Monday, March 26, 2012

A is for awkward questions

(aka what to do when your child asks loud and embarrassing questions in public about people with disabilities and you instantly want to drag them away because you don't know what to say)

My babycenter Newsletter arrived in my mailbox this morning– I really thought that I had cancelled my subscription – why, oh why am I still receiving it? It’s “normality” is frustrating… I normally don’t even open it, consigning it to "delete” quickly, not wanting to read about what E should and should not be doing at her stage, not wanting to know what is “normal”  for a normal child (and we all know that there is no such thing as normal, each child is unique in their own ways, not readily conforming to their age or “stage”, constantly making us question our parenting and (or) their development).

But today, for some reason, I open it…

“Your 3 year old, third month
   A is for Amy (or E is for Eilidh perhaps)
Often, the first letter a child learns is the first letter of her name ("Mummy! There's my A!"). When she later recognises her entire name, she's not so much reading it as she is identifying that those symbols mean her name. Symbol recognition, of course, is essential for reading. But before she can learn the sounds of the letters, she has to make the mental leap to understanding that those squiggles and lines stand for ideas. "

Oh, that's interesting to know and I click through to read more:

Mmm... yes, she’s talking using sentences longer than 3 or more words and I actually I can understand all of her speech – she’s a genius!

Ok, no, she’s not potty trained – so I skip over this section – but I am thinking about it, I promise and she can use the potty…

Oh, she loves playing with others and will last well over the usual hour expected at this age; she’s such a social wee butterfly, interactive, cheeky and really quite bossy to boot!

Yes, her imagination is very active – we have blue girlie monsters running amok in our house just now – and yes, she is probably having nightmares or quite possibly even night terrors (please can we get some sleep…) but no, she doesn’t flail around in bed or sit bold upright because, you see, she can’t…

Thanks for the recommended Preschool activity – Balloon Tennis – but no, E won’t be able to do that as she doesn’t have the strength, but hey! it’s a nice idea…

And then, there, between the adverts for babycenter and Early Learning Centre I catch sight of another little heading:  

Answering those awkward questions”
(aka what to do when your child asks loud and embarrassing questions in public about people with disabilities and you instantly want to drag them away because you don't know what to say)

And Wham! 

OK, my child isn’t “normal” and now you want to teach me, a mum to a child in a wheelchair, about talking about disabilities!  How dare you interrupt my Monday with a Wham! but OK, I’ll give you a chance, and I click the link; let’s talk about disability then…

share a smile becky

It’s actually not such a bad article and it’s salient points are shown below:

Look out for opportunities to talk about disability
Answer questions directly and simply
Be mindful of the language you use
  Teach respect and acceptance

The article has made me think about how I feel about tackling those awkward questions when we are the ones they are stopping and staring at; this is what I came up with.

A child might stop and stare and point at a person (disabled or not) and that’s ok; they are being naturally curious and inquisitive.  Quite often they will ask questions too – out of the mouths of babes!  You might be flustered and embarrassed or not know what to say but please don’t drag your children away.  Come and say "hello" and chat to us– everyone will benefit in some way – I know because it happens to us a lot and we find ourselves talking to little ones about E and her whizzy wheels.  Believe it or not, how we as parents respond is an important point to consider as what we do and say affects how our children interact with others.
We often take the time to talk about what makes people different – and people are different and unique in so many different ways! - without really putting much thought into it.  It's just that sometimes it might be a more challenging question about why that little girl (or boy!) wears glasses, or why that boy has two mums, or why the girl wheels a whizzy wheelchair, or why that man is a different colour or why that lady wears different clothes.  These are difficult questions to answer at the best of times; often we don’t know “why” or don’t know what to say, but we should try to answer them truthfully and simply, remembering that it’s ok to say “I don’t know”. 
Even though people are different, people can also be similar and it’s important to share similarities, to promote acceptance and inclusion – “yes, that man is in a wheelchair but he likes playing football and eating chocolate, too”.  That man you are talking about is so much more than just his wheelchair and I think that it’s important to get that across to our children by sharing common ground.
Teaching respect to our children is invaluable; I’m not really sure how to teach this but know that is important so ensure that “different” is accepted and loved and every bit a part of our normal daily lives.  I hope and believe that respect, acceptance and inclusion is learned from our attitudes and actions; we teach our children about this probably without ever realising it, through our body language, through the things we say, our choice of words.  We can break or support our children’s acceptance of "different". 
If we don’t have the answers - and sometimes we don't - we can ask others: mums with disabled children, nurseries where children with special needs are cared for, charities and support groups.  We can ask them for help and I’m sure that they would love to help in any way that they can.  We can also sit down with our children and read books about disability and watch tv programmes that feature children with special needs thereby promoting discussion about disability.  We can learn together.  I should at this point perhaps thank Mr Tumble and cBeebies for all that they do to include children with disabilities and special needs; I know from Eilidh’s point of view she thinks that it’s great that there are children on tv who are wheelchair users! You are making a difference and promoting acceptance and inclusion.  And here’s some random trivia, do you know that the actress who plays Polly Pocket in Ballamory has SMA just like E? 

