"As different as we are from one another,as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults."
Helping our children feel comfortable with people who have disabilities begins with helping our children feel good about their own uniqueness. When we show them that we love them for all of who they are, regardless of what they can and cannot do, they’re more likely to grow up to be adults who accept others just as they are.
- THOUGHTS FROM FRED ROGERS
- Helpful Hints
Alike and Different
Preschoolers are just beginning to be exposed to differences as they expand their interests to other people beyond the family. They're trying to make sense of the world by organizing things into categories. That's why they often become fascinated with matching and sorting games ‑‑ games about what's alike and what's different.
They tend to categorize people that way, too. In their attempt to understand the world, their early categories can be quite rigid: old and young, light‑skinned and dark‑skinned, girls and boys, good and bad.
That's often why they may want to befriend children who are like them and feel uncomfortable with children who look and sound different from them. Also, a child can sense that adults are uncomfortable, when they say something like, "don't stare" or when they walk quickly by someone who looks different.
“Can that happen to me?”
Some differences can be particularly upsetting. Since young children don’t know much about cause and effect, they can have many misconceptions about their bodies. They may think that since a stuffed animal's leg can come off, maybe their leg could come off, too. They sometimes might even wonder if they can "catch" a disability by touching someone who has a disability or by sitting in a wheelchair. They can be particularly fearful of older children and adults who cannot walk. After spending so much effort in recently learning to walk themselves, they may worry that they'll "forget" how to do it someday.
At this time in their lives, children focus a lot on what's "good" and what's "bad." They may wonder if a disability happens as a punishment for doing something "bad," if a person could become blind from seeing something "bad" or deaf from hearing something "bad." And of course, young children might be afraid that something similar could happen to them as they struggle to control their "bad" urges.
If those kinds of concerns aren't "mentioned," they can easily turn into awkwardness, tension, and even fear. But when we encourage children to talk about whatever they're wondering, we often find that they become more accepting and empathetic. Asking and openly talking about differences helps children get beyond the fears so that they can feel more comfortable with people who have disabilities. As unique as each one of us is, we human beings are much more similar than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow towards being caring, compassionate adults.
Attitudes Are Caught, Not Taught
Children take their cues from the adults they love. There's an old Quaker saying that "Attitudes are caught, not taught.” We help our children respect others in subtle ways -- by the way we greet people, talk with them, and talk about them afterwards. Children learn from our example.
Because of the misconceptions and fears that young children have about disabilities, parents need to encourage their children to ask questions, but parents need to be listeners, too. If your child has a question about a disability that you can’t answer, you can say, "I don't know, but maybe we can find out." You could ask the person who has a disability to help you with your answer. Most people like to know you're interested in them. Of course, sensitive parents can help their children learn where, when, and how it's appropriate to ask their questions. Your children may feel more comfortable talking about such things with someone they know well, like an elderly family member or a neighbor.
Certainly children don't have to like everyone in the world. No one does. But with the help of the grownups in their lives, they can learn to be "neighborly," respectful, courteous, and kind. As children grow, they come to understand that if they take the time to get to know someone, they’ll discover so much more about that person than what they thought at first.
- When you're talking about someone with a disability, be sure to talk about that person's abilities, as well.
- If you see someone with a disability who might need help, it's a good idea to ask if that person wants help. You could talk with your child about times when you or your child appreciated someone's help -- and other times when you wanted to do something yourself.
- Point out things that make it easier for people who have disabilities to manage, like ramps for wheelchairs, Braille signs on elevators, special computers for people who have difficulty talking.
- Tell your child about a time when you grew to appreciate someone who seemed different at first. Children need to know that it often takes time to get to know someone and to feel comfortable with that person.
- Ask your child to talk about what it feels like to come into a group and be ignored or left out. Talking about those feelings can eventually help your child develop empathy for someone with a disability who might feel left out.
- When you're at the library, look for books about diversity. There are many stories about the ways that people are different. You're helping your child know that diversity is part of what makes this world a rich and interesting place.
- Talk with your children about things they themselves are able and unable to do. Everyone in the world has abilities and disabilities.