When Your Child Asks Questions About People With Disabilities

If your child blurted out something inappropriate about a disabled person, would you know what to do?

You’ve seen it happen: A toddler at the grocery store blurts out something about the “fat lady” in line ahead of him. You watch in horror from a distance, glad it’s not your child who spoke out… until one day you’re sitting in a crowded waiting room and your 4-year old loudly announces that the man across from you only has one leg, and then asks why he only has one leg. “Where’s his other leg, Mommy? Where did it go?”

Yeah. That really happened. To me. I don’t remember what I said in response, I just remember I was so embarrassed and flustered that I wanted to disappear. Literally, right there, right then.

But I’ve been on the flipside of that experience, too. You see, my son Kai has diastrophic dysplasia, a rare type of dwarfism. He is 8 years old but stands as tall as an average 1-year old. He drives a three-wheeled scooter, which throws many people off guard when they see him. He and I have fielded many questions about his appearance and his mode of transportation. We’ve overheard several toddlers’ loudly-asked questions and seen the embarrassment of their mothers. And then, two years ago, I heard the question that prompted my writing this article.

We were at the store one day when I overheard a child ask his mother, “What’s wrong with that boy?” As she struggled to answer, it hit me: We, as parents, have no idea how to react in that situation because no one has taught us. She did not have the information in her brain that would’ve enabled her to say, “There’s nothing wrong with him, sweetie. He just looks different.” Instead she mumbled and stared at the floor which communicated to her child that there definitely was something “wrong” with that boy.

No one taught this mother, or you, or me that it’s OK to acknowledge a disability or physical difference; to say out loud, “I recognize that you look different,” or “I recognize that you have a disability.”

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes have trouble making eye contact with a person in a wheelchair? Why you’re unsure of how to act in the presence of the girl with cerebral palsy or the boy with Down syndrome or the man with one leg? I believe it’s because we were shushed and shamed when we were toddlers expressing curiosity. It’s because no one took the time to train us to feel anything but embarrassment or shame.

Let’s stop that nonsense.

I’ll teach you what to do. There are two things you should do and one thing you should never do. Now, the action steps are easy, but you’re going to have feelings, and the feelings can be hard. You may feel like you’re doing something wrong. You’re not. Just do the things and disregard the feelings (for now). Here we go.

First, don’t shame your child for being curious. Human beings — even tiny, young ones — are hardwired to notice incongruities. It’s a survival instinct.

Second, pretend you’re not embarrassed by what your child said or asked. You might be reeling on the inside, but on the outside you should be smiling (if appropriate) at your curious kiddo.

Third, address the question or comment your child expressed. Use your regular, conversational tone, just like you would if it was any other question that had been asked. “There’s nothing wrong with that boy, sweetie, he just looks different,” is a favorite of mine. You could also say, “People come in different shapes and sizes. It’s what makes our world so wonderful,” or “Yes, he does look like a baby, but he’s not,” or “Thank you for noticing. He does look different but I bet he’s a wonderful boy just like you” — something like that.

And that’s it.

Disabled or simply different-looking, this strategy works for every single one of the myriad differences your child will see: Fat, tall, short, tattooed, pierced, purple hair, crutches, wheelchair, one legged, you name it.

If you practice, it’ll become even easier. Here are some made-up examples:

“That man is really fat!” your daughter yells. So you look her in the eye, smile, and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that people come in all shapes and sizes?” Boom. Your daughter is validated and her curiosity is sated. And bonus: The man, who undoubtedly overheard the whole thing, may feel better about himself.

“What happened to that guy’s leg?” your son asks. You look him in the eye and say, “That’s a really good question. What do you think happened to his leg?” Your son launches into a long story about sunken treasure and stolen glory. Boom. Your son is validated and his curiosity is sated. And bonus: The man, who probably heard the whole thing, smiles, knowing that there’s at least one kid in the world who thinks he’s a gnarly pirate.

To recap, the next time your child says something embarrassing to or in front of a different-looking person:

Don’t shame your child for being curious. Pretend you’re not embarrassed, and take the time to teach him or her that yes, some people look different. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that boy.

Follow this journey on Our Son Kai.

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