In one of our favorite books, Ten Little Finger and Ten Little Toes, author Mem Fox says, “And this little baby as everyone knows has ten little finger and ten little toes.” Kids are naturally curious and uncannily forthright. So when they meet someone who is different, in whatever respect, they want to talk about it and they want answers. I mean, come on, everybody knows that everyone has ten little fingers and ten little toes.
Each family has their own way of addressing differences and while there is certainly no right way, there are a few approaches, even well-intentioned approaches, you may want to reconsider.
Shushing the questions – Attempting to stifle the question, like looking away, implies that there is something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. There is nothing shameful about physical or mental differences.
There is also nothing shameful about one child's respectful curiosity of another’s differences. A legitimate question deserves a legitimate answer. Sometimes a child is asking the question simply because she just wants a little validation that she’s seeing and understanding things correctly. Again, remember, everybody knows that everyone has ten little fingers and ten little toes.
There’s another reason not to attempt to silence the question. As everyone knows, shushing a question, any question, from children usually proves to be pretty ineffective.
Responding that God made him special – Don’t get me wrong, I believe my child to be fearfully and wonderfully made. But when you say that God made a differently abled child “special” or “extra special” by implication then, only differently abled children were created special and God made everyone else “un”special or just regular special. Is that really the message you want to send? (As a side note, this is why I think the phrase “differently abled” is more appropriate than the often misused “special needs.”)
Downplaying the difference - When you agree with a child’s observations about physical differences but then dilute those differences with “it’s like how you were born with green eyes, and some people were born with brown eyes….” you’re doing everyone a disservice. Being born with only one finger is not like being born a red head. You don’t need to “normalize” the difference. Different isn’t abnormal, it’s just different.
So is there a respectful way to handle the situation for all involved? The approach we take when other children ask questions right now is pretty straight forward. Over time, especially as my daughter begins to answer for herself, I’m sure our response will change. But right now this is what we do.
Acknowledge an observation, then move on – When a child asks a question or makes an observation, which frequently is an implied question, we acknowledge the accuracy of the observation. For example:
Where are her other fingers?
There are no other fingers. She only has one finger.
Just one finger?
Yes, just one finger.
That’s just how she was born.
It seems that once kids notice the difference and have it addressed, they move on. It becomes a non-issue, for everyone. If they don’t move on, we prompt them in that direction by asking them a question about themselves. Having someone talk about themselves, be it a child or an adult, almost always immediately steers the conversation elsewhere or ends it.
While you can’t prepare your kids for every person or situation they might possibly encounter, you can ready your own response. Not only does it give you a graceful way to handle the present situation but it also buys you some time until you can sit down with your kids and have a thoughtful, meaningful conversation.