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Helping Children Understand People with Differences

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An Opportunity… So many parents have had experiences similar to this. I was standing in the line at the pharmacy, holding my daughter in my arms, when a man who had a form of dwarfism came and stood behind us. To my dismay, my daughter immediately took notice that there was something different about this man and loudly asked me, “Momma, baby?” pointing her little finger. A moment later, a bit more insistent, “Baby?” Mortified, I whispered in her ear and tried to distract her. “Look at the balloons?’ What colors do you see?” But she was focused and got louder. “BABY?” she said in a voice that everyone could hear clearly. I turned to the man behind me and made eye contact, ready to apologize, when he stepped forward and said, “No, I’m not a baby. I’m a full grown man, but I’m a dwarf so I’m shorter than other men.” Feeling the color drain from my beet red face, I thanked him and he smiled. My daughter paused and looked at him for another second or two, and then decided she was ready to tell me what colors she saw. “Yellow,” she said pointing to a mylar balloon. Yes, “yellow,” I responded.

I learned something in that encounter at the pharmacy and remain grateful to the man behind me in line who stepped forward to help me through it. Children notice differences. Usually, there is nothing attached to those differences. After all, there I was in line pointing to differences. In this case it was differences in colors. Every day, I was teaching my daughter to differentiate something. “No, this is a pear, not an apple. Can you see how the shape is different?” In this age of political correctness, we are not supposed to notice differences when it comes to people. We are certainly not supposed to comment on them. In a few short seconds, the man in the pharmacy line taught me that children need understanding and simple, uncomplicated responses when it comes to differences in people– differences that they are going to notice. There have been many moments since that day when I used the tool he gave me, ”Yes, he/she is different. Not everyone looks the same or is born the same. It’s a part of what makes people so interesting.”

I believe that children feel empathy naturally. They actually feel for the people they encounter. Sometimes, this can scare them. I remember my daughter becoming upset seeing someone without limbs for the first time. She knew something painful had happened to the man she saw and the reality of it overwhelmed her. “Why did that happen to him, Mom? It’s not fair,” she said through her tears. The responses in these moments are not easy. “I don’t know,” I remember replying, feeling like I was peeling away my child’s innocent view of the world. “Accidents happen. And you’re right. It isn’t fair. But look, he’s eating his lunch. He’s got a really sweet-looking dog. He looks different, but he’s a person just like you and me. Most of his life is just like ours.”

At the core of teaching children how to deal with people with differences is teaching them to see and embrace peoples’ humanity, to find common ground despite differences. Developing this skill will influence every aspect of a child’s life. Whether negotiating around a conference table as an adult, the playground as a child, or the sidewalk in a foreign land as a youth, being able to hone in on the core of what you have in common is central to a successful life. The best part of understanding and appreciating differences in the context of also understanding and appreciating commonalities is that it is a skill that can be learned. Experiences and encounters with people with differences is an opportunity for us as parents to teach it.

[AUTHOR: Hilary Doubleday]

March 15, 2015

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