There is a lot of talk of bullying these days. As a parent of a daughter who wears hearing aids (as I am sure with every parent), it concerns me. When Addie was first diagnosed with hearing loss, I instantly became concerned with the possibility of bullying. To add to the worry, I was hearing opinions of “kids are mean,” and had a moment of wanting to shelter my daughter. While I agree that the world does not hold your hand throughout life, and that there will inevitably be a person, or two, that will criticize you for your personality, looks, intelligence, or anything really during your schooling, I believe that children are not inherently mean.
You know how kids are mean? They push you down the slide before you are ready, because they have been standing on the ladder and think you are taking too long. You know how kids are mean? They knock over your block castle, because while you think it is fun to build it, they think it is fun to be Godzilla. Children are in a constant state of learning; they are inherently curious and are simply trying to understand the world around them. It could be how something works, or why the sky is blue, but I am willing to bet that every parent has run into a situation when it applies to a person with a disability.
Kids stare, especially when there is a little girl with brightly colored “puffy” things in her ears, a child with no hair and face mask, a person who is older than daddy, but shorter than they are, or a child that appears to be the same age as them, but is in a wheelchair and does not move or talk (and many other scenarios). They are not staring to be mean, they are staring to try to understand. Children do not ask you “what is wrong with them?” to be mean, they ask because they are curious and concerned. It is how we respond as adults that shapes whether or not they become “mean” in a similar situation as they get older. Our reaction to a question, a disability, any difference between people, greatly influences how our children view and respond to the world the rest of their lives.
As a parent with a daughter who wears hearing aids, I appreciate hearing a parent answer their child’s question about my daughter. Or better yet, let their child ask Addie or me what is in Addie’s ears. It is the parent that does not answer the question and simply pushes their child away that hurts me. When I am in the same situation with Addie, this is how I try to handle it:
1. First, I correct her and say there is nothing “wrong,” but simply different.
2. I explain to her what is different about that person.
3. I then ask her if she has any other questions or feelings about what I told her.
4. If the conversation is in close proximity to the person we are discussing, I will try to gauge their reaction and let Addie ask questions.
Sure, not everyone will be happy with you asking them about their wheelchair or their child’s condition, but I am willing to bet that most parents of children with special needs will appreciate treating their children like people, which they are.
So my plea to you, as adults not just parents, answer the questions about disabilities and differences between people the same way you would answer a question about why birds fly, or why a dog has 4 legs. We are our children’s greatest resource and example of how to treat others. Don’t cast your eyes away from the girl in the wheelchair and her mother. Smile, say hello, and if your child asks what is wrong with the little girl, answer the best you can.