I’m an amputee. I had cancer over 40 years ago when I was a teenager, and my right leg was amputated. I use crutches to move through the world. Being an amputee is not a subtle handicap – it’s 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. This is nothing new to me – it’s just the way my body is. (Plus I am a kids’ science teacher – I thinks it’s great when children notice interesting things about their world!)
I overhear 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 to walk. You and I have two legs that we walk on.” “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 don’t know why she only has one leg. It may have been an accident or she may have been born that way.”
On the other hand, I overhear other parents respond in ways that are not as helpful. It makes me sad when I hear things like “Shh… don’t say anything.” “That’s not nice.” Or “hush – let’s cross the street.”
When you respond this way, you are inadvertently teaching 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 disability 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.
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 physical disability, skin color, tattoos, clothing, weight, hair, developmental disability, or whatever, think about how to respond.
I try to respond in a way that 1) honors the personhood of whoever we are talking about; 2) acknowledges the difference the child noticed, 3) gives them appropriate language for describing it, and 4) finds some commonality between my child and the other person.
Once, on our way into the library, my then 5 year old son said very loudly – “that man is really fat!” I quietly said to him “Yes, people come in all shapes and sizes.” Then I observed: “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 heavy, other people in our society do. So, saying loudly that someone is fat might feel like an insult to them, and might hurt their feelings. I encouraged him in the future to make observations like that more quietly, or save them to ask me later.
What if your child asks them a question?
Sometimes your child just walks right up to someone and blurts out a question about the difference they have noticed. I never mind that. But some people are very uncomfortable being asked questions about differences, and some people are just exhausted by being asked the same question over and over and always having to step up and answer it. (There’s a great children’s book on this called What Happened to You by James Catchpole where a child with one leg gets tired of being asked about it when he’d rather just play on the playground.)
If your child has already asked the question, you just have to do your best in the moment. If they asked me, you would notice that I might smile at your child and look open and approachable, so you could step back and let me answer the question. If the person looks uncomfortable, you could briefly apologize to that person, and then say to your child as you walk away something like “when you have questions about things, you can always ask me – you noticed something about that person that was different than what you’re familiar with. I can explain it to you.”
Read more about how to talk to young children about differences.