In the end, when the day is done and we are reflecting about what our child has said and learnt about others with disabilities, we can take the time to reflect on what we have learnt too.  You see, what I often wonder is this; while we teach our children and they learn so quickly, seeing beyond disability and race, we often forget, over time, to accept others for who they are, no matter what.  Do you stop and stare sometimes?  Why do you stop and stare? 

And now an afterthought:
Will I unsubscribe from BabyCenter?
I don’t think so.  Not yet…  I mean how can I? 

Today I realised that E’s speech is great – despite us worrying about her being behind (and she was until she became more mobile!). I have also realised that my wee three year old is really quite confident and sociable. 
I have thought about ways of talking about disability and think that I will now be more confident when children ask me about E, why her legs won’t work and why she uses her whizzy wheels.  I do, however, still worry about the day that E starts to ask the same questions about her disability…
Finally, I have a few more ideas about “talking about disability” which I’ve had up my sleeve for a while now; this post has prompted me to get moving with them…


Midlife Singlemum said...

A very good point about stopping to talk instead of rushing your child away. We haven't got to the loud questions about others yet but I could see myself apologising and rushing DD off, even though I would tell/teach her all the other things you mention. But now you've made me think and I can see that stopping for a chat (as long as the other person wants to/has time to chat) is far nicer for everyone. Thank you.

BavarianSojourn said...

A very heart-felt post. Beautifully written too. Lots of points there that we could all do with remembering. x

achan said...

A very thought provoking post. I too hated reading hose newletters from the baby center as my son didn't start talking until after his fourth birthday...I wonder why we feel compelled to be the normal? An individual is an individual.

You challenged me this morning for pointing out that we should encourage our children to talk with someone with a disability rather than walk away. I do it, walk away after attempting to answer my kids question, to be honest if it was any other person I would encourage them to have a chat :( Actually this hits harder to home than you may think as my kids are often teased and pointed out because they look caucasian living in rural Japan.

Can you recommend any children's books about people with disabilities? books are always a great medium for conversation

Lynsey S said...

A brilliant blog post. I find it is always the children that ask me the direct questions about my little boys disabilities and then this encourages the parents too! Role reversal! Why should we then let society make them feel inhibited as they get older. The more direct approach the better!

Renata said...

achan- the best books I have come across are by I've done a review of one of them here if you want to know a bit about it

Now onto the blog post! We are a couple of years further down the road I think, and had the interesting experience of figuring out the right approach when Dominic appeared in school, as the only child in a wheelchair, with lots of of tubes and interesting things dangling off him that all the children had questions about. I found children, without adults directing them, are just curious. Simple explanations are all they want. However, in the same way as I might not want someone telling a virtual stranger about the stretch marks on my stomach, I don't assume that Dominic wants me to go into great detail about his body issues either. As he gets older I refer all the quetsions (that invariably get asked to me rather than him) to Dominic, and if he is too shy to answer I ask him if he wants me to explain for him.

Dominic's wheelchair demands attention though, it has firespoke guards and flashing LED front wheels. Most of the comments we get are positive because it makes people smile to see a grinning child coming towards them wearing sunglasses, and AC/DC t shirt and a rock star wheelchair. I find children have the same attitude, and there is nothing that makes me smile more than seeing a child tug on their mother's trouser leg and point at the wheelchair and say "mummy, can I have one?". I think perhaps that's a far more interesting question to hear a parent answer :-)

This is a great post, and it will be very interesting for you to revisit in a few years I think. The focus is right though, look at how great she is doing, clearly she has inherited her mother's gift for language!

LittleMamma said...

A brilliant post. I unsubscribed from babycentre too as it was just too depressing to read what two year olds should be doing when we had barely got past the two month old ones. As an aside though - Eilidh is the same age as my oldest Sean.