whispering something I couldn’t hear. Her hand was literally covering most of his face (been there).
Squelching curiosity leads to fear and separation. Our failure to teach children to ask questions about something or someone that is different leads them to be afraid of the unknown. Then they become adults who stare or say unkind (even ignorant) things.
Lesson 2: Kids Need Help with the Language of Difference
At my son’s allergy appointment, a little boy saw my daughter’s “little arm” hiding beneath her sleeve, but couldn’t seem to put words to this anomaly. The whole time we were reading books and playing he kept glancing expectantly at her sleeve looking for the hand to poke out at any minute. As a 7-year-old, he did not have the words to put to his curiosity. I offered him some help.
“Do you notice something different?” He nodded.
“She only has one hand.”
Immediately he put some physical space between himself and my daughter. He slid his bottom back as far as he could to gain some space. I understood. We are often scared of what we don’t know, or what is different than ourselves. After we talked for a little while, he moved closer again.
He needed help putting words to questions. His inquiries gave him a chance to learn something new! In this case I provided words, like “little arm, one-hand, lucky fin, and prosthetic.” It is our job as parents to be brave and present when these opportunities arise.
Lesson 3: Parents’ Postures & Tones Have Power
The tone we set about difference matters. I am learning this third lesson from my own children. Kids are capable of being empathetic and kind, but it may not be their first response.
I caught my son staring, craning his neck, to look at a man in a wheelchair at church. I was embarrassed. We see this man every week, but my son had never been so close to him.
I wanted to model kind curiosity, so I did the uncomfortable thing and walked closer to this gentleman and his wife. I said, “hello” and commented on the weather and then bent down to my son. “Would you like to say, hello?” He emphatically shook his head no, but he stopped gawking. I smiled and continued walking.
Did I say exactly the right thing? I’m not sure, but there was power in redirecting my son at that moment, showing him that we move towards those who are different and modeling kindness in the way we speak to people with different bodies than ourselves. As a parent, it is my job to train my children to be respectful and kind to those who are differently-abled (another term you can teach your kids instead of disabled).
Don’t Stop Here
Let these be your first steps towards educating yourself and your family on how to be more curious, engaging and respectful of your friends, neighbors or even strangers who are physically different.
In Short: Educate, Educate Educate
- Educate yourself about different ways to talk about difference. For example, teaching your kids to not touch someone’s wheelchair, hearing aid or prosthetic without their permission, as it is an extension of their body.
- Educate your kids early (starting at 2 or 3 years old) before they meet people with differences. Watch a YouTube video of a dancer with a prosthetic and ask what they notice. Discuss how people are people even if we are different. Buy a book that talks about kids with differences.
- Educate your kids in the moment by modeling curiosity and kindness when you meet people with physical differences. Go to an accessible playground to meet new unique friends.
I’d love to hear your hard lessons learned, or resources you’ve found helpful when educating kids about physical differences.