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How I’m teaching my child to treat others with special needs

September 15, 2014

I was with my two kids recently at an indoor play place when a teaching moment happened upon us. We saw a little boy there with his mom, and he was sitting in a wheelchair. My 4-year-old looked at him curiously and then asked (in a rather loud voice), “Mom, why is he sitting in that chair instead of walking?”

The way she said it gave me the feeling that she thought perhaps he was choosing to be a little bit lazy by sitting in a chair instead of running around with all of the other kids. For a second, I thought about simply ignoring it. That would have been the easiest thing to do, but I just couldn’t let that teaching opportunity slip by. There was something about the way she looked at him that bothered me, and I had to address it.

I recognized the look in her eyes as the same look that many of us give to someone who may be a little bit different. She was afraid, uneasy, wanting to keep her distance from him. Perhaps we adults have learned to disguise it better or look only when the person isn’t looking at us, but we do it. Our eyes give away our feelings of fear, confusion, embarrassment, curiosity that come upon us when faced with something or someone we don’t understand.

I decided to ease her fear and uncertainty by making this experience something she could understand. I wanted to make known what was unknown. So, I took her hand and said, “Let’s go introduce ourselves. We’ll make a new friend.”

We went over and asked the little boy’s name. His eyes lit up as we talked for a few minutes. Somehow, just being in close with him and looking in his eyes and talking to him even though there was a wheelchair between us sent a message to my little girl. She needed to see me giving her an example of how to handle this situation. When I talked with this little boy and his mom just like I talk to everyone else, it sent her the signal that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of. When this little boy talked to her and showed her his favorite stuffed animal, it allowed her to see that he was a little boy just like any other. Once she was able to move beyond the outward circumstances of a wheelchair, she was able to see him for the person that he truly is.

In the car on the way home, I asked her what she thought about her new friend. She was glad to meet him, but still had questions.

“But, Mom, why does he have that chair?”

“Well,” I said. “You remember how I’ve told you before that sometimes babies

are born with some problems, and they need doctors to take care of them?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Well, he was born with a problem that makes it really hard for him to walk.

He can walk, but he has had to work very, very hard to learn to walk. It’s not

as easy for him as it is for you and me. Sometimes, if he gets tired, he needs to

sit in the chair, and that makes it easier for him to move around.”

“Oh,” she said. I could tell that she had previously thought only older people

had wheelchairs, and this was a new thing to think about a small child having

a disability. “So, he came out of his Mommy’s tummy and his legs had problems?”

“Yeah, but you know what’s really cool about him? He had those problems

when he was born, but he has worked really, really hard to make them better.

It’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?”

Silence. I could tell she was sorting it all out in her mind.

“You know, we all are a little bit different in our own way,” I said. Even if you and I don’t have a wheelchair, we all have something that’s just a little bit different about us and that’s okay. The important thing to know is that there’s nothing to be afraid of and that we should be kind to people, no matter what.”

From there the conversation sort of dwindled. There really wasn’t an indication to me that a light bulb had come on and she would be forever changed by this experience. But for me, this was one moment in what I hope to be a series of experiences that we share throughout her childhood where I’m able to model for her the way I’d like her to approach the world.

My hope is that by helping her to get to know a child with a disability, she will one day be able to look beyond the outward circumstances and see the real person underneath. It will take time, but she’ll get there.