What to say when children ask difficult questions about others.
By Meredith Cornish
Yesterday morning, I took two of my sons, Wesley and James, to the gastroenterologist for their regular G-tube and weight visits. I took my daughter Harper along, but the other kids had stayed with my husband Michael since I left the house at 7am, so he got them up and going.
As we were leaving the clinic, there was a little boy, who was probably six years old or so, and his mom. This is a specialty clinic, so many of the children there have some form of medical or other special needs. I wheeled Wesley’s chair out, carrying Harper and giving directions to James of where to go, and I heard the little boy loudly say to his mom, “Why’s he in that? Why isn’t he walking?” Since I was busy, I didn’t turn or react, but it seemed clear to me his mom had no idea what to say and was trying to get him to just be quiet until we had left. The little boy said again, “Why is he in that?” At this point, I was almost to the door, but it’s a small waiting room, and I was trying to navigate opening the door and getting James out along with the baby and the chair. The mom saw me and started to get up to come help. The boy said again, “Why doesn’t he walk?” By now I felt like I was “engaging” with them since the mom was asking if she could help (I had already managed it, though I do appreciate that she took concern)—so I answered the little boy.
“Wesley uses a wheelchair because he can’t use his legs to walk. It’s just the way he is, and it’s OK. The wheelchair helps him get around, though.” Then I smiled at his mom and the nurse and secretary who were getting nervous at the desk, and I pushed the chair the rest of the way out the door and left. I’m sure I asked this question of other parents before I was the mother I am today—because we often do wonder how to answer our kids’ loud and maybe “non-PC” questions. Here are a few thoughts on what things seem to make my kids feel good about themselves and what things make me feel good about the interactions based around the “why” questions that often come up about our children.
1. Don’t ignore your kid. They’ll probably just ask louder. For real, we’ve been there (my kids have asked these questions, too!). Kids’ questions are innocent most of the time, and I believe it’s good to acknowledge that they have asked!
2. Answer their questions. I’ve found “I don’t know why” is often an OK answer to the questions kids ask. If the question is about a device, wheelchair, brace, cast or so on then, in my opinion, saying “They must need it” is all right.
3. Don’t make up a story. The child or adult who is the topic of your conversation may be listening. Don’t make up a story to make it easier to explain their differences. Everyone has their own story, and for the person with special needs hearing you tell a story about them, this might only make them feel more conflicted about being talked about.
4. Address the person! Yep, I’d say go ahead and ask! As long as it is a respectful question, go with your child to talk to the person with a disability.
5. Don’t let your kid be rude. If they point out an obvious scar or other facial difference, then I believe it’s best to address your child and let them know that’s not a nice way to ask a question, and that because a person is “different” doesn’t mean they should say things in a mean way…here are some more tips…
In a world of political correctness, sometimes we can worry too much about how our children (or we ourselves!) are being perceived and don’t worry enough about just being nice to each other. Every one of my kids will give a high-five or knuckle bump, even though they can’t all talk. When someone goes out of their way to engage with them, especially to call them by name, they love it.
As the mom of six kids with varying special needs and the mom of five “typically developing” (and curious!) kids, I see the value in encouraging all of our children to be respectful; to remember that kids with special needs are kids; and to reach out to others who are different from themselves.
Reprint permission from themighty.com.
A digital platform for people facing disability and mental illness.
Meredith Cornish is the mother of 11 children, aged one to 13 years. Seven of her kids live with a spectrum of physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioural, visual, hearing, speech and developmental conditions. She and her husband are blessed with six children by adoption and five by birth. Read her blog at cornishadoptionjourney.blogspot.com.