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How to Talk to Your Child About Differences

Sep 17, 2015

Kids are curious. Parents are protective.  Sometimes these two qualities get in the way of one another, even when we are all doing our best. So, as one of those protective parents, I’d like to tell our story… maybe it will help someone else along the way.

My son Drew was born with a congenital limb difference (his right arm ends just below the elbow).  It’s a pretty obvious difference when you look at him.  His “little arm,” as he calls it, has been the source of awesome new friends, questions, stares, and a few really tough moments. When he was a baby, I worried less because he was unaware of the stares.  As a toddler, his very protective big sister tended to tell any child who looked that “my brother was born this way and he can do anything you can do.” Now, Drew understands more, and is learning how to address the stares and questions on his own.  On occasion, this process is heartbreaking as his mama.

One evening we were playing at a neighborhood park. I noticed a group of 3-4 kids following Drew while he was climbing the playground.  It started with stares and pointing, but progressed to loud pronouncements that he was “creepy,” “ugly,” and something to fear.  Drew was scared and trying to get away, so I got involved.  This was new territory.  Stares were common, and parents quieting their children and walking away happened pretty frequently too.  Those children who had said something to this point had typically asked “What happened to his arm?” and “Does it hurt?”  So this interaction took me by surprise (and I was really ticked).  I took a deep breath and walked over to the kids.  All but one ran.  The girl who remained had her arms crossed and had a “so what” look on her face.  But, she softened once I asked her why she thought Drew’s arm was creepy.  The dialogue that followed was enlightening for both of us. Afterward, I went to find her dad on the nearby soccer field and explained what had happened.  He was shocked and embarrassed, so then I thought: How should we teach our children to approach or ask about differences?  Is there a “right” way?

I went home and did what we all seem to do; I went online.  I vented on a few limb difference social media pages, and amazing people pointed me to wonderful resources for guidance and support.

And based on what I’ve learned so far, here’s what I would propose when it comes to children noticing and pointing out differences:

  1. Your child will probably stare (you probably will too).  We know that and we see it.  Try to do so in a way that is curious but friendly, throw in a smile to seem less threatening.
  2. It’s ok for your child to ask a question, please don’t just shush them when try to.  Kids are supposed to ask questions, and it’s our job to help them learn how to.  So, embrace the teachable moment, even if you feel awkward or embarrassed about it. And, if your child says, “how did that happen” or asks why, it’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know.”  And, it’s ok to come and ask. When you do, introduce yourself, be kind and polite, maybe make a point to talk about something other than his arm too.
  3. It’s not ok to touch him, at least not without his permission.  Personal space still applies and we have to teach little ones that.  Now, I will admit that recently my little charmer has started using his little arm as a tool for flirting with girls at soccer practice…so look out!
  4. Most importantly, be proactive.  Differences are everywhere, and they are not only okay, they are important.  Unfortunately the news is so full of intolerance and hate.  Spend some time teaching your children the opposite. Watching my older daughter has been fascinating.  As her brother’s protector, limb differences don’t phase her, but she is recognizing and processing more and more of the differences around her (weight, race, family structure, etc.).  So far, her reaction has been more of a non-response, along the lines of “so, why would anyone care?”  Wouldn’t it be great if she could have that perspective forever?  It’s certainly what I’d like to teach her.

Children are not born knowing which groups to include/exclude.  Teach them to approach all others with kindness and compassion. Talk about all kinds of differences, read to them.  Have the conversations so that when they come across someone different from them, maybe they find a new friend, rather than seeing that person as frightening or “creepy.”  Let’s teach our children that beauty is so much more than what is on the outside.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” –Dr. Seuss

For more great resources on how to help your child talk about and acknowledge differences in a compassionate, polite way, check out these website:

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Amanda E. Graf, MD
Center for Perinatal Research

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.