For a young child, a new experience often elicits a strong audible response, but what happens when that experience is seeing someone who is different for the first time?
Picture a day out at an amusement park. Your kid sees someone in a wheelchair or another child with Down’s Syndrome. It prompts stares, pointing, and questions.
This can be embarrassing for the parent and hurtful to the person being pointed at, so how should you respond as a parent?
This week on the Brood - Take Two's weekly parenting segment - we look at how to talk with kids about differences.
Take Two’s Alex Cohen spoke with adolescent therapist and social worker, Katie Hurley. She's author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.”
They were joined by Courtney Westlake. She's author of the new book, "A Different Beautiful: Discovering and Celebrating Beauty in Places You Never Expected." Courtney's book explores her life raising a daughter with physical differences. Her daughter Brenna was born with Harlequin Ichthyosis, a severe genetic skin disorder.
Don’t run away from the situation
Courtney Westlake: Usually, the typical response is that parents get very embarrassed so they tend to just pull their child away and hush them. They just get away from us as fast as they can. What I’ve really noticed is, that doesn’t really help the situation, at least not from my end. I suspect not from their end either because I feel like it teaches those kids that we’re scary because Brenna looks different and they shouldn’t talk to us because we’re uncomfortable.
Engage with the person or family who is different
Courtney Westlake: When we have had parents keep the conversation open and be honest with their child, encouraged their kids to ask Brenna’s name and talk to us, that helps to make an uncomfortable situation better.
Katie Hurley: In the moment when a little kid [points or makes a comment], I always tell parents to just get down on their eye level and say, ‘Hey, I noticed that you are seeing someone who appears different than you. Let’s talk about it, let’s go over and say hi and make a new friend.'
Remember that the person or family is enjoying a day out just like you, so they may not be up for answering lots of questions
Courtney Westlake: I tend to want to educate but there are a lot of days where I do just want to be another family at the park and I don’t want to field one more question because even though it’s your first time seeing my daughter, I have been asked that question every single day. So, you don’t necessarily have to approach everyone but you can still leave that conversation open so that you’re not running away but you answer your child and you leave it open for me if I want to explain or I can just say ‘Hi, how are you? This is Brenna. She loves Minnie Mouse and the swings, just like you.” Then I don’t have to explain, I can just say hi and talk.
I really encourage people just to treat us like anybody else. You wouldn’t go up to anybody and ask how much they paid for their purse. Just because you can see Brenna’s differences, doesn’t mean you have to ask about it. Obviously a lot of little kids do, but it’s not my obligation to educate about it. I like to, but I would rather you just treat us like any other kid at the park.
Katie Hurley: I always say to parents with kids on the other end, it’s not your job to educate every single person you encounter. It's perfectly acceptable to just say, 'Hey, let’s go play together.'
Talk to your kid about differences at home
Katie Hurley: Elementary school children are starting to make connections. ‘Is this something that could happen to me? Is this something that makes it hard for this person to talk or walk, or does this person also like to play soccer?’ They’re trying to figure out, how does this difference that they are seeing with their eyes change the person. With older kids we are really working on empathy and sensitivity and also just, pointing out similarities. For Courtney’s daughter, it's saying, ‘Yes she has this skin disorder, but really loves to do puzzles, she’s really into Shopkins, and she likes to do all the same things as you.’
I always think it's good to talk to your kids about this stuff before it even happens because they’re going to encounter different people in the world. That’s part of social skills development and that begins at home. Teaching kids, ‘what does it feel like if someone points at you?’
The more parents can talk about the fact that everybody is an individual, everybody is unique, everybody looks different, we all bring different strengths to the table. Talking about that a lot with kids, like every day, really helps send the message, let’s embrace differences. When you teach kids to embrace differences, then they learn not to do the pointing and staring.
Be aware of your own reaction
Katie Hurley: It’s really important for parents to examine their own responses. Not necessarily in the moment but just in general. A lot of parents do feel anxious and uncomfortable. Part of the problem is that because we’re adults, we do have empathy. We might see a child and say, oh my gosh, that’s so sad, that must be so hard. But that mom probably isn’t feeling like that. We presume that people are having this uphill battle and that they’re feeling sad all the time. Really, that child is just wanting to have a day at the park.
When we respond in an anxious or uncomfortable way, we show that to our kids and our kids internalize that. Then, they even stop asking questions or they just look away. They learn to avert their gaze and walk away, and that’s not fair either.
The wonderful thing about kids is that they come into every day with a blank slate. They see another kid and they just want to play.