One time I was sitting near a young mom and her little girl on the Max (Portland’s light rail system). The daughter was probably 5ish years old, and her curious eyes were taking me in.
“Why does she have that chair?” she asked her mom.
“I don’t know, let’s ask her….” She turned to me, “Is it ok if she asks you a question?”
The daughter asked, I answered, and we had a short, pleasant enough conversation.
As we were settling back into silence, the girl’s eyes still hadn’t left me. A few beats passed, and the mom told her, “Ok, now you’re staring, and it’s not polite to stare at people.” She redirected her attention elsewhere.
This might all sound like the most simple, commonplace interaction… And it was pretty simple, but definitely not common! I was so impressed with this young mom’s parenting skills, I went ahead and told her, “You’re doing such a good job as a mom! You just taught your daughter to talk to people, not about them. You taught her that it’s ok to ask questions, but not ok to stare…. I wish more people would teach their kids these things.”
I’m sharing this story because after this post, I got a few comments from moms asking for my opinions about what to do, or not do, with curious children.
Please don’t teach your child that disability is something to be afraid of, too horrible to talk about. Don’t shush them, or drag them quickly away from me. And when possible, avoid making up answers about me. I liked how this mom asked my permission, acknowledging that I don’t have to answer and don’t owe anybody any information, then directed the questions to me. While different people you encounter are going to have different levels of willingness to engage with your kid, I assure you that your child is nowhere near the first to ask them about their disability. We’re all extremely used to it and have well rehearsed responses.
Please be aware of the difference between a comment that is observing, and a comment that is insulting. “Look, mommy, that lady has a wheelchair.” They’re just taking in the world around them, as kids do. I’ll probably smile, and I hope I’ll hear you say something like, “Yes, she does. It looks like it helps her get around.” Then either move on, or direct further conversation to me, not about me.
“Look, mommy, that lady looks weird.” Ok, that’s rude, and you’re the parent, so it’s your job to teach your kid manners. Please don’t make me do it for you. But also, again, please don’t make disability scary. In these moments, I hope to hear something like, “That’s not a nice thing to say, and I don’t agree. She just moves around the world in a different way than you and I do. Isn’t it cool how people are all different? The world would be so boring if we were all the same.”
If you’d like some bonus points, after your child has started a conversation and I’ve answered some of her questions, you can talk to me the same way you would anybody else. Make some small talk. Introduce yourself, ask my name, how I’m liking this weather, what I do, tell me you love my hair. (Because, you do love my hair. You can’t help it.:)) We don’t need to stretch this out into a huge conversation, because we’d both probably like to move on with our day. But since we’ve already taken a moment to show your child that differences are ok, it’s nice to also show them that I’m not that different. We probably also have things in common.
Please teach your child not to stare. I know that kids do this naturally, but it makes me really uncomfortable, and when an adult is right there and doing nothing to teach them better, I get irritated. If they aren’t taught, then they’ll continue doing it as they get older, and aren’t so forgivably cute anymore.
One more anecdote…
I have a friend who checks in with me sometimes after her daughter’s asked a disability question, to compare notes about how she handled it. A while ago, she told me that her daughter had been asking about me, and then asked, “Does it make her sad? That she has to use a wheelchair?”
I wasn’t present for the conversation, but I wish I would have been. The question melted my heart a bit, and I’d have loved to give her a very honest answer. “Sometimes. Sometimes it makes me sad, and sometimes it makes me angry, and sometimes it makes me feel lonely, like nobody understands. Some days are hard. But most of the time, no, I’m not sad. Most of the time I’m busy doing things I love with people that I love, and that makes me happy. My wheelchair makes me different, and different is cool. My wheelchair makes me who I am, and I’m happy with who I am… Plus, it’s fun when I get to drive it really fast!”
The little girl who asked the “does it make her sad” question has autism. People think that autism means you can’t connect with other people, that you can’t understand emotions or have empathy. But clearly, people are wrong.