When you grow up in rural America, people don’t often talk about the differences of those around them as much as they incorporate them. My neighbor swept the sidewalks in his front path every day, whether they were clean or dirty, and it never occurred to me to question why. Later, I learned he suffered from PTSD, but no one called attention to his behavior except to say thanks as they passed.
It was like this with my cousin, Jessica. She talked different than most kids, but I hardly noticed it since I’d grown up alongside her. She walked with more effort than me, but I didn’t think much about it. I just slowed down when we were together. I don’t remember anyone telling me that she – or the group of friends she included me in – had cerebral palsy. I knew they did, but for me, that was normal.
The Gift of Inclusion
It’s only now that I have a child of my own that I realize what a gift that was, for Jessica and me. We didn’t have to negotiate our relationship based on how we were different. We happily enjoyed playing together. I equated her limp with my inability to spell Wednesday – a funny part of who each of us was as individuals. My childhood with Jessica taught me a lot about how I want to raise my daughter.
Parents who haven’t been around kids with special needs or disabilities may not know how to teach their own children about how to interact with these friends. I want my daughter to have the same kind of friendship with her special-needs friends as I did with Jessica. Here’s what I want my daughter to know.
Be Empathetic, but Don’t Pity Someone With Special Needs
They may have challenges that make daily life more difficult than for someone who doesn’t have disabilities, but they are living fulfilling lives – just like the rest of us. Instead of putting energy into what you may see as a tragedy, teach your kids the difference between sympathy and empathy. Feeling sorry for someone’s condition isn’t helpful, but putting yourself in another’s situation can be.
Explain to your kid how hard it would be to see other children running if you couldn’t keep up. In this situation, your child can see how easy and helpful it would be to walk alongside a friend who may have a physical challenge.
Focus on Similarities, Not Differences
There is always more that brings us together than divides us. It’s likely this is a conversation you’ve already had with your children. When they see someone who looks different than them, discuss how these are only surface differences – we’re all the same on the inside. Jessica and I may have been different, but we both loved watching Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and we both loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crust cut off. Extend that conversation to include kids who have unique needs. We often focus on difference, so this small talk can transform a child.
Explain Different Ways of Communication
When my nephew speaks, it’s like there’s always a punctuation mark at the end of every word. My daughter scrunches her nose when she talks. There’s no one way to communicate. Communication with someone with special needs may be different than what your kids are accustomed to. Explain how, like my daughter and her cousin, talking looks different to different people – and that’s OK.
Pay Attention to Safety
What is safe for my daughter wouldn’t have been safe for Jessica. Different challenges mean different ways of maintaining safety. Your kids with special-needs friends should understand this, too. Explain that, just like little babies have special gear to protect them, kids with special needs might have tools to keep them safe. Public spaces like Target or even your local playground are beginning to include more and more inclusive equipment to make the safety of special-needs friends a priority. Feel free to let your child know that inclusivity
There’s nothing that could replace the friendship I had with Jessica. If she had been just like me, it wouldn’t have been nearly as special. Encourage your kids to make friends with special-needs kids. Despite everyone’s best efforts, they will often feel excluded, so such thoughtfulness is a gift. It isn’t just for their sake, though. Having special-needs friends expands the boundaries of friendships for everyone.
Nudge Them to Say Hi
Kids aren’t born with manners – they can’t always control their stares. Let’s face it: Kids stare even when nothing is new to them. If your kid stares at another kid with special needs, instead of nudging him or her to stop staring, encourage your kid to say hello. Kids don’t assume staring is a bad thing like adults do. Transform that gaze into something positive.
Mirror the Behavior You Want to See
If you are uncomfortable or afraid to speak to a child with special needs, don’t expect your child to act any differently. Children learn from our behavior. Practice behaving the way you would want your children to around kids with special needs, and, like magic, they will. Even if you have to pretend initially, do it. It won’t take you long to learn that kids with special needs are not too different than your own.
Parent With a Community Mindset
I never felt like I grew up with someone who had special needs ‑ I grew up with Jessica, who was as normal as I was. Normal is a charged word, and it’s up to us to ensure normal includes everyone.
Knowing how to navigate the world can be tough. No one gave us a manual when we walked out of the hospital or adoption center with these precious lives, and no one will show us how to raise them. It’s up to us to bring our kids into the world with an understanding that difference isn’t something to be feared.
What is different today than when I grew up is that we couldn’t cloister ourselves away from the differences of people we encountered every day. It’s an easier thing to do now – there are more people and more ways to avoid situations that cause discomfort. I’m no expert, but I suggest we look for those situations. We can help each other and our kids grow up in a kinder, more inclusive world.