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

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 i,s 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.

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