My 4-year-old daughter is bright, inquisitive, and is forever asking the question why lately. While most days this is not a problem, recently she noticed a stranger in a wheelchair at a restaurant. She walked up to the person and asked why they cannot walk. I felt embarrassed and protective of the person sitting in a wheelchair, so I hurried my child along to avoid a confrontation. While I might have avoided an uncomfortable conversation, I wish I had handled it differently. Can you help me prepare my response for the next time?
Encountering differences with a small child can be challenging! Their young minds want to know and understand everything. When this happens, you not only have a teaching opportunity for the child but an opportunity to sense an affirming message to the person being questioned. But before allowing your child to approach a stranger, I would suggest that you look for subtle clues that the person is willing to be approached. This might include making eye contact with your child, as well as observing positive facial expressions or body language by the person in the wheelchair that suggests he or she is open to conversation. If it is someone your child can have a brief chat with, monitor the conversation and guide your child to have a positive experience. Point out similarities, use inclusive language and assist your child in seeing the person before the disability.
There will be times when approaching a person directly is not an option. At those times answer your child’s questions and seize the opportunity to teach them about disabilities. Use inclusive language, normalize differences, and make it value neutral. Make sure not to shame the inquisitive child for asking a question and be honest with what you do or do not know. You can also have inclusive books and media in your home. A child who is older can begin to learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act and ways to accommodate differences, so everyone has the same opportunities. Start talking to your child as young as possible and keep talking about people with disabilities so they grow up understanding diversity and inclusion.
I also recommend every parent examine their own thoughts and beliefs about disabilities. Parents need to model behavior that demonstrates acceptance and inclusivity. You may want to look at the PJ Library website, https://pjlibrary.org/search?q=disability, for more information about books for children about differences along with information about creating inclusive activities for children.
I applaud you for reaching out and bringing this topic to a public space. Parenting is difficult so be gentle with yourself.