When we visited my friends in Minnesota last month, there was a good chance we would arrive before my friend, Hilary, was back from a doctor's appointment. She had left her older two boys at home so she showed them our family photo so they would know who we were if we showed up on the doorstep. Her oldest was a little unsure of all of this and was afraid of making a mistake in regards to letting strangers into their home. As my friend was telling me this story, we soon found ourselves laughing because really the odds of there being another family like ours is pretty slim. In other words, we were going to be the only white adults standing on the step with two black kids and a Chinese kid who was missing a hand. Hearing us described like that was pretty funny.
Because sometimes our differences and unique traits are pretty funny.
And sometimes, it's not.
Sometimes the questions and comments wear on me a bit. Which is actually kind of unusual for me because I'm a pretty "open boundaries" person. But sometimes, just sometimes, I get weary of the answering and replying and educating.
I think probably what bothers me most is when the question or comment seems to showcase a person's lack of social skills, situations where it almost borders on rude. Often it's kids who say something. I am an elementary teacher by trade; I understand how kids operate. So I'm not sure that it's me denying grace to a child. I think it's more about lacking age appropriate behavior.
Of course, there are probably moments where I am just a little more sensitive to the comments and questions too, times where I am tired or stressed and just don't feel very graceful. And maybe that was the case this week. I don't know.
But this week I found my night interrupted by irritation as three different children loudly drew attention to Zeke's hands. We had a special event at church, a camp out where families could bring tents, roast hot dogs, play games, do some family devotional time, etc.. As Zeke and I were sitting visiting with another friend and her daughter, a child who does not know our family came over. She noticed Zeke's hands and wanted to know what happened. I gave my standard response of that being how he was born, that his hands didn't grow all the way when he was in his mom's tummy. The child then replied that that was weird. I gently said that weird wasn't the best word to use, but that different was a better word. To which the child said "No, it's odd."
Really? Not only have you just said in front of Zeke that his hands are weird and odd but you also have kind of chosen to ignore the adult who has suggested that your words were not kind. I again said that different is a better word and reminded her that she probably wouldn't like it if someone said her glasses or hair were weird or odd.
Later, there was a similar situation as another girl (from the same family as the first child actually) was sitting beside us and loudly said to her mom, "He was born that way!" Her mom had no idea what she was talking about and I found myself in this awkward moment of either making the mom ask the question about what her daughter meant or basically holding up Zeke's hands for everyone to see. I choose the first option. Mom quickly tried to soothe things over by bringing up a story about someone she had known with no arms.
Then when we were making Smores, another child (same family) loudly asked from several feet away "Why are his hands like that?" Innocent enough and not usually something that offends me but after the third time in like an hour, I was kind of done. I suppose in all situations it was probably a lack of social awareness of how you are not just asking quietly but really drawing a huge amount of negative attention to someone you don't even know that bothered me most.
I know they were just kids, with no real malicious intent. But it is still hurtful and irritating. And it begs the question what should we as parents do to teach our kids how to interact with people who look or act different than us.
First, my honest gut reaction is that it's not so much about what we as parents say to our kids but that it is instead much more about what our kids see in us. One of the biggest blessings my parents gave me were opportunities to interact with a very diverse group of people as I was growing up. We did not live in a racially diverse area but my parents still exposed us to a lot of socially diverse situations. My dad worked with a group who supported mentally and physically disabled adults so that these adults could live independently. My parents and grandparents helped to organize and run a food pantry for area farmers affected by the farm crisis of the 1980's, a food pantry which serviced all sorts of people from the elderly on down. My parents also both worked for the department of health and human services in a variety of positions including teaching independent living classes to teens aging out of foster care and supervising families who needed help with visits and parenting. In all of those experiences, there were many times where my brother and I tagged along as my folks worked. My parents did not shy away from the many unusual "clients" whom they served. They never acted like they were better or like certain people were dirty, poor, unstable or abnormal. For me, it was just pretty normal to be around people who maybe were a little unusual. From a little old lady named Maude who used to frequent the food pantry, all made up with rouge and slightly off kilter lipstick and a too short wig that showed her gray hair to a mentally challenged adult named Butch who would come with us to the county fair to look at the animals, all while occasionally yelling swear words because that's just kind of how he related to things, my childhood was full of a cast of characters because my parents loved people just as they were. When we as adults model love and kindness even to people who stick in our craw or people who just seem a bit off, we are teaching our kids invaluable lessons in how to interact with someone who is not just like us.
Second, I think there is much to be said about how we interact with our kids once they notice someone's differences. Shushing the comment is really not a great response. It teaches our kids in a subtle way that differences are kind of an off limits, awful thing that we should sweep under the rug. Overcompensating for our kids is also not a great response. Loudly telling a story you know about someone who had a similar difference or loudly proclaiming how awesome the difference is really just make people feel awkward and also sends the message that we have to be overnice or full of fake compliments towards someone who is different, that we cannot be genuine with such a person.
If your child does point out someone's differences, my suggestion would be
1. Encourage them not to point.
2. Acknowledge what was said in a quiet, normal voice. A simple "Yes, I see that too." is sufficient.
3. Then take a moment to model how to love someone. You do not need to have a conversation right then and there about the difference. That moment is not the time to teach about Down Syndrome, missing limbs, transracial adoption, why people use wheelchairs, or any other difference. Instead, demonstrate how to make a new friend. Saying words like "Yes, I see that too. But really he is just like you so why don't we go say hi." is a much better way to teach your kids how to handle differences than launching into a conversation about the actual difference. It teaches them to respect the boundaries of others, that people are not obligated to explain their personal stories, the whys of their lives to strangers or acquaintances. Follow your hello with an introduction, and if it's another child, an invitation to play. Easy peasy, you've just taught your child a huge lesson.
4. If your child continues to want to know why the other person is different, I would still suggest not discussing it right then and there. If you can get your child to accept that you will talk about it later, I think that's the best option. Once you're in the car or at home, you can bring the topic back up and have a heart to heart about the specific situation.
5. If your child just won't let it go (which is sometimes how it goes), then take a moment and ask. If your child's questions or comments are just not acceptable, then rephrase the awkward with an appropriate question like "She is just so curious as to why you are using a wheelchair. Do you mind sharing?" Hopefully, after a few minutes of small talk and some genuine interest in the person rather than their difference, it now feels more acceptable to ask and the person will not feel quite so singled out because of their difference.