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How to help your kids deal with differences in others

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Michelle blogs about life, her kids and her love of caffeinated drinks at ememby.com.

Everyone has had that moment… you know, the moment when your kid blatantly stares at someone or says something embarrassing in public. I’m no different, my kids have said and done things I’d rather they hadn’t but little by little I believe we’re at the very least teaching them the right way to approach people who are different. This is important to me because my youngest was born with symbrachydactyly, which means his left hand wasn’t fully developed and along with a smaller than normal thumb, he’s missing his fingers on that hand. We definitely notice others checking out his hand while we are in public, it’s only normal since it is different. I see those opportunities as a chance to help educate others about limb differences (our particular brand of difference but you get the same kind of looks whether you are missing a hand, in a wheelchair or wear a patch over your eye).

Yes, I wish people didn’t stare, but I get why they do (and why I used to do it more myself). But more than the staring, I wish they didn’t whisper to each other or keep their children from asking questions because it is nothing I’m embarrassed about and nothing my son should ever feel the need to keep hidden. But children react the way they do because they don’t know any other way and as a parent, it’s our/my job to teach them what to do.

Here are some things you can do to help your kids react in a better, or more helpful, way to people who have physical differences:

1. Give them a vocabulary to use. Rather than asking, “What is wrong with that person?” teach them to ask, “What happened?” or “Why are they different?” The word “wrong” implies just what it says, that something that makes someone different is something that is wrong, or even worse, bad. We don’t say it’s wrong for a person to have curly hair or freckles, just like it’s not wrong for them to wear glasses or use a walker.

2. Lead by example. If you whisper in hushed tones about someone you see who is different, your kids will eventually pick up on the idea that it is something to be talked about in secret and should be avoided – which is not at all true, it just could be handled better. I try to encourage my kids to ask people questions if they are curious about something they see – which would never have been my first instinct before I had my son. But with Jack, I welcome people asking about his hand because it gives me the chance to say explain his limb difference and say (so he can hear) that he was just born that way, because that’s the way God made him. Often children are concerned about Jack’s hand because they think he hurt it or it is hurting him, or they wonder if it will continue growing into a full hand – allowing them to ask those questions clears up any confusion and the next time they encounter someone with a similar limb difference, I like to think they will be more open to asking about it, or be understanding of it and in turn more accepting of that person.

3. Point out how we are all different in some way. My eldest son told me he didn’t like a particular kid on his soccer team because that child had curly hair (which honestly made me laugh) but I explained to him that not liking someone because of a difference they had no control over didn’t make any sense. I asked how it would make him feel if someone told him they didn’t like him because his hair was straight or if someone said they didn’t like his brother because of his little hand. He agreed that those weren’t good reasons not to like someone. Talking things like this out with your kids helps take the mystery away and allows them to understand why people are different.

4. Champion a cause. We support the Lucky Fin Project which was started by another mother with a daughter who has a “lucky fin” like our son (and like Nemo from Finding Nemo). The non-profit promotes awareness and supports education about limb differences, but there are many causes similar to this that you can pick from. It provides a learning opportunity for your children, which in turn leads them to be more empathetic and understanding towards people who are different from them.

If you have a child who has a difference of some kind, just keep encouraging and loving them so they never have a chance to believe there is something their difference could keep them from doing. We were lucky enough to meet former Major League pitcher Jim Abbott this spring, ironic since being a pitcher was one thing I initially mentioned that Jack probably wouldn’t be able to do when he was born. Jim was born with a right arm that ended just above his wrist and he not only pitched on his high school baseball team, but also for the 1988 Olympic team and the New York Yankees (pitching a no-hitter for them in 1993). I’ve learned quickly to never say that either of my children can’t or won’t do something, unless I’d like to be proven wrong (but then, that’s all of parenting for you).

Do you have any tips that you’s like to add?



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