I’m an amputee. I had cancer 30 years ago when I was a teenager and my right leg was amputated. It’s nothing new to me – just the way my body is. It is not a subtle handicap – but one you can see easily from 100 feet away. So every place I go where there are children, a child will point and exclaim. “Look, that lady only has one leg!!”
It is fine with me!! Really.
I also hear parents respond to their children. Helpful and positive responses include: “Yes, you’re right, she has one leg.” “Yes, you’ve noticed that she’s different from other people you know. But she’s hiking on the trail just like we are.” “What are those sticks? They’re crutches, they help her walk.” “Yes, she has one leg and uses crutches and you and I have two legs that we walk on.” “I don’t know why she only has one leg. It may have been an accident or she may have been born that way.” “I don’t know – why don’t you ask her.” (You might not use this in all situations, but if I’m smiling back at your child and saying “yep, you’re right” then that probably means I’m pretty approachable.) “Yes, there’s all kinds of people in the world, including some with one leg.” “That’s interesting, isn’t it. Let’s talk about it later.”
I’m sad when instead I hear “Shh… don’t say anything.” “That’s not nice.”
What you’ve just taught your child is that being handicapped is a bad thing. A shameful thing which we don’t talk about in public. You have implied that it is something we should all feel bad about and that it’s better not to think about it.
And you’ve also discouraged your child from being curious and making observations about the world around them.
Now, I get that things can sometimes be awkward. I am not sensitive about my handicap. But some people are, and might find it distressing to be “noticed” so loudly. I still think it’s appropriate for you to respond quietly to your child with some variant of the positive comments above. And then talk to them about it more at some other time.
Children notice differences. It’s part of what they need to do to learn about their world: Identify similarities and differences in the things they see around them. They are constantly constructing their own definitions of things, including all the ways in which people’s appearance can vary.
Whatever the “difference” is that your child is noticing, whether commenting on someone’s skin color, tattoos, clothing, weight, hair, developmental disabilities, or whatever, think about how to respond to it in a way that acknowledges the personhood of the person your child has commented on and encourages your child to still keep making observations and asking questions about their world.
Last week, my 5 year old said quite loudly “Wow. That man is really fat.” Would I have been happier if that had never happened… of course. Do I wish I could take it back? Yes, but what’s said is said, so how do we move forward from there?
I quietly said to him “Yes, people come in all shapes and sizes. It looks like he’s on his way into the library just like we are. Looks like you both love to read.” Later on, I had a conversation with my son about it. I explained that although we as a family do not believe that it is bad if someone is fat, other people in our society do. So, saying loudly that someone is fat might seem like an insult to them, and might hurt their feelings. I encouraged him to make observations like that more quietly in the future. Or ask me later about the people that we see.
I wrote a post a while back about race and how to talk to your child about race. Much of it is relevant to a discussion of other ways that people may differ from each other, and how we also help our children learn what they have in common with different people. You can find it here.