How to Help Kids Feel It’s OK to Ask Questions About Differences


When I was little, my parents’ friends had a daughter, Emily, who experienced brain damage during childbirth. As a result, Emily couldn’t sit up or talk.

When we visited them, I remember feeling uncomfortable and even fearful about this girl who was just a little older than I was. I remember having questions I didn’t have the words to ask.

I recently asked my mom whether she explained to me why Emily grunted and lay on the floor. She told me she had not. As my great Aunt Libby once said, “We didn’t talk back then like we do now.”

I think I would’ve felt less fearful of Emily if my parents had better prepared me for these visits. If they’d said, for example:

“Emily can’t move her body or talk the way you can because there was an accident when she was born and she didn’t get enough air to breathe, so her brain got hurt. But Emily can communicate by making noises and using her eyes and she loves to laugh and play games… so you can play with her and try to make her laugh.”

In her book, “White Teacher,” Vivian Paley describes a strategy used by her student-teacher to talk about differences when they came up in the classroom. In reacting to a child who stuttered, this student-teacher did not ignore the problem but instead named and defined it, thereby making it “all right (for other students) to talk to Stuart about his stuttering.”

When a teacher (or parent) models this type of behavior, s/he is also creating norms that make it “all right” to talk about one’s differences and to question one’s peers about their differences.

Recently, my daughter commented on a boy who happens to have some learning delays, saying, “He hits because he’s a baby.”

“He’s not a baby,” I clarified. “He’s the same age as you are. All of us are working on learning how to do something better and Matthew is working on learning how to touch people gently.”

We went on to talk about how she could support her friend as he continues to work on gentle touching: “Matthew, I don’t like hitting, but you can be gentle like this.” (I took her hand to show her.) Or how she could kindly tell him, “I don’t like that, please stop.” We also talked about what my daughter was working on learning at that moment.

Without a conversation that allows young people to ask questions and satisfy their natural curiosity, adults can’t tap into a young person’s compassion, nor can we prepare young people to ask respectful questions about differences (physical, racial or otherwise). If we can’t do this, we certainly won’t be able to prepare young people to take action for equity.

A version of this post originally appeared on Raising Race Conscious Children.

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