Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Guide to Talking about Differences

I get asked a lot by parents of young children about how they should best respond to the questions that their children ask about my kids' disabilities. I always appreciate this question because 1) I know that it took courage to come ask me and 2) It allows me to share information that will hopefully make a bridge between that parent's child and mine.

Elias (age 9) is old enough now that he can answer these questions on his own. He generally chooses to just not reply to questions from strangers which is his right and I'm proud of him for setting that boundary. 

A quick story about Elias responding to questions independently: When he was about three years old, some people approached him and asked a question about his leg. I was too far away to intersect the question so I just watched from a distance. I was astounded that my young boy answered the question exactly as I had always done- word-for-word, including my personal hand gestures! My lesson that day was that he is watching me intently to learn how he should respond to others. I want my (and my kids') responses to be full of grace and honor and also with appropriate boundaries when necessary.

Here are a few tips on how to interact with my family (or others with differences)...

1.  Curiosity is normal and healthy! Please don't feel badly for being curious about my family. And please don't shush your child if they ask a question about our differences or make a harmless comment. This only teaches your child that the difference is something to be ashamed of and not talked about. Take advantage of the curiosity as an opportunity to educate your child.

2. Consider the context before asking questions. When someone is engaged in conversation or has their arms full of groceries, that is usually not the best time to ask questions.

3. My child is asking questions about your child. How should I answer their questions? I like this question because it means that the parent is willing to educate their child which helps bridge connection. And also this puts the onus on the parent talking with the child themselves rather than me needing to field all their questions.

For Elias our simple answer is that, "When he was born, his leg had a problem and he couldn't walk. So he had a surgery and the doctors fixed his leg so that he can wear this prosthetic leg now and run and walk like you and me." I sometimes add something like "and he is doing great now" or "it doesn't hurt him at all" because kids worry about these things.

For Tessa our simple answer is "She was just born without legs and part of her arm. And she is really healthy and happy and uses a cool wheelchair to get around."

4. Don't encourage your child's independence by having them come alone to ask us all their questions.  Please come with them! This way you are involved in helping them learn and can continue the conversation with them if they bring it up again in the future.

5. Don't ask: "What happened to her/him?" if I don't already know you or we aren't already engaged in conversation. And especially not when my children are around. I just cringe when I see strangers approaching me because they want to ask this question. While I understand curiosity, it's really just not their business. And it makes my kids feel isolated and strange.

6. Ask permission first before asking questions. "Do you mind if I ask about your son/daughter?" allows me (or my child) to make our own choice about whether or not we can respond to questions at that moment.

7. Keep in mind that you are not the first one to comment or ask questions. In fact, you may be the 20th person that day who has approached us with a comment or question.

8. Don't sensationalize my child's disability. As able-bodied people, it is hard to imagine living without arms or legs. But to my kids, it's just who they are. Sure they have obstacles to overcome and have to learn how to do things differently. But to them, it's really not amazing when they walk around on a prosthetic or hold a cup with one hand.

9. Set realistic expectations. By age 4, people were already talking to Elias about competing in the Paralympics. But in reality, no one goes up to an average soccer-player able-bodied kid and says, "Dude! You are totally going to make it to the Oympics!" It's just not realistic. And this kind of talk sets an expectation that people with disabilities have to do extraordinary feats to "overcome" their disability in a way. They don't. Just who they are, with their disability (not "in-spite of") is enough.

10. Take the initiative to build relationships with people who are different from you.  This really takes intentionality because without effort we easily end up surrounding ourselves with people who are just like us. So branch out and make friends with people who look, believe, speak and act different from you. Your life will be infinitely richer because of it!


  1. Oh goodness, Meagan, so great! Thank you for this. Can I share on my blog? I can so relate to these the "shoosh!" thing the other day from a little boy's mother while at the dentists office and it made all of my kids feel strange. This is very encouraging, and so well written! K

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Kristin- please do! And add to the list too because I know there are many more that I haven't thought of.

  2. Hi, I found you from Kristin's blog. I have a question that I'm hoping you can clarify. In number 1, you say it's good to be curious, but then you say in number 5 that even though it's normal to be curious, it's none of our business. I have a daughter with special needs (intellectual disability), so I understand people's reactions. I felt a little confused though from your list. Thanks!

    1. This is a great question and one I even thought of when I wrote the list. I think the difference between #1 and #5 is the actions someone takes in response to their curiosity. Even though curiosity is normal, there are still appropriate boundaries. For example, it is a cultural norm in our country to not stare at people, even when we may feel curious.

      It feels different to me when someone says to Elias, "That's a really cool leg. How does it work?" versus, "What happened to you?" To me, the second question crosses personal boundaries, especially in the context of a total stranger walking up to us to ask that question. I would never walk up to a stranger and ask them to tell me a personal story that may invoke painful and difficult emotions for them.

      Does this make sense? What do you think from your own experience with your daughter?

  3. My obsession today? You. This is just one more car on that train. :)
    Love all your words. So happy to have found you today via Noonday.

  4. I just bought the "Tessa" bracelet from a Noonday sample sale, so I'm catching up on the namesake of my new piece of jewelry. Thank you SO much for this post! I've often wondered what some appropriate ways would be to answer my child's curious questions (my oldest is only 3) about others. This gives me great insight!! Thanks again!