‘Mummy that boy’s head moves a lot. Look. There he’s walking and his head is moving.’
‘Shhh. We don’t say things like that.’
…’Oh, I’m so sorry.’
Please don’t ever apologise to us. Please don’t ever feel embarrassed by your child’s observation. Just like that tiny bug crawling across a leaf, or the plane leaving white stripes in the sky, your child wants to show you something interesting.
We aren’t offended. We know that Jack has a disability. We know that he walks differently to some children. But it’s just different, not worse, or abnormal, just different.
Difference is all around us; in fact from what I know of nature, no two things are exactly alike. But when we shush a child, when we feel embarrassed by what they have said or done, what we are saying, whether consciously or not, is that your particular difference is something you should be sensitive to, something that we can’t talk about because you’ll be offended in some way and thereby making your difference, your disability something that is in fact abnormal.
And it is not abnormal. It is just different.
Every time a child is told that they aren’t supposed to notice a person’s differences, they place that person on the outer. This is how bullying starts. For the fact that you walk differently to me is more profound to the fact that I have brown hair and you have red. We accept a comment about differences in hair colour, or differences in height, ‘Yes, he is a lot taller than you.’, maybe because we all have these same differences, so why not the other differences too?
Why is an observation about a disability or more profound physical difference so taboo? Why do we become embarrassed when our child notices that that man is missing a limb, or that woman has a large birthmark on their face? Or that boy moves his head when he walks? Is it because we assume that they too are sensitive to their difference and so we don’t want to draw their attention back to it?
Well I can tell you that at least in our case, and in all the other cases of perfectly normal people with perfectly normal differences that we have known, we are just fine, more than fine, with who we are. So please, don’t feel embarrassed and don’t quieten your child.
Have a conversation just like you would any other time. Acknowledge their observation, answer any questions they might have practically and honestly; normalise difference.
Just this week Jack and I had a similar conversation on the bus. A person in a wheelchair got on the bus the stop after we did. We were sitting in the seats allocated for people with disabilities and so moved seats to make room for this man.
‘But why do we have to move Mummy?’
‘There is a person coming on the bus who has a wheelchair and they need this space.’
‘But why do they need this chair?’
‘These chairs move up so the person can fit their wheelchair.’
‘Why does he have a wheelchair?’
‘Wheelchairs help people who can’t walk to move around.’
‘Yeah. Maybe he can’t walk.’
‘Yeah. You’re probably right.’
We hopped up and moved and that was the end of it. Just a normal respectful conversation. Nothing to be embarrassed about.
So next time your child comments on another person’s differences, please don’t feel embarrassed. Acknowledge your child’s observation and move on; normalise difference.
Imagine what a profound change we could make to this world if all children were brought up believing that all people are different and that no matter how great those differences, that it really is no big deal; not something to be embarrassed about, not something we don’t discuss, not something to be pitied or avoided, just normal; perfectly normal difference.