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Physical and Learning Disabilities: How to Talk to Young Kids about Differences

Posted by Melissa A

This past week, my son M pointed out that he noticed a child who stood out for an unusual difference. I quickly pointed out to him that everyone is made differently and that he should never make fun of that child if he sees him again. Thankfully, this sunk in because we saw the child a couple days later and he didn’t say a word. I was holding my breath until we made it safely into the car, just in case he felt the need to comment at all. The next night, at dinner, he brought up the same child again and asked why he looked that way. This spurred my older son E into talking about kids who looked funny for different reasons.  I then told E that it wasn’t nice to say those kinds of things, as some kids might say he looks funny with his cochlear implant. He told me that it’s camouflaged so no one will notice it. I told him they will and he needs to be prepared for that.

Thankfully, E is very confident about wearing his cochlear implant. However, I could see why other kids could be self conscious about what makes them different. I was self-conscious over my frizzy curly hair when I was growing up. It’s more manageable now and I’ve grown to love it over time. However, it was torturous to be asked if I’d stuck my finger in an electric socket. I wouldn’t even go to school if I had a bad hair day. (This goes along with the bullying I mentioned recently.) When I was in junior high, there was a class for kids with developmental disabilities. The more obnoxious kids would make fun of them all the time. I didn’t feel comfortable joining in, as I didn’t feel it was right. I wouldn’t say that I befriended them, but I left them alone.

I currently have a very close friend who looks different on the outside, for health reasons, but is very kind and easy to talk with. My kids have known her since they were babies and they know how sweet she is, too. I’m so thankful that they see past her physical differences to her inner beauty. If they did ask her about why she looks different, she already is prepared to explain it in a way that they can understand. She’s no stranger to such questions, unfortunately. If they asked me about these differences, I would explain them in a similar way and also tell them that these don’t keep her from being a kind and loving friend.

I do think that talking about differences starts at home. How parents handle the topic will have an important effect on how kids treat other kids who stand out for their differences. It’s one thing that no two kids look alike, but it’s quite another when there’s a more obvious difference for a child to point out and potentially ridicule. There aren’t just physical differences to educate about, but also religious and cultural differences. I don’t want my kids growing up to be racist or make offensive remarks about another person’s religion. Earlier in the school year, E was bothered by kids tugging on his tzitzit. My husband went to his school to explain to all the kids about what tzitzit are. I know he wouldn’t want to put another child through that if they wore a religious item.

In regards to physical differences, we have a book called “A Very Special Critter” by Gina and Mercer Mayer. It’s age-appropriate for E and M and it teaches some very important lessons. For teenagers, I recommend reading books or watching shows that feature people with disabilities. The recent  “Glee Project,” had two young adults with physical disabilities who auditioned for the show this year. Even “Glee” itself features characters with physical and developmental disabilities. Talk about these differences with your child and make sure they understand that we’re all basically the same on the inside, no matter how we look or how “differently abled” we are.
How do you explain differences to your kids?


About Melissa A

Melissa A. and her husband have 2 young sons, E and M, and a new baby daughter. Melissa's son E has hearing loss and wears a cochlear implant. Melissa works as an administrative assistant for a non-profit and also runs a bullying prevention group and a book-related fan group, in addition to blogging for Empowering Parents. You can check out Melissa’s personal blog here.

